Why Do We Teach?
By George T. Williams
WDWT: Coaching During Range Drills
Every shooter receives some form of coaching while on the range during live-fire training. Firearms instructors teach the skills, explain the how and sometimes the why of hitting the target, manipulation of the weapon, and movement necessary to complete the course of fire. Once a drill is completed, the targets themselves provide a lot of feedback. The instructors will also correct and refine the skills and weapon manipulation.
Is this the extent of the coaching that you, as a police officer, need to not only build your skills but to also successfully apply them in a gunfight?
There is so much more to coaching than simple instruction. A second level of coaching can enhance memory retrieval, provide more capable skills, and lead to the creation of a calmer winning mindset in the middle of a gunfight.
First Level Coaching
The first level of coaching involves clear instruction on how to better complete one or several learning objectives for that training iteration. Typically, an instructor explains the course of fire and the skills necessary to meet the standards. That instructor will generally demonstrate, sometimes first with dry-fire or a non-firing red-gun, so shooters can hear the step-by-step teaching points emphasized during this drill. Then the instructor may use live fire in order to model the movement or method and provide an exemplar of the desired rate of fire and combat accuracy.
Shooters are then put through the course of fire. Upon completion of that string, the instructor generally cleans up any noted deficiencies and corrections are made. The shooter either fires that course again or moves on to the next lesson or layer of instruction.
Second Level Coaching – Translating Training into Winning Gunfights
The primary level of coaching focuses upon the physical and intellectual capacities of the shooter. On a square range during sunny weather, most shooters respond well and are able to successfully demonstrate moderate to high proficiency. In the real world, however, it is not unusual for less than one out of three bullets to hit an imminent threat at very close range. After all the time and money spent on range training, in expensive video simulators, and force-on-force scenarios, officers seemingly cannot translate the training into hits.
Problematically, the range is not the environment in which they apply these skills. The jarring reality of inbound bullets intrudes upon the idealized response presented in training. In the 2006 study by the FBI (“Violent Encounters,” 2006, page 49), 38 of 39 suspects fired first at officers. Officers generally start out way behind the suspect in a gunfight. The sudden realization that the suspect will beat you to the first, and often second shot, creates instant fear, frustration, anger and desperation. The sudden Body Alarm Reaction, with its well-known changes in perception and physical capabilities, adds to the burden of effectively responding. The officer draws his weapon and attempts to catch up, his trigger finger fueled with fear and adrenaline, desperately attempting to survive.
Training is supposed to kick in right about now. But there’s a problem. The officer’s prior training focused upon the intellectual application of physical skills. However, a gunfight is an overpoweringly emotional and fearful event. How does the officer access the memory of range training in this intense, pressure-filled situation? For the most part, it doesn’t happen. Human memory does not work that way and seven out of 10 bullets missing the target demonstrate this.
Second Level Coaching recognizes there is a missing component to training. According to memory research (Dr. John Medina, Ph.D., “Brain Rules,” Pear Press, 2008), memories are best retrieved when the originating emotional environment is similar to that experienced when accessing that memory. Retrieving the memory of a skill developed in the safe, emotionally bland environment of a live-fire range during an emotionally intense deadly force event may be impossible. Far from being automatically accessible, memory requires neural connections, similar in function to a computer’s hard drive. A connection must first be made to retrieve files. While the memory may be in the hard drive, without the connecting address to retrieve it, that particular file is useless to you. If there is no neural connection between your current emotional state in the gunfight and the area of the brain where the memory of range training is stored, then the memory and the skills are simply not accessible. Repetitions performed while in a similar emotional state are the fastest way to create neural connecting pathways to memory.
Survival skill training that concentrates only on developing physical skills through intellectual understanding is incomplete. Human beings are emotional creatures and every vivid memory is tied to an emotion. Training must also create and reinforce the emotional connection between the skills and the emotional environment for which that skill is anticipated. It must build the neural pathways between the skill, tactics and movement, as well as the emotional state of the shooter.
There are a couple of strategies the second level of coaching employs. The first is to create the emotional connection between the amygdala (the structure of the brain that first screens your perceptions and creates a strong emotional response) and your skills (moving, drawing, presenting, firing, hitting, fixing malfunctions, etc.). The second strategy is to provide an “angel on your shoulder” to assist the shooter through the gunfight.
Creating Emotional Connection with Skill Development
Once we realize and accept that all training is contrived and there is no mortal threat at the range, the creation of an emotional connection to the skill development is fairly simple: We fake being surprised and afraid, fooling the amygdala into creating emotional connections with the skills through these simple steps:
1. Imagine the last suspect you thought was going to kill you. Most officers have walked away from at least one arrest, realizing how close they had just been to being murdered by that suspect. If they have been involved in an actual shooting, they know how near death was for them. Ask them to close their eyes and imagine the last suspect they thought was going to kill them or could have murdered them. Then instruct them to imagine shooting that person trying to murder them rather than just a paper target.
