Op-Ed

Stress Proofing Skills

For something a little different this month we teamed up with the folks at 88 Tactical to bring you knowledge from someone who’s been there and done that. Trevor Thrasher (yes, that’s his real name) is here to tell you about a couple recent life lessons. Now, on to his pontifications. Mad Duo

This article was brought to you today in its entirety thanks to 88 Tactical of Omaha, Nebraska. 88 Tactical: those who respond, prevail.

Stress Proofing Skills

Trevor Thrasher,  88 Tactical 

I was casually walking back to my room from a shower in flip flops over a wide open area covered, like  so many camps in war zones, with crushed rock so large my crappy PX flip flops alternated between getting stuck on the pointed tips of a rocks or nearly tearing off all together.

It was awkward, I couldn’t move fast and I was stuck in an area perfectly between hardened bunkers. (Fucking alarm goes again off and we get hit again as I type this last sentence). The incoming alarm couldn’t have sounded at a worse time. I immediately did my fastest flip-flop sprint knowing that it was going to be a close call, and I reached my door — which has a vertical cypher lock.

Now, my current location has a history of being “near the X” when it comes to collecting rockets. I was crunched for time and under the duress of a real life threat. The code to that door is something I have entered hundreds of times and easily do without thought…when I’m not under duress. Three times I tried, and three times I failed.

The lock is slightly sensitive, but the loss in reliability was all because of human factors. After the third try I heard someone on the other side, and I resorted to kicking at the door to get them to let me in, which they did… after the rocket landed. Luckily, it hit a safe distance away. I’m pretty confident and cool under pressure, but I was still adrenalized and working at an unfamiliar speed.

I failed at and then abandoned a complex motor task I normally perform easily day to day.

Although I made it sound a bit dramatic, in reality it was more about embarrassment. It did, however, further cement my belief that unless you practice a skill in the same context, conditions and environment in which it’ll be used, you have no proof that you’ll perform the skill well or even bother to attempt it in an actual situation. This thinking mirrors that of Bill Kipp from FAST Defense. He basically says that he never assumes a skill has been transferred (learned) until he sees the skill executed under high duress (similar circumstances).

I’m also big believer in using science and data to guide your training. Unfortunately the things that are easiest to measure are often used incorrectly to make decisions when less observable factors have more of an impact. A couple of recent training events, some real life observations, and discussion with several High Threat CQB Instructors led me to produce some thoughts on weapon manipulations under duress.

After a recent SFAUC trainup involving close to two weeks of constant CQB live fire practice exclusively involving precision sighted fire, I observed multiple teams conduct culmination exercises using sim rounds against role players in a mock village. When the encounters were spontaneous, close, and against active threats, I had clear video evidence that the shooters used unsighted shooting even though they had never practiced it and had in fact practiced something completely different for 10+ hours a day for almost two weeks prior. Their hits were less than ideal. Prior to that, any rounds out of a very tight kill box on a target in the shoot house would have drawn the scorn of the instructors. This conditioned the soldiers to positively use their sights and shoot slower. But that conditioning was immediately abandoned upon realistic contact because the context, conditions, environment, and demands were different.

This exact same phenomena is often observed in law enforcement training as well. Officers are trained to shoot slow enough that they never miss and over their careers spend the greatest amount of their range time shooting qualifications that usually require shooting with complete premeditation at greater distances, given greater length of time to shoot, than typically encountered in a gun fight. These officers find that the majority of their gunfights do not reflect the training environment and demands they were conditioned in, so they abandon nearly all their training and resort to untrained, unsighted, flailing fire.

It isn’t their fault. They were conditioned and trained for a different fight, against paper at 15-25 yards with nearly all the time in the world.

Lastly, I watched a video of an officer in an extraordinarily intense shootout inside a house that required the officer to reload. The officer still had an active threat (the threat was not down) and was under high duress. I watched the officer desperately try to hit his slide release and flail a bit, causing a noticeable loss in speed. If he had simply racked the slide the first time, he would have actually been on threat quicker.

Is using the slide stop quicker on a timer? Yes. Is it less certain under realistic high duress situations? Yes. Does it require a shooter to learn how to use one more lever than absolutely necessary? Yes?

