How SEAL Team 6, Professional MMA Fighters, a clinical psychiatrist, and the best-known law enforcement trainer on the planet hold the key to solving our police problem for good.
If there are law enforcement officers confronting life and death shooting situations and responding inappropriately, whose fault is that? Whose fault is it, when there are readily available state-of-the-art resources that prepare and inoculate officers for deadly force encounters, but the resources have not been provided? It is clearly the trainers and administrators who failed to provide them with the resources to do their jobs as best they can…Warriors have a moral obligation to protect society and its citizens. Individuals who refuse to participate in realistic training should not be in the business.
-LTC Dave Grossman, “On Combat”
It seems simple enough and involves a gizmo that looks like a three-handled boomerang if you can imagine it. The striking coach whips it hard through the air, and Urban has to catch it. Of course, it’s not that simple. Each of the boomerang’s three grips is a different color: one green, one white, one black. As the coach throws it, he calls out a color.
To me, it just looks like a whirling blur when it flies past my face. But time after time, standing there in a right-handed stance with his 170 lb fighter’s physique primed for action, Urban shoots out his hand like he’s throwing a punch, and snatches it out of midair—his fist coiled around the same colored grip that coach just called out.
It doesn’t look easy, because it’s not. Most people’s brains simply aren’t primed for that sort of action. It requires a calm, presence of mind, and reaction time that is the result of, in Urban’s case, 11 years of training 6 days a week in boxing, MMA, muay Thai, and jiujitsu.
Urban’s fights look like this, too. Under the lights and surrounded by a screaming and bloodthirsty crowd, he is almost freakishly methodical and calculated, exuding an unusually calm demeanor as he executes his game plan under enormous pressure. There’s an emotionless thoughtfulness that seems to pervade his action: calm, decisive, and impervious to distraction. Strike, move, counter. Don’t get flustered or angry. Adapt, roll with the punches. Choose and exploit your openings. Go in for the kill.
Over the years that we have trained in the same space, I have watched Urban prepare for his MMA fights and observed something else. It is not just the “how much” he trains, but the “how.” In the build-up to fight week, the training becomes increasingly intense. He will meet an onslaught of fresh fighters in the cage, one after the other, in “gauntlet” training that is designed to be mentally and physically exhausting. These things are no secret in the fight world, and they are practices shared by the other professional fighters in our gym who are likewise accomplished. This training serves a very distinct purpose: helping the fighter become accustomed and acclimated to the intensity of violence that they will face in the competition so that they can still function optimally under extreme pressure.
The principle behind it is a fundamental secret that every warrior knows.
On fight night, just like in combat for the soldier, or on the street for the police officer, you won’t rise to the occasion; you will fall to the level of your training.
There is a fundamental secret that every warrior knows. On fight night, just like in combat for the soldier, or on the street for the police officer, you won’t rise to the occasion; you will fall to the level of your training.
As someone with a particular interest in performance psychology, it is fascinating to watch. Over the past year, while completing my training as a USA Boxing Official, I sat ringside and judged countless fights. Many of these were first fights between inexperienced amateur athletes, and if watching Urban in the cage is a masterclass in the outcomes of successful stress inoculation, these first fights are their polar opposite. Instead, they are an equally fascinating study in the human fight or flight response.
You never know which athlete is going to show up for the debut fight. Countless times, an athlete may seem to their coaches to be prepared, only to crumble in the ring. Under pressure and in front of a hungry crowd, the hands come up to shelter the head as the onslaught of punches rain down on the lesser prepared fighter’s head. Hopped up on more adrenaline than they’ve ever experienced before, many first-time fighters go wild and swing for the fences. Their form and footwork fly out the window along with everything else they’ve learned, arms swinging wildly in an adrenaline-fueled display of violence that is more instinct than sport.
