How to incorporate combat breathing in police pursuits

As Bruce Lee said, we need to “learn it until you forget it,” so that under the conditions we need it the most, you will perform it to your advantage without even thinking about it

During my early years on the job, I had an extremely hard time trying to keep my adrenaline in check during pursuits. I knew I had to get control of my adrenaline overloads before I ended up in a tragedy. I had been a life-long martial artist and understood the concept of autogenic-breathing for stress control. While the concept is thousands of years old, it has been more recently, in police/military training circles, given the moniker of combat breathing. Performed in four-count cycles, it follows this pattern:

1. Breathe in through your nose for a four-count
2. Hold your breath for a four-count
3. Exhale through your mouth for a four-count
4. Hold your breath for a four-count; then restart the four-count cycle

Breathe deeply and methodically, completely filling and emptying your lungs during each cycle. This simple technique lowers blood pressure and arousal/stress levels, and greatly minimizes the chances of experiencing an adrenaline overload. 

Creating a Conditioned Response
You now know what technique we must learn and practice. However, how do you learn it so you remember to do it when you need it the most? To expect you to consciously remember to use the breathing technique under the stresses of a vehicle pursuit is neither realistic nor reliable. 

However, you can make it a conditioned response to a specific stimulus. We want to make combat breathing a subconscious part of your tactical/survival arsenal. 

In other words, as Bruce Lee said, “learn it until you forget it.” We do this so that under the conditions you need it the most, you will perform it to your advantage without even thinking about it. This is the ultimate level of psychomotor training: Unconscious Competence, the ability to perform without conscious thought. 

While this sounds very complex, the training methodology is not. Think back to your high-school science class and Pavlov’s dog. Pavlov, a Russian scientist, did experiments with what he called Conditioned Response. He would ring a bell right before feeding a dog. The dog learned to associate the bell with food, and would salivate at its ringing, even when no food was present. The scientist had programmed an involuntary, subconscious, physical response to a specific stimulus into the brain of a dog. 

The modern day version of a conditioned response — used widely in police and other training circles — is called stimulus-response training. Call it what you want, but it all boils down to the Pavlovian concept. To apply this to police officers engaged in pursuit — code-3 — driving and stress control, you must pre-introduce the stimulus, and then repeatedly practice the desired response.

While some will emphatically disagree, I believed that I was at least as smart as Pavlov’s dog. If the dog could learn to salivate subconsciously to the sound of the bell, why couldn’t I learn to subconsciously perform combat breathing when I heard the sound of the siren? Thus, it would turn a stimulus (a siren) that normally raised my adrenaline, into one that would actually lower it. 

The training method is quite simple. Play a tape recording of a siren for five or ten minutes a day. While the siren plays, practice the combat-breathing exercise detailed earlier. To enhance this, watch videos of pursuits from in-car recordings as the siren wails. By involving two senses — hearing and sight — with two stimuli, the sound of the siren and the sight of a fleeing vehicle, will only make the technique more effective. Do this for a month or two at least.

Better yet, basic police academies should do this at the end of every day. Once the cadets hit the street, they will start combat breathing subconsciously to the sound of a siren. This will greatly help them control their adrenaline surges before they occur. 

Does it work? It sure did for me. While I still got a bit of an adrenaline rush, my radio communications became much clearer and my tunnel vision greatly diminished. My driving went from reactive to proactive, as I regained most of my short-term memory and creative reasoning.

What Others Are Saying 
The first time I introduced this training methodology was in an article in the June 2001 issue of POLICE Magazine in an article entitled Lowering Police Stress. One of the trainers who adopted it from the original magazine article was Police1 Columnist (then Captain, now Major) Travis Yates of the Tulsa (Okla.) Police Department. 

At the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association’s Annual Conferences, Major Yates informed me that he had conducted testing of the training on police cadets using heart monitors, and it had significantly lowered their heart rates, and improved their performance under stressful driving conditions.

Colonel Grossman, a former army Ranger and Paratrooper who taught psychology at West Point,  said: “I have been teaching the breathing exercise and its positive impact on performance during high-speed pursuits for years now, and I have been training it to military special ops pilots for the same reason. All of these organizations have given me tremendous positive feedback. The idea of making it a conditioned reflex is brilliant. This is a true revolution in training, which addresses a major performance problem and brings us up to a new level of professionalism.” 

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