The Three Dominos of Field Training

May 4, 2015

Over the years we’ve told FTOs that have worked with us that field training is a science and an art. The science is the training we provide, whereas the art is identifying the individual needs of the trainee. If for some reason the scientific approach doesn’t work, the FTO must, like an artist, get creative coming up with a new plan.

FTOs across the country have worked tirelessly to develop what might be hundreds of different remedial training techniques to help their officers in training (OITs) develop the skills they need to be successful and overcome their deficiencies. All of these remedial training ideas are developed with good intentions and many of them are successful. But at the end of the day, most of them only address the performance deficiency. If the handcuffing technique is poor, we practice handcuffing. If traffic contacts are low, we focus on recognizing violations. If officer safety is lacking, we increase defensive tactics training.

The problem: Although performance is the way the issue manifests itself, it’s frequently not the cause, and thus not what needs to be addressed. The failing performance is affected by a lack of confidence, triggered by increased stress.

We call this the “Three Dominoes Theory” and here’s how it works.

Three Dominos Theory
The Stress Domino: First, and most importantly, we begin with the “Stress Domino.” Even seasoned, salty veteran officers feel stress throughout their shift. But with time and practice the experienced officer has learned how to cope and ingest the stress of the job. Additionally, new officers are asked to engage in behavior and multitask in ways they’ve never needed to before.

The trainee’s stress level is even greater than the trainer’s and occurs more frequently throughout a shift. The new officer’s inability to handle their stress has a direct impact on their confidence.

The Confidence Domino: The second domino to fall due to the increase in stress is the “Confidence Domino.” Now that the OIT is mentally spinning, they begin to lose faith in their previous training and decision-making. With a lack of confidence, rookie officers struggle to come up with the correct answer or plan, and performance suffers.

The Performance Domino: This one get’s knocked over when the Confidence Domino falls on its back. Performance is the one domino we can actually see. It reveals itself in the form of conflict resolution, critical-thinking skills, investigations skills or other rating categories. This is why the FTO fixates on the performance issue as their OIT’s primary obstacle to overcome. However, the trainee’s actual obstacle to hurdle is—stress management.

Putting Dominoes to Work
As you work with trainees to help improve upon their proactive enforcement, officer presence or their ability to manage critical incidents, focus on the young officer’s stressors.

If your trainee struggles with proactive work take the time to dig deeper. You’ll probably find that it has little to do with their ability to recognize violations and more to do with the stress they feel when face-to-face with people, having to issue citations, or because they don’t have a solid grasp on the difference between consent, reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause. That conflict causes an increase in stress as they struggle to internalize it, which leads to a shortage of confidence in their decision-making, which in turn manifests itself as a performance problem.

We had a young officer referred back to us for additional training after his supervisor noted a number of use-of-force issues, both unwarranted and insufficient. Like most trainers, we focused on the performance and met for regular defensive-tactics classes. While moving through the exercises we realized that his strikes, holds, and takedowns were acceptable. However, through conversation he would say things like, “I don’t know if the department would back me if I did that.” And: “Can I really do that?”

When we expanded on those questions we learned that he had very little grasp of Graham v. Connor. When forced in to a situation where he had to make a quick decision on whether or not force could have been warranted, the stress of the situation exposed his lack of knowledge. That directly impacted his confidence. In his struggle to believe in himself and his knowledge base, he would frequently hesitate from doing what was appropriate or overstep his bounds, which manifested as poor defensive tactics.

So how do we fix this?

Our hurdle to overcome is stress management. Stress management professionals suggest exposure to stress so that it becomes routine. Begin to regularly expose your OIT to the very thing that stresses them out. In our example above we began reviewing Graham v. Connor, Tennessee v. Garner, and other use-of-force case law.

However, like most officers in training, he was able to explain the concepts and answer questions in a static safe environment. To truly prove the concept we introduced stress.

In a training environment, the closest simulation to a stress-induced adrenaline dump is physical exhaustion. So we had him sprint, climb stairs, do push-ups and strike a bag until fatigued. Then we’d question him on the details of the case law. Slowly we saw an improvement in his ability to control himself, think clearly and make confident and accurate decisions.

By inoculating your trainee to smaller amounts of stress, which result in successes, will not only build his or her confidence. It will teach your OIT how to internalize the stress and overcome the situation.

As time progresses allow the stress of the situations to increase until they able respond to in progress hot calls as they create a game plan based on continuous information broadcast by multiple sources while navigating correctly and driving efficiently but safely.

When you are striving to be the best field-training officer that you can be, step back from the scientific mind that has led you to success and dive in to the art of discerning the true cause of failure.

Remember how the stress of the situation, the stress of constant evaluation and close supervision, and the stress of having to make snap decisions can affect the self-confidence of the trainee. Don’t stumble in to the common pitfall of focusing on the performance. Rather, focus on the moments before failure to try to identify the cause of the stress, and then address that with serious training and a series of successes.

Good luck!

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