Of course, nobody in the fight community judges first-time fighters for this. Everyone understands that the ability to perform when faced with a threat, under pressure, adrenaline pumping, the crowd looking on, is a skill that comes only with experience. There is no other way to get better at fighting than by doing it—and doing a lot of it. After a brutal loss, it’s usually more sparring that is prescribed. The fighter who doesn’t spar hard enough and gets caught off guard by the level of violence in a real fight is usually, in a first fight, the one who becomes totally overwhelmed and gets TKO’ed. I’ve seen it countless times, and you can almost predict when it is going to happen. An “independent fighter,” unaffiliated with any gym, will step into the ring for a debut match against a fighter from an established gym. These fights are some of the most brutal to watch because no matter how hard the independent fighter has trained their fight skills, they are invariably underprepared for the level of violence, and cognitive impairment of adrenaline rush, that they are about to experience.
Combat, of course, works the same way. I spoke to a current Active Duty SEAL about this, a member of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) nearing 20 years of military service. He has probably seen more sustained combat over time than anyone else I know, is a practitioner of martial arts, and has also worked on the training side of things. I asked him, “How long did it take you to learn to actually think clearly in a fight, under all that adrenaline?” He told me:
I went through BUD/S in 2002. I finished Army Airborne, SQT, and my first workup by 2004. My first overseas deployment was in 2005. But I don’t think even then I was completely “clear-headed” going into combat. My first gunfights were a blur. Act and react. Fight or Flight was in full effect, and the adrenaline was pumping. It probably wasn’t until 2008 or 2010 deployments that I really felt that adaptation happen where I was more “stress inoculated.” BUD/S helps. And training helps. But nothing inoculates you to a fight or to combat like ACTUAL combat or an actual real fistfight. There’s no way to completely replicate that feeling. That sensation. The whole visceral reality of it. Even the best training is just a very advanced and realistic simulation.
As many other servicemembers will attest, even years-worth of some of the best training in the world can’t fully prepare you for what you will experience the first time you encounter someone who is actually trying to kill you; six to eight years, according to the operator above, who committed himself to endless training and deployment cycles throughout that time frame.
In “No Easy Day,” the memoir which was eventually revealed to have been published by former DEVGRU operator Matt Bissonnette, Bissonnette goes into greater depth on the objective of some of this training. Speaking specifically about Green Team, the selection process through which potential DEVGRU operators are trained, he writes:
The key to the course was managing stress. The instructors kept everyone tired and on edge, forcing us to make important decisions under the worst conditions. It was the only way the instructors could mimic combat. The success or failure of our missions was a direct reflection of how each operator could process information in a stressful environment. Green Team was different than BUD/S because I knew just passing the swim or run and being cold, all without quitting, wasn’t enough. Green Team was about mental toughness.
DEVGRU is the Navy’s counterterrorism unit, otherwise known to some as SEAL Team 6, and it is the best that the Navy has to offer for these types of missions. Hostage rescue, tracking war criminals, hunting, and killing al Qaeda fighters; were their primary objectives during Bissonnette’s tenure there. These types of high-profile missions are no-fail missions, to be subjected in many cases to a great deal of international scrutiny; as such, the units entrusted with carrying them out must be prepared to adapt to all levels of uncertainty under split-second margins and get it right every single time.
It is an exceedingly tall order, and the gravity of this responsibility is reflected in the training time that it takes to reach that assignment. Green Team is not populated by “green” warriors, but by already seasoned warfighters who advance their training to an even higher level of preparation.
When the world is watching, our nation must not fail. They are trained to accept this responsibility, and that training takes time.
“My first gunfights were a blur. Act and react. Fight or Flight was in full effect, and the adrenaline was pumping. It probably wasn’t until 2008 or 2010 deployments that I really felt that adaptation happen where I was more ‘stress inoculated.’ BUD/S helps. And training helps. But nothing inoculates you to a fight or to combat like ACTUAL combat or an actual real fistfight.”
When speaking to Lt. Col. Dave Grossman for this article—famed author of “On Combat” (2004) and “On Killing” (1995), two works that have persisted for years as practically required reading for military and law enforcement—he references an anecdote he encountered recently of two soldiers engaged in a firefight. Bullets whizzing over their heads, one turns to the other and says, “Well, at least this isn’t as bad as Ranger School.” An Army Ranger, Paratrooper, and former West Point Psychology Professor, Grossman knows that of which he speaks. The training should always, whenever possible, be tougher than the fight. “You don’t rise to the occasion; you fall to the level of your training:” that’s both the adage in martial arts and throughout the military, he tells me. The problem, I seek out Grossman to ask, is: are we sufficiently training our law enforcement officers in this way?
