How to avoid freezing in a life or death shooting situation

Facts were released yesterday regarding the performance of the armed resource officer who was on campus at the mass murder in Parkland, Florida last week.

In short, he waited outside the building with his gun drawn instead of going into the building and confronting the shooter.

This is just one more reason why it would be better to have multiple armed teachers and school employees distributed throughout our schools than just having one or two armed officers.

President Trump says the deputy might be a coward.  His boss, Sheriff Scott Israel, has openly expressed his disappointment and dismay.

Deputy Peterson had been an officer for 30 years.  How could this have happened?

Why did he stay outside?

Was he a coward?  Or could his response have been predicted?

We need to ask these questions.  Specifically, we need to ask these questions about ourselves.

It’s incredibly easy to read this and say that you would never freeze and that you would run headlong into danger to save others, but do you know that?  And what can you do with limited time and training resources?

Through the years, I’ve encountered high stress situations where I’ve frozen with indecision. Fortunately, I have always “snapped out of it” quickly and taken positive action. I haven’t always made perfect decisions—everyone makes mistakes that are easy to see with the eyes of a Monday morning quarterback—but I’ve made mostly good decisions.

But this has led me to dig into why some people freeze under stress, why some people make bad decisions under stress, and some people thrive under stress.

It goes beyond being brave or being a coward.

So, what can we do to engineer or control how we’ll perform in a surprise, life or death situation?  More importantly, what can we do with incredibly limited time and training budgets?

This is an area where there are no guarantees and no 100% solutions, but there are several factors that we can control, including:

  1. Comfort with stress / stress inoculation
  2. Ability to control your mental state.
  3. Fitness Level.
  4. Familiarity with the specific situation.
  5. Myelination (how developed and well practiced your skills are)
  6. Comfort with the uncomfortable.
  7. Comfort with being decisive.

Let’s get into each of the factors:

Successful past stress inoculation: Simply put, you’ll perform better in situations that you’ve been in before. I find that, in shooting defined stages or courses of fire, I perform 20-30% faster the 2nd time I shoot the course of fire than the first time. I noticed the same phenomenon in sports, fighting, dealing with emergency trauma and medical situations, driving emergencies, and more and I’m betting that you can think of several personal examples from your own life.

This exposure can come in the form of real life experiences, simulated scenarios, and mental imagery, but you want to make as many learning mistakes as possible in situations where the consequences are as low as possible…in laser simulators, in force on force, and in timed competitions.

On lethal force encounters in particular, Ken Murray, co-founder of Simunitions, has found that officers and soldiers are working out the kinks until about the 3rd successful and justified lethal force encounter. That being said, the ramp-up is much faster and easier for someone who has been gradually exposed to stress inoculation while mastering their craft than someone who has done all of their practice in a stress free environment.

Retired Navy SEAL, Larry Yatch, has had similar findings. He’s found that, in general, stress shooting performance is maximized with a mix of 80% dry fire, 10% live fire, and 10% force on force training.

Regardless of the situation, the more successful exposures you’ve had to similar situations, the lower your cognitive load will be, the lower your heart rate will be, the less adrenaline and cortisol your body will release, the clearer your thinking, and the more in control you’ll be the next time you’re in a similar situation.

I recently heard an officer talking about his first lethal force encounter. One of the comments that he made was that it wasn’t really the first time that he successfully stopped a lethal threat with a firearm. He’d mentally rehearsed the scenario hundreds of times before and nothing about the scenario surprised him when it was happening in real life.

Next is State Control, which is worthy of it’s own course.

In short, I’m calling state control the ability to control the state of your mind in situations where others aren’t or can’t. When you can stay cool, calm, and collected and have ice running through your veins, you can perform at levels much closer to how you perform in practice than having everything fall apart.

Is it easy? No. Is it possible? Absolutely…as evidenced by the feats that brain surgeons, neuro surgeons, trauma surgeons, combat medics, and warriors throughout the ages have been able to accomplish in “impossible” conditions.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Let’s say that you’re violently surprised and have an adrenal response. The initial release of adrenaline, which you probably can’t control, will happen subconsciously in less than 1/100th of a second.

Someone without state control will keep releasing adrenaline…both draining their adrenals and seriously compromising their ability to perform fine and complex motor skills and perform higher level thinking. But someone who does have state control can quickly slow the flow of adrenaline. The quicker they do it, the more likely they’ll have an optimal amount of adrenaline in their system that doesn’t rob them of performance.

