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Learning to act without thinking

“When I play a musical instrument my goal is to be able to play without thinking!” — Orville Johnson, Musician, Author, Producer

Sitting in the Seattle airport getting ready to fly home from a Street Survival Seminar, I overheard two professional musicians talking. They were discussing instruments, their intricacies, and why they had chosen them. Being a musical illiterate I was amazed at the depth of thought and attributes of the various instruments each performed and how they added this or that to a tune or song. They came to one instrument and a fellow who seemed to play everything a country band or orchestra could imagine said simply “I gave up on it when I found I couldn’t play it without thinking. When I play a musical instrument my goal is to be able to play without thinking!”

He described how hard he tried but something about the instrument didn’t click and he had given up on it but loved to listen to it.

How many times have I heard this said about something in law enforcement — often in a conversation about a skill or tool someone couldn’t master, or someone found simple but seemed complex to others?

The evening before my flight from Seattle, I was having dinner with Officer Britt Sweeney of the Seattle Police Department — earlier in the day she had received the Medal of Valor from the International Association of Women Police at our Street Survival Seminar. Halloween would be the anniversary of the terrible ambush that claimed her Field Training Officer — Tim Brenton — wounded her, and made her name synonymous with excellent performance under incredible stress. She was flabbergasted by the attention she kept getting for doing what she felt she was trained to do — to fight back no matter what, to never give up!

Britt was no normal rookie, she was a product of intense athletic development and is a professional fitness trainer, helping others get fit by pushing them beyond their normal limits, and in doing so, learning to push herself as well. Like so many winners I have met in the past she could only say over and over she had done what she had trained to do without thinking when the time came.

At the table with us was Ben Kelly, the Seattle police officer who had been set up by Maurice Clemmons, the murderer of the four Lakewood officers on November 29th, 2009. He reaffirmed the same thing — when Clemmons tried to ambush him, he went into action mode and confronted his would-be bushwhacker and won. Simply acting without thinking, the way he had trained!

Listening to a world-class musician speculate on why his brain could pick up such a vast array of instruments and at the same time be stymied by one, proved to him the unique variety of human abilities and skills and that we are all different. He is right and we need to think about how we prepare ourselves to perform like the Sweeney’s, the Kelly’s, and the Orville Johnson’s of the world when our time comes to fight, take cover, duck, or play music. Learning our skills to that “thoughtless” level is exactly the goal we must all have. Motor research tells us if we have to ‘think” about what we are doing we are slower and more likely to error and overreact or under react.

We all agree our goal in every situation is to ‘WIN,’ not merely survive and that puts the burden on us to do our repetitions, just as a musician practices the instrument and the song to be able to perform flawlessly and “thoughtlessly” we need to practice as well. The “instrument” can be a firearm, a baton, or Dobro, and practicing the “song” is a powerful metaphor for the ‘context’ that a skill or instrument will be used in. You have to do your rehearsals over and over and be ready to perform in a fraction of a second.

I remember a martial artist/police trainer saying “you have to learn it until you forget it,” and I am sure that has been said by a million masters over the millennia. In fact, I have heard it said a hundred ways and expressed in others by those who had done it and not been able to articulate exactly why they had won, but they had! To hear a professional musician say the same thing in a different way that I had heard just hours before from two of our fellow warriors reaffirmed my beliefs — both anecdotal and empirical — about the nature of human performance.

Halloween — tomorrow night — is the first anniversary of the terrible murder of Ofc. Brenton, and the best way to pay homage to his sacrifice and honor his wounded partner who fought back is to reaffirm our own sense of mission and take it upon ourselves to practice our skills and rehearse our “songs” of combat to be able to win every confrontation; to react at exactly the proper “pitch and tone” to win, not only on the street, but administratively, judicially, and at home as well.

Stay safe.

Dave Smith is an internationally known motivational speaker, writer and law enforcement trainer who has been an integral part of the Calibre Press family for over 20 years. As a career police officer, Dave held positions in patrol, training, narcotics, SWAT, and management. In 1980 he developed the popular “Buck Savage” survival series videos and was the lead instructor for the Calibre Press “Street Survival” seminar from 1983 to 1985. He was a contributor to Calibre’'s popular “Tactical Edge” handbook and helped pave the way for what “Street Survival” is today. Dave joined the Law Enforcement Training Network in 1989 and was the general manager of Calibre Press until January of 2002. Now president of Dave Smith & Associates, a law enforcement & management consulting company based in Illinois, Dave has developed hundreds of programs across the spectrum of police & security training needs.

Dave is now a Calibre-Press Street Survival instructor and his experiences as officer, trainer, manager, and police spouse lend a unique perspective to the “Street Survival” experience.