In a high-stress situation, training takes over

Nov. 19, 2009
We really know only a percentage of the complexity of the human brain.

    We really know only a percentage of the complexity of the human brain. It is the center of conscious thought, language processing, imagination, calculation, memory, abstract conceptual thought and an almost infinite number of tasks. The brain is constantly attempting to make sense of stimulus — always processing and categorizing information. The human mind generalizes for it to make sense of otherwise unrelated phenomena. For example, the brain enables us to distinguish a threat in camouflage from a similar background.

   The brain's ability to recognize anomalies increases survivability. Distinguishing a threat amongst non-threats is an example of pattern recognition. This skill is especially beneficial to protective detail members. An emotionally distraught face distinguished from a crowd of a smiling faces might be a clue for agents to anticipate imminent danger.

   Regular exposure to training conditions can massage the subconscious into quickly spotting anomalies. After a few years of service, most officers are capable human lie detectors with remarkable accuracy. Even without formal training, their subconscious recognizes when a person's mannerisms are incongruent with what is coming out of his or her mouth. Recent studies show that about one out of a thousand acquire this talent naturally. The most logical explanation is that they trained themselves, through exposure, to automate their responses.

   Most people can detect overt expressions. What distinguishes human lie detectors is their ability to read micro expressions that flash unnoticeably (sometimes as quickly as 1/25 of a second) to the uninitiated. These are subconscious non verbal communications that reveal another layer of a person. It is theorized that people with uncanny lie detector abilities generally read micro expressions quicker.

   The fact is a person's subconscious, precipitated by training, is infinitely faster than a person's conscious efforts. For example, how does a wide receiver manage to catch a high pass and set two toes in-bounds in a fraction of a second? Training and automation. Why are some people naturally better at this task than others? Automation.

   Training creates an automated response. This is the "muscle memory" misnomer that shooting instructors use. Obviously, muscle does not have memory. If it did, we would all convince our muscles to remember when we were in our 20s.

   Training is the brain's ability to form pathways for a task; the task is "learned" when the brain finds efficient neural pathways. The pathways create a network to the various cortices. Thus, there is a series of connections to the visual cortex for an officer to recognize and orient on a B-27 or a Tactical TED.

   The more robust the network of connections, the better the muscle memory. The connections strengthen each other and create other associations. The more durable the association from practice, the smoother the person's response. The product of these new associations is called behavior.

Observe, orient, decide, act

   The response to a threat is smoother because training causes the brain to observe and orient faster. These are the first two components of OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act), also known as the OODA Loop. This system theory is the brainchild of the late Col. John Boyd, who theorized that a person undergoes a constant interaction with the changing environment. Scholars of the OODA Loop know that the quicker a person can observe and orient, the better his or her response to a threat. Boyd proved this true time and again by prevailing as a fighter pilot and as an outspoken military trainer.

   Despite his reputed abrasive behavior, Boyd could be considered the architect of winning modern day tactics. His résumé included 50 years of experience and a short call out of retirement to consult on the winning maneuver in Desert Storm.

   Boyd theorized that a pilot who cycled the OODA Loop in the shortest time would always win because his opponent is caught up in situations that have already changed. Besides Sun Tzu's "Art of War" strategies, it is the only formula that is appropriate for large unit maneuvers down to individual tactics.

   For the individual officer, the changing environment has several other time detractors that put an officer at a tactical disadvantage. First, there are legal areas that stifle the decision process. That is, an officer cannot preempt behavior. Second, the decide/act area is limited by the intensity of the action because the officer must use an appropriate level of force.

Point gun, apologize later

   How can an officer use the brain to prevail in combat? Train it.

   First, trainers should expose officers to force decision making in training scenarios which include when to shoot, what to shoot and appropriate force.

   The more exposure officers have to force decision making, the faster their response (observe/orient) to the presented scenario will be. It is well known that shooters presented with other stimuli respond better when presented with force scenarios. A practical application is the fact that Gunsite Option Target was designed to cause shooters to discern the threat from a similar background. Using non-standard targets and oblique angles is an inexpensive way for agencies to train officers for force decisions.

   Scenarios can be randomly interspersed with "no shoot" targets and "no shoot" outcomes. Not only is this excellent training strategy, it is legally defensible.

   An agency's administration can also speed up the orient cycle simply by policy. First, gun handling with an emphasis on firearm safety should be ingrained. Second, agencies should recognize by policy that officer safety overrides politics anywhere. This sounds like a silly statement, but it isn't. In more concrete terms, "point gun, apologize later" should be acceptable conduct in an agency if the tactical situation merits or is not fully developed.

Slicing the pie

   Officers should have strategies in creating disturbances in a suspect's orient/decide cycle. These strategies include drawing while moving, striking while drawing and shooting that moving. When using cover, officers should practice strategies which present the smallest possible target.

   Strategies affecting the decide/act cycle should include an officer's knowledge of structures and the capabilities of his or her firearm. For example, if the officer is fully aware of the suspect, background and building composition, (and policy) can he or she engage the suspect through building material?

   Officers already have some response templates that are fine examples of the OODA Loop in practice. We are trained to shoot the greatest threat first. We train to quickly discern between the greatest and the closest threat.

   Officers should have strategies for keeping the suspect's observe/orient cycle in flux. These include slicing the pie, concealment techniques, taking advantage of politeness and conventions and using focus or distraction techniques. Slicing the pie or "pie-ing" to an area allows an officer to see the suspect before the suspect sees the officer.

   Using politeness and conventions (Boyd called this area cultural traditions and genetic heritage) depends on the psychology of the moment. This type of behavior works for predatory criminals and occasionally can be used to disorient a suspect. Simple ruses include asking "What time is it?" or saying "Your shoe's untied" and are only limited by the officer's imagination. Many agencies have anecdotes of certain catch phrases that have worked in situations.

Shooting in OODA

   Is there a shooting drill for OODA Loop training?

   The types of shooting drills appropriate for OODA Loop training must include decision making. Most agencies have force decision-making skills as part of their general training strategy. Systems like the MILO Range Pro from IES Interactive Training use advanced branching to present flowing scenarios in high-def video.

   For the agency's live fire training day, nothing could be easier or less expensive than the Rock, Paper, Scissors drill. It is played like the decision-making game, except using bullets and competition. (Instructions for the game are included in the sidebar, Page 38.)

   For officers to prevail, training must include stressful situations that test each component of the OODA loop.

   Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer who teaches at Hartnell College in Salinas, Calif.

Rock, paper, scissors

   This drill requires two shooters with duty gear, a referee and simple paper targets made from clip art.

   Shooters are given a target sheet with three simple outline targets representing a rock, paper and scissors, and a simple target dot for the fourth target.

   A referee stands between two shooters who face their respective targets at a combat distance, which can be 1, 3 or 7 yards. The referee commands "threat" and shooters draw and fire on any of the three outline targets.

   Shooters must assess each other's targets. Whoever "loses" the game must shoot the target dot of the "winner". The winner must also shoot his own target dot. Whoever shoots it first, wins.

   A target-dot miss has to be corrected. The shooter must shoot his own rock, paper and scissors before shooting the correct target dot.

About the Author

Officer Lindsey Bertomen (ret.), Contributing Editor

Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer and retired military small arms trainer. He teaches criminal justice at Hartnell College in Salinas, California, where serves as a POST administrator and firearms instructor. He also teaches civilian firearms classes, enjoys fly fishing, martial arts, and mountain biking. His articles have appeared in print and online for over two decades. 

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