Improve retention of defensive tactics skills with one change

Would you rather have officers look good on the mats or perform in the field with greater proficiency?


There is a wide range in the frequency of defensive tactics training among law enforcement agencies. Unless there is a shining example I have never heard of, all DT programs have one thing in common – the amount of training is less than ideal for officers’ needs. Instructors must at least partially accept this or be driven to frustration, but that is not something we can control. What we can control is the value of the training we provide.

Common to defensive tactics training is the bare bones of training methods: the instructor shows a technique, the officers perform three to five repetitions of the same skill, and the group moves on to the next move. Does this sound familiar? It’s a basic approach, easy to organize, and leaves students with a low likelihood of effective performance in the field in challenging circumstances.

However, with a simple change to our training format, we can vastly improve skill retention – meaning the ability to perform skills reasonably well at a later date without warmup repetitions.

The training partner provides a variable on this repetition by gripping his hands together as part of a random (interleaved) practice session.
The training partner provides a variable on this repetition by gripping his hands together as part of a random (interleaved) practice session.

Blocked and random (interleaved) practice

First, we must define two fundamental practice structures for skills.

The first and most basic is known as “blocked practice” in which each individual skill is trained and finished before moving on to the next skill. An example would be officers training repetitions of an armbar, then a clinch takedown, then a wristlock, and never returning to one of the previously trained skills.

The opposite of this is known as “random practice,” also known as “interleaved practice,” in which different skills are interwoven into practice. Students perform a few or even just one repetition of a skill before performing another. In this structure, the instructor could frequently call out the next skill to be performed or if the format allows, the training partner could give feeds that provide opportunities for the execution of different skills.

Benefits of random practice

John Shea and Robyn Morgan ran a groundbreaking experiment in 1979 that involved subjects making three sets of quick hand and arm movements as cued by a stimulus light. The goal was to complete the movements as fast as possible. They had a control group practice in a blocked format, performing the first set of skills, then the second, and finally the third. The experimental group had a random practice format arranged so they never performed the same set of hand movements more than twice in a row. Both groups had the same number of training repetitions in the practice phase, and both were tested for retention after 10 minutes and again in 10 days.

During the training phase, the blocked group performed the skills much faster. The random group, in mixing up their repetitions, was slower to perform the skills. However, during the retention tests, the random practice group greatly outperformed the blocked practice group.

The results of this study have clear implications for officer performance of physical skills in the field. Would you rather have officers look good on the mats or perform in the field with greater proficiency? Further, which of these two training formats more closely resembles a dynamic use of force event – repeated performances of the same skill or single performances of each skill with little warning?

A sequence of securing a figure four hold in side mount as part of a random practice session.
A sequence of securing a figure four hold in side mount as part of a random practice session.

Why it works

Why does random practice yield such better long-term results?

Without wading into deep academic waters of competing and overlapping hypotheses, it is simply this: when you repeat the same skill 10 times, your mind is set to coasting well before the end and no longer working through the problem.

When you have a skill made novel by mixing up the training sequence, your mind must work through the problem again. This mindful effort is the learning process in action.

The confidence conundrum

When a student performs a skill well on the mat in a safe, predictable, closed environment without the chaos of the real world, they feel good about it. They logically conclude after a smooth repetition that they can do something similar in the field. In fact, at the very early stage of learning a new skill, using blocked practice to perform good repetitions is beneficial. Unfortunately, if used at the exclusion of other training formats it ultimately provides a false sense of proficiency.

Students who perform their skills in random sequences must put forth more effort and their repetitions will not have the sparkle and polish of the good old days of doing the same technique over and over. Knowing police, they might even grumble and express frustration at this new method. They want the comfort of smooth coordination on repetition number seven or eight.

It is your responsibility to relate all the above to them in layman’s terms. Ask them if use of force events generally go exactly to plan or if they are a complex sequence of problems to solve and nothing works exactly as it did with your helpful training partner. Ask them how many practice repetitions they get of an armbar takedown before they perform it in the field. Ask them if they would prefer to look like a hero on the mats or solve problems effectively when it counts.

Practice focus: Learning or performance on the mats?

When the difference between the practice that looks good at the time and the practice that boosts learning is established, it is also easier to encourage experimentation.

When officers are motivated by learning and not by performing each movement as if they were being tested, they try new solutions and nuances to their movements. Not only will they benefit from the results of what works for their body shape and individual coordination, the conclusions they reach by trying new things will be more memorable than the solutions you give them.

Example of a training plan

I wrote a lesson plan for my agency focused on control tactics and ground control. Among other skills, I included a rear takedown from a clinch position on the waist and two techniques for flattening a person on hands and knees. The latter two are moves familiar to anyone with a wrestling background as basic referee position moves, which are rarely taught to police and are greatly undervalued in my opinion.

Since these three skills were new to most of the students, instruction began with blocked practice of the movements. Students alternated repetitions with their training partners and learned the important pieces of these new motor programs.

After working on some other skills, I returned to this trio in a flow drill format as follows:

  • To start: Student will perform a controlled takedown of their choosing but allow the suspect to recover to a referee position.
  • Step 1: Student will assume the top referee position immediately.
  • Step 2: Student will perform either referee takedown to the prone position.
  • Step 3: Student will allow the suspect to work back to standing, but transition to a rear waist takedown and perform it just as the suspect is standing.

The student repeats steps one through three until the end of the time allotted for the drill.

As students worked through the drill it tended to become less structured. Training partners randomized their feeds for Steps 2 and 3, and sometimes the students would stop their partner from standing (Step 3) with an effective referee position technique (Step 2). The result was more student focus and greater learning. At the end of one session, I had a student who was smaller than me and by no means a coordinated physical specimen rag-dolling me around the mats with brand new skills in reaction to the positions I struggled into.

There is an interplay of other applied training concepts in this example drill such as stimulus-response training and offering an engaging activity that improves buy-in, but for the purpose of this article, it demonstrates the application of a random practice format. If you incorporate a similar drill to this, you might even find that your students would dread returning to the tedious grind of blocked practice.

Reference

Schmidt RA, Lee TD. (2014). Motor learning and performance: From principles to application. Human Kinetics.

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