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Performance Training

Performance training is training resulting in an increase in ability or capacity. Ability is usually related to mentally driven capabilities such as skills or talent and subjectively measured. Capacity refers more to the physical capacity, which is measured objectively. An increase in performance means you are better able to accomplish something, specifically some type of mental or physical activity / work.

Tactical officers are special and therefore should be held to a higher standard. SWAT officers must be fully capable of physically performing their job, as it is defined based on a hierarchy of critical tasks and the operational environment in which they work. Physical fitness is the most basic requirement for being a cop and even more important if you’re a tactical officer.

Physical fitness has five components: aerobic capacity, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and body composition. Each can be measured objectively in lab tests and closely estimated in field tests. But fitness alone is not enough. It needs to translate into on- the-job performance. Physical fitness by itself is relative to your own body’s capacities, i.e., it is not an absolute. Police work is responsive to other people and requires finite physical tasks, i.e., it is an absolute.

It doesn’t matter how fast you are or how many push-ups or sit-ups you can do, although these are excellent tests of the underlying components of fitness. And, you don’t need to be a power lifter, Olympic wrestler, or a marathon runner to be a SWAT officer. What you need to be is highly fit with the physical capacity to perform the demanding elements you will face on the job.

Fitness for SWAT officers is best evaluated with practical performance tests. Such tests need to be job related and are best scored “go/no-go” using time as a standard. While academic or construct tests such as push-ups, sit-ups, running, etc. have their place, I am not a fan of using them for evaluations of police officer physical fitness because they speak little about job performance. If you want to know if someone can do the physical things required of a SWAT officer, you should ask him to actually do them.

The best physical performance tests in my view are a series of linked, physically demanding tasks drawn from job criteria. They should include a simulated officer rescue, the most important physical capacity for a law enforcement officer.

The capability of rescuing a totally incapacitated officer in full gear is the hardest physical task a single officer will ever be called on to do, and he should be capable of doing it. Frankly, if all officers could perform this task routinely and presented a positive appearance, there would not be a physical fitness issue in law enforcement.

Performance “standards” should not be based on norms (averages) or indexed for age or gender. We don’t want police officers, especially SWAT officers, to have merely the same physical capacity as the average person on the street. Cops should have a higher level of physical fitness, and tactical officers should have a lot higher. SWAT officers by definition should not be “average.”

The minimalist approach to physical standards is hurting law enforcement and permitting many physically unqualified people to be hired. Police leadership needs to define what “good” is and set measurable, job-related physical performance standards. If departments and SWAT teams don’t have them, it is a leadership failure.

Most of the excuses for such failures are lame. The law clearly permits high physical performance standards for law enforcement as long as they are job related. (Why would they be anything else?) There is no excuse, legal or otherwise, for not having physical performance standards and enforcing them.

Physical image is also important to all police officers and especially SWAT officers. The public expects all police officers to present a fit and professional image. This includes uniform and physique. Image is important because, like it or not, it is the first factor in respect and is a deterrent to violence. Both are highly desirable in law enforcement.

While 80% of our physical being is driven by our genetic make-up, we can significantly control our weight, which directly impacts our image, physical fitness, health and ability to perform on the job. Police officers should be required to do so.

We all know that as we age, our bodies’ change. We need to change our lifestyles to ensure that we take care of our bodies. Professionals do this. There are few acceptable excuses for not meeting physical performance standards while you are on the job or for being grossly overweight.

Several years ago, an overweight officer with a poor appearance and even worse attitude presented the lamest excuse I ever heard for not being fit. Following a fitness presentation I gave, I heard, “I’m not going to get fit or event try to pass the PT test because the chief can’t do it.” Cities are not paying most chiefs to walk the streets and fight with criminals.

In most communities, the chief’s job is to organize, hire, train, support and lead the police department. In those cities where he is expected to be on the street, then he should meet the requisite physical performance standards. If that is not a job requirement, then at a minimum, chiefs and all leaders should still set the example for their officers by routinely working out and presenting a fit and positive image. This is part of leadership responsibility in my view.

Police departments should actively support law enforcement by providing facilities where officers can work out and receive professional assistance with their exercise programs. This includes remedial training help when necessary and rehab from injury. It is a lot cheaper to take a preventative approach than a repair approach.

Exercise time should not necessarily be on duty. Fitness is part of keeping the job, so an officer shouldn’t be paid extra to be fit or to workout. Performance pay for excellence is OK, but excellence should be defined by exceptional performance, not for singular events such as bench pressing 500 pounds or running a 5-minute mile. All but a few SWAT officers are self-driven to be the best they can be within the environment they operate. All they need is knowledge, good leadership and minimal support. Train smart. Performance is everything!

Dr. John O’Connor, or Dr. Jack as he is known, holds a Ph.D. in exercise physiology, is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and director of the U.S. National SWAT Championships. For the past 30 years, he has worked on performance and training issues for police, fire and military units around the world. He can be reached at

Published in Tactical Response, May/Jun 2008

Rating : 9.0

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