Perhaps more than anyone, Grossman is the premier scholar to whom I could pose this question. He is of the nation’s top law enforcement trainers, having been certified in all 50 states, and training every federal agency. He is also extraordinarily busy and committed to this scholarship, conducting training in up to six different cities per week. His knowledge and biography are extensive, as is the breadth of his influence; his research has even been cited by the President of the United States in a national address, and he has testified before the U.S. Senate, U.S. Congress, and numerous state legislatures.
His thoughts? “When I work with law enforcement, I seek to empower, uplift, and encourage them,” he tells me, “But I also beat them up for things they need to better train on. Your department will never give you all of the training that you need. Martial arts, for example. I tell them to seek something that will increase their physical fitness, and though it’s partly in jest, I hammer the golfers. I ask them: are you wasting time on the golf course, or seeking a hobby to increase your fitness, and give you skills that will not leave you panic-stricken in a moment of truth?”
The key objective, Grossman shares, is to help officers obtain the appropriate level of training that enables them to perform optimally under extreme pressure. “My goal for everyone I train,” he says, “is to give them skills that will not leave them panic-stricken, producing an untrained and unprepared response in the moment of truth.” Rather, “I want to see them produce a trained, skilled, and rational response.”
This is easier said than done, however. The science and scholarship are extensive, and to fully understand the science between identifying and performing in this sweet spot, one would do best to pick up a copy of Grossman’s book, “On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace,” looking specifically at the chapter on Fear, Physiological Arousal, and Performance. Essentially, though, the issue is this. When the human body is experiencing a fear-induced heart rate increase, also referenced as a hormonal-induced heart rate increase, the body undergoes very specific physiological and psychological changes at varying levels of arousal. Those who are familiar with Cooper’s Color Codes will recognize the colors used to classify varying ranges of heart rate in the aroused individual. To make a long story short, we spend most of our time in conditions white or yellow. Condition red, associated with 115-145 bpm heart rate, is the zone of peak performance under fear-induced arousal, where complex motor skills, visual reaction time, and cognitive reaction time peak.
In “On Combat,” Grossman gives the example of a highly trained SWAT team officer, breaching the door of a barricaded gunman. He writes:
[The point man on a SWAT team going through a door to confront a barricaded gunman] needs to have his cognitive reaction time, visual reaction time, and complex-motor skills all functioning at the highest levels. He needs to be in Condition Red. Yes, he loses some of his fine-motor skills, but in his case, that is an acceptable price to pay. Through intense, high-repetition training, he will turn the skills that he needs to perform into ‘muscle memory.’ Magazine changes, misfeed drills, weapons handling, and handcuffing are just a few of the many skills he must rehearse until he can perform these intricate tasks flawlessly, without conscious thought, even though he is in Condition Red.
This is an ideal scenario, where an experienced professional can perform optimally and exercise good judgment under extreme stress and pressure. This is where SWAT teams need to be; where the DEVGRU operators above need to be on no-fail hostage-rescue missions; where Urban needs to be when he steps into the MMA cage for a professional fight: in full fight mode, with access to their bodies’ optimal reaction times and complex motor skills, and also exercising cognitive reaction time that is actually improved by the body’s stress response.
The problem is that Condition Red is not where fear-induced heart rate tops out. It can go much higher, and when it does, it can have devastating results.
When the fear-induced heart rate elevates from 146-175 bpm, the body goes into Condition Grey. Here, the individual experiences vasoconstriction, loss of peripheral vision (tunnel vision), loss of depth perception, loss of near vision, and auditory exclusion. Most importantly, from a decision-making perspective, cognitive processing deteriorates. Condition Black, at 175 bpm and beyond, is near a total shutdown, where completely irrational fight or flight behaviors can be witnessed as well as complete freezing. Submissive behavior and voiding of the bladder and bowels are also common at this point. All that some individuals are left within Condition Black is access to basic survival-based gross motor skills such as running or charging. It is, in sum, where the human body’s stress response system overloads and the individual reverts to completely primal survival behavior at the expense of cognitive performance. On the street, in the case of the law enforcement officer tasked with carrying out critical duties and making split-second life-or-death decisions, the inability to manage this stress effectively can lead to devastating outcomes.
