Physiological and psychological expertise is not one of the entries I plan to put on a resume to go to work at the local Walmart; I wouldn't venture into this arena with regard to law enforcement or the military's so-called experts in this minefield either. That being said, I am going to go ahead and jump on this hand grenade. All that I can speak of are past experiences, mine and those around me. We ventured into very stressful situations, and on most nights, we backed out of harm's way in one piece (mostly). So, what separates a highly skilled military operator from Joe on the street? What I surmise, in most cases, is having the correct equipment for the mission set at hand and, more importantly, the training to deal with these events. Military personnel are citizens first and soldiers second — at least before they join the military. So, in reality, they are that guy on the street until they are sworn in to support and defend. After that, the indoctrination starts to take effect. Indoctrination is a great word; it makes the bleeding hearts tremble and most think of Mao Zedong or some other monster who has conned a society into doing or supporting evil acts.
The techniques employed by the U.S. military are nothing like this. What we are trying to build is a soldier that we can rely on when things get bad. Simple skills such as making your bed, wearing the military uniform correctly and waking up on time are acquired skills for some who experience their first discipline when they step off the bus at basic training or boot camp. As basic skills are built, the trainers continue to add levels of indoctrination, or as we call it, training. These skills include shooting, communicating and learning how to move as a cohesive and mutually supporting element when the bullets start to fly.
As soldiers progress to higher levels of proficiency, they are generally sent to more specialized training, and many volunteer for tiered units. "Tier" means the highest levels in the Special Operations world: Tier 2, the guys who get it done no matter the mission (such as the U.S. Army Rangers), and Tier 1, the units that are supposed to be shrouded in secrecy.
Back to the real question: Can we really use stress inoculation to train soldiers? And if it works, can we, citizens who carry guns, learn from their techniques? Both answers are yes. Before delving deeper, you should understand that you'll still have nerves or nervousness and possibly self-doubt; this in no way constitutes that you will not be successful when asked to step into danger's way. Nerves are gold as far as I am concerned. I appreciate the pang of nervousness before I speak to a large crowd or before I step up to shoot in front of a class of students. When operating overseas during combat missions, sometimes a handful in one night, nerves were part of the gig. Nervous to ensure that your team came back safe and sound but also, even more importantly, that the mission went as you desired during the planning phase. Nerves are not bad and should not be labeled as such. Self-doubt can be disheartening if you let it consume you; self-doubt can also be used as a tool to further enlighten you to the holes in your plan or in your training regimen. Once we are past this, we need to evaluate how we train.
Training for Real Is your training realistic? Are you in the right mindset when you go train on the range or at the dojo, if martial arts happens to be part of your repertoire? You must be training as though your life depended on it. Don't simply go through the motions. This doesn't translate into always taking a knee when you reload; it just means that you need to focus hard and think deeply about why you are on the range. Training must be worth reverting to, and as you increase your skill set, you will start to stress inoculate. I call this learning and building confidence; the more stress on the range, the better you will do when fighting in the shadows. Can you handle the rigors of a confrontation? If the answer is no, you may want to stumble back behind your fenced property, turn on the security system and plug 911 into your speed dial. Life is gonna suck for you. I, for one, am willing to head into harm's way, and having the right skills that have been repeatedly tested on the range is just the start. We have to cultivate this thought process, train at the range and then incorporate the mindset into our everyday life.
Crawl, Walk, Run Once you have built a solid foundation on the range, it is time to expand your capabilities and develop skills that will survive first contact, or, in layman's terms, a life-or-death encounter. Whether law enforcement or military, the most important training after the basics have been covered is the use of scenario-based training events. These events start with basic movements and culminate with decision-based training in shoothouse facilities, simulators and, finally, on the street. During VTAC's shooting instruction, we start with Carbine 1.5, which gives students the basics to move on to more scenario-based training. The next steps are Streetfighter and Nightfighter; these courses teach the use of their tools in more realistic environments, usually around vehicles. The last step is setting up force-on-force training to employ the skills students believe they have learned. This is when we as instructors and students get to see what really happens when the pucker factor is there. Pressure-testing students is a must if we want to see if they are prepared. This also begins the stress inoculation we keep talking about. We have used the skills on the range, put students under stress, but when fake bullets, such as those from Simunitions/FX (simunition.com), Force on Force/FoF (forceonforce.com) or Universal Training Munitions/UTM (utmworldwide.com), start to fly at real aggressors, it is truly the best training we can get short of actual battlefield or street experience.
With each and every reality-based scenario, we build mind-muscle memory that we will be able to draw on during a confrontation. Seeing a scenario in the real world that you have dealt with during training is exactly what we are after. Being mentally calm during the fight will help us make educated decisions rather than struggle with choices and possible outcomes. Give your brain an experience to draw from.
Another option for stress-inoculative force-on-force training is grappling with guns, or Combatives — Craig Douglas style (shivworks.com) — as those of us in the training world call it. Douglas' Extreme Close Quarters Concepts (ECQC) course is described as "an overview of functional handgun skills at 0-5 feet." This type of training isn't in a classroom; it is on the ground, face-to-face, heavy contact, culminating with paint-marking rounds telling the final tale of the winners and losers from this confrontation. As Douglas says, "The course is immersive and experiential and designed to give a student the benefit of a real experience without the consequence of reality."
Douglas' background is in law enforcement with several years spent as an undercover narcotics agent. You want to talk about stress? This is its highest form. From these experiences, Douglas' goal is to give students their stress over and over in a controlled yet chaotic situation. Taking skills learned over the years, students can test-drive their perceived great techniques and see how they hold up under realistic stresses of hand-to-hand combatives.
Students who participate in this type of training are becoming immunized against the wave of blackness that some call stress. Each and every scenario builds confidence, even when some end with a bloody nose or a black eye. It's better to find our weaknesses in training than in a real street brawl.
Mindset Mindset is key, but it must be coupled with great training. Mindset simply means that you are mentally prepared. Combat Mindset means that you are mentally and physically (skillset) prepared. I believe in a Winning Mindset versus a Survival Mindset. The training I use and teach is meant to overwhelm and overcome any threat that might come your way, if you are prepared. Survival is a bleak term to me; winning and thriving in the gunfight sounds a whole lot more fun. There is good, and then there is better.
Visualization Visualization is part of being prepared. This isn't when the Buddhist monk walks in and starts chanting by the foot of your bed. This is when you visualize yourself moving through events as they will possibly unfold in front of you. I use visualization for the simplest of simple firearms manipulations, and from there I build confidence by visually walking myself through the scenario that could possibly unfold in my presence. When I am visualizing correctly, I feel the stresses that would apply in the real situation. These real situations that you have visualized will remain in your brain as though you have actually been through the situation; stress inoculation at its finest.
Totally Prepared So, are you ready? We won't know until things get dicey. But with enough realistic training, coupled with visualization or mental rehearsals, you will do the best that your mind will allow you to do. Staying switched-on every day of the week, every minute of the day — this is the mindset we are looking for. When things go bad, you will quickly find out if your stress-inoculation cultivations were successful.
Your skills must be bulletproof; you can't learn during the fight. Train to the point that everything you do is natural and instinctive. This doesn't happen overnight or with a two-day class. Train as though your life depends on it.
Don't kid yourself. If you feel you have voids in your skill set, get out and train. Training every day is preferred. Visual rehearsals, followed by plentiful dry-fire, live-fire and realistic scenario-based training can put you in the driver's seat the next time things go sideways.
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