“Mental Models” for Training

November 14, 2014  
Categories: Learnin'

Today’s Guest Writer Matt Powell Explains “Mental Models” for Training. Matt is a martial arts instructor with a varied background and an outlook that many of our wretched minions like, which is why we bequeathed this honor of writing for us upon him (none of our minions really deserve such largesse, but we are magnanimous). A former PSD specialist for President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, Matt’s going to talk talk to you about developing mental models for both training and combat. Pay attention. Mad Duo

Grunts: bequeath

Developing mental models for combat.

It’s difficult to go to a firearms course these days without hearing the term ‘OODA’. OODA has become the new ‘tactical’, a buzz word whose origin and purpose are forgotten, but when used by an instructor supposedly means the instructor knows what he or she is talking about. Others have written entire papers and books on OODA; this isn’t yet another OODA article.

For over a decade I’ve instructed all over the world. I’ve seen students fight for everything from their lives to a belt to a water break. I’ve seen OODA hundreds of times in a variety of situations. One thing I’ve learned is that the best students and fighters are able to use OODA to gain valuable time or advantage. OODA is often an unconscious function based on previous experience.

OODA (Observe-Orient-Decide-Act) many times does not seem actionable. No instructor has ever told a student “Looks like you are stuck in Orient”, because most students wouldn’t understand the statement. OODA hasn’t been developed as a method of explaining an unconscious process. But we can look at a scenario afterwards and critique our performance with OODA in mind. For example, if someone was slow to draw they may have little experience in the orient and observe phases, which delays their decisions. We can use OODA as a training tool to apply to the process of fighting, not as an action plan.

We can’t possibly utilize all information that comprises OODA to make a decision. Instead our nervous system and mind combine, with the brain relying on previous experience and nervous system allocating energy to perform tasks based on our decision. OODA is a concept we should understand so we recognize how we process information and make decisions. But it’s an unconscious process, not a means of making decisions. In order to make decisions, we have to develop mental models based on our previous experience, whether real or imagined. A mental model is an assumption we create based on our experience in the world.

Look at the following photo and you’ll immediately understand mental models.


When you see this photo, you assume an outcome. You’ve probably seen this happen or experienced it yourself, so you develop a mental model that allows your brain to make a quick assumption about a situation. You then act based on what worked previously, or you analyze it further to gain more information and make a decision.

But if we allow our brains to focus on everything we see, we consistently over analyze. Hick’s Law is commonly referred to in this situation: the more choices we have, the longer we take to make the ‘correct’ choice. That’s fine if you’re buying breakfast cereal, not fine in a violent engagement. We have many frames of reference for cereal selection, but few people have experience to call upon in a violent altercation. This can lead to what is called a ‘feedback loop’ where we try numerous solutions to a problem with no success or we try the same solutions again.

In firearms training we often see the same solutions being tried over and over again. These loops are created by unconscious processes we’ve trained repeatedly in response to a situation. The action taken is ineffective, but the person takes the same action again, and again, or variations of the same action that still do not work. This continues until a corrective action solves the problem the feedback loop was attempting to solve. There are a variety of ways the corrective action may be found, such as being consciously decided upon. The student and the situation will dictate how this corrective action is found.

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We often see feedback loops during malfunction clearing (repeated tap-rack instead of ejecting the magazine), or in a hand to hand altercation where someone repeatedly tries a throw or hold, even if it doesn’t work. We often get stuck in a feedback loop because we visually see that our action is not working, so we start over. We may make a conscious decision to change what we are doing, or we stumble into something that begins to work, so we switch and begin processing again.

We see this often in Pramek full contact classes using Spartan Training or similar gear. Most students are accustomed to training against another opponent, but outside of full contact fighting, students generally don’t go full force for fear of injuring the training partner. But when students use safety gear that allows for high impact levels, they become overwhelmed by powerful impacts they don’t receive during regular training. Once overwhelmed, they quickly develop feedback loops. Holding and delay-based wrestling moves become common as students frantically search for a solution.   Generally, the situation causing the feedback loop will change because the attacker will move to a position of advantage or defense which the student is familiar with. When this occurs the student will usually bypass the feedback loop and become active in the fight again.

