'Self-talk' to keep cool in high-stress incidents

If elite military forces and SWAT use positive self-talk, why shouldn't a female officer use it too?

Self-talk is the inner dialog we carry on with ourselves. Everybody does it. Neuroscientists have established that we self-talk much of our waking hours. Most of our self-talk is harmless, innocuous stuff. 

•    “Stop at the grocery store after work.”
•    “Remember Shane's soccer game.”

But our inner voice can also be a powerful force for peak performance or failure — and we can program which it will be. I experienced this firsthand in a training called “Mental Dynamics of Peak Performance Shooting” from Insight Firearms Training and Development.

A Powerful Demonstration
Before we went to the range, Instructor Matt Siebert had one of the bigger guys extend his dominant arm straight out in front of him, clench his fist, and say in a determined voice, “My arm is strong! I can hold my arm!”

Then Matt exerted significant downward pressure on the guy's arm, and it held. After having him shake his arm out, Matt had the guy take the same stance but say in a subdued voice, “My arm is weak. I can't hold my arm.” 

Matt effortlessly pushed the arm down. He had the class pair off and do the exercise. I was skeptical. But it worked like he had demonstrated — even when I hadn’t believed it would.

Wow. I already subscribed to the power of belief. But this demonstrated how we can shape our beliefs. Tell yourself empowering things, your performance will follow, and you'll become a believer. That's really powerful stuff.

You can also tell yourself limiting things and ensure failure. On the range — and in the midst of shooting a tight pattern — I had a shot go wide. I shook my head and my self-talk took off, “S- - t! Just when I'm doing good, I mess up.” 

I didn't even realize what I was saying to myself until Matt stopped me. He explained every time I did that, I reinforced the errant shot. He brought my target back, had me focus on the tight pattern, and said, “Look at those and remember what it felt like to shoot them.”

I did.

“Now, clench your fist, pump it once, and say, ‘Yes I Can!’ With your other hand, touch your thumb to your first fingertip.”

I did this. Matt had me repeat it. Then he returned me to the line and had me touch my same thumb to my fingertip just before I picked up my firearm to shoot. When I did, I felt and heard, “Yes, I can!” Bull's-eye.

A Positive Neural Pathway
Repeated self-talk — positive or negative — creates neural pathways in our brain. If you want to change a limiting belief into an empowering one, you have to reprogram the negative neural track. 

That's what Matt did. This neuro-linguistic programming technique is called “anchoring.” It's a powerful way to program skills to the subconscious.

Here’s how you can do it. Whether you’re:

•    On the range
•    Preparing for an oral board
•    Working patrol
•    Conducting traffic stops
•    Preparing for court
•    Or any other of the myriad tasks your complex, demanding job requires

Come up with a concise, positive statement of the result you want as if you've already realized it:

•    “I'm a superb marksman.”
•    “I'm smart, experienced, and articulate.”
•    “I lead a life of principle, purpose, and passion every day.”
•    “I stay aware and I'm prepared.”
•    “I'm credible because I'm trustworthy and honest.”
•    “My spirit is strong and agile.”

Expand and harness your self-talk’s power with just a couple of minutes of daily practice. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, inhale to a count of four, hold to a count of four, exhale to a count of four, hold to a count of four. Repeat three times. 

This is called Autogenic Breathing. It enables faster learning and better comprehension. It is taught to elite military forces, SWAT teams, and police departments to control arousal in high-stress incidents.  

Next, say your positive statement aloud at least five times. Even if you whisper, this engages more of the brain by involving your auditory sense. Anchoring this with a physical gesture you can do on the job when you want to tap into this empowered state — like touching your thumb to your fingertip — involves your kinesthetic sense

A Call to Police Trainers and Leaders
Share the power of self-talk with your recruits, officers and staff. Teach them to monitor their own inner voice for “stinking thinking” and replace it with smart self-talk. 

Make this a component of any incident or scenario debriefing. 

Incorporate it into performance evaluations, goal setting, mentoring and coaching.

Then stand back and watch the bull’s-eyes. 

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