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The benefits and pitfalls of competition tactics in law enforcement operations

Competitions provide good practice for high-pressure situations, yet they can lead to poor tactical decisions on patrol when competitive strategies are misapplied


I’ve found that competitions, both in martial arts and shooting, offer numerous benefits for my career in law enforcement. But that comes with some caveats.

Photo/Jason Trembley

By Jason Trembley

Like many who see themselves as professional protectors — those of us who carry a gun for a living — I embrace all the hard skills associated with the “tactical lifestyle.” I enjoy going to the gym and exercising. I relish the opportunity to get on the mats to practice drill striking and grappling techniques. Additionally, I love going to the range to shoot.

This, coupled with my competitive nature, drove me to spar vigorously in martial arts gyms, enter grappling tournaments and sanctioned fights, and participate in shooting competitions.

I’ve found that competitions, both in martial arts and shooting, offer numerous benefits for my career in law enforcement. They provide specific goals to look forward to and train for, which helps alleviate some of the monotony associated with constant practice. Additionally, these types of competitions offer several other advantages for law enforcement officers:

  • Competitions are excellent practice for handling high-pressure situations. They provide a valuable opportunity to manage stress in the moment and still perform tasks with a high degree of proficiency.
  • Competitions offer the chance to work on techniques you might rarely practice during in-service training or range days.
  • Competitions allow you to identify which techniques you’ve been taught that work best for you, or simply work well in general.
  • In shooting competitions, you’ll have the opportunity to stress test some of your gear. You’ll quickly see how well it holds up and feels when you actually have to run around and use it.
  • In grappling tournaments or martial arts competitions, you experience something as close as possible to the harmful intent of a real-world fight. Unlike your training partners, your opponent is often a complete stranger, doing everything they can to break something on your body or render you unconscious. Chokes become tighter, punches and kicks are thrown harder, and your opponent doesn’t go easy like some sparring partners might.
  • Competitions also demonstrate how physically exhausting even a few minutes of a combative engagement can be. This realization has a twofold effect: it reinforces the importance of committing to physical fitness and prioritizes the use of verbal judo techniques while at work.

Those are just some of the main reasons why participating in competitions can be beneficial. However, before deciding to compete, it’s important to remember that these are ultimately just games. Unlike real life, games have specific rules that must be followed. Participants develop strategies that allow them to succeed within the confines of these rules. Problems can arise when the strategies used to win competitions lead to poor tactical decisions in real-life scenarios.
For a quick example, let’s consider a personal experience I had while competing in United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA) matches. USPSA matches are primarily pistol shooting competitions that assess both speed and accuracy as participants engage several targets per course of fire. Many courses also require movement and the use of cover. One common strategy in these competitions is to avoid letting your pistol go to slide lock, which would necessitate a full reload and waste precious seconds. To implement this strategy, participants often engage a set of targets and, while moving to the next set, drop the partially full magazine to the ground and insert a fully loaded one. This is why you’ll often see USPSA participants with 4-7 magazines on their belt during competitions.

After spending several months competing and honing the skills needed to succeed in USPSA matches, I attended a force-on-force active shooter training session for work. The final scenario involved multiple threats across several rooms. Under the stress of the training, I reverted to the tactics I had practiced over the last few months. By the time my partners and I reached the final room, I had run out of ammunition, leaving a trail of half-used magazines behind me. This experience highlighted the potential pitfalls of applying competition strategies to real-world tactical situations.


Problems can arise when the strategies used to win competitions lead to poor tactical decisions in real-life violent scenarios.

Photo/Jason Trembley

I had to take a step back and really consider why I was participating in competitions in the first place. It became clear that I needed to re-prioritize my goals. While doing well was important, being tactically sound was paramount. This is something we all should keep in mind when competing in shooting or martial arts competitions.

If you already compete, or are planning to start, consider implementing the following strategies:

  • For shooting, use only your duty weapon. Although many of us would prefer to use a customized pistol, it’s far more likely that we’ll be involved in a deadly physical force encounter while at work than not. This practice ensures that you are proficient with the equipment you carry on duty, which is crucial in real-life situations.
  • Use only the number of magazines you carry with you while on duty. If this means your time is slower because you have to perform a slide lock reload, or you don’t have enough ammunition to complete the stage of fire, then so be it. This practice ensures that you are prepared for the actual conditions and limitations you might face in a real operational scenario.
  • If allowed by the rules of the shooting match, wear your duty belt. This practice helps ensure that you are comfortable and proficient with your actual gear under competitive stress, closely simulating real-world conditions.
  • For grappling, avoid “pulling guard.” In a real-life confrontation, being on your back with a violent suspect on top is one of the worst positions you could find yourself in. If you end up on your back during sparring or competition, your priority should not be to find a submission but to get off your back as quickly as possible. This approach emphasizes maintaining a position of advantage and safety in potentially dangerous situations.
  • In grappling, it’s crucial to be mindful of your positioning. Many techniques taught are effective when both participants are unarmed and on a soft mat. However, in an actual violent encounter, you are likely not to be on a soft mat, and crucially, you will have your gun and other tools on you. Always consider whether you would still perform a specific technique or want to be in a particular position if your gun was on your hip and accessible to the other person. This mindset helps ensure that your training is realistic and prioritizes your safety and control over your weapons.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s crucial to control your ego. Many in law enforcement have Type A personalities, which, while not inherently problematic, do make us extremely competitive. It’s far better to finish last in a competition because you adhered to tactics that are sound for a real-life violent encounter than to win by reinforcing bad habits. Being professional enough to prioritize effective, real-world techniques over competition accolades is essential for maintaining safety and effectiveness in the field.

Tony Blauer, a well-known defensive tactics and martial arts instructor, often cautions, “Be careful what you practice because you might get good at the wrong thing.”
As I have unfortunately experienced myself, he is one hundred percent correct. Those of us who carry a gun for a living and understand that our career is more of a lifestyle than just a job know that we need to engage in additional training on our own time. Competing offers numerous benefits, including stress management, gear testing and the practical application of techniques. Competitions are also enjoyable and break up the monotony of routine training.

However, it’s crucial to remember that our mission should dictate our tactics and training. We must train to succeed in real-life combative engagements, not just competitions. As professionals, we should use competitions to supplement our training, but we should not train solely to win competitions.

About the author
Jason Trembley is a Trooper with the New York State Police. He has a Criminal Justice from the University at Albany and an MA in Homeland Security Management from Long Island University. He has over 10 years of experience in law enforcement and is currently assigned to the Protective Services Unit. Prior to a career in law enforcement he was a collegiate wrestler, and also participated in over 20 amateur boxing, mixed martial arts and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu sanctioned matches. He now participates in both USPSA and IDPA pistol shooting competitions. Contact Jason Trembley via email or LinkedIn.

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