Will to win: How mindset can save a wounded officer's life

The six most dangerous words in a life-threatening situation are, 'I can’t believe this is happening.'


A District Attorney for a rural midwest community told a pair of contrasting stories that offer a powerful lesson about the importance of an officer’s mindset in life-or-death situations.

In the first story, a pest control worker made a service call to an apartment in which a mentally disturbed person lived. For reasons unknown, the disturbed individual attacked the worker with a knife, stabbing him three times in non-vital areas. 

The young and otherwise healthy worker was completely surprised by the unprovoked attack and didn’t fight back against his attacker. Instead, he sat down in a state of disbelief. He bled out and died from what the medical examiner later called “survivable wounds” before emergency personnel arrived.

The difference between victory and defeat – life and death – often rests between our ears, and in our hearts. (Photo/PoliceOne)
The difference between victory and defeat – life and death – often rests between our ears, and in our hearts. (Photo/PoliceOne)

The Will to Win (and Live)

In the same area, a farmer stumbled across a poacher in a remote section of the farm, and the poacher savagely attacked him with a knife, stabbing him three times and leaving him for dead. The poacher left in the farmer’s truck, stranding the gravely wounded man several miles from the house – too far for him to reach – so he set out on foot for a grain truck that was stored about a mile away.

As the farmer plodded down a dirt road toward the truck, he held his intestines in his hands to keep them from falling out. He rapidly grew weary but knew that if he stopped to rest, he would never get up again, so he forced himself to continue on in the cold night, step by agonizing step. He made it to the truck, fired it up, and drove it another mile to the house, where he collapsed behind the wheel.

He was rushed to a big-city hospital, and despite the fact that two of the three stab wounds should have done him in, he survived. 

A person could come up with all kinds of reasons why a senior citizen with multiple life-threatening wounds was able to survive such a perilous situation – divine intervention comes to mind – but I think this crowd is likely to agree that mindset played a significant role in the result. The farmer never gave up, persevered despite terrible wounds, and fought until his last ounce of energy was spent. 

Simply put, he refused to sit down and die.

The Six Most Dangerous Words

The six most dangerous words in a life-threatening situation are, “I can’t believe this is happening.” 

That phrase is the bait in a deadly trap that can suck you in and lock you into an endless mental loop that prevents you from taking the steps necessary to save yourself. A person who’s so overwhelmed by a situation that they can do nothing but flounder in a state of denial and confusion will only survive through sheer luck, or by the whims or errors of his attacker. 

For police officers, that’s an unacceptable option.

A person with the proper mindset may experience momentary confusion, shock, panic, or denial at the beginning of danger, but they will quickly compartmentalize these unproductive reactions and feelings and shift focus to analyzing the situation and taking the necessary actions to protect life. A person with the proper mindset will focus on their capabilities, not their injuries, and take positive action now, rather than shutdown (mentally, physically and emotionally) and wait to be spared or rescued.

They will hold in their guts and walk until they feel like they can’t anymore – and then they’ll take another step.

Widely acclaimed law enforcement trainer Brian McKenna summed it up when he said, “Never forget that if you can still move, you can fight, and if you can fight, you can win.”

It’s good for all of us to be reminded of that now and then. It’s good to remember that the difference between victory and defeat – life and death – often rests between our ears, and in our hearts.

So keep your mind focused on the right things, don’t ever give up and be safe out there.

This article, originally published 04/10/2015, has been updated. 

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