Think back to the amateur boxer in their first fight. For some fighters, whose youth may have included a hefty dose of schoolyard fighting or even a stint in jail (not uncommon among fighters in my own experience), being punched by someone wearing large, puffy gloves is not all that threatening. It doesn’t even really hurt too much. These kids have seen way worse. These kids are the ones who tend to perform well in a first fight. Then there are the other kids; the ones who come to the sport as athletes who have never experienced actual violence before. When the fists fly, it is easy to spot it when the pressure is getting to a fighter. Primal fight, flight, or freeze responses take over, and I have seen with my own eyes the same outcomes: fighters refusing to step into the cage or the ring (“flight”), shelling up and hardly throwing a punch while taking a beating until the ref calls it (“freeze”), and forgetting all technique while the fight devolves into an out and out brawl (“fight”).
These fighters who revert to primal behaviors are in Condition Grey. Unaccustomed to the stress that their bodies are experiencing, they go through a kind of shutdown. What is it that makes some first-time fighters capable of performing in Condition Red?
The answer is stress inoculation, and the theory is that just like we can inoculate ourselves against illnesses by vaccinating ourselves with a small amount of dead virus, so we can also inoculate ourselves against stressors by repeatedly exposing ourselves to them over time. Just as the vaccination serves to introduce our body to a dead virus so that our immune system will more readily recognize and fight it when we are attacked by the real thing, so stress inoculation prepares us to remain calmer and respond more appropriately under fear-based stress response. Why does the kid who just got out of jail perform relatively calmly in the boxing fight, remaining in Condition Red while their opponent descends into Condition Grey or Black? Stress inoculation. Their body and brain have seen worse violence. They are able to remain calmer, retain more cognitive functions, and perform better.
“My goal for everyone I train,” says Grossman, “is to give them skills that will not leave them panic-stricken, producing an untrained and unprepared response in the moment of truth.” Rather, he says, “I want to see them produce a trained, skilled, and rational response.”
The problem is that true stress inoculation takes time, and as demonstrated by those who habitually are able to make sound split-second tactical decisions, it also takes a tremendous amount of experience. Consider the near-decade of training that many SEALs have undergone by the time they make it to DEVGRU, where they will be tasked with carrying out elite no-fail hostage rescue missions. Consider the training trajectory of professional MMA fighter Urban, able to perform so calmly and rationally in the cage, who at the age of 26 has been training in his sport since he was only 15. Working out the rough math with him, based on varying training schedules over his career, the numbers add up to a total of 7,384 hours of MMA training between the ages of 15 and 26.
Now, look at the training hours that are required in various states to become a police officer. In Louisiana, 360. North Carolina, 620. California, 664. Florida, 770. Massachusetts, 900. CNN looked this data over and considered career paths that require considerably more training time in each of those states. In California, it takes nearly twice as many training hours to become a cosmetologist as it does a police officer. In Michigan, nearly seven times the training hours it takes to become a police hour are required of those who wish to become licensed electrical sign specialists. And so on, and so forth.
This is by no means intended as a condemnation of the dedicated law enforcement officers in this country who are committed to the communities that they protect and serve. Rather, it is intended as a question that could lead to improved policies and procedures. We know that stress inoculation works, we know how to do it, we know which careers require it. When we task military servicemembers with no-fail missions, they are some of the most highly trained operatives that this nation has.
Still, our law enforcement officers are under similar pressure and scrutiny every day. They engage in deadly force encounters, hand-to-hand combat, and are faced with split-second decision-making that can very easily rival that which is faced by our more highly trained overseas door-kickers. If we know how to better prepare them for the violent encounters that they are going to face on the job, why are they still hitting the streets unprepared? Why are we letting them down?
