Train the brain: Using tactical decision games in training

“Only those who have challenged themselves with countless tactical situations in peacetime, only those who have refined their ability to make decisions and communicate clearly with subordinates, are prepared to command in war.” — Gen. Paul K. Van Riper

On-the-job training and experience is often stated as “the way” to learn the job of policing. What does this mean to us cops? Does it mean with time on the job we’ll get better at what we do, automatically, or magically from working shift after shift and handling call after call? Every time we race to the scene and charge towards the sounds of danger and come out safe with suspect in custody, mean that we have somehow gotten better just by being there and participating in the dangerous encounter? Or is there something more to this concept of “on-the-job training” we should be doing to leverage every experience no matter how small or big to improve our performance?

When I think of on-the-job training I do not envision an environment where you show up for work and fly by the seat of your pants and hope things work out as you think they should. No, what I envision by on-the-job training is that you learn from every experience and focus on leveraging the lessons learned to make you better at the job. Law enforcement officers are members of a profession that does not routinely practice its tactical skills. Only constant violent conflict and violent crime, a condition to objectionable, to even contemplate, would allow such practice. Thus the honing and developing of law enforcement peacekeeping skills must be achieved in other ways. An understanding of tactical theory is an important foundation for mastering tactics, but theory alone will only take you so far. The use of the decisions making exercises and decision making critiques are a couple of ways for officers to gain experience and learn to translate tactical theory to the street, that otherwise could not be gained. 

Research has shown that the most important principle of skill performance is that skill depends on knowledge base. In general, the more practice one has had in some domain, the better the performance, and from all indications, this increase in expertise is due to improvement in the knowledge base.  This same principle holds true for tactics as well and this is where decision making exercises otherwise known as tactical decision games come into play. 

Mastering Tactical Decision Making
Helmuth von Moltke is credited with saying, “The problem is to grasp, in innumerable special cases, the actual situation which is covered by the mists of uncertainty, to appraise the facts correctly and to guess the unknown elements, to reach a decision quickly and then to carry it out forcibly and relentlessly.” 

In his book “Mastering Tactics” MAJ John Schmitt; states “tactical decision games (TDGs) are a simple, fun, and effective way to improve your decision making ability and tactical acumen, to improve your mastery of the art of war.” In law enforcement tactical decision games improve the art of operations or what I like to call police operational art or our ability to take what you know, be able to adapt and then apply it to a given set of circumstances to affect your strategy on the street, bringing an end to a violent occurrence using appropriate tactics. MAJ Schmitt goes on to say, “like most skills, you can improve tactical decision-making ability through practice.” The idea behind TDGs is to put you in the role of a cop facing a tactical problem, give you a limited amount of time and information, and require you to develop a plan to solve the problem.  Maj Schmitt explains, by repeatedly working through problems like these you will learn not only to make better decisions, but you will also learn to make decisions better, that is, more quickly and efficiently. You will learn to look at a situation and instantly take in its essential feature and cut right to the heart of the problem. 

I have been using tactical decision games (solitary, group, and free play) in my training for a decade now, and they work very well at building confidence in officers.

Solitary play is exactly like when/then thinking, only you write your tactical response (how) and rational (why) down in response to a scenario you have been given. 

In group play TDGs, you work the tactical problem as a shift or unit using pen, paper, and a map. You, again explain your response (how) and rational (why). The benefit of group play is as you work the problem collectively you see different perspectives from different players and alternatives and options to your own way of thinking about the problem become clear. In short you realize there is more than one workable tactical option to a situation. You also learn to communicate plans and options better with one another when using group play, which is quite a powerful and much needed effect. Group play also generates discussions on tactical concepts and creates a heightened interest in tactics overall.

Free Play TDGs are role-playing exercises with simmunitions — or if you have no SIMMs use red and/or blue guns. With free play you combine both the cognitive and physical skills needed to solve the problem in an as close to real life encounter. When the free play scenario is completed both blue team (officers) and red team (adversaries) critique the response and action taken.  The power of free play is that you have to walk, talk, think and do while you accord with an adversary(s.) This conditions the mental and physical aspects of real life tactical decision making and action.

Solitary, group and free play are all effective ways to conduct TDGs with both solitary and group play being an easy cost effective way to get your repetitions in. You can conduct solitary and group play TDGs in a short time span with only pen and paper during roll call or some other time on shift when there is down time. Free play force on force takes a little more coordination but with effort and cooperation from all, it also can be done while working a shift. The question comes down to how much does officer safety and tactical effectiveness mean to you? Getting to the level you want takes walking your talk!

The biggest lesson learned from using TDGs is that they teach officers HOW TO THINK as opposed to telling them what to think. TDGs in all their forms create and nurture tactical problem solvers. Officers also learn there is no one single solution to a tactical problem and hence they learn to blend their thoughts and ideas with departmental policies and procedures allowing for better decision making and adaptable, safe and effective responses to the host of problems police officers face. The feedback I’ve received from all who participate in the decision making exercises feel much more confident in their abilities as a result of using TDGs.  They begin to understand the WHY behind the tactics they use verses just blindly following a checklist of techniques.

Next month I will examine another critical component to developing decision makers — the decision making critique (DMC) / after action review (AAR).  We’ll look at how can use the DMC/AAR process after a TDG, in addition to regularly using them after an actual event officers have handled on the street.

Stay Oriented!

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