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Rethinking police training: The case for a constraint-led approach

This approach enhances cognitive and decision-making capabilities, preparing officers for the full spectrum of challenges they will face in their duties

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Applying the constraint-led approach to police training, presents a compelling case to reform training methodologies.


This article examines the traditional block and silo style training prevalent in police academies, critiquing its effectiveness in preparing officers for the dynamic and unpredictable nature of law enforcement duties. Drawing parallels to motor and developmental learning theories, particularly the whole versus part learning concept, it argues for adopting a constraint-led approach to police training. This approach, which emphasizes understanding the holistic nature of tasks before focusing on specific skills, is supported by scientific literature in motor learning and performance psychology. The discussion extends to the application of watching body camera footage and simulation use to build schemata of use-of-force events, suggesting a more integrated and situational training model that better prepares officers for real-life encounters.

Traditional training methodologies in police academies often rely on a block-and-silo approach, where recruits are taught discrete skills in isolation before integrating them into broader tasks. This method, while structured and straightforward, contrasts sharply with how individuals naturally acquire complex motor and cognitive skills.

From childhood, learning is predominantly holistic; we observe and mimic entire activities, gradually refining individual components through practice and feedback. [1-3] For instance, children learn sports by watching games and emulating players long before they receive formal training in specific skills like throwing or catching. This natural learning process aligns more closely with a constraint-led approach, which prioritizes understanding the whole activity before dissecting it into parts. [4]

Whole versus part learning

The debate between whole versus part learning is longstanding in the field of motor learning and development. Whole learning advocates argue that understanding an activity in its entirety facilitates better integration of its components, leading to more effective performance under varying conditions. [5]. This perspective is supported by studies in performance psychology, which suggest that holistic comprehension of tasks aids in the development of adaptable skills and cognitive schemata necessary for problem-solving in unpredictable situations. [6]

Constraint-led approach

The constraint-led approach, derived from the ecological dynamics theory, posits that learning is optimized through the manipulation of constraints that guide learners toward discovering effective movement solutions within the context of the task. [7]

The constraint-led approach facilitates holistic learning through the manipulation of constraints designed to guide learners toward discovering their own solutions. This approach encourages learners to explore and adapt, fostering a deeper understanding of the task dynamics and enhancing their ability to respond to real-world scenarios effectively. This is possible when task, environment and performer are all taken into consideration. The environment is often eliminated in traditional police training with sterile ranges or open and cleared-out padded defensive tactics rooms. Simulated event training that allows for manipulation of factors related to task, environment and performer is key.

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Performance psychology suggests that holistic comprehension of tasks aids in the development of adaptable skills and cognitive schemata necessary for problem-solving in unpredictable situations.



Applying the constraint-led approach to police training, particularly in the context of preparing officers for gunfight scenarios, presents a compelling case to reform training methodologies. Traditional marksmanship training, with its focus on repetitive drills like holster draws and trigger presses, isolates skills from their contextual application. This method overlooks the multifaceted and dynamic nature of gunfights, which require decision-making under stress, situational awareness, and adaptive tactics in addition to shooting accuracy.

The integration of watching body camera footage of actual gunfights represents a significant step toward incorporating the whole learning concept into police training. By observing complete gunfight scenarios, including the events leading up to the confrontation, the exchange of gunfire and the aftermath, recruits can develop cognitive schemata that more accurately reflect the reality of these situations. Schemata are essential for understanding how individuals process and retain information, playing a crucial role in cognitive load theory. Cognitive load theory suggests that learning occurs best when instructional design is aligned with the human cognitive architecture, including the use and formation of schemata. [8]

This exposure aids in understanding the chaotic, unpredictable and rapid decision-making processes involved, transitioning the focus from merely technical skill proficiency to contextual understanding and adaptability. This strategy is supported by the constraint-led approach’s principles, emphasizing learning through the exploration of real-world contexts and constraints.

Furthermore, the inclusion of simulation training as part of the police training curriculum significantly enhances schema development and decision-making skills. Simulation training provides a controlled yet realistic environment where recruits can engage in scenarios that mimic real-life situations closely. Through these simulations, officers can practice and refine their tactical, decision-making and situational awareness skills in an immersive setting that replicates the complexities and pressures of on-the-job encounters. [9] This method allows for immediate feedback and reflection, essential components of the learning process, enabling recruits to adjust and understand the consequences of their actions in a safe environment.

