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Practical Applied Stress Training for SWAT
Because the demands on SWAT vary greatly, training must prepare the SWAT operator for virtually any event. In the most extreme examples, the entire system, body and mind are stressed to their maximal ability. Anaerobic, aerobic and neural systems are challenged simultaneously, which will either lead to a successful outcome for the operator, who is physically and mentally trained for the event, or it will end badly.
These systems can and will be challenged simultaneously under “real-world” conditions, so it stands to reason that training should be conducted which follows the pattern of “real-world” events the operator may face. It’s the common practice for the majority of SWAT teams to train diligently on their firearms skills and tactics while hitting the gym or the road as a separate training rotation.
True applied stress training for SWAT should endeavor to parallel what the real-world event may require, which is the simultaneous demands on shooting proficiency, as well as anaerobic and aerobic energy systems, which will greatly impact the operator’s abilities to perform under such pressure.
The most advanced shooter in great physical condition will find his marksmanship severely degraded when forced to shoot under intense physical stress. The operator who is not in adequate physical condition to begin with can expect to see his marksmanship fall off completely when put under physical and mental stress—no matter how well he shoots under non-stressful conditions at the range.
Uncommon? Yes. Worst-case scenario? Yes. But SWAT members must train for worst-case scenarios and perform their duties at levels not expected of non-SWAT officers or civilians. This means training that incorporates all possible stress modifiers in combined rotations with shooting drills.
Firearms instructors have attempted for many years to add stress modifiers, such as a short run followed by pushups, before shooting a course of fire. Although an effective method of getting the heart rate up to mimic stress during the shooting rotation, it’s a far cry from the stress placed on the operator who has just pushed a stalled car containing a wounded person out of the line of fire, and who then needs to return effective fire on target.
Heart rate will be at full tilt, taxing the cardiopulmonary system, and the musculature responsible for a stable shooting platform, already less stable due to the adrenaline dump experienced, will be at less-than-optimal conditions.
The only way to perform in such a situation is to have experienced the effects of physical and mental stress on marksmanship skills and test whether or not your conditioning and shooting skills are up to the task. The only way to prepare for that scenario is to do it!
Practical Applied Stress
This form of training should focus on functional strength, improving bodyweight-to-strength ratios, dealing with unbalanced loads, and overall fitness and conditioning, combined with shooting rotations. That prepares the SWAT operator to perform efficiently under worst-case scenarios, which greatly improves survivability of the dynamic situations SWAT is confronted with.
High-tech equipment is not required when rope climbing, wall climbing, phone pole lifting, tire flipping, or when sand bags, chains, sleds and other creative functional strength modalities are combined with shooting drills. Borrow from relevant areas of functional strength and conditioning training, be it classic strong man training, weight lifting, football, martial arts or power lifting, but make sure it is intelligently designed and applicable to tactical policing.
A disconnect often occurs between training hard and training smart, and injuries and overuse syndromes, like tendonitis, are not productive to the operational longevity of the SWAT operator. Taking into account existing injuries is also essential to productivity with such a program.
People who work in SWAT tend to have hard-charging, Type-A, “can do” personalities that don’t allow barriers to prevent them from mission success. These are the people you want coming through the door when things get ugly. However, these types of people will often work themselves to exhaustion and injury if not properly directed in a competitive environment.
Exercise and shooting rotations need to be titrated in intensity and difficulty to the group and individuals within the group because there will always be differences—strengths and weaknesses— among people within a team. Early testing of groups and individuals is an essential component of making the experience a productive learning experience versus simply wearing out the trainers and sending them home bruised and demoralized. There’s a fine line between productive training protocols that test the limits of an individual’s abilities and unproductive masochism.
Again, functional strength and conditioning is stressed simultaneously with shooting efficiency. It’s often the case that exercise-related training and marksmanship don’t come together until the officer is in the middle of a life-and-death situation, where the ability to perform is tested as never before, and the outcome is unsure.
Drills and Progression
Programs should have a logical progression. For example, the day is usually split into three stages. Stage 1 is individual testing where a single operator is run through the stage and scored. This gives feedback about the individual’s fitness levels and shooting abilities under physical stress.
Stage 2 may be run in two-man teams. This is similar to Stage 1 but run in parallel, making for a highly competitive environment between individuals who hate to lose. Or the stage may contain sections that require two people to complete: a fireman’s carry of your partner 100 yards up hill, or getting over a 10-foot wall, scaling mock buildings, flipping 800-pound tires, etc.
Shooting drills within the stage may require an individual to complete his shooting stage before the other can move on, and so on. Trainers can add additional physical, essential training within the stage, such as “hands on” weapons retention training. Shooting drills within the stages are always based on essential shooting skills required by the SWAT operator, such as shooting on the move, shooting from cover, multiple target engagements and shoot/no shoot scenarios.
Stage 3 is often a full team event, where there may be two teams running in parallel in the stage or as a single team, depending on the design of the stage and the number of operators on the team.
Think of it as job-specific cross-training with guns, which leads to improvements in physical conditioning and improvements in firearms proficiency under “real-world” stress conditions. Additional benefits are improvements in functional, whole-body strength and conditioning, team building and the ability to employ this type of training on your own range with a variety of tools. The system is dynamic and flexible, which prevents it from being limited to “high tech” specialized equipment.
A sample drill in the Stage 1 category mentioned above may be a quarter-mile run to a barrier from which a target at 50 yards is engaged using an M4 carbine. From there, the operator scales an 8-foot wall, goes up 30 feet of rope, carries a team member 100 yards fireman- carry style (thus dealing with an unbalanced load), then goes directly on to engage targets with a secondary weapon.
A common target drill immediately following the above physical stress modifiers may be: a popper at 25 yards standing freestyle, a popper that activates a swinger at 10 yards, or other action that allows graded scoring for head shots, center mass shots and anything outside those two desired points of impact. The stage is timed and scored against the other individuals who go through the stage. Stages will usually include shoot/no shoot scenarios and different positions, such as standing, prone and kneeling using cover. These scenarios challenge the shooters’ skills even more because the muscles are tired and the heart rate is up. Add full tactical gear and a gas mask, and you have a really challenging day!
There are many possible variations of the stages, and these depend on what’s available for use in the stage, the design and size of the range, the experience level and conditioning of the participants and other variables.
A stage cycle will look like this: 1) Preload skill sets, working with the firearms instructor on the shooting skill sets needed for the stage before running the stage. 2) Shoot the stage minus physical stress modifiers. Shooters will go through the shooting portion of the stage and be scored. The pre-stress modifier scores can then be compared to the post-stress modifier scores. 3) Run the full stage with stress modifiers, timed and scored against other shooters and against expected scores for the stage. The better the condition and shooting skills of the operator, the closer the score of the pre- and post-stress modifier will be.
This type of training can be a real gut check and a real team-building experience. OK, it’s not so much fun when every muscle in your body is screaming at you and you are two-thirds of the way through the physical portion of the stage with a bunch of targets waiting for you to engage, and those targets get small after all that work, but I can guarantee you a real sense of satisfaction having finished the event.
Will Brink is the owner of Optimal SWAT Training Systems and an adjunct trainer to Smith & Wesson Training Academy. He graduated from Harvard University with a concentration in the natural sciences. He runs the Web sites www.brinkzone.com and www.optimalswat.com.
Published in Tactical Response, Sep/Oct 2009
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