Challenge or Threat?

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“B-B-B-BACK OFF!!!!!!!”

There is much to digest in the research regarding the Theory of Challenge or Threat States in athletes.

This piece  addresses the use of imagery in appraising circumstances during competition  and seeing them as either challenging or threatening, with the resultant effect on performance. The body processes stress in the same way when responding to a threat or a challenge – it’s in how the stress is perceived  – in other words how the mind processes the stress can be very different, and this can have either adaptive or maladaptive results.

The crossover to the tactical and personal defense training communities, and the gaps that exist between them, are clear. It seems the same would hold true in the crossover between competition, training, and force confrontations. If competition is considered challenging, but confrontation threatening, a negative effect will result regardless of preparation, and even though the stress experienced will be similar.

Otherwise why do we have trained soldiers and cops experiencing PTSD, yet combat sport and competition shooters not having the same issues relative to their stress?


The language and imagery we use in training is at issue, here. If everything is a “threat” and the worst-case-scenario is the most often prepped, we are back to what I’ve called threat priming. I’ve done this to students myself, and am considering changing some of the terms I use to reduce this kind of thing.

It’s possible this is what we’re seeing with some of the controversial police uses of force and shooting incidents in the media. For so many years, rank and file officers have been fed a steady diet of threat priming: every person contacted is a potential cop-killer, each drop of the hands, every furtive movement, every confrontational posture, every hand-in-pocket a potentially lethal threat.

Of course this is not the case. Situations, subjects, and threats must be assessed on their specific merits. A hand in a pocket in one situation is a completely different thing than in another – unless of course we have been trained that a hand in pocket always means “THREAT!!!”

We must aspire to a level of training and confidence such that our internal responses allow real-time appraisal. This could take microseconds, or we might have the luxury of more time to decide and greater situational awareness based on tactics and our capabilities.

Then, a tactical or defensive encounter becomes a challenge, and is not as threatening.

When weapons enthusiasts train, it must be, by it’s very nature, for lethal force encounters. Therefore, every threat presented, every encounter engaged, must be a potentially lethal one in order to “train” with the weapon. It’s in everything from the language used, the tactics taught, and how training is conducted. The only way to train with a firearm absolutely realistically would be to talk to the target ninety eight times out a hundred, without even drawing your weapon, draw and challenge on the ninety ninth, and fire a few rounds on the hundredth.

How many people would pay to attend that training? (I wouldn’t!) It lacks every tacticool marker out there, though that is exactly what the tacticool people are doing in the real world.

We must beware of training ourselves and others to a Threat State versus a Challenge State. While certainly we cannot skimp on skills training,  how we approach the soft skills and “inner applications” can have an effect on how we perceive the situations we are in and process our stress. The research seems to suggest that, at least in some instances, those given challenge instructions performed better than those given threat instruction.



























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