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By facing a variety of scenarios, officers can develop a flexible and adaptive approach to problem-solving and decision-making.


Simulation training complements the observation of body camera footage in training by allowing officers to apply what they have learned in a practical, hands-on manner. It bridges the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application, further embedding the learned schemata into the recruits’ cognitive frameworks. By facing a variety of scenarios, officers can develop a flexible and adaptive approach to problem-solving and decision-making, which is crucial for effective performance in the unpredictable and high-stakes situations they will encounter in the field. [10]

This holistic approach to training, which combines the analysis of real incidents through body camera footage with the experiential learning offered by simulation training, aligns with the constraint-led approach’s emphasis on learning through exploration and adaptation. It not only improves technical skills but also enhances cognitive and decision-making capabilities, preparing officers for the full spectrum of challenges they will face in their duties.

The adoption of a constraint-led approach in police training, supported by the inclusion of body camera footage analysis prior to individual skill development, promises several benefits. It prepares officers for the complexity and fluidity of real-life situations, enhancing their ability to make rapid, informed decisions. Moreover, it fosters a more holistic understanding of law enforcement duties, integrating technical skills with critical thinking and emotional regulation. This approach aligns with natural learning processes and addresses the limitations of traditional training models, offering a more effective framework for developing skilled, adaptable officers.

The traditional block and silo training methodology in police academies is increasingly inadequate for the demands of modern law enforcement. A shift toward a constraint-led approach, emphasizing whole learning and situational understanding, offers a more robust framework for preparing officers. By incorporating strategies such as experiential learning via analyzing body camera footage of use -of-force events and scenario-based learning using simulated event training, police training can better reflect the complexities of the job, leading to improved officer performance and, ultimately, enhanced public safety.


1. Wulf G, Raupach M, Pfeiffer F. Self-Controlled Observational Practice Enhances Learning. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 2005;76:107-111.

2. Over H, Carpenter M. Imitative Learning in Humans and Animals.

3. Zhou L. Holistic Module Learning: A Revolution in Classroom Teaching. Science Insights Education Frontiers. 2022;11(1):1471-1474.

4. Newell KM. Constraints on the development of coordination. In: Wade MG, Whiting HTA, eds. Motor Development in Children: Aspects of Coordination and Control. Martinus Nijhoff; 1986:341-360.

5. Magill RA, Anderson D. Motor Learning and Control: Concepts and Applications. 9th ed. McGraw-Hill; 2007.

6. Wulf G, Shea C, Lewthwaite R. Motor skill learning and performance: A review of influential factors. Medical Education. 2010;44(1):75–84.

7. Davids K, Button C, Bennett S. Dynamics of Skill Acquisition: A Constraints-Led Approach. 2nd ed. Human Kinetics; 2020.

8. Sweller J. Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science. 1988;12(2):257-285.

9. Andersen JP, Gustafsberg H. A Training Method to Improve Police Use of Force Decision Making. SAGE Open. 2016;6(2).

10. Kozlowski SWJ, DeShon RP. A psychological fidelity approach to simulation-based training: Theory, research, and principles. In: Salas E, Elliott LR, Schflett SG, Coovert MD, eds. Scaled Worlds: Development, Validation, and Applications. Ashgate Publishing; 2004:75-99.

Lon Bartel is a use-of-force expert for VirTra, Inc., and works closely with law enforcement agencies on use-of-force scenario training. He is a retired peace officer and has been a certified law enforcement trainer for over 17 years. AZPOST recognizes him as an expert in the areas of defensive tactics and firearms. He served as his Department’s Rangemaster from 2005-2017. Lon co-founded the Arizona Tactical Officers Association and served as secretary for five years. As a SWAT member, he was a senior operator and was instrumental in creating the explosive breaching program for his department in 2008 where he served as the lead tactical breacher. Lon was also an adjunct instructor for the largest manufacturer of force on force technology and training munitions for six years. This experience has allowed him to witness thousands of simulated forces on force incidents, providing invaluable insight into human performance under stress.

Lon has used his expertise to serve on numerous review boards, which include reviewing and evaluating 300+ actual police cases involving the use of force and deadly force. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Exercise and Sports Science (Magna Cum Laude) from Arizona State University. Most recently, Lon has been certified by the Force Science Institute (FSI) as a certified Use of Force analyst and is a certified Advanced Specialist with FSI as well.