Why firearms instructors should avoid no-win scenarios

You don’t have to serve milk and cookies, sing “Kumbaya” and lead group cheers, but your training environment needs to be positive

Many years ago, I was a young Air Force pilot making my way through Initial Qualification training for the KC-10 aircraft. The program was split up into phases, and in order to advance out of the first phase, I had to pass a demanding simulator checkride that tested my ability to fly the mission and simultaneously handle emergency situations.

My simulator flight had been going very well, but toward the end of the four-hour mission, things really started getting hairy and I was working hard. I had lost one engine and some other major systems, the weather was getting worse at the airport where I was trying to land, and the instructor/evaluator running the simulation failed a second engine just a few hundred feet above the runway. I was now down to just a third of the normally available thrust, and with my landing gear and flaps still hanging down, the aircraft was too “dirty” to keep flying. 

After a few moments of intense but fruitless effort, I finally crashed and saw the dreaded “Red X of Death” flash up on the screen.

Modern flight simulators are so good that it doesn’t take long before you’re fully immersed in the experience and it all begins to feel very real. As such, it was upsetting to realize that my crew and I were now “dead.”  

The thought bothered me, but I had more immediate concerns. I hadn’t been in the flying game very long at this point, but I knew that crashing an airplane was never a good thing, and crashing one on a checkride seemed like a sure way to flunk. 

Told to “wrap it up,” we went back to the debriefing room with our heads down and our tails tucked, and waited for the tongue lashing that was sure to follow.

The evaluator entered the room chuckling and ribbing us about crashing the jet. As the debriefing unfolded, it became clear that he had been impressed enough with our performance in the early part of the mission to start “loading us up” during some extra time he had at the end, just to see how it would play out. 

When we handled the additional pressure well, he kept adding more and more until he finally ran out of time and gave us the unrecoverable engine failure to terminate the checkride and “give us a lesson” about how quickly things can go bad in the air.

What Did That Accomplish?
The instructor’s intentions were innocent — if a bit playful — but we didn’t walk away from that experience with the lesson that he had intended. We were glad to have passed our checkride of course, but crashing that jet bothered me and I spent a lot of time in the coming days second-guessing myself about it. 

I should have been proud of my strong performance during the evaluation, but I spent more time thinking about the fatal finish. It wasn’t until much later in my career — after I had gained some experience and insight — that I began to understand there was nothing I could have done. I finally “got it” that this was not a student failure — it was an instructor failure.

It’s one of the fundamental responsibilities of an instructor, and particularly a law enforcement firearms or defensive tactics instructor, to ensure that you create a positive learning environment for your student. By “positive,” I don’t mean that that you have to serve milk and cookies, sing “Kumbaya” and lead group cheers. A positive learning environment can be intense, demanding, stressful, and challenging. It often needs to be. 

You have to carefully craft the learning environment so that the desired objectives are achieved and undesirable outcomes are minimized. You have to present the information and control the training activities in a way that your students are able to understand, learn, and successfully demonstrate the skills that you want them to, while ensuring that they are not exposed to other harmful or detracting situations, lessons, and habits. They should walk away feeling more confident in their skills and abilities after training, not with failure on their mind.

Putting your student into a no-win situation is not the way to achieve that. Some instructors like the shock value of these kinds of scenarios and use them as a way to get their students’ attention but what value is there in teaching your student that they are going to fail and there is no way to avoid it? 

Any instructor can build a scenario where the student — no matter how good he or she is — is guaranteed to be “killed,” but you could very easily damage the student’s confidence and motivation by doing so. Wouldn’t it be better to teach your student to never give up, no matter what? That they can fight and win, even if they have already been injured? That no situation is hopeless if they don’t surrender? Those are much more desirable learning objectives, don’t you think?

You don’t have to make the training easy, and not everyone has to pass the first time. A student that makes a critical mistake in a scenario may indeed be “killed,” but he should be given the chance to retrain and demonstrate that he has learned the skills necessary to win. Never let an officer walk away from training as a “mort.” 

Make sure they walk away as a winner, because when things go south for real, they will fight like they have trained — what lesson do you want them to remember?

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