We as LEOs aren’t strangers to performance under stress. Often negotiating many stressful situations in a single tour of duty, I wonder: What can cause mistakes or, even worse, panic during our daily rollercoaster ride?
A sports analogy: Your favorite NFL receiver misses a sideline catch on the third down and fails to move the chains. Or when you musically inclined folks drop a string of notes during your solo. How about asking your high-school dream girl out on a first date—and whatever words you intended to come out, well, don’t?
So what can we single out (in simplistic terms) as the prime source of keeping it together or not? It seems in all cases above that attention is lacking. We are distracted somehow.
How many times do we train with our firearms or hand-to-hand tactics? Or basic handcuffing techniques? And how many times have you heard your instructor say training is exactly what you will revert back to in the field? So when your mind gets distracted and slips off task, what would you expect other than trouble?
And the fact is our minds do this much of the time—with everything from worries to doubts, and even fears. So this repetitious training helps us to even subconsciously focus on the task at hand. And when we panic, the mind is rapidly firing the usual questions: Did I arrive too late? What if I parked too far away? Or too close?
While doing this we cannot concentrate adequately on most important things like what is threat right now, right in front of you.
So we use multitasking as word all the time. You may even think you are good at it. Here’s the thing: The human brain is just not capable of this. We are actually doing what those who study the brain call task-switching. In other words, we actually can on do ONE task at a time well (with full attention and focus). When we’re having these fleeting thoughts, doubts, or overanalyze (as most cops learn as habit) this naturally competes with what is most relevant or threatening and what is actually in front of you. This is when we “choke,” “drop the ball,” or make a mistake. Is it because we are bad at what we do? No, of course not! We can all improve on awareness, attention, focus.
So a little about our learned habit of over-analysis. We often do this, thinking we’re preparing ourselves. For most of us, this process is so routine that we do it subconsciously (without much thinking involved). Studies have shown with multiple competitive skilled sports that once you learn a skill that becomes automatic we don’t have to do much thinking about it at all, and these automatic skills can only be derailed by extra thinking. This is why we train, and train.
For me a sport that easily carries over this message is golf, or competitive shooting. Regardless of what kind of projectile you’re sending down range: a golf ball, a Barnes TXS, or a broad-head tipped carbon arrow, if you practice enough, you soon learn less thinking is better.
You ever wonder why often we get worse when we are working on practice swing or have been doing poorly on the range and take a few weeks off and come back and just let it rip, and wow! The few first clay plaques I’ve won cameusually are after one of these breaks. When we mix thoughts into our swing or mechanics, well, the result is usually not on target. Contrast this with times where you just relax and shoot or swing.
Here are a few tips or techniques you can work on or practice to help you keep the calm on when the storm starts.
Learn to be okay with unpleasant feelings. Our feelings of fear can be helpful to keep us aware and alert. But we also need to learn to be comfortable with such feelings in order to stay calm and focused. In extreme situations these feelings will produce a biochemical reaction and trigger more stress (fight or flight). When not used to or accustomed, this can be unhealthy for our bodies. Just recognize the feelings and face them as opposed to trying to resist feeling them.
Pre-tour or post-tour relaxation techniques: Simple deep belly breathing or a brisk walk before and after you tour can do wonders to work out the kinks. A short light weight strength training program or any number of cardio machines before and after work will do the same. Prior to calls or traffic stops, take several deep breaths. Be attentive to all your senses (what your body is telling you). Spend a few minutes talking or venting to a friend or coworker when dealing with stress.
Practice. With your firearms, handcuffing, hand-to-hand tactics, working to get them into “automatic” mode (which requires less thinking) and being well-prepared will cause less worried thoughts—more confidence, less complacency. We may get caught off-guard any number of times, but don’t let it be by your own stress or anxiety. We work in an environment that offers plenty of surprise as it is. Don’t add to it by being distracted, unprepared, or unequipped.
We cops trend towards hypervigilence. Therefore, I believe, we tend to overthink the response—to our detriment. Train, train, train. But when it’s go-time, it’s time to be there.