Consider the case of Tamir Rice, a young Cleveland boy who was shot by police officers who were unable to distinguish the airsoft pistol he was brandishing from a real handgun. Pictures of the actual gun Rice was holding at the time he was shot are easily found online, and I don’t know how it is possible to look at that realistic weapon and say that a police officer should have been able to determine at a distance that it was not the real thing. Still, their critical error does not make his death any less real, senseless, or unnecessary. It was a tragedy for all parties involved on every side of the coin.
Add to this additional layers of uncertainty: police officers, under the physiological effects of fear-induced adrenaline response (“Is he going to shoot someone?”), and experiencing the cognitive impairments that correlate with an increase in fear-induced heart rate. This isn’t conjectured; it is science. The only accurate predictor of who will perform better under stress is whether or not that individual has been sufficiently prepared and trained to perform well under stress.
How well were those officers trained to cope with these psychological and physiological challenges to sound decision making? How inevitable was the death of Tamir Rice?
In this same vein, how well was Derek Chauvin trained in hand-to-hand combat? Would George Floyd still be alive today if Chauvin had been a practitioner of jiu-jitsu, better stress inoculated and also habituated to the feeling of a body going limp and failing under the pressure he was imposing? Would he have known when to let up? Would Rayshard Brooks still be alive today if Garrett Rolfe and his partner had better prepared for the scenario that they encountered? How would a more highly trained DEVGRU operator have handled the scenario of being threatened with a taser by a retreating individual?
The only accurate predictor of who will perform better under stress is whether or not that individual has been sufficiently prepared and trained to perform well under stress.
Better stress inoculation training for members of our law enforcement community could be part of the solution, but more rigorous selection processes also are part of this formula. After all, the pattern of rigorous selection is ubiquitous throughout the world of military and combat athletes, though joining law enforcement at the entry level is decidedly less competitive. To become a professional MMA fighter, Urban went undefeated as an amateur and left the numerous lesser fighters who had challenged him but failed in his wake. To earn their spot on DEVGRU, the SEAL operators we’ve been following had to not only endure and pass through rigorous BUD/S training, but they had to succeed in the Green Team selection process that entailed numerous and varied evaluative measures. Could we be doing more to make sure that we have the right people for the job of policing our streets?
To delve into this matter further, I contacted clinical psychologist, Dr. John Gustavson, Ph.D., of Grand Junction, Colorado. Specializing in neuropsychology, Dr. Gustavson has been in practice for over 40 years, is the parent of a military service member, and is well-versed in some of these matters. I asked him about selection, and the nature vs. nurture debate.
“Research has shown that if you take your pulse rate in the midst of a stressful interaction, and it is 10 bpm or more over normal, then you are already in the danger zone,” he tells me. “Your pulse is one measure of adrenaline and your body’s fight or flight response; at that point, you lose your capacity to think clearly and engage in more socially appropriate behavior.” With typical resting heart rates for adults ranging on average from 60-100 bpm, this puts the threshold for stress-related behavioral changes well below the Condition Grey that Grossman discusses, which kicks off at around 146 bpm. In other words, in the midst of even a mildly stressful encounter—let’s say, a police officer questioning a suspect on the street—there is already a heightened risk for emotional involvement, lashing out, and irrational behavior. “For most of us, if we have the self-awareness to do so, we can take a ‘time out’ when we enter that danger zone,” Dr. Gustavson says. Still, “You can’t do that when you’re a law enforcement officer and you’re called upon to make knee-jerk decisions about life or death matters.”
What can exacerbate this, according to Dr. Gustavson, is the innate temperament of the individual who is under stress and attempting to gain control of their out-of-control emotions. In part, he believes, you can train people in advance to manage these difficult emotions. However, his 40+ years of service as a clinical psychologist have led him to the conclusion that innate temperament is a critical factor that should not be overlooked. He explains:
That capacity to self-soothe and calm down in a highly-charged situation, is it inborn? An innate personality trait? Or is it learned? Can you teach it in the classroom? Can you put people through a 6-week stress inoculation program that enables them to do that? My best guess—and I don’t think that everyone is going to like this—is that to a large degree, it is the temperament you come into the world with. There are temperamental styles: some fragile, anxious, and easily upset; some strong-willed and aggressive, with low frustration tolerance, and the desire to have needs gratified immediately. The research bears this out and has consistently shown for decades, that as soon as a few months after birth, in the early stages of infancy, you can begin to identify those different temperamental styles.