2. The initiation command is “Threat!” An officer lawfully fires at a suspect when the officer reasonably believes his/her life or that of another is in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury based on the totality of the facts known to him/her at the time. The command, “Threat!” is short-hand for “Imminent Threat!”
3. Upon hearing “Threat!” take a sharp intake of breath. When startled, the body automatically takes in breath to prepare for action. This sharp breath intake creates a startle response for the rest of the body. An emotional connection to the skill is made when combined with imagining the last threat to one’s life.
4. Jerk the shoulders and arms as you crouch slightly. Build in a response to a threat when drawing your handgun by causing your shoulders to come up and forward as your non-gun hand comes up to your chin level while your gun hand simultaneously reaches for your pistol. The upper torso should also lean forward. These actions mimic the body’s response to sudden fright.
While some hard cases on the firing line may not want to play, most will. Those who have actually been in shootings tend to quickly catch on and begin practicing this emotional tie-in. The reason is plain: They recognize the initiation of the drill because they went through it during their shooting. The more the instructor models this emotional response, the more the students tend to practice it. Progress has been made in creating the necessary neural connections when students are wide-eyed and breathing hard following a simple string of fire because of their “fake” emotional response.
Angel On Your Shoulder
The idea that instructors should talk to shooters only before and after the string of fire does not support them during times when they are under threat. There is great benefit to future performance in having an instructor calmly talking shooters through a drill, reminding you to hit, to calm down and breathe, to clear that malfunction.
An old Force Recon Marine shared his experiences of being prepared for combat by a Gunnery Sergeant who used to stand behind him on the range, talking slowly and calmly: “Mark your man. Aim small. Now press your trigger and put him down. Breathe. Mark your man…” The Gunny would then calmly say, “Now reload. Change your mags, smooth is fast, release the bolt. Breathe. Now mark your man…” In his first combat, he heard a voice calmly telling him to “Mark your man. Aim small…” He realized it was the Gunny’s voice. It settled him down and allowed him to do his job. Each time he was in combat, he could hear the Gunny reassuring him, calming him, talking him through it.
In the same manner, there are many drills where instructors can create that sense of an “angel on your shoulder” by speaking in calm, reassuring tones even as the shooters are intentionally amping themselves up emotionally. “Malfunction. Tap, Rack, find a threat to hit.” “Get small, get your parts behind the barricade. Be small, now lean hard and hit him.” “Double-feed. Be smooth. Lock the slide back. Clear the weapon. Breathe…smooth is fast. Now feed the gun. Release the slide. Find a threat to hit.” “Move! Hit him. Slow your rate of fire and hit him with each round. Slow your fire. Breathe.” “He’s down. Move to cover.” Officers who have been trained in Second Level Coaching report the same voice that Recon Marine heard, helping them to problem-solve their way through their gunfights.
Shooting on a dry, sterile range is fun and can develop skills that may transfer into a success in a gunfight. However, a gunfight is a highly dangerous, emotionally overpowering event. Memory, too, is emotional and contextual. Memories are most strongly encoded based on the emotional context of the memory. To create more combat-effective range training, there must be at least some emotional similarity between the training and the expected event.
This emotional connection is created by intentionally creating a fake startle-response in training, where the shooter creates an emotional response through physical means coupled with his/her imagination. This provides the possibility of creating neural pathways between the skills developed on the live-fire range and the emotionally rich, overpowering gunfight where the application of those skills can mean the difference between life and death.
Intentionally creating a counterbalancing component within this emotionally charged training environment is the job of the instructor. Using concise language in a calm voice, the instructor creates the possibility of an “angel on your shoulder” to assist the officer in a gunfight. Helping with procedures, reminding the shooter that “Smooth is fast,” “Slow down and hit him,” and “Breathe,” are valuable for anyone in this dangerous situation.
Second Level Coaching develops a unique tension between creating an emotional response designed to simulate (granted, with much less intensity) the emotional overwhelm of a gunfight while implanting a calming, reassuring presence the officer can lean on in a gunfight. By taking coaching to a higher level, every instructor can better develop those physical and emotional skills and help officers to come home after a gunfight. PM
George T. Williams is the Director of Training for Cutting Edge Training in Bellingham, Wash. He has been a Police Training Specialist for more than three decades, as well as an expert witness in federal and state courts nationwide and a widely published author for more than two decades. Mr. Williams develops and presents revolutionary concepts within integrated force training solutions through a problem-solving format, functionalizing police skills and tactical training. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.