Mental toughness and the power to adapt

"Unhappy the general who comes on the field of battle with a system." — Napoleon Bonaparte

Often in law enforcement we have to adapt to a person or a situation. When doing so, we experience many thoughts and questions that create friction which slows down our decision making.

What tactics should I use? Should I talk or move in and take physical control? Will my moving in escalate the situation or should I continue to spend time talking, building rapport in an effort to deescalate? What will my fellow officers think about my choice? Will my choices put me in jeopardy or will they reduce jeopardy and enhance the outcome I seek?  What’s the adversary thinking? What is his motive and intent? Is my adversary armed or unarmed? Will the adversary cooperate or fight? I have been trained to do this but I think I should do THAT, but will THAT be a violation of training protocols or policy and procedure? Hell, should I use my insight and innovate or follow my training and procedures?

These are but a few of the questions we may find ourselves seeking the answers too as we accord with our adversary and attempt to orient to the situation.

At times we find the ability to adapt difficult, and tend to feel we are making this adjustment only for the other person’s benefit — be it a friend or an adversary. In reality, the ability to adapt may just give you the opportunity to avoid escalating conflict and come to a peaceful resolution. 

Adaptation is defined as an effective change in response to an altered situation.

As an officer, you adapt not because it will benefit others but because you will benefit in the long run — hopefully by gaining voluntary compliance. It is like crossing a physical obstacle. I cannot remove it, so I have to find a way around it if I am to progress. Having an adaptable mindset is part of developing mental toughness and the explorer mentality which is all about. 

“Making headway in competitive situations in complex, unbounded, interactive, and unpredictable human environments, such as any extended business, military, law enforcement or political endeavor, requires some new critical thinking about some old subjects – tactics, strategy, and operational art -- the art of “campaigning.”
— Huba Wass de Czege, BRIG GEN U.S. Army RET

In short, adaptation is about positioning yourself so you cannot lose. It is about winning in the moral and mental dimensions of conflict and violence so you avoid the physical.  Part of adaptation is knowing that despite your efforts, at times everything that can go wrong will go wrong. If due to the complexity of the situation and demeanor of the individual(s) your orientation is that escalation is your only option then you simply adapt in an attempt to avoid the threats, take care of the problems and continue to take advantage of opportunities with reasonable force options. 

As COL John Boyd described, conflict is time-competitive observation, orientation, decision and action cycles (OODA Loop). The notion of the loop — the constant repetition of the OODA cycle — is the essential connection that is repeated again and again. Because our actions will have changed the situation, the cycle begins anew, repeating itself throughout the tactical situation.

It’s important to remember, the essence of conflict is a struggle between two hostile, independent, and irreconcilable wills, trying to impose itself on the other. Conflict is fundamentally an interactive social process. This interaction requires mental toughness. Mental toughness is not just about sticking to the original plan and driving towards the goal line. Mental toughness is much more than that. It’s the ability to stay flexible and adapting to change.

Getting inside the mind of your adversary and slowing down his decision making is what adaptation is all about. This skill of adaptation is nurtured through experience. Experience is a reliable guide when it is relevant to the contemporary and future operating environment and missions, and when it’s filtered, processed and stored in the brain using enduring principles and useful, reliable thought models. This means simply we adapt lessons learned from past incidents. Experience and applying lessons learned helps us in recognizing patterns of behavior and then anomalies in that behavior that make for more effective decisions under pressure. With experience and leveraging the time advantage you can try more things, recover from mistakes more quickly and shape and reshape the situation toward the outcome you seek.

You are there dealing with the problem. You are gathering the real time local information. You have the best orientation and you must adapt the best decisions and actions with the methods your experience tells you will work.

“Decisions without actions are pointless, actions without decisions are reckless.”
— COL John Boyd

Stay Oriented!

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