Though he says that “in my clinical experience, I have seen that we have a little malleability and have some ability to learn, change, and exercise agency in the things we do and how we conduct ourselves,” he suggests that in an ideal scenario, we would be able to psychologically screen and select for a police force that leans towards a more even temperament. While some selection measures, such as the MMPI, are already in place, Dr. Gustavson points out that the trouble is that they are not all an accurate measure of temperamental style. Ideally, he says, law enforcement selection processes would “weed out either those not fully invested in the idea of achieving the ideal we have been talking about, or those who are incapable of it.” He points out that some people “just lack the psychological wherewithal to do what you are suggesting that they do and make those sound moral and ethical decisions under immense psychological pressure and stress.”
Can people change their behavior if it means overriding their innate temperament in order to do so? “People change when they have felt the need,” Dr. Gustavson reflects. “But ultimately, they will only change if they want it. That’s the starting point, and it is effort dependent, time-intensive, and commitment driven.” I openly wonder if this is even possible. “I think it is,” he tells me, “but I am a quintessential optimist.”
“People change when they have felt the need,” Dr. Gustavson reflects. “But ultimately, they will only change if they want it. That’s the starting point, and it is effort dependent, time-intensive, and commitment driven.”
There are other measures that experts say could help our law enforcement community tremendously. In our interview, LTC Grossman spoke at length about the need for us to look critically at police officers’ schedules and the dangerous trend of sleep deprivation in their community. “It should enrage us that cops aren’t held to even the same sleep standards as truck drivers,” he tells me, “This is bizarre and tragic and unacceptable at so many levels. People working double and triple shifts, rotating shifts, 12-hour shifts, staying up for 24 hours at a time; it’s insane. And nobody is talking about that. Nobody’s even asking the question of whether or not sleep was a factor in the Floyd case.”
Still, while we explore all of these various avenues towards building a stronger and healthier police force, we must provide them with the financial resources that they need to obtain the necessary training. Viewed through this optic, it becomes clear that defunding or reallocating police funding—as is being considered in various locations nationwide—is a step in the wrong direction. We must consider, instead, increased police funding paired with enhanced regulation that requires more extensive scenario training geared towards stress inoculation. We should enlist the assistance of psychologists to help better evaluate who we entrust with the solemn responsibility of governmentally sanctioned violence and the safety of our populace. And we should look to our nation’s own elite military units for guidance on effectively training our police force for high performance in no-fail missions.
“The person who decides whether or not to shoot your kid should be the best-trained person on the planet.”
LTC Grossman leaves me with these parting thoughts:
I tell my chiefs. You’ve accepted this horrendous responsibility. The most ultimate responsibility that any human will ever face is the decision to take another human life. It is not our goal for law enforcement to have to do this, but it is a possible outcome, not to be taken lightly. In the face of this reality, the answer is to train, train, train. Mind, body, spirit. On and off duty. Seek hobbies that reinforce your survival skills. Take this tragic responsibility, a reality of the career path that you have chosen as a member of law enforcement, and focus on the one thing that you can control: your level of training and preparation. I beat up every class leader, chief, and sheriff over our tragic failure to prepare.”
After all, he says, “The person who decides whether or not to shoot your kid should be the best-trained person on the planet.”
Dr. Atalanta is a writer, USA Boxing athlete, combatives instructor, philanthropist, and veterans’ advocate who is passionate about helping veterans tell their stories. Her latest project is an upcoming book with J.C. Glick, “Meditations of an Army Ranger,” but past clients have run the gamut from former SEAL Jeff Boss (author of “Navigating Chaos”) to the President of Floyd Mayweather’s $100m Money Team Brand. Dr. Atalanta is a sought-after commentator in the fight world on the topic of women’s personal defense, and she is available for booking as a Speaker-Buzz keynote speaker. For more information on how Dr. Atalanta might be able to help you turn your ideas into a book, please visit www.aliceatalanta.com.
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