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A Psychologist’s View of the Mental Game of Policing

Jun 09

G’day all!! How are you? I am back from my travels with much to tell you of far off places. We must sit down together and over a beer (or two) come to know each other on an entirely different level. I must tell you that the last post I put up regarding the ten things Mr. Paulson could share with his successor was one of the more popular pieces we have had in several months. As it was based in Sport Psychology (and I do have a passing interest in the area due to my own history), I thought I might see how you responded to yet another from the same genre. I am assuming that we are in agreement that there is a mental aspect to policing; not just to high risk units but also to the back bone of the job……. General Duty policing. Have you ever considered GD policing as the equivalent of a high performance sport? Are you in the habit of showing up for your shift with no mental preparation (and I mean the too frequently heard “oh shit here I go again”).

Allow me to paint a little picture for you. A football team begins to gather in their locker room. Even at practice the world of a football player can be a high pressure environment that few athlete’s will experience and even fewer will survive.

To continue with the picture, an alumnus of the team, who happens to be one of it’s all time greatest, enters the locker room prior to a big game. The team falls silent. This visitor now plays professionally and is highly thought of by his alma mater’s coaching staff. He speaks to the young players about pride; he addresses the meaning of team spirit; and he explains to the young players the meanings of commitment and attitude. With great passion in his voice he speaks of the history of the school with regard to winning National Championships. He begins to get misty-eyed as he recites the names of the great alumni who had gone before.

This is a common perception of those who have not performed at a high level of motivation; that is, that it will be an emotion packed speech from the coach or a former player that will “light the fire” and cause the team to flood onto the field and victory.

Effective motivation is not a “one-off” emotion grabbing speech, not even the promise of substantial reward; and definitely not a temporary single explosion of feeling.

Motivation even for the General Duty police person is more like a lifestyle. This involves you living a lifestyle where you are motivated to achieve. During your work day each challenge, task, and activity becomes an opportunity to set a personal goal, to proceed incrementally toward better performance and new and greater levels of achievement.

I played for a (Defensive) Coach at Notre Dame who was interested in developing us as young men as well as outstanding football players. He was unique in that he related to us as both a coach and a father-figure. For example, he would give us tasks to do that seemed to have nothing to do with winning football games for Notre Dame. Yet we knew that they must be (at least) indirectly related to our improvement whether at football or in life.

Routinely, he would gather us by position (on different days) in his office before practice and ask us to, for example, copy a drawing of the frame of a building that was in perspective. He would tell us we had only so many seconds, set us loose, and observe us. As you would expect, we all had our own way of reproducing the drawing. Some would copy it exactly as it appeared, others would do it accurately but add small variations, and others would attempt to innovate and make the design more advanced.

Although he never explained to us the object of the exercise in detail, we figured out that he was looking for innovation and innovators. He appeared to be looking for those whose attitude was, “How can I do this well and maybe even surpass his expectations?” rather than those who were asking themselves, “Can I do this?” or “How can I do this?”

Mid-way through Spring practice and following several of these exercises, we arrived at the stadium one afternoon to find a small motivational phrase taped to our (Defensive Team) locker doors. The phrase read “The Way You Do Anything, Is The Way You Do Everything”.

So you ask how does all of this have anything to do with a General Duty police person about to undertake (yet another!) GD shift? Think of the exercise outlined above as a “training activity” your supervisor organizes before your shift goes out on the road. He/she might organize an exercise focused on a certain technique e.g. “speed cuffing”. The supervisor might demonstrate the skill, discuss the objective of the skill and the practice, repeat the demonstration, ask for questions and then have the “shift” give it a shot. The supervisor can observe the range of styles and competencies that shift members have adopted. Of course with any group there will be a variety of styles including correct, correct with added speed, incorrect, and maybe correct but with added speed and increased power and accuracy.

A challenge appears at this point for the supervisor. Only a couple failed to perform the skill; but some challenged themselves to perform the skill to a higher standard than was required. For some reason the latter group was not content with performing to standard. They preferred to challenge themselves and to perform the skill to a higher standard than was required. These members were not satisfied with performing the skill to the minimum standard of acceptability. They fixed a more challenging goal and then set out to achieve it. Some members were involved in the exercise while others were committed to it!

Remaining in the police universe, how would the supervisor turn involvement into commitment? Most police persons are successful as they can set challenging goals and manage the process necessary to get there. It is encouraging that goal setting and attainment are simple concepts to learn as that is the most common way we work each day and in most things we do.

It is a natural part of our cognitive process to set goals and make plans designed to achieve them. Goal setting is a natural and logical process and we humans by nature are very goal oriented. The challenge here for a police supervisor (coach, athlete) is to set goals and to achieve them through well planned incremental practices and attitudes.

