Police Psychology | The Mental Game in Law Enforcement

Posted: February 1, 2016 in Mastering Effort
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Police Psychology | The Mental Game in Law Enforcement

“90 percent of the game is half mental” (attributed to Yogi Berra)

by Doug Gentz, Ph.D. – Psychological Services

After you’ve acquired the knowledge and skills required for any performance, further improvement depends on your ability to manage your nervous system in a way that lets you pay attention to the right thing at the right time in the right way.

Performance is measurable – scores at the range, elapsed time on an LEDT course, position on a promotional exam (or scores on subtests within a promotional exam). SNS activation levels are also measurable – heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, etc. Because attentional effectiveness is not measurable it tends to be the “missing link” between activation levels and quality of performance.

performance 1 Police pscyhology

As SNS activation increases, performance improves until it reaches an optimal point, after which it begins to deteriorate. Not enough activation performance 2 police psychologymeans poor performance and too much activation impairs performance. The strong correlation between SNS activation and performance is due to the powerful effect that activation has on attentional processes.

Theory and research by Robert Nideffer, Ph.D. suggests that people pay attention in four different ways, one way at a time. You can consciously attend to the EXTERNAL world in a BROAD or NARROW way or you can pay conscious attention to your INTERNAL experience in a BROAD or NARROW fashion.

performance 3 police psychologyA high score at the range calls for you to pay attention to your front sight in a Narrow External fashion at the end of your trigger press (which means that the target will blur). Paying attention to the “big picture” when assessing an ongoing disturbance requires a Broad External frame of reference. Mentally rehearsing your approach to a call requires a Narrow Internal focus. Imagining the likely future location of a fleeing suspect calls for a Broad Internal perspective. Because different tasks

require different ways of paying attention, they call for different degrees of activation. Building interpersonal rapport (contact) requires a much lower level of activation than insuring officer safety (cover).

As activation levels increase beyond optimal people lose their ability to switch flexibly and rapidly between one way of paying attention and another. If you’re over activated (angry at yourself) in reaction to an errant round at the range you may “get stuck” in engaging in negative self-talk (Narrow Internal perspective). As the degree of SNS activation continues to increase well beyond optimal, all humans inevitably and neurologically develop “tunnel vision.”

Pick a performance you want to improve then study it (possibly including consulting with someone who has already mastered it) to determine which one of the four ways of paying attention is required at the instant of execution. Practice the skill with the goal of finding the optimal degree of activation that lets you pay attention most effectively.

Blog Administrator: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP

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