Challenge or Threat?

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“B-B-B-BACK OFF!!!!!!!”

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

This piece is interesting in that it addresses the use of imagery in appraisal of circumstances during competition as challenging or threatening, and the resultant effect on performance. The stress experienced is similar, but how that stress is perceived can be very different, and have either adaptive or maladaptive results.

Obviously, more research needs to be done, but the crossover to the tactical and personal defense training communities is clear.


While the research specifically addresses competition, it seems the same would hold true when crossing over between competition and actual confrontations. If competition is considered challenging, but a confrontation threatening, a negative effect will be the result regardless of preparation, and even though the stress experienced will be similar.


The impact of the language and imagery we use in training may be an issue: if everything is a “threat” and the worst-case-scenario is the most often prepped, I think we are back at what I’ve called threat priming. ( I’ve done this myself, and am considering changing some of the terms I use to reduce this kind of thing.)

It’s possible this is one part of what we have been 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 reach a level of training and experience that our internal responses to these things allow appraisal. This might take microseconds, or we might have the luxury of more situational awareness and more time to decide based on tactics and our capabilities.

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


These states are readily discernible when observing ourselves and others: I recall an individual wit a reputation for getting “amped up” in the field during “high risk” encounters. He found his way onto a SWAT team due to his superior shooting skills and work ethic, and continued pretty much the same kind of behavior, at least for a time.

After training more extensively, and gaining more experience in various operations, the drop in his stress level during encounters was notable.

But then he got off the team for other opportunities. And after a time, now that he was no longer training regularly to the same level, and was in fact “running the show” with much lesser trained and experienced subordinates, his old ways came back. In fact, in at least one instance (real deal, not training) that I observed, his stress response had become worse than he had been before. Like stare-in-disbelief worse…


At times we see much the same thing in the personal defense industry: where panhandlers and suspicious persons are by default violent criminals, and any approach must be handled accordingly. 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 potentially lethal in order to “train” with the weapon. You see it in the language used, the tactics offered, and how the training is conducted. As I’ve noted before, the only way to train on a range with a firearm absolutely realistically would be to talk to your target ninety eight times out a hundred, without ever 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.

So we have to be aware that we may be training ourselves and others to a Threat State versus a Challenge State. While we certainly 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. And the research seems to suggest that, at least in some instances, those given challenge instructions performed better than those given threat instruction.

Now we know. As G.I. Joe used to say….

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