Sports to Law Enforcement: Seven Success Lessons from Sports

Posted: March 30, 2016 in Mastering Effort
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Sports to Law Enforcement: Seven Success Lessons from Sports

 Guest Blogger

Dr. Bill Cottringer has worked and taught in the criminal justice field for over 50 years and currently serves as Executive VP for Puget Sound Security companies in Bellevue, WA.  He has published 9 books and over 250 professional articles. He is also a sports psychologist and success expert on

The field of sports has a live-or-die success decree which offers criminal justice personnel a treasure chest of wealth on how to win critical battles and deal with crisis.  Successful sports teams understand many Rugby, police psychologyobstacles must be overcome which impede success. Roadblocks occur when things don’t go as planned, with either Plan A, B or C, quickly go South past the point of no return.   What you don’t know from the “black box” is what often kills you in the end.

Here are seven useful lessons learned from sports failures to apply to your criminal justice work in tough situations.  Doing as many of these things as you can will help you and your team get the best possible outcome in the worst of situations.

 1.  The achievement of success in anything requires a well thought-out and well-practiced plan. This takes focus and effort and even more flexibility and adaptability to make required course corrections when the right time comes. Visualize the steps to the outcome you want.  One coach even has his players practice the celebration of winning a game after the third quarter.   Figure out how to get there before you take the first step toward you goal.

 2.  Most successful athletes don’t deny or run away from failure, but embrace it and use it as a study to find out how to make needed changes to be successful. The Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and quarterback Russel Wilson, won’t ever fail to anticipate the opposition’s response to a wrong play call at the end of the game. They learned that is a possibility when they lost a Super Bowl 2015 on a badly called play.

 The bottom line is most people don’t get to be successful without surviving a series of failures and learning important lessons which help them become successful. This involves maneuvering through two levels of success—surviving the failures with optimism and then thriving into elite success. This is a tedious journey not for the insincere or lacking in patience athlete.

Keep your men and women looking at their actions and talking about what they would do the next time to make it better.  Don’t have them look at events as failures, but more of learning experiences to make them a better cop, correction officer, or police psychologist.

 3.  All human beings have a lot in common and yet many individual differences too. Applied to the important aspect of athletic motivation, successful athletes track the relationship between their pre-performance moods and level of confidence they have, and the actual performance they get afterwards in a critical event. What they find is that some athletes need to be psyched up, some calmed down and some left alone. Mohammad Ali’s mantra of “always being under confident and over-prepared” doesn’t always hold true.

The same principle is true with the rewards athletes get which increase chances for success to continue. Some may thrive on publicity, higher salaries, glitz and glamor, or lucrative advertising endorsements. Others may like the excitement of travel, more game time, a championship ring, or just the internal sense of satisfaction that comes from setting a record that is out of normal reach. Most elite athletes seem to be internally driven, but at the same time that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy external acknowledgment of their achievements. It just depends on the person.

In law enforcement, you must find what motivates your people in a crisis to help them get through it.  The motivators must be varied.  For some it is overtime, some it is the adrenaline rush after the event, some it is the relief when they get home to their family.  Express what is important and go with it, to yourself or you men and women in your command.

 4.  The ability to focus on and attract success in anything first requires getting rid of all the unconscious negative thoughts and bad habits that get in the way of gradually improving. A very fast hurdler for a track and field team had to overcome a weird fear of his pants falling down at the finish line before he started winning regularly. The football player worried about injury is more likely to be injured. Keeping in the task protects them and makes it more possible to perform at their best.

To bring that into law enforcement, if people in a crisis situation are worried about freaking out, they are more likely too, or more likely afterwards.  The one who is worried about getting shot will lose his focus and put himself in harm’s way by mistake.  You have to not be thinking about failing in order to succeed.   A simple rule, but one that is most important.  Training helps keep people keep in the moment.

5.  Roles for anyone going into a critical event, need to be reduced to concrete images because when things start flying, focus and attention tend to be reduced. All members of a team need to carry out a unique role for the team effort to be successful. I once had the opportunity to work with the coach of an Aussie rules footie team in Victoria, who aspired to win the Grand Finale one year (the superbowl equivalent in US). This coach was an elite player, but didn’t know the first thing about the psychology of coaching or how to manage others.

 Basketball, Police PsychologyOne by one, we translated important psychological principles that he could use to increase winning. One seemingly little idea that turned out to have a huge positive effect was to assign specific roles for each player to focus on to help the team succeed in the game plan for the day.  I gave each member of the team reminder to carry in their uniform of their role that day.  The Richmond Tigers did win in 1980 and players could be seen taking out the symbolic pictures they had to remind them of their important role in the game.

No SWAT Team exists without roles, but sometimes when officers are together in a prison or a confrontation on the streets, they don’t know their role and that is bad news.  Role playing is one of the most important concept for any crisis situation and this should be covered more in our police academies.

6.  Both the members and the team have to outperform the opponent. This is a successful application of the Gestalt Principle in psychology, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Superstars going off on their own apart from the team are likely to meet failure, but if all are playing their roles the best they can play well enough together to outplay their opponents.

The Chicago Bulls used this important principle to leave their NBA legacy (even though I was a die-hard Seattle Super Sonics fan that year thinking they had a chance).  Michael Jordon was the greatest all-around team-player ever and his job was to be the superstar, but the other members of the team knew that and fed him the ball.  It was a superstar team playing together.

Not everyone can be a hero on every event.  People need to stay in their roles and trust the team concept.  The situation will often define who the Michael Jordan is.  Make sure the team wins first in any crisis situation not any individual.

7.  Success in sports, like anything else, is mostly about execution—the timing and positioning to make a good play that helps the team move forward with momentum. In football, this is gaining the needed strength, speed and endurance through practice, to get in the right position at the right time to make a game-winning catch or game-saving tackle. In baseball, it is the left fielder adjusting position because of suspecting a shallow fly ball on a 3 and 2 count with 2 outs and no one on base.

 But it also involves flexibility and leadership.  The leader is often someone outside the situation in sport and law enforcement situation.  The leaders need to be flexible and use the feedback he/she gets from what she sees and people in the situation to understand the next move.  There are some coaches you know will bring a team out of the locker room with great execution in the second half, and there are some leaders that can be trusted to bring the officers the right decisions to finish a law enforcement situation confidently.


Consider how you can apply these valuable sports lessons in your criminal justice work—whether police, corrections, courts or security—and watch your success, safer outcomes and job satisfaction go through the roof as an elite criminal justice athlete!


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

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