What happens if we can’t work through the feedback loop?

On occasion people stuck in a loop will just quit. We see this on the firing line or in training when someone can’t solve the problem in front of them. The most common is a malfunction the student cannot solve with tap-rack-tap-rack-mag change-tap-rack, and it becomes a loop. They can’t work through the feedback loop and many times they simply stop and begin looking around, bewildered. There is a phase of action beyond a feedback loop which is the most terrifying: panic. What is panic? We must first start with anxiety to determine what panic is. Anxiety is a natural burglar alarm – the brain’s ‘bump in the night’. It lets us know something is wrong and gives signals to the nervous system to employ defenses which have previously worked, even if not against the threat present. This is called signal anxiety, or the signaling of the body to react to anxiety.

Two reactions are possible when we have panic-inducing anxiety. First, the mind can be overwhelmed with stimuli (for example, at the sight of a massive injury). People often say, ‘he froze when he saw blood.’ The mind becomes fixated on this stimuli instead of continuing to act on the threats around it. Panic is an action; unfortunately, it is an action that does not address threats. In this panic, a student stops acting and begins thinking about the stimuli rather than the threat, leading to physically freezing because he can’t process past the stimuli he never experienced before.

The second reaction occurs when signal-anxiety-based defenses are overwhelmed. In this situation defenses are ineffective, leading the anxiety to switch from reacting to the threat to reacting to a realization of possible annihilation by the threat. People in highly stressful environments often act without thought to their own safety because their defenses have been trained, and thus they have experiences to relate to and act on. But when their defenses are overwhelmed, they realize they could die; this realization becomes so overwhelming they stop acting in hopes of surviving. This may lead to a ‘hunker down’ or surrender mentality, or irrational behavior such as fleeing a safe area to try to save themselves.

In layman’s terms, this is why people freeze in the middle of a situation and can’t move, or move away from the threat in a way that makes no sense. This doesn’t mean a student is stupid or a coward. Few have a frame of reference for a violent altercation because it is an uncommon occurrence. Without this being a common occurrence, and without realistic training, one may become caught in a feedback loop and lose valuable time in combat or go into a panic from a lack of frame of reference to act on.


We all fear we will freeze when it counts most. Now we know why this happens. The question becomes, how can we ensure this doesn’t happen to us?

A key to stopping panic

One key to overcoming panic is the development of mental models applicable to a variety of situations. Remember Hick’s Law and apply it to your experiences. We must reduce the number of available options that may not work, and replace them with what we know consistently works. Many people can’t attend Simunition or reality based self-defense courses; this lack of realistic training can lead to freezing or fleeing in a real-world encounter. Those who can’t attend good training must use whatever tools they have at hand to prepare for the worst.

One way we can prepare and become faster in action is to create mental models for our actions and reactions. We begin developing mental models as children, when we create imaginary friends or scenarios where we are the hero. Think back to when you were a child, and the situations you wished you could have overcome; maybe you acted like you were fighting a bully, or pretended to jump off a building even though you were scared of heights. Those were mental models. We begin developing mental models at an early age, and they provide a link between our internal wishes and the external world where we must turn those wishes into reality. Now that we’re adults, it’s no different. We can harness this process to train mentally for the real world.

Using mental models as a training process, we look at the vast majority of scenarios we may face as civilian or law enforcement shooters and create a general plan of how to react. Since we’re mentally ‘gaming’ it rather than actually experiencing it we have an advantage. Our mind develops an experience based upon this mental scenario training. This will give us valuable time to visualize and planoutside of what occurs to us in real life, such as the effects of our sympathetic nervous system. We can analyze information, create scenarios, and act in a way that best guarantees survival. In short, we can create a mental model.

Here are a few methods of developing mental models you may try, to reduce reaction time in a real-world incident.

