5 tips to improve your performance as a police trainer

Good instructors are always trying to improve their knowledge and ability so they can do a better job for their students


I spent a few days at in-service training last week and walked away with some instructor-specific tips that I wanted to share with this audience.

As with most training events, there was a mix of good and bad things. Some of the instructors did a super job, and others, less so. Some of the training was valuable and well-executed, while other elements weren’t as good. It was pretty typical of what many of you experience in your training.

In the interest of helping all of us improve our game as students and instructors, I offer the following observations, based on my recent training experience:

Keep these tips in mind so you perfect your game and do the best job for your students. (Photo/Warren Wilson/Norman PD, Oklahoma)
Keep these tips in mind so you perfect your game and do the best job for your students. (Photo/Warren Wilson/Norman PD, Oklahoma)

1. Safety first!

I was impressed with the attention to maintaining a safe training environment. The instructors created and enforced a sterile area to ensure no live weapons entered the academic training area. Inert training weapons were used for all training that occurred outside of the live-fire range (weapon retention, defensive tactics, scenario and force-on-force training, etc.), and they were redundantly checked by students and staff to ensure they were unloaded and safe before and after they were used.

Safety protocols were strictly enforced on the live-fire range. Personal protective equipment (eyes, ears, ball caps) was provided and its use was mandatory. There was a ratio of one instructor for every two or three students on the line during live fire, to ensure students complied with safety standards. When extreme weather began to compromise safety on the outdoor range, the staff terminated the instruction early, to protect the students and staff – a difficult, but excellent call.

I’m sure many of you have been to training events where the staff was unenthusiastic about reviewing safety protocols, or – Heaven forbid – a little lazy about enforcing them. Have you ever been to a course where the instructor was required to review the “Four Rules of Gun Safety” and just gave them lip service, instead of really emphasizing their importance? Have you ever been to training where a duty weapon was inappropriately used as a training aid in an academic environment? Have you ever seen a student train while missing an important piece of safety gear? I think many of us have experienced one or all of these things, but it’s important to recognize that this is unacceptable in our world. We have to hold police trainers and their students to a higher level because a lot of their training involves the use of weapons, tactics, techniques and procedures that can cause injury or death – particularly if we’re careless or lazy about safety. A strong commitment to safety is the mark of a professional trainer and training program, and we should accept no less from our people and programs.

2. One size doesn’t fit all.

During firearms training, I witnessed an instructor trying to force a student to use a technique that wasn’t working for them and probably never would. The student was doing just fine with another technique that got the job done efficiently and safely, but it wasn’t the “one true way” approved by the schoolhouse, so the instructor felt compelled to “correct” it.

We see this a lot in institutional training programs, like those found in military and police circles. The zeal for standardization can be so strong – particularly as agencies grow bigger – that anything which deviates from the accepted practice, method, or dogma is seen as unacceptable. It doesn’t matter if the technique, tactic or procedure actually works better for that individual or situation – if it deviates from the standard, it must be crushed!

Let’s remind ourselves what’s important here. The important thing is to get the job done safely and efficiently. There can be many ways to do that, and because we’re all individuals, it’s unlikely that any singular method will be the best one for everybody.

With respect to firearms, people with smaller hands have to hold and operate their firearms differently than those with larger hands. Police training policies and standards need to make allowances for that. The same goes for any number of physical and mental skills police officers are required to perform.

If it’s safe, if it’s efficient, and if it works, then don’t screw with it, just because it’s different.

3. Time is valuable.

I was frustrated that a lot of valuable training time was wasted during the program. Some administrative functions took way too long. Some academic briefings were far too leisurely. When our live-fire training was cut short for safety reasons, there was no backup plan to use the remaining time wisely. Instead of working on the missing skills in a dry-fire format, or moving up the next block of instruction to start earlier, the time was simply wasted as students and staff milled around in the classroom.

At the same time, important training topics like Tactical Emergency Casualty Care (TECC) were ignored because “there was no time in the schedule” to get to them. The time was there, it just wasn’t used properly.

No training resource is more valuable than time. An instructor never gets enough of it with their students, and a student never gets enough of it with their instructor. If your program is wasting time through inefficient scheduling or execution, you’re depriving your students of the opportunity to get more instruction, more reps, more knowledge and more experience. Jealously guard this precious resource, and use it wisely.

4. Become the expert your students deserve.

I witnessed a few instances where students had questions for their instructors, and the instructors did a poor job of answering them. I think the instructors were doing their best, but they lacked the depth of understanding and knowledge required to help their students properly.

Here’s the deal. None of us know all the answers, and we’ve all got areas where we’re strong and weak. Nobody expects you to know everything, just because you’re an instructor.

However, if you’re going to teach, then you need to have a certain mastery of your subject. If you’re a firearms instructor, nobody expects you to deliver a dissertation on search and seizure law or first aid, but you’d better know how to effectively teach the basics of trigger control and sight management. We won’t expect you to explain the science behind measuring skid marks, but if one of your troops asks why the agency is switching from .40 S&W to 9mm, you’d better be able to give them a reasonable answer, instead of parroting nonsense that sounds like it came from a pair of 1990s-era, gun shop commandos.

Good instructors are students of their craft. They are always trying to learn more and improve their knowledge and ability, so that they will do a better job for their students. They may not know it all, but they are always working on getting there.

I should also point out that it’s OK to say you don’t know the answer to a question. That’s better than making something up as a face-saving measure because many of your students will take your bluff as the gospel. The best answer to a question you don’t know the answer to is to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.” Make good on that promise, and you’ll both learn something.

5. Don’t overdo it.

Every instructor has a bag of tricks they like to use when they’re teaching a student. Sometimes, there’s nothing like a special “gotcha” to grab a student’s attention and teach them an important lesson.

Firearms trainers know the drill. If you sneak a dummy round into a magazine here and there, you can sit back and watch the fun when a gun goes “click” instead of “bang.” Alternatively, you can load a magazine with only half the rounds, and snicker as the student gets caught off guard when their gun runs dry unexpectedly in a course of fire.

That’s all good fun, and there’s a lot of training value that comes with these “sneaky instructor tricks,” but you also have to use some discretion here. If every magazine has a dummy round in it, then you lose the surprise that gives the trick its training value. If every string of fire has a “challenge” command thrown in there instead of the anticipated “fire” command, the trick gets stale and loses its effect.

It’s especially important to be sparing about using these tricks as part of scenario or force-on-force exercises. During my recent training, I saw some students getting frustrated because every magazine in their gun and on their belt was downloaded to a handful of rounds during these simulations. There’s not a lot of training value in having an officer respond to a situation that’s designed to turn into a gunfight, only to have him find that their 17+1-shot pistol runs dry every 2 or 3 rounds. When the student has to go through every magazine on their belt to send 7 rounds downrange, it gets pretty silly, really quick.

Worse yet, if you’re overdoing it, and causing the student’s gun to fail routinely in training, you might be creating a subconscious lack of confidence in the equipment that will create real problems in the real world.

Sneaky instructor tricks have their place but don’t overdo them. Know when, how and why to use them to get the desired results. Remember, these are specialized instruments, not routine-use tools.

Being a good instructor takes a lot of work, and certainly isn’t easy. Keeping these tips in mind will help you to perfect your game and do a better job for your students.

Keep up the great work and be safe out there!

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