As police training moves toward a more scientific base, certain widely accepted concepts in the teaching of physical skills are being challenged as myths that actually impede learning and, most important, retention.
Robert Bragg Jr., manager of fitness, force, and firearms training for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission’s academy, called out some of these flawed premises during a presentation on applying science to psychomotor skill instruction at the latest annual conference of the International Law Enforcement Educators & Trainers Assn. (ILEETA). Recently he elaborated on the subject in a conversation with Force Science News.
“Relying on myths that are commonly perpetuated in training can be more than just a waste of time,” Bragg says. “They may seem logical and time-tested. But in reality they create a gap between what works in the gym and what’s needed in the real world. They can lead officers to develop a false sense of security by overestimating their capabilities.”
With 35 years’ experience in training and a master’s degree in exercise physiology and sports medicine, Bragg defines “skill” as “the ability to bring about a desired end result with maximum certainty and minimum outlay of energy and/or time.”
He identifies six beliefs and practices he says undermine officers’ ability to grasp and retain physical skills that could be decisive in life-or-death confrontations. “As an instructor,” he says, “you’re not likely to get more time than you’re currently allotted to train officers, so you must make the most of the time you have by using the science of motor learning and performance to improve the training you deliver.”
MYTH #1: Perfect practice makes perfect performance.
This oft-repeated bromide “suggests there’s ‘a’ perfect rep that can be practiced over and over in a stable, predictable environment with no variables,” Bragg says. “In a sport like gymnastics, that may be possible, but police work is the ultimate in variability. Rather than repeat the same movement over and over again, you need to build your ability to vary and adapt your physical skills to surmount a wide range of situations that are hard to predict.
“Instead of trying to master a perfect Weaver or isosceles stance that you’ll probably never use in real-life gunfights, you’re better off building experience in shooting under stress from many different positions in many different environments under many different conditions. You may not always perform with absolute perfection, but you can learn to perform with practical proficiency to get the job done.”
MYTH #2: Slowly practicing a movement that needs to be delivered fast is beneficial.
“There may be some value in this in the very early stages of learning, to help you understand the motor movements involved in a new technique,” Bragg says. “But spend very little time practicing slowly, especially where forceful movements are involved.
“The neuromuscular demands of slow versus fast perception and movement are very different, and slow practice does not transfer effectively to fast performance. Your brain tries to keep pace with the feedback it’s accustomed to at the slower pace and it quickly becomes overwhelmed. It’s like practicing only slow tai chi and then trying to fight at real speed.
“There are very few skill-based actions in law enforcement that take place at slow speed. Train at the speed at which you need to deliver, using realistic role-playing scenarios. Through repeated trial and error you’ll eventually learn what works best for you and how to do it. Your retention will improve when your practice environment mirrors the conditions in which you’re expected to perform for real.”
MYTH #3: Blocked instruction speeds learning.
“High-liability motor skills like shooting, driving, and DT are often taught in a blocked format–intense cram sessions where officers are expected to grasp techniques well enough to replicate them shortly afterward to prove they’ve been ‘learned.’ It may be months or a year before their performance is tested again,” Bragg says.
“In the short term, the learning seems to happen faster, but the long-term retention rate where physical skills are concerned is dismal.
” ‘Distributed’ learning, where instruction and reinforcing practice occur over time, works much better. Short, spaced, mini-training sessions–15 minutes once a week, say–tend to dramatically improve skill retention. Some flexibility and creativity with scheduling may be needed, but the results are worth it.”
MYTH #4: Immediate and frequent feedback hastens improvement.
Bragg believes the science shows that an instructor who offers immediate and frequent critiques of a trainee’s performance “programs the learner to depend on external feedback and does not force him or her to ‘seek’ feedback from their own body and behavior, which they ultimately must do in the game on the street.
“A really good instructor doesn’t say a whole lot. He forces you to answer questions yourself: ‘Based on the information your body just gave you, what do you think happened?’ You have to learn to self-diagnose, because then you’ll know how to fix yourself, even in the midst of battle when there’s no one there to correct you.
“Feedback that’s intermittent and delayed is most helpful for skill retention.”
MYTH #5: Muscles have memories.
” ‘Muscle memory’ is a catchy phrase,” Bragg admits, “but it suggests that muscles are the only thing involved in mastering a physical skill. It’s a concept that usually accompanies the block-teaching approach, and it gets you thinking that all that matters in learning are reps.
“To really learn, your whole nervous system has to be involved–your brain and your neuromuscular network.
“When you’re learning a new physical skill, you tend to be stiff and robotic. Over time, you train your brain to activate only the muscles you need to perform the required movements and you get rid of what’s unnecessary, so you’re smoother and more efficient.
“You need to stay mentally involved. Once your brain is no longer engaged, you’re just going through the motions. You cease to learn.”
MYTH #6: Repetition is the key to learning.
Forget the claims that it takes 3,000 reps to learn a new physical technique or 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery, Bragg advises. “People have different abilities and learn at different rates. Yes, repetition is essential–you’ve got to get the reps in–but what you do before and after the repetition may be more important to learning than the mere repetition itself.”
He recommends this approach: “Form a mental image of the movements you want to make. Imagine and feel the movements before you do them. Then do them. Then analyze how you did. How close did your performance match your imagination? Was your attention focused on the right things? That makes a valuable rep, not just going through the motions.
“This can be a laborious process, much harder than thinking you can just do a lot of reps and magically get better. It takes mental work to learn a physical skill. But at some point, you’ll find that your performance becomes reliably automatic and can be replicated without conscious thought when you’re under real-world stress.
“That’s not to say, though, that you reach a point where you can afford to stop learning. Motor learning is a process that never ends.”