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Slow the game down: How to become an expert in LE

Once skills are automated and schemas are activated, a large portion of information processing is taken care of in the subconscious brain

Years on the job does not equal expertise.

“The game has slowed down for me.” Have you ever heard professional athletes say something like this during a TV interview? Only athletes at the top of their game will say such a thing; rookies almost never make that claim. What does the statement mean? It means that when an athlete first moves up to the professional level, he or she struggles to perform because the game moves so fast.

In baseball, the pitcher throws the ball harder and with more movement; in soccer, the players make passing and shooting decisions much faster; in football, players are stronger and quicker and holes for the running back open and close in the blink of an eye. The speed of the game causes the athlete to react to things as they happen, leaving them behind the action/reaction curve.

When the game slows down, it simply means that the athlete has adjusted to the speed of the game so that he or she can decide and take action rather than simply react. The athlete is now in front of the curve.

The game itself doesn’t actually slow down – the other athletes are running, throwing, kicking, and hitting just as hard – instead, things slow down inside the athlete’s mind. Something happens in the brain, a switch is flipped that makes the athlete feel like he or she has more time to make a decision.

Has the game slowed down for you as a law enforcement officer? If not, it needs to.

Becoming an expert

The game moves slower for experts. This gives them the mental time needed to decide and take action. Science tells us that there are two key elements to becoming an expert, two switches that need to be flipped in order to slow the game down:

  • Automatization: You must practice using the skills needed in your profession to the point that you can perform them automatically, without thought or effort.
  • Schematization: You must build broad, elaborate mental schemas that help you see and understand your world quickly and without effort.

As a law enforcement officer, you understand the concept of automating skills. When you first learn to draw your weapon or apply handcuffs, it takes concentration and effort to do so successfully. But once you have the routine down and have practiced it several hundred times, it becomes easy. Concentration and effort are no longer required; you can draw your weapon or handcuff a subject while focusing your attention on other things because the specific skills of drawing and handcuffing happen automatically.

Schema refers to a mental framework in the brain. The function of a schema is to structure information and knowledge so that you can quickly understand and respond to events.

For example, if you pick up a TV remote you’ve never used before, chances are you’ll still be able to turn on the TV. You already have a “TV remote” schema in your brain that helps you quickly and effortlessly know what to do even if you have never seen that particular device. Most schemas are built through experience; you were not born with a “TV remote” schema, you built that schema over time by using a variety of remotes.

But schemas can also be built through training. In fact, training is a more efficient way to build a schema initially because training can be structured to create broad-based mental structures that can be used in a wider variety of situations.

Research has shown that no matter the profession, from an athlete to the curator of a museum, automating skills and building elaborate, detailed schemas are two common ingredients found in all experts.

Applying expertise to policing

An expert in law enforcement is an officer who can perform policing skills automatically while quickly and accurately understanding what is going on in their environment. There are training platforms that offer the structure and consistency necessary to build these skills quickly, but you can also work towards this goal on your own. Here are two approaches:

1. Automate skills in your subconscious brain.

Think beyond the basic skills of drawing your weapon and handcuffing a subject; think about your approach to vehicles or buildings. Are there movements and behaviors of an approach that can be automated? What about threshold evaluations or breaching a door? The more skills you can automate, the less thinking you will need to do when using those skills.

2. Build broad, complex law enforcement schemas.

Schemas are built through experience and training, so some of this will happen simply from spending time doing the job. But you can take steps to help speed the process. Read books and gather information about the types of events you will experience. What are the common themes of domestic violence calls? What is most likely to happen in active shooter incidents? What are the basic threats during car stops? Reading and thinking about these things will help broaden your schemas. You should also engage heavily in scenario training. Action builds schemas fast, so sign up for trainings when given the opportunity. Then work on those trained skills on your own. Repetition of properly used skills is the key.

Both automatization and schematization happen in the subconscious brain. That is why the game will slow down for you. Once skills are automated and schemas are activated, a large portion of the information processing is taken care of in the subconscious brain, leaving the conscious brain with the resources needed to recognize, plan, decide and act. You’ll be ahead of the action/reaction curve.

Key takeaways

Years on the job does not equal expertise. An officer with five years on the job may be more of an expert in policing than an officer with 25 years of patrol experience. It’s not just about the amount of time put in; it’s about how you work to structure your brain during that time.

If the game has slowed down for you, that’s great. Continue to grow your expertise. Add to your library of automated skills and behaviors and expand your law enforcement schemas. Learning should never stop. If the game hasn’t slowed down for you, that’s okay. Now you know what is required to slow the game down. Science has identified the keys to becoming an expert. But knowing what it takes to be an expert doesn’t make you an expert – you still have to put in the hard work.

Slowing the game down is important. It moves you from behind to out in front of the curve where you have more time to recognize, plan, decide and act. Work to slow your game down.

Jonathan Page is a professor, cognitive neuroscientist and co-founder of the World is Round, LLC. His extensive research on physiological responses to stress and how stress influences behavior led him to pursue new and more effective ways to deal with stress and stressful situations. Jon co-authored a training curriculum that is currently being used in law enforcement academies in the U.S. He also authored the book NeuroCop and has published his research in several professional journals.