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How to give your trainees feedback that matters

Keep learning and studying your specialties so you can give immediate, concise, goal-oriented training


The best police trainers I’ve observed were not satisfied with poor performance from anyone.

Photo/Tyson Kilbey

When watching a good police trainer, the one thing that becomes obvious right away is their ability to tell the trainee how to do better in whatever skill is being learned or improved. I always get a kick out of observing a truly gifted trainer turn good shooters into excellent shooters with only one or two comments or a simple adjustment of a grip during a shoot – then letting the shooter practice the new and improved skill.

What do these great trainers instinctively do that we can all do? How can they make our coaching skills even better? They give quick, concise, goal-oriented feedback focusing on the skill and not the shooter!

This sounds easy, but with this comes the requirement that you know how to take, use and understand feedback yourself. Lots of trainers are good at being critical and self-assured but are perfectly willing to accept the failure of a student as being a flaw in the student’s root motor skills or abilities, not in their own skill as a trainer.

How “Coachable” Are You?

The best police trainers I’ve observed were not satisfied with poor performance from anyone – including themselves – and looked at a poorly performing student as a challenge to show themselves they could overcome the obstacle of a student bent on disaster. That leads to the ability to get the good performer to demonstrate excellence, and the poor performer to reach heights average trainers would assume unattainable.

It is the ability to give effective feedback that is the key skill of any teacher, trainer, or coach. A few principles can help us share the joy of taking a class to a record performance or turning a remedial shooter into a competent warrior.

Anyone who takes on the role of law enforcement trainer and doesn’t constantly seek to learn is doing a disservice to our profession and failing on a personal level. So the first challenge for becoming a great trainer is learning to take feedback yourself.

Next, think about what you’re giving feedback about – the skill or the person? Good trainers focus only on the performance, the skill, the goal. If you project that you expect someone to fail or do poorly, a large percentage of the time they will. How many times have you seen a trainer go on and on about how small some shooter’s hand is instead of focusing on ways to compensate for that and shoot well?

The student is not the issue during training, the performance is. The trainer may perceive an emotional or personal issue with the student, but that is something that should be addressed later, off the range, the mat, or the track.

Focused, Positive Feedback

Performance-based feedback should also be given as close to the repetition as possible. The quicker the feedback, the greater the learning effect for the trainee. Then let the student try the improved method.

Some students like short debates or need to comment on the feedback. Good trainers cut them off with positive assertions like, “Just give it a try for a while!”

Usually, the student will find their performance improved or even see a quantum jump in the skill being practiced. I have seen guys on the range turn to a good firearms trainer after a simple adjustment to their grip and exclaim, usually in a typically vulgar cop way, they didn’t believe such a subtle change could improve their shooting so much.

This also shows how important it is to give feedback in bite-size chunks. Often, new instructors will deliver an entire block of instruction only to see no improvement in the student at all.

Why? Because we can only absorb about two or three points maximum during a practice bout. A broad-to-narrow approach to feedback works best; once you see the big things get better, improve the little ones.

Finally, keep your feedback positive. There are plenty of places in training to apply intense stress, and once skill levels are developed the mindset is critically important, but some instructors start the negative stress while the trainees are still developing their skill set.

Cycle of Competence

Warriors need to have a complete schema for a skill – that is, an ability to do an action as a habit once the stimulus is presented, like shooting instantly and accurately when a deadly threat appears, along with the mindset to win no matter what.

Robert Nideffer is a sports psychologist who believes good coaches and trainers give their students “faith” in their skills and abilities. He calls it a “cycle of competence” and says it comes from success in practice that leads to a high level of belief in ability. No one needs that more than law enforcement.

So here it is: Keep learning and studying your specialties so you can give immediate, concise, positive, goal-oriented feedback to your trainees. Know that you may be the reason an officer wins a life-and-death struggle, thanks to some simple improvement that tips the scales in the ultimate confrontation.

This article, originally published 09/19/2013, has been updated.

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.