As an American law enforcement professional, you are a special individual who has followed a higher calling, voluntarily defending the lives and property of others. You have set yourselves apart as the true warriors of our modern society.
In a perfect world, if everything went as planned, you would show up for work prepared, always performing to your true potential. Far too often, however, this is not the case.
Between the day you are hired and the one inevitable day when you face a confrontation that tests your fighting skills, a lot can happen to limit your perception, your confidence, and your ability to control your emotions and maintain concentration.
After all, even though you have taken on the responsibilities of a police officer and you are highly trained, you are just human. And in being human, you are prone to all of the life issues that affect everyone else on the job. You get married, you get divorced, you face financial shortfalls, you go bankrupt, you get injured, you get sick, you burn out on the job, and all of these things can weigh on you emotionally, breed anxiety, and affect your performance in a physical confrontation.
Everybody experiences the stress of their own lives. What sets us as police officers apart from most people is that we also experience the dynamics and baggage from the lives of others. The conditions of our job stick us in the middle of other people's problems, frequently altering and framing our attitudes and perceptions.
Law enforcement is a stressful occupation. We know this. We knew it going in. But it still takes a toll on us. The stress we experience on the job and in our personal lives can lead to long-term health problems.
Worse, it can distract us on the job and lead to our defeat in a physical confrontation with a suspect. Anxiety, both the anxiety that we carry from day to day and the anxiety we feel in a fight, must be conquered if we are going to win.
Out of Control
One of the most stressful things that we can experience on the job is a feeling that we are losing a fight with a suspect.
Why is the bad guy winning such a fight? Perhaps it's because our training isn't working as planned and the techniques we are using have failed to achieve the desired results. Nothing will raise your anxiety level faster than using your best move on someone in a fight and having him or her counter it.
Consider the following scenario. You arrive on the scene and, despite attempts to prepare emotionally for the intense challenges presented by the call for service, you find yourself unprepared and under attack by the bad guy.
Doubt sets in and it begins to dominate your thoughts and emotions. Attempts to control your negative thoughts aren't working. When you try to mentally organize, you get distracted and can't focus long enough.
The early stages of panic set in. You tighten up physically and emotionally, paying more attention to the physical symptoms of growing anxiety, magnifying your feelings of apprehension and doubt.
Anxiety is a fierce, destructive cycle. And it's hard to pull out of the spiral once it's begun. Worse, the longer this cycle is allowed to last, the greater the likelihood that you will make a mistake that could be tragic.
The thoughts you experience during combat are heavily influenced by your concept of and attitude toward both your opponent force and yourself. This collection of attitudes, opinions, and feelings helps determine the emotions we feel during the conflict.
The emotions we allow ourselves to feel in any situation and how we respond to them will depend on four prime factors: our individual personality, our level of control over our emotions, how we react to our emotions, and our level of emotional flexibility.[PAGEBREAK]
Generally, the individual who allows himself to be consumed with negative thoughts and emotions will have a marked decline in performance over an individual who maintains positive control over those emotions. The difference between negative and positive thoughts and emotions is heavily influenced by our individual self-concept or how we feel or believe in ourselves, which is, in turn, created by our individual record of past experience and performance, as well as our self image and the attitudes of significant people in our lives such as supervisors, spouses, peers, and trainers.
Under the stress of physical conflict, the other stresses in our lives can manifest as negative competing thoughts, interfering with our subconscious, causing us to either overreact or under react to the situation at hand. Controlling these emotions is done by controlling the thoughts that cause them.
In most conflicts, regardless of whether they are fistfights or running gun battles, it is not the individual who has perfect textbook performance who wins. The winner is usually the combatant who makes the fewest mistakes and can recover quickly from the mistakes he does make.
Mistakes will be made and the unexpected will happen in a physical confrontation. So it is critical that you arm yourself not just with fighting skills but also with methods and techniques for letting go of distractions, refocusing your concentration, and maintaining control of your emotions. If you have the proper defensive tactics training and emotional control, you can meet the challenges of any physical confrontation.
The Benefits of Confidence
Consider the following scenario involving a highly trained and highly confident police officer. The officer is involved in an intense physical clash with a violent suspect and, at some point during the battle, the officer senses that he is losing his advantage.
The perceived loss of this advantage sends a message to his brain, which tells his body that something is wrong. The message is further perceived as a threat and causes near immediate changes in the officer's body.
His muscles tighten, his breathing becomes shallow and rapid, and his heart rate accelerates. The officer's concentration narrows and his body and mind automatically start trying to regain control of what has been lost in the fight.