Also, since adrenaline has a half-life of approximately 90 seconds, the quicker you stop the release, the quicker you’ll be back to a “normal” state and the less of an “adrenaline hangover” you’ll have.

The factors that I’ve identified that make up state control include the following:

Inner compass (which is complex, but for me includes my Christian beliefs, belief that my life is worth defending with whatever force is necessary to insure that my wife has a husband and my sons have a father at the end of the day, and belief that innocent people should be protected from evil people).

Nutrition, hydration, and sleep. Pretty self-explanatory. A deficiency in any of these makes it hard to respond to stress effectively and remain in control.

Brain chemistry and hormone levels. There’s a lot of crossover here with nutrition, hydration, and sleep, but I feel that they’re worth separating out.

Ironically, when people’s adrenals are fatigued, they’re more likely to “go straight to 11” rather than having a measured response.

Unconscious mind/flow state/the zone. High performers and extreme athletes are all familiar with and constantly seek flow state and/or the zone. It’s a state of mind where the unconscious mind does most of the driving, time appears to slow down, balls/hoops/targets seem to get bigger, the body relaxes, Gamma waves in the brain increase, creativity flourishes, and amazing things happen.

Next time you see a musician doing independent motions with their right and left hands AND right and left feet AND singing, this is what’s going on. What they’re doing is completely impossible to do consciously and must be driven unconsciously or by the subconscious mind.

For most people, this is a fleeting state that happens outside of their control without rhyme or reason. They think that some people “have it” and some don’t. That’s simply not true.

There are processes for making it more likely that you will enter this peak-performance state in life-or-death situations that I’m going to be covering in Upgraded Shooter  For everyone who signs up this weekend, I’m going to be donating one seat of the training to an armed teacher.

Will Power, confidence. Again, there’s a lot of crossover with these and other factors, but I’m pointing them out because they can be easily be influenced in yourself and in others.

Pain/injury level. This is a tough one to place in the equation. I view pain and injury somewhat differently than most. It’s been incorporated into a few trainings and courses that friends of mine have put out, so you may be familiar with it already. In short, I view pain/injury as a constant that the mind acts like a lens on.

The mind can use this lens to cause the pain/injury to have more or less of an effect on mental and physical performance. There are definite limitations to this, but the discipline/skill of being able to minimize the effects of pain is very valuable.

One person can get a paper cut, see their own blood, and become completely frozen and ineffective. Another can be unfazed by life threatening wounds.

Pain and injury can be distracting and take mental resources away from performing a needed task at a high level in a stressful situation.  Pain can also give you a laser-focus.

Fitness level. In general, the more fit a person is, the better they’ll be able to deal with a stressful situation. Add to that the fact that if the stressful situation requires dynamic movement, the exertion will be less stressful if you’re fit than if you’re not.

Familiarity of the task at hand. Most people remember a time when they drove around a corner and their rear wheels lost traction. Instinct is to turn away from the skid, but the right move is almost always to turn the front wheels into (towards) the direction that you’re skidding. The more times you’re exposed to this situation and have successful outcomes, the quicker you’ll respond and less stressful it will be in the future.

Thickness of the myelin sheaths around the neural pathways for the task at hand. This sounds more complicated than it is. Practice something over and over the same way and you’ll develop neural pathways (muscle memory).

Keep doing it and you’ll develop a fatty (cholesterol) sheath around the neural pathways that partially insulate the neural pathway from the performance robbing effects of adrenaline and cortisol. In other words, practice something until it’s boring and you’ll be able to do it under stress better…regardless of whether it’s a gross, fine, or complex motor skill. Why?

This is overly simplified, but it’s like running a maze in the dark, blindfolded. If you’ve done it so few times that you have to think about the process, it’s going to be a long and painful experience. But, if you’ve done it enough times…first slowly in the light, then speeding up, then gradually taking away the light…then you no longer have to consciously drive the process.

The process is a conditioned response that you simply make the decision to start and the unconscious mind automatically fires off all of the neurons necessary to take you through the process and to the desired finish.

The quickest way to make this happen with your shooting skills is with the 21 Day Alpha Shooter training.  And when you sign up through this link, I’ll be donating the training to an armed teacher.

