Mental Rehearsal for the Career Operator

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When I interviewed internationally known firearms instructor, Randy Watt, for this course, he described his mental rehearsal routine. To put things into perspective, until recently, Randy was the Assistant Chief of Police in Ogden Utah. He’s an internationally sought after SWAT instructor. He’s a Colonel in the 19th Special Forces Group with multiple combat tours. AND, he’s one of the elite few who have the critical combination of skill at arms and the ability to teach at a high enough level to be selected as an instructor at Gunsite

Randy has decades of experience as a tactical operator and almost unlimited access to ammo and range time. Even so, Randy STILL uses dry fire and mental rehearsal. In fact, he considers them to be a vital component to his training.

Part of Randy’s routine is the same, regardless of whether he is dry firing or on the live fire range. He’ll start out with 5-10 minutes with his eyes closed, visualizing his body doing what it needs to do. The goal here is to bridge the gap between what the brain is focusing on doing and what the body is performing.

He goes further and breaks his presentation down into his component parts: Stance, grip, sight picture, sight alignment, breathing control, trigger press, follow through, and recovery.

This is similar to what Jeff Cooper, founder of Gunsite, taught when he told shooters that they could improve their shooting drastically by simply starting off their range time by doing 25 repetitions of getting a proper grip on their firearm. Even if that’s the only part of your presentation that you focus on, everything that follows will improve.

Then next thing that Randy does is create an image around a situation that he is shooting. In other words, in his mind he isn’t shooting at a paper target. He has created a situation in his mind and the paper target has turned into a 3 dimensional person who has entered the room where Randy is. The goal of this is to put the emotional component of a violent force encounter into static training.

This step helps a person make the jump from “shooting” to “training.”

Randy does what good military, law enforcement, and other switched on people do and uses mental training in his daily life. As he’s going up to his bank, he quickly games hold-up scenarios in his head so that he’ll be able to react instantly if something happens. When he’s with family and sees an unsavory character approaching, he games his response in his head. And when he approaches his home with his wife and puts his key in the door, he games potential threats that might be waiting for him on the other side.

He used these techniques as a member of SWAT, as a SWAT team leader, as a Special Forces door kicker, and as a Special Forces team leader. They worked and saved lives in those situations and it only makes sense to use them in everyday law enforcement and in off duty and civilian situations.

The more scenarios you game out in your head and the more often you do it, the deeper your response groove will be and the easier it will be for your brain to quickly pick an effective response in a crisis situation

At this point, you appreciate the value of mental rehearsal, understand the most important fundamentals, and simply need a blueprint to follow.

There are two major types of mental rehearsal that I do. Focused rehearsal and “current situation” rehearsal. I spend the most time doing focused rehearsal as I’m going to sleep at night, while waiting in line, or before shooting a stage for a competition. When I do focused rehearsal, I do several “repetitions” per session. I alternate between focusing on specific parts of my technique and the tactics of the situation. Sometimes it’s all the same scenario, like before I shoot competitively, but I usually run several different scenarios in a row.

Current situation rehearsal is completely different and I do it throughout the day whenever I enter a new environment. It is focused more on tactics rather than technique. Here’s an example. When I unlock my office and turn on the lights, I always game out what I would do if there was an attacker waiting. I take into account what I’m wearing, who’s with me, what I’m carrying, and anything else unique to that day. The whole scenario takes from the time I remove my keys from my pocket until I turn the key in the lock—a couple of seconds at most—but it warms up my brain in case there actually is someone on the other side of the door

So, here are a few specific mental rehearsal routines that you can do:

  1. In bed before going to sleep, spend time going through the fundamentals of shooting–Stance, grip, sight picture, sight alignment, breathing control, trigger press, follow through, and recovery. Don’t introduce a scenario at this time—just shoot targets. This should not cause your heart rate to increase or your breathing to change. Remember to involve all 5 senses and be as specific as possible with your mental pictures. Just like fundamentals should be the core of your live fire training, they should also be the core of your mental rehearsal. Run your drawstroke forwards & backwards in your mind, both as if you’re looking out of your own eyes and as if you’re watching yourself with a camera.
  2. In bed before going to sleep, go through a few home invasion scenarios. How do you get out of bed? What do you grab first? If you have a lock/safe, what if it malfunctions? Can you tell if your firearm is in battery in the dark? Make sure you challenge and identify your home invaders as a legitimate threat…even during mental rehearsal. Sometimes you’ll want to carry out the situation until police arrive. Sometimes you’ll want to envision running into a relative. Other times, you’ll want to envision finding everything’s fine.

If you find your heart rate starts going faster while you’re doing this, it means that your mental rehearsal has enough detail that your brain is responding as if the situation is real. This is good for realism, but bad for sleeping. You can either use this as an opportunity to practice lowering your heart rate and blood pressure with combat breathing techniques, you can switch to mentally rehearsing fundamentals without scenarios, or you can stop running scenarios before going to sleep until you don’t have as much of a response.

You’ll find that the more you run through these scenarios in your mind, the more calm you become when you respond to “bumps in the night.” Part of what you’re doing is desensitizing your mind so that it doesn’t overrelease adrenaline if you actually do need to perform in a violent force encounter. So if you’re having a hard time getting to sleep after running scenarios, start running the scenarios during the day until you don’t have a psychological response to them. At first, you might even be able to mentally rehearse exciting scenarios as a tool to wake yourself up in the morning or when you’re getting sluggish throughout the day.

  1. Any time you’re waiting in line, run through one or two situation specific scenarios.
  2. When you’re at a stoplight, run through one or two situation specific scenarios, taking into account your clothing, your seatbelt, your vehicle, and the vehicles around you. As a hint, many times the best “solution” in these stoplight scenarios is to simply punch the gas, avoid confrontation, and escape. Remember to always picture yourself walking away victorious. It’s fine to imagine yourself getting shot, cut, or hit, but make sure that they don’t affect your performance or the outcome.