1.   Make visualization part of your practice.  

Vince Lombardi once said, ‘practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect.’ People often practice just to look good, but forget why they are practicing. Do not practice just to practice – practice for a reason. Visualization is an important key to developing models about how to act in a fight. We can’t live in a gunfight or sims course, so we have to train when we can. Take a few minutes and visualize a scenario you may encounter while carrying. The sounds, sights, smells. Are you in a familiar place, like a family business? Where is the cover? What would your breathing be like? Who would be the enemy?

Part of developing a mental model is experience, real or imaginary. Your body can familiarize itself with situations and stress through visualization. Just as the image of the child at the stove is a point of reference, visualization exercises allow you to create a point of reference for combat. If today is reload practice day, then close your eyes, visualize a scenario, and perform your practice under the imagined stress of the visualization. You will find there are certain things you can always do, such as changing the angle of a shot, which you can create a mental model out of to always get faster in response.

2.   Play to your strengths in training by developing a base model.  

I began carrying at age 21 but have been shooting since I was 6. All these years later, I am admittedly not the fastest on the trigger. But I am extremely good at unorthodox movements and – you guessed it – mental models. All kinds of advantages result when you begin to look past your skill on the gun and develop mental models for strategy and tactics. This mental model training enhances your firearm skills by giving you options to use it. What are you good at? What do you find yourself falling back on in training to succeed when time is measured or stress is elevated? For example: some people are extremely fast on their reloads, left-handed shooters take up different physical positions around cover, precision shooters rely on accuracy of fire versus the reliance upon volume of fire by someone extremely fast on their trigger. Look at yourself honestly: Where are you strong?

Realize your strengths and make your mental model training fit them. When you create a mental theatre or work around your house visualizing a situation, stack the situation toward your strengths. Your range training time and visualization exercises should revolve around these strengths.     It’s what you are good at…so it should be your first resort. I am not the fastest on the trigger, but I move quickly and solve problems, or create them for the other person. So my mental model for any situation is to play to my strengths and make that my base for initial action.

3. Finding a position of superiority

Everyone should develop the mental model where they get to a position of tactical superiority in an engagement. One example may be moving to cover or concealment in a real situation and using the initial engagement to do so. It’s the safest bet for protection, gives you time to see the situation, and allows for reloads and decision making. It’s also what we see most commonly in Simunition scenarios; people move to cover after their first few trigger pulls. Since we know this we can create a mental model that makes being around cover or concealment a conscious effort until it is an unconscious habit.

When you walk into a room, look for cover or concealment. When you train in the house make an effort to memorize your positions of visual and tactical advantage, the furniture in each room, and location of doors in hallways. Whenever you have the ability to move to cover, move to it and make it the base for your next action. If you know that when bullets begin flying you will automatically move to cover, then you should create mental models to move to cover. From there you can do whatever, but the model you apply to the gunfight is that if it happens, it will happen from a position of personal and tactical superiority.


Remember, a mental model is an assumption we create based on our experience in the world.   Putting mental models into action is not a complex exercise. Developing mental models can be as simple as reflecting on what we have experienced, or what we’ve seen in classes or videos. Develop a mental model by visualizing this and find the most common responses. Looking for the most common occurrences within a situation allows us to pre-plan a multitude of responses, such as working our strengths or moving to a position of superiority. This allows us a general template we can use to address the maximum number of situations, which in turn makes us faster in combat by reducing available decisions that could overwhelm us, gives us confidence in our training, and helps us react effectively and consistently.


No one writes in a vacuum and I would like to thank my training doctor, Brad Johns from Atlanta, for his input on signal anxiety which we use in Pramek training. Any time you can partner with a medical professional, be it an ER nurse or a psychiatrist, you should do so and take advantage of their knowledge.


photoMatt Powell is a martial arts instructor with an extensive international experience.

Several years ago he founded Pramek, Inc., and now instructs martial arts students nationwide for Pramek and Sage Dynamics. He is also a reserve police officer and personal security specialist, and has published several books on self-defense. He can be reached at Pramek.com and conducts weekly podcasts at pramekradio.com.

 Matt Powell Pramek

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