Comfort with the unknown and the ability to boldly make decisions. Also called “paralysis by analysis”, these are factors that are hard to quantify, but I’ve consistently seen them play a role in performance under stress. Fortunately, once you make the choice to start looking for opportunities to improve in these areas, your mind will start spotting them—then it’s just a matter of disciplining yourself to make educated choices when the outcome is stacked in your favor but not guaranteed.

Again, the equation I shared is not a hard and fast guideline and the factors I mentioned probably aren’t the only ones to consider, but if you honestly assess yourself in each of these areas and pick one or two at a time to work on, you’ll quickly see that your ability to react positively to stressful situations improves.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Additions? PLEASE share them by commenting below. I am a brain and body hacker who’s been focused on squeezing maximum performance out of an average body for more than 20 years, but I’m no pedigree and I always seek out and appreciate wisdom from those who know more than me.

We’ve had a phenomenal response to our plan to provide training materials to teachers and school employees who are able to carry at work.  If you’d like to be a part of it, and get some of the best firearms training possible in the process, I want to encourage you to sign up for the 21 Day Alpha Shooter program.  When you sign up by clicking >HERE<, you’ll get excellent training AND we’ll donate training to an armed teacher to help keep our kids safe.



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  • Dennis Minch

    Reply Reply February 24, 2018

    I appreciate your comments on stress inoculation. I am an emergency room nurse. At least once a year we have educators come to our department and run simulations. This is a safe environment where we can learn from our mistakes. One time my group had two of us with years of experience and one who was new to the ER. She felt bad about her performance, but did learn from it. These simulations can be very nerve wracking, but we usually feel good after it is over and more prepared when the real situation comes along.

  • Ron Leifeste

    Reply Reply February 24, 2018

    This is entirely off of the subject at hand but I offer it to those in this forum who may participate in other forums where they make comments. They have taken God, the 10 commandments and morality out of our schools and society. What do they expect to happen? Not to minimize the horror of what happened in Florida but, assuming that there are still about a million babies aborted in this country every year, that means approximately 2,740 were aborted on the day that these young peoples lives were taken from them. Where are the protests and outrage about that? Taking an innocent life is taking an innocent life no matter how it is done.
    I carry every day and do dry practice every day. I’m too old and broke down to do much tactical training but I do what I can. I do mental imaging in the hopes it will help prepare me for an armed attack.
    I hope this commentary will be taken in the spirit in which it was given and not that I high jacked the thread. Be safe, Ron

    • Ox

      Reply Reply February 24, 2018

      Thanks, Ron. What we’re experiencing is the results/consequences of a multi-generational war that was formalized by Marx in 1848 to “Destroy God in the minds of men.” The sad truth is that we’re the proverbial frog in the pan and most refuse to accept or acknowledge that we’re at war and have been at war for the entire lifetime of everyone in the US.

  • William Kastrinos

    Reply Reply February 23, 2018

    I have a CCW in California, and am a member of an armed security team at my congregation, we lost a member in the San Bernardino attacks, an NRA member killed in a gun free zone.
    We have been trained, and continue to be trained by a retired swat team commander and trainer. I also have military training, specifically crowd control.
    Did you know Caifornia law does not allow us to carry on school grounds? Think that could be changed with the present climate?
    Also, I am thinking one of the difficult things to overcome with those of us who aren’t Special Forces or Navy Seals, is the mind game of being able to release a round into a creature, however bad, whom we know God loves. Overcoming that mind game can be a significant challenge I think.
    So I think that is a set of mental exercises all by themselves, to make a quick decision that there is no other solution, than to stop the perp, so that innocent people are not in danger of being killed. And being able to recognize our inability to act quickly, can raise the death toll.
    William Kastrinos

    • Ox

      Reply Reply February 23, 2018

      Thanks, William. Civilian carry WAS legal in a few school districts in CA until that wonderful governor had his way.

      Lethal force can be a mind game. It’s very important to get your values and definitions clear ahead of time…murder vs. killing as an example. A lot of times I end up needing to evaluate decisions in terms of worse vs. “less bad” instead of good vs. bad. If you’re in a situation where you’re justified in using lethal force, there is no “good” option. You want to preserve as many innocent lives as possible by stopping evil.

      Have you read the article I wrote on why guns belong in churches? It might help you sort through some of the questions you’re having. And, to be honest, you may ALWAYS struggle with them. Not everyone is wired the same and that’s a good thing.

      Thanks, William.


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