I’m sure those of you who have had experience in sport are familiar with the term “the will to win”? A closer look reveals that the “will to win” is not sufficient without the daily commitment to do what it takes to prepare to win. Realistically, anyone can have the will to win but how many athletes have the drive to support the will to win with focus, determination, and concentration in everything they do?

Most of you are aware that I had the great good fortune to play NCAA football at the University of Notre Dame in the US. At the time I was there, there was a motivational sign above the team showers. The sign read, “Not Just On Saturday”. These four simple but powerful words were to remind each player that excellence comes from the every day practice of skills; and that winning on Saturday was built on the mastery of basic skills through the rest of the week. In this way the small successes had in practice, in the weight room, and out on the run would accumulate.

Training as a team is limited by individual differences. Inevitably any individual training session will be easy for some and difficult for others. No matter the sport or the job, training activities can’t be set precisely for each athlete or worker. Most often the training activity is set at an “average” level. In this way the task is not too difficult for the less talented and not too easy for the more proficient. What the coach, or supervisor is looking for is not what is done but how the individual approaches the task.

The variable of “what” is done is regularly the topic of discussion with regard to training programs; both in the sport and business worlds. Variations in volume, intensity, percentage of training done in various training zones and types of exercise to do are critical. However, it has been proven over and over that it is “how they do what they do” that is of most importance; as much in the world of policing as in the world of business. (Just this morning in the news was an item explaining how an Edmonton “hate crimes” investigator was killed in the line of duty. Of course the loss of this young man’s life is tragic, and based upon what we know about police members being killed on duty we are likely to find that he became complacent. In other words, he became more concerned with “what” he was doing than “how” he was doing it.

Successful police persons (like athletes)become that way by focusing on the little things that they do every day in training, their attitude toward mental preparation, awareness, and their commitment to mindfulness. The athlete or police person who begins to “dial in” at game time is missing the cumulative effect of setting and achieving small daily goals (that when employed can result in an effort to achieve loftier goals and success at the highest levels).

I will suggest an example from police training; the drill instructor in a self defense class may demonstrate and assign a “leg sweep” takedown to the group. The members of the class are likely to interpret the instructions idiosyncratically. One student could interpret the instruction as simply to accomplish a “take down”. Another could interpret the instruction as “perform the technique perfectly”, while a third may have thought to “perform the technique correctly and as quickly as possible with out any errors”. Each student sets a goal and then sets out to attain it based upon his/her interpretation, level of ability, confidence, past successes and failures, and a host of other factors.

Those of you who have a history in sport understand what I mean when I use the term “butterflies”. Many of you have suffered a case of “butterflies” on game day. You were in the grip of “performance anxiety”. Much of this anxiety comes from not doing “stuff” when it should have been done. Most often this is a result of a lack of direction in training; that results in completing training at a standard far below expected performance levels, and generally fumbling through with a minimum effort that results in a sub-par product.

The key difference here is that elite athletes “make it happen” in training. They develop a repertoire of success that comes from a training attitude that serves them well on game day; where they can now “let it happen”. Whereas athletes who are less successful just “let it happen” in training; they don’t push themselves, they accept sub-standard skill execution in practice and develop bad habits. Then when faced with competition, they try to “make it happen” and discover they don’t have what it takes to produce a winning effort.

The heart of the matter seems to be that if a police person (athlete) commits to excellence in everything done from training to competition an environment of excellence is created. Another motivational sign hanging in Notre Dame’s locker room during my era went like this, “Attitudes are contagious, is yours worth catching?”

In closing this brief outline of where true motivation comes from, I wish to emphasize that if it was up to me, what you have read here should be part of your daily life around the Detachment. Just as it makes no sense for the quarterback to begin to learn his receivers’ pass routes on game day, it makes no sense for you to begin practicing “officer survival” skills just before your shift begins.

The same can be said for mental skills. They require continual attention and practice. By establishing both physical and mental goals constantly in practice, athletes (and police persons) develop the confidence that anything is possible in competition. (“on the job”).

I’m sure you’ve heard those authoritative statements regarding mental preparation; that its’ role in high performance endeavours ranges anywhere from 75-99%. No matter which figure is quoted, I assure you that overlooking daily training in this area puts you at a terrible disadvantage. Given that the elite competitors in any sport are reasonably equal physically, then we could say that success is a choice. We could say that it will be the choices you make in every training and competitive situation that will result in your successes and failures.

“The Secret Is, There Is No Secret”

Dr. Mike Webster
Reg’d Psych.


From → Other

One Comment
  1. Geoff permalink

    Thanks Coach. I remember. You took a small short kid who wouldn’t quit and turned him into a Canadian Rudy, playing well above my ability.
    Listen up guys. Every day. All day. All the time. It only takes once.


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