Can a good shooter with a lot of training time still use the slide release effectively? Of course. Studies by FLETC show that officers under duress can easily choke when performing simple manipulation under realistic duress. Why? Because they never practice under duress while dealing with an actual person.

Here is my take on stress-proofing skills.

Training Load.

The first issue is training load. One of my maxims is “all training has an opportunity cost.” In other words, spending hours on that reload to possibly save yourself a tenth or two tenths of a second comes at the cost of not training more on getting that gun up making quick accurate hits before you need to reload. If you have an extraordinary amount of practice, range time and frequent realistic training, you might decide spending time on “finer” or slightly more “complex” or “precise” movements will work for you. But what works for an instructor or a shooter at the end of a multi-week or multi-month long shooting school is not what will work best for the typical or even advanced shooter with a normal training regimen.

Realistic Expectations.

Having unrealistic expectations about your training level and, more importantly, your training retention level, is a major error. Yes, you could do it easily at the end of your course, or with a bit of warm-up, but can you do it easily right now without warm-up under high duress? A lot of range awesomeness goes out of the window under those conditions. In my experience, police trainers are the worst at this. If you’re teaching a combat skill and it can’t be reasonably retained through on-the-job use or through absolutely minimal retention practice, don’t bother teaching it or expecting it to be performed.

Minimize Your Skillset.

Wise combat trainers will tell you that as much as is feasible, you should train using gross motor skills and minimize the number of skills needed to be learned. This advice is very sound in principle but somehow is completely ignored by the vast majority of instructors who want to demonstrate new tricks and do things that look “cool,” but are actually low percentage moves only possible on the range after practice. Sound as that advice may be, the key word “feasible” leaves a lot of grey area. You want as few skills or techniques as possible, but not too few. You have to look at the realistic gains you may achieve based on a variety of factors including: likelihood of use, effectiveness (think time and accuracy) of technique, reliability, versatility, and behavioral compliance.

Choose High Reliability Skills.

I believe you should select skills that are the most certain and reliable when there is any form of pressure as long as there is not a plausibly significant trade off. For example, shaving .2 sec off of a reload is not enough for me to go to a less certain technique that requires more training. Is shaving .2 seconds on a reload in actual combat going to save me? That’s a one in a million chance. What’s the chance of flubbing a reload under the same conditions distracting me and causing me to waste a second or two? Much higher. It might allow me to win a competition, but the chance of it allowing me to win a fight is nearly implausible. I should probably spend that training load on something else.

Practice under realistic conditions.

The assumption that if you practice something with enough repetition, you will automatically perform it well is false when the conditions between practice and performance are widely different. Learn a minimal number of highly reliable skills and perform them to a reasonable level, then start toughening the conditions. This is pure TRADOC doctrine. The task and standards remain the same, but the conditions are toughened.

This is contrary to conventional wisdom in the tactical training world where instructors insist that you master every fundamental before moving on to anything realistic. In other words, until you can shoot a one hole group at 7 yards, you have no reason to train to evaluate threats, burst off-line, and engage targets with unsighted (not to be confused with un-aimed) fire.

I hope you have years before your next gunfight.

I see it more as a training cycle of build the basics to a useable level, increase the toughness and realness of conditions, pressure test it and see what holds up and what doesn’t, then work back through the basics again building them to a higher level. Get students performing skills reasonably well then get them into realistic drills to condition them as soon as possible, but not too soon.

Get to the “fight” in “gunfight” quickly.

Stop getting stuck at the static skill or even advanced static skill level.

Embed the skills into the performance environment and cement them there. If it were up to me, I would dump 50% of the live fire done in most police academies and get the recruits performing high repetition drills involving real people using training weapons. I would do the same with most military training courses. The vast majority will never get enough live fire time to master the basics of shooting. Many instructors think more range time is an automatic fix for gunfight failures. It isn’t. What will work better for a shooter on the range may have little to do with that they choose to perform and how well they perform it if the conditions are vastly different.

Take the real world to the range; don’t try to force the range onto the real world.

