Research demonstrates that mental practice — mental rehearsal of a particular task without engaging in overt actions — is better than no practice at all. Think about that when you are IOD and assigned to home, when you are recovering from surgery or when you are working mandatory OT and do not have enough time even to sleep.
Mental practice will also boost your performance over others who did not engage in such practice, even if they had identical tactical, physical and mental skills training. Think about that when you are preparing for your next promotional exam, when you are vying for the Baker to Vegas race or when you want to improve your score on the next quarterly quals at the shooting range.
Imagery training involves mental rehearsal of the desired task. Officers imagine themselves performing the task without engaging in the actual physical movements involved. They recall sensory input (say, from the shooting range) that they have already stored in memory; e.g.: standing shoulder width apart, left foot a little in front of the right, weight distributed to lead foot, everything goes forward, hand on forearm, mounting the gun, bringing firearm to the face, pushing into the gun butt to absorb the recoil, comb against cheek, leaning into the firearm, lining up sights, standing natural and comfortable, ready and steady, pulling the trigger and shooting the targets as they come, hearing the gun fire, hitting the bullseye each time. All of this is done in the absence of external stimuli — meaning, without actually being on the shooting range, looking at any targets or holding the shotgun.
The following are some guidelines for using imagery as a performance enhancement tool for law enforcement officers, along with potential problems and how to correct them.
The more senses you use in your mental rehearsal, the more vivid, better-quality and more effective your imagery training will be.
Use all senses. Imagery training involves more than visualization. The more senses you use in your mental rehearsal, the more vivid, better-quality and more effective your imagery training will be. For example, do not just see the target, the gun sights or the cloud of smoke. Feel the butt against your shoulder, the comb against your cheek, your hand on the stock, your finger unlocking the safety, your finger pulling the trigger. Hear the gunshot, the ejected cartridge, the pump action. Smell, or even taste, the rotten-egg smoke.
Control content. The brain will ultimately perform in the way it is trained. If you are using positive imagery (e.g., hitting the bullseye, running the sub-5:30 mile, catching the suspect, getting the promotion), your brain will take you there. If you are using negative imagery (e.g., missing the bullseye or the target completely, being distracted by onlookers, twisting the ankle, not making the running team), your brain will take you there. So ask yourself where you really want to go, and practice controlling your imagery.
Shift perspectives. Practice imagery using internal perspectives (e.g., mentally rehearse shooting the gun from the perspective of being inside your body, actually experiencing performing the task). Also practice imagery using external perspectives (e.g., mentally rehearse shooting the gun from the perspective of watching yourself perform the task, from the vantage point of the safety instructor or your duty partner or perhaps even projected onto a movie screen).
Combine with relaxation. Imagery and relaxation yield greater performance than imagery training alone — and this is particularly true for beginners in imagery training. Intensity regulation aimed at relaxation (e.g., breath control, passive progressive muscle relaxation) can clear mental distractions and aid performance.
Use in schools and before shifts. Olympic and elite athletes will use imagery training in practice and before competitions. Officers should consider their various schools as “practice” and their shifts as “competitions.” In reality, each officer must always be ready, because true work “competitions” (e.g., chasing the suspect), unlike for the competitive athlete, are never scheduled. The officer never knows the day, time, place, event (e.g., sprint or long-distance running, boxing, hurdling, wrestling, shooting), environmental conditions (e.g., distracting crowd, broken windows, police cars on fire) and additional skills required (e.g., CPR, tourniquet for severed limb).
Develop coping. There are times (albeit rarely) to incorporate negative imagery, and this should be utilized strategically. If officers choose to implement negative imagery as a coping strategy to turn around poor performance, it is best implemented, say, when they are home IOD and certainly not immediately prior to a work shift.
Use recordings. Video and audio recordings can be helpful in developing and reinforcing the imagery that you want. You can have the police psychologist make a recorded script tailored just for you that you could play (for example) on the way to work each day. You can make your own recording(s) to reinforce the same cues that you want to use during any given shift. You can record yourself in a training situation (e.g., shooting range, EVOC course, WMD school, peer support school), and for those situations where you performed well, these success tapes can be particularly helpful in your imagery training. You can also download generic recordings made by others.
Incorporate cues. Cues — words, phrases, kinesthetic movements or other sensory experiences — can enhance imagery rehearsal and quality. What cue word do you use when you shoot? Do you say “press” or “smooth” when you pull the trigger? Do you say “relax” or “be calm” when you are angry or anxious at work? You want to be able to mentally evoke the appropriate performance image(s) when you use your cue(s).
Incorporate movement. The feel of any given task is important (e.g., the shotgun butt against your shoulder), so it can be helpful to literally move during imagery rehearsal (e.g., change your stance, move as if you are bringing the gun to you, move as if you are looking through the sights). This will also help you more clearly recall the sensory experiences needed for your imagery rehearsals.
Emphasize real time. The bulk of an officer’s imagery training should be done in real time (as opposed to slow play or fast-forward). You can slow down mental rehearsal of your shot or your run to analyze technical performance. You can speed up mental rehearsal of your task; this is particularly helpful if it is a long performance task (e.g., Unity Tour ride, ultramarathon run, boxing match, Ironman competition). Real time is primarily utilized in most imagery training because the actual task is done in real time.
Use logs. Officers are encouraged to monitor their imagery practice and their progress. Logs help increase awareness and self-confidence, identify better cues, and identify when and why better performances occur. This is why runners routinely use logs, and why people who are having trouble sleeping often start a sleep log. It may help your imagery training and boost performance.
Practice regularly. Skills training of any kind requires commitment and regular practice for proficiency. Integrate imagery training into your daily practice. For best results, practice multiple times a day.
Imagery training is not a quick fix for weak performance. It requires attention, commitment,
time and energy.
Imagery training is not a quick fix for weak performance. It requires attention, commitment, time and energy. It will not compensate for inadequate tactical and physical skills. It will not make you an overnight superstar.
Do not assume that imagery training is not working if you are not seeing immediate performance improvements. Stay the course. Maintain your commitment to daily practice. Even brief attention (sometimes even just a few seconds) can help in the moment to correct what you did wrong or reinforce what you did well.
No man is an island. To maximize the probability of your success in imagery training, consider consulting with the department police psychologist or a sports psychologist for coaching and support. But know that it all begins and ends with your mind.
Success is where preparation and opportunity meet.