Readers here are no doubt familiar with Col Jeff Cooper’s Color Codes of Awareness. It’s a handy way to break down elements of Awareness and Mindset for combat, self defense, and tactical situations. I learned of these even before I went to the police academy, though without the “Black;” and was later treated to them repeatedly over the early years of my career in various classes.
Code Black, or as we more often say “Condition Black,” is much more colloquially used in LE than the others. I’d guess that most police officers would have trouble describing the specific differences between yellow, orange, and red, but everyone knows Condition Black – because they all know the people who have a tendency to go there during high stress incidents, and they don’t ever want to be one of those people.
In recently discussing the critical importance of mindset in tactical performance, yet how often it is misunderstood, a common theme was the difficulty presented when trying to teach others.
To simplify it a bit, I distilled mindset to one phrase: Don’t Lose Your Sh*t!
Perhaps pushing the metaphor a little too far, there are many layers to this phrase. It is loaded with meaning. Perhaps the color coded condition for it could be called Code Brown…
You get the picture.
Losing It In the Moment
Some people just Lose It under stress. They are overcome, or overwhelmed, by events – OBE. A short circuit occurs in the brain under the influence of stress hormones, and they just cannot duplicate what they can in training. These people are fairly rare, and the only way you can know you aren’t one of them is to experience a lot of stressful events and see how you do. Unfortunately today a great deal of training is teaching people that they ARE this kind of person.
Actually, most of us have a choice as to whether we Lose It or not. And we can improve our freedom of choice by training regularly, and seriously. First and foremost in tactical and technical skills, and then all sorts of mental practices and strategies for managing stress when, well, scared. Scared of what’s going on around us, or scared of what’s going on within us.
I’ve written about some of the methods I use before, and I think those who regularly read IHW have the gist of what my personal goals are under threat conditions. These work for me. Other things may work for other people. But there is a definable state for how we want to “be.”
To get to that, consider the following:
“The officers showed up. They all had their guns out, they went inside. They seemed…
Frightened. Excited. Stressed. Frantic. “In a Daze.” “Out of Breath.” Screaming.”
Focussed.”In Control.” “Like they Knew What they were Doing.” Clear.”
Which would you rather be? How would you want your fellows to describe you to someone who wasn’t there?
“Wow man, Chris seemed really excited when he was pointing his gun at that guy. Looked like a deer in the headlights. He was SCREAMING at him to show his hands!!”
Which do you think inspires confidence in fellow officers, and in the public?
Which do you think inspires confidence in yourself?
Some of the first set of words actually describe the nature of EVENTS, don’t they?
But if they are descriptive of us in the midst of the situation, then we have been overcome by events. Our emotional state and mental state is carried away by the situation rather than flowing with it. You’ve heard the phrase:
“Don’t get carried away.”
This is a popular meme in law enforcement today. Except it’s far better to be the CALM in the storm.
This goes deeper than many imagine. Factors in play are often not even addressed. Far beyond articulation of a use of force, things like fear of civil and personal liability. Even potentially criminal liability if you really Lose It. Compounding all the above can be fear of performing badly: actions taken or not taken due to Losing It. Sure you may be lucky, and “win the fight,” or “survive,” but losing credibility and trust, even a favorite position, a job, a livelihood, or your freedom are still Losing It. Being personally sued and losing savings, a house, a retirement,; same.
Losing Your Sh*t can lead to Losing All Your Stuff.
Carrying all of these things with you during an incident, and worrying about them, leads to a lack of mindset.
Losing It After the Fact
After the smoke clears, mindset must be maintained! It’s not over.
All the concerns mentioned above attach to actions in the aftermath. Sometimes something that was screwed up, but salvageable, is made worse by Losing It after the fact. You might second guess yourself. You might re-live the moment, or something unexpected sticks in your brain afterward. You might even realize you screwed up, and the instant that mistake dawned on you is replayed over and over in your mind… Or you say or do things that may seem suspicious to try to cover for your mistake and save your reputation – and now you are lying. I’ve seen people already going down this spiral mere moments after taking action during a critical incident.
I know what it feels like to be in that moment – you must re-boot and re-orient to the task at hand and deal with repercussions later.