But the confident officer is aware of what is happening. Instead of panicking, he regains control and he refuses to fail. His confidence, built on solid training and experience, allows him to let go of any negative thoughts or concerns, almost immediately relaxing and regaining his edge over his opponent.
For the confident officer, the perception of a problem and the corrections that have to be made require little or no conscious thought. As a result, the officer is able to maintain his composure, responding quickly and appropriately.
In contrast, when an officer lacks confidence or his confidence is destroyed because of poor training or poor results from techniques he thought would work, the recovery process is slow or non-existent, having a radically destructive effect on performance. The longer muscles remain tense, the longer it takes the officer to recover in the fight, with considerably less sensitivity to and awareness of his surroundings.[PAGEBREAK]
The longer the officer remains caught up in the problem, the greater his opponent's advantage. As the recovery process is drawn out the sympathetic nervous system has greater influence over the officer. So the officer's concentration remains narrow, and he fails to see visual cues that allow him to anticipate the actions of his opponent, escalating the probability of disaster or panic-based inappropriate responses on the officer's part.
Whether you're on a traffic stop, sitting in the witness stand, or getting ready to serve a warrant, you will feel anxiety. Everyone, even the most jaded seasoned veteran, gets butterflies before something significant.
That's only a problem if your attention gets stuck on a problem or a mistake. When that happens in a physical confrontation, you may forget to execute a technique as needed, even though you know the technique perfectly.
It isn't the butterflies that are dangerous. It's the negative thoughts we attach to them. When anxiety levels get high enough to be out of control, it makes us more susceptible to suggestion, both external and internal.
One simple and field-expedient method for controlling anxiety is taking a slow, deep breath from down in your abdomen when you feel yourself tensing or drifting toward negative thoughts. When you exhale, direct your attention to relaxing your muscles. Inhale deeply from the diaphragm and as you exhale silently tell yourself to "relax" and to "focus." As you say these words let your muscles relax.
This technique is called "centering." It uses deep breathing to break a negative cycle. However, what you direct your attention to immediately after centering is crucial. You will want to focus your attention back on task-relevant cues, such as the bad guy and what he is doing and how you can beat him.
Most officers involved in a fight know what they need to do and how to get it done. But sometimes they let their anxiety build so high that they actually forget. Learning to center yourself and refocus on the task at hand is essential to maintaining emotional control and crucial to maintaining dominance in a conflict.
Centering techniques and defensive tactics training that requires the officer to focus his attention externally all reduce the likelihood of injury, because actions become more controlled, purposeful, focused, and appropriate. Maintaining positive control of emotions and developing a true winning mindset are key factors to success in any conflict.
Methods for Maintaining Emotional Control
Other than centering, there are a variety of techniques that you can use to reduce anxiety during a physical confrontation and improve your chances of winning.
Mental imagery is a skill officers can tap into to help maintain composure, control emotions, and achieve goals. Sometimes mental imagery is referred to as visualization or mental rehearsal, and it is defined as an experience that resembles a perceptual experience, but occurs in the absence of actual stimuli. Whenever we imagine ourselves performing an action in the absence of actual physical practice, we are using imagery.
The reason imagery works lies in the fact that when you imagine yourself performing a function and doing precisely what you want, you are physiologically creating neural patterns in your brain, just as if you had physically performed the action. These patterns are similar to small roads embedded in the brain that can ultimately enable a warrior to perform feats by simply mentally practicing the move. Mental imagery is intended to train the brain and create the neural patterns in our brains to teach our muscles to do exactly what we want them to do.
Self talk is the sum total of all purposeful and random thoughts that can run through an officer's mind. It includes all things said internally and aloud. Self talk can be positive, it can tell an officer what to do, where and when to focus, and it can serve to motivate.
Unfortunately, self talk can also be negative, pessimistic, and destructively critical. Negative self talk does nothing to help performance and for the most part, it causes severe problems in performance. Recognize that negative self talk will occur, regardless who you are, you're still human; the key is not to dwell on negatives, rather focus on the positives.
Controlling self talk is also a skill. And for some individuals who have fallen into a pattern of negative, defeating self-talk, learning to gain control is hard. Negative internal talk is something officers are often no longer aware of; it seems to happen automatically.
Before changing self talk, it is necessary to take a step back and become aware of what is being said. It is necessary to identify both beneficial thoughts and harmful thoughts. Once this is accomplished it is important to make a conscious effort to purposely include those thoughts that seem to help performance.
Wes Doss is an internationally recognized firearms, tactics, and use-of-force instructor with more than 20 years of military and civilian criminal justice experience.