An article was posted on the Facebook page of my old bomb squad. In it, the author discusses a Harvard study from the 1980s that looked at what made people calmer in life-threatening situations. (http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2012/10/life-threatening-situations-people-calm (http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2012/10/life-threatening-situations-people-calm/) The study looked at “bomb disposal experts” with ten years or more in the field. The author of the study, Stanley Rachman, divided the group into two sub-groups: those who had been decorated for their service and those who had not.
The bomb techs were put into the field in test scenarios that required concentration under stress. In a nutshell, the study found that all bomb techs displayed stable heart rates but those who were in the decorated group actually showed a drop in heart rate.
Upon further examination, the decorated group also showed higher scores on tests of self-belief than their non-decorated counterparts. In other words, the decorated guys were more likely to have a strong sense of self-value and belief in their abilities than those who were not decorated.
That’s a long-winded way to say “self-confidence.”
If this study is correct, then it is safe to say that confidence is important to job success. That’s the simple take-away.
Looking at it a bit further, though, the concept might get a little muddied.
The idea that high-performers have a greater sense of self-confidence is born out in sports, as well. Anyone who has played or coached little league baseball knows that the new kids on the team have less confidence and are more likely to make mistakes than the kids who have played a season or two. Lack of experience leads to mistakes, obviously, but the fear of making mistakes also leads to mistakes. With experience comes confidence even if only because the player (or tech) learns from mistakes. “Been there, done that” is shorthand for life experience and often the best teacher.
In support of this is a study of heart rate variability in precompetitive stress in high-standard judo athletes (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22972248). A series of tests and surveys showed that the pre-game stress affected international-level competitors less than it did national-level competitors. The higher up the judo totem pole the athlete was the less affected he was by pre-competition jitters. Likewise, his or her levels of self-confidence, somatic anxiety, and cognitive anxiety were also higher.
But does this actually mean that more successful athletes and bomb tech (or SWAT operators or patrol officers) are inherently more confident? Or is their confidence born of their success? One could argue that as they gain experience, subjects’ achievement of measures of success should increase correspondingly. As success increases, the confidence that success is possible grows.
In effect, it’s a chicken-and-egg argument. Nevertheless, both studies give an important look into the mind of a high-stress performer. I know from personal experience as a Field Training Officer that some men and women are simply wired to handle the stress of law enforcement while some are not. We have all experienced those moments of stress and fear on the job when there is that microsecond when you go from normal operating mode to what some trainers call “red mode.” Impending danger makes your brain kick into a primal fight-or-flight mode and your body floods with adrenalin to allow you to do whatever it is you have to do next: fight, chase, run away, draw a gun, a Taser, an asp.
For me, that switch was like I entered a totally different level of operations: time slowed down, the world got substantially brighter as my pupils dilated to take in more light to pull in more visual information, thoughts became fluid and rapid. I had trainees who went to pieces, either standing stock still, frozen, or running without direction, or, worse, charging in without a plan or rationale behind his actions.
At bomb squad tryouts we all had to wear a heavy, hot bomb suit in the Florida sun while performing tasks that were strenuous and that required thought. Body temperatures in the suit went to fever levels, breathing became difficult, and, when crawling through a tight area with a 100-pound helmet-and-suit combo, it took mental effort to remain calm. Not all did. One seasoned detective panicked and tore at his visor to get air.
With time, these activities became easy. Each operator saw that he could survive and function in the suit, so he became more confident. Confidence leads to more success. And so on.
What does this suggest about our training methods in law enforcement? In our travels around the country, we meet hundreds of officers and deputies at agencies of all sizes. Most report that training at their agencies is most often an us vs them structure. The trainers are the experts and they put their trainees in their place. This is most evident in the high-risk, realistic fire scenarios using simunitions or similar training tools. Most often, the trainers win—and when they win they win big. They love to show the less trained that they can shoot them easily.
There is something to be learned from getting shot in these scenarios but there is something to be gained from success, too. Gradually ramping up the level of performance needed to succeed against the trainers, requiring trainees to improve their game each time, can also yield good results. This is highlighted in the research cited above. Top-level judo athletes did not get that way by fighting top-level competitors from day one. It was a progression.
Of course, in law enforcement, we don’t have the luxury of a progression on the street. It is what it is. You are handed a situation and you have just one chance to deal with it. There is no going back, no Mulligans, no do-overs. Nevertheless, our training should progress the student from one level to the next, allowing for the building of confidence and the expectation of success (and the confidence that comes from it) with each repetition.
One can argue (and rightly) that the study’s division of bomb techs into “decorated” and “non-decorated” is, in the big picture, ambiguous. In one agency, you may get decorated for just about any on-duty act where other agencies do not give out decorations without overwhelmingly good reason. Some commanders decorate only their favorite team members. It could be argued that, in those cases, the confidence comes from knowing a commander is supportive of the officer rather than the officer’s confidence in his abilities. But all that, while certainly realities of the cop world, misses the point of the studies.
In the end, confidence is a valuable commodity in law enforcement, sports or any aspect of life. Experience—repetition, practice, training—is the best teacher, as it allows us to gain the exposure to more of the possibilities of the task at hand, whether that’s bomb disposal or dealing with an angry domestic situation. For optimal results, we should endeavor to make our colleagues more confident of their skills and in each other. Confidence builds confidence.