Originally published in 2021 by FBI National Academy Associates Magazine

You would be surprised to know the similarities between sports medicine and law enforcement.

Before entering the world of law enforcement, I worked in sports medicine. Years of college studies left me with certifications from the American College of Sports Medicine, National Strength and Conditioning Association and the American Council on Exercise. Come graduation, I had a degree displaying Exercise and Sports Science, with a focus on Biochemistry and Physiology.

After college, I worked with a wide variety of clients, from collegiate athletes to individuals with only half a heart. Years of being inside the sports medicine world showed a shocking contrast between my understanding of high-performance psycho-motor skills and officer safety classes with training consisting of constant “don’t do this” videos and filled with block style training. Granted, learning from history is always beneficial. But should videos featuring actions to avoid, paired with shouted phrases of “don’t ever give up”, and the same skill repeated over and over, be the core of law enforcement training?

For athletes, they have training down to a science, perfecting methods to perform with a clear head, quick thinking and fast muscle response despite a high-stress atmosphere. However, the worst consequences for athletes are a lost game or a season-ending injury. Whereas for law enforcement, the worst consequences include loss of life—a citizen, partner or one’s own. With significantly more at stake, modern science-based training becomes critical for officers everywhere.

Following my work in sports medicine, I spent 20 years in law enforcement—including 18 years as a certified trainer—where I have noticed a lack of strong, stress-inducing and research-based training. Just as athletes must often train to condition their minds and bodies, so must law enforcement engage in realistic, science-based training to condition their ability to make decisions and use psychomotor skills. This practice of quick, unhindered thinking in stressful situations is an incredibly valuable skill to transfer to the field.

Just as important as the “why” of science-based, stress-inoculation training is one of the “how’s.” For decades, officers have trained through role-playing, square range drills and mock situations. While these forms of training certainly have their benefits, the fact of the matter is that they fall short to mirror the real-world demands. Research shows that the best training comes from the best environments: those mimicking the real world through both physical and psychological fidelity.

The best example of this is high-fidelity simulation in which the training officer is immersed in a real-world situation. Physical fidelity is achieved through the visual environment, and since training simulators display high-quality video scenarios, officers can engage with diverse subjects, locations and situations for maximum training. Physical fidelity also expands into the tools trainees are given—duty firearm, TASER®, OC spray, etc.—making it so officers train with the same tools they use in the field. The combination of a realistic environment and proper tools help immerse the trainee in the scenario.

The second part, psychological fidelity, is created as trainees engage in the same mental processes as in the field, learning to perform under high amounts of stress and distractions. It is the combination of physical and psychological fidelity that fully transports trainees to the scene, making the situation feel real and dangerous for the entirety of the training scenario. Understandably, training in such an environment, developing stress inoculation and adaptation, best equips officers for the variety of situations they will find themselves in once in the field.

As such, departments should train only with simulation that focus on high-fidelity, research-based training—especially those continuing to adapt their products to the latest research. There are many prominent researchers currently doing great work in pushing the science for law enforcement, including Dr. Paul Taylor, Dr. Bill Lewinski of the Force Science Institute, and Drs. John and Dawn O’Neill. Each is discovering ways to better train, and thus, create better officers.

We must also train smarter, with the science to back it up. High-fidelity, research-based training simulation is a powerful tool to accomplish this goal; immersing officers in difficult situations parallel to what is seen in the field. It is time to remove the crutch of “the way it’s always been done” and focus on updating training to the latest research. After all, every community deserves the best training for its officers.

When looking for the most effective ways to train your cadre, you must find a method that will ensure skills are properly transferred to the field. Officers should be immersed in the training both physically and psychologically in order for skills to be able to transfer effectively. If one or both of these are not possible, there may be a big difference between officers’ performance in the classroom and on the street.

It is no secret that simulation training has become a new and effective way for officers to learn skills and retain information. Unfortunately, picking a simulator isn’t as simple as you might think – you have to do the proper research to ensure you’re getting everything out of it that you need. As with most technology, the cheaper solution is likely not the best. No agency would purchase the cheapest firearms, so why purchase the cheapest training technology, especially when trying to ensure officers utilize their training and firearms in the most appropriate situations?
There are two ways that a simulator should immerse trainees: through physical fidelity and psychological fidelity. These are two different concepts but together they can create an ideal training environment.

Physical Fidelity

Physical fidelity measures the similarity between conditions within the simulator and conditions in reality. Some considerations include the weapon used within the simulation, the accuracy of the ballistics and the way on-screen characters react to the trainee’s actions and words.

Psychological Fidelity

Psychological fidelity relates more to the mental side of training. Not only does the simulation have to be physically realistic, but trainees must experience the same mental processes as they would in the field. Officers must feel stress, empathy and other relevant emotions to prepare them for real life encounters.

How VirTra Achieves Both

VirTra achieves both physical and psychological fidelity through the following methods and more:

• Filming real human actors with professional equipment rather than using CGI
• Manufacturing recoil kits and magazines that fit into the trainee’s duty weapon
• The patented Threat-Fire® that provides electric feedback for consequences such as gunshots, dog bites, explosions, etc.

Imagine for a second that you had one but not the other. You may have great psychological fidelity by allowing officers to experience stress in a simulator, but what if you gave them clearly fake weapons that do not provide the same recoil as their duty weapon? They would simply not be prepared when equipped with their real firearm.

What if the opposite is true and you are using your duty weapon with highly accurate ballistics and recoil, but what is shown on screen are CGI characters that look robotic? It would be difficult to empathize with on-screen subjects who are clearly not real people.

A true simulation training experience needs to have both physical and psychological fidelity. Missing one or both may cost you in the end – as you must “train how you fight.”

Contact a VirTra specialist to learn more about properly training the mind and body.