We will always be second guessed. If there is one thing I have become accustomed to in law enforcement circles is that EVERYBODY is an expert on someone else’s shooting. People that weren’t even there, most of them never having been directly involved in a critical incident themselves. Never mind the Youtubes and social media and all the “expert” commentators there….
Not to mention professional and personal embarrassment. I’ve seen people whose entire careers have been defined by a single incident of lack of mindset, or poor performance, or in how they acted afterward. Who wants to spend a career like that?
Most of this is related to how we deal with the stress. There are two reactions I have seen in people being placed in fear of death: both are very deep, primal responses I think; they can co-exist at the same time, and have positive and negative traits, whether in balance or wildly out of balance depending on our mindset. One is a heightened sense of vulnerability. This leads to a greater appreciation of danger, in my experience, which can be turned into fuel for increased focus on training, taking readiness more seriously.
Or, it takes the form of an unreasonable fear, exaggerated threat, and distraction from the job at hand. Seeing a tactical operator go from a mission-focussed, task-oriented, calm and wired warrior to a threat-distracted, hyper vigilant worrier is not a pleasant thing, but it happens when mindset becomes unbalanced.
The other is a heightened sense of mortality, which can also have positive and negative manifestations. Positively, it involves an embracing of life, a re-assessment of goals and attitudes and results in an overall invigorating experience.
But the negative turn: stultified or problem relationships end because coming through a brush with death changes a person. Or, acting out in unwholesome ways – risk taking in personal and professional lives, serial affairs, excessive substance use, reckless online behavior, falling in with the wrong people (for law enforcement this can be with other problem officers, affairs with co-workers, or hanging with criminals, or as the cliche goes, strippers. Its cliche for a reason.)
It happens because of a need to feel alive after having had a brush with death: or to feel numb, or both at the same time.
Mindset IS resilience. It is a habit – it’s why I believe mindset is absolutely something we do.
We’ve already addressed how important relevant, serious, ongoing training is to achieving and practicing mindset. Because habits are formed, and they are formed by repetition. Mindset is no different. It can’t be done in a once yearly seminar, or in reading blogs, or watching videos of someone else doing it. It’s like anything else: it has to be personally practiced and tested to own it.
The physical aspect cannot be neglected. Poor physical condition is direct evidence of absence of mindset. Age, injury, everything else accounted for, if your body is out of shape, your mindset is out of shape. The effects of a massive adrenal dump are physical, even if the cause is mental. No, working out really hard, or Simunitions battles are nothing like being in a real life or death fight, but I guarantee that the person who works out really hard and does serious force on force training is better prepared for the worst things that can happen when it’s life and death: stress, crazy cardiovascular tasking, and potentially being seriously injured and having to stay in the fight, or rescue ones self.
Last, being a stable person goes a long way toward resilience as well. We all have our moments of weakness, I can assure you that I have. But we cannot make “moments of weakness” our default posture, or our excuse. Another phrase I have often used:
“We can afford to f*ck up, but we can’t be a f*ck up.”
If you screw up your life enough times that you’ve already overspent your account, then you cannot afford to be a screw-up anymore.
It speaks to the foundations of mindset – the Art of Not Losing Your Sh*t. If you already have a risk-taking or histrionic personality, have a chaotic personal life, problem relationships with your wife and/or kids, regularly allow yourself to be emotionally hijacked, cut corners on the job etc. etc. you are a prime candidate for a tactical train wreck barreling down the tracks straight at you.
If I just described you, the surest way to build your mindset, and your resilience, is to deal with this crap by rebuilding your foundation. Seek professional help if needed. Too many cops and soldiers are committing suicide these days. The ultimate example of Losing It. That is not intended to be insensitive – two members of my nuclear family were suicides, along with other cousins. But it is Losing It to not see any other way out.
I am lucky to work with a man who is a Marine combat veteran and experienced SWAT cop. A no-nonsense tactical professional. He has the most refreshing, simplest take on this kind of thing. He points out:
“If I jack my knee up, I can tell its messed up and needs strengthening, I go to physical therapy. There is no stigma. There is no “ha, look, his knee is weak!” taunting. Why would it be any different if I need some psychological therapy? I am only strengthening my mindset. I’ve seen some stuff that’s pretty f*cked up. When I know I need to do some re-hab on my brain, I do it.”
And there you have it.