So where does this all leave us? There are a lot of variables and a lot of caveats. Expect minimal training time, but seek as much training time as possible. Train fewer skills, but not too few. Get to realistic conditions and tactical application sooner, but not too soon. Focus on the realistic fight, but never abandon the basics.

I believe advanced skill is nothing more than the ability to perform the basics under extremely tough conditions. But you can’t just get there by working the skill in a different environment than it will be performed, and you can’t have success in a tough realistic environment without first getting the skill down to a usable degree. Between all of that, you have a lot of decisions to make with skill selection before you even start.

This is why training is as much art as science. You have to look at the context of expected situations, strengths and limitations of your shooters, the operational environment, and have a realistic understanding of your training resources. Use the 20/80 rule as your guide. Find the 20% of skills and tactics you need to get you through 80% of expected gunfights. Then in training, get into those gun fights.

When you have those “need to have” skills and tactics down, then start looking to add what I call “nice to have” and “neat to have” skills. Only you can decide what will work best for you and your students, but don’t rely on conventional range wisdom. Do some research into the real world, watch the videos that have become so prevalent, and make yourself and others a little better every day.

-Trevor Thrasher

Learn more about Trevor Thrasher in our previous article here. You should also read his previous op-ed, Target Based Behavioral Conditioning.

Think before you teach, but think especially hard before you condition.

Stay safe.

Trevor Thrasher

Find 88 Tactical on the Book of Face right here, or on Instagram @88tactical. You can subscribe to ’em on Vimeo too.  88 Tactical is a member of JTF Awesome.

88 Tactical provides training to citizens, military personnel, and first responders across the country.


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Trevor Thrasher 2About the Author: Trevor Thrasher is a currently serving Operations Sergeant (18Z) with 19th SFG whose uniformed deployments are frequently interspersed with OCONUS contractor jobs. He’s also been a cop for over 2 decades, serving in just about every imaginable tactical billet. Among his many specialties is an uncanny ability to create butt hurt and angst across the wilds of the internet with his blatant disregard for worship at the altar of accepted range lore. He’s worked PSD in non-permissive environments, conducted CT DA missions both unilaterally and with foreign SOF personnel and achieved numerous instructor certifications in some of the most severe schools available to US or allied SOF soldiers. Among these many disciplines are two of his own; the High Threat Method, and Reality Behavior-Based Training©. You can contact him (or take one of his courses) via 88 Tactical Group, of which organization he is both partner and COO.

Trevor Thrasher 1

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2 Comments

  1. ‘I would dump 50% of the live fire done in most police academies and get the recruits / real people using training weapons. ‘

    — I agree, common training techniques Hopefully teach base skills that are good in any situation. What you recommend, This type of training would probably stick with you for the long term as well as being a ‘fun’ type of training. Also a direct and brutally honest critique afterwards would be necessary.

  2. “desperately try to hit his slide release and flail a bit, causing a noticeable loss in speed. If he had simply racked the slide”

    I find that an interesting comment.
    Fifteen years ago I saw a videotape made of race between two shooters to release their slides during a side stop reload. One was an experienced shooter trained in the sling-shot slide release method and the other was trained to use the slide release.
    Both had a bolus of adrenaline slipped under their skin and when they were at maximum fidget, they ran the race head-to-head. the honor of their training schools was at stake to add a little pressure.

    Both started holding their gun with the slide locked back and a reload carried on their weak side. On the signal they reloaded. Both got their magazines inserted at the same time. But things changed from there. Both missed the first attempt to release the slide.
    The slinger shoter missed the slide and jerked his hand into his chest and had to regrasp the slide and release it.
    The slide release guy missed the lever with his thumb and had to circle his thumb back to the lever and press to release the slide.

    It wasn’t even close. Slide release won the race despite both experienced shooter had the shakes and twitches.
    You’ll never find a copy of the video, I suspect. The trainer who ran the experiment was criticized by several people for running unethical human experiments without sufficient back-up and resources. I thought it was genius. I never saw or hear of that tape again.

    I’d be curious to find out if the flaying officer was required to reload on the clock during his qualification shoots and how often he shoots.

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