Several months back, we had a meeting / brain-storm session with Ken Murray, one of the original co-founders of Simunition, and founder of the Reality Based Training Association. There was a lot of asking questions both ways, some arguing, lots of sharing, all spanning a wide variety of topics—all of which was beneficial. After all, we can’t really learn anything from people we agree about everything with. 

Incidentally, though off topic, if you ever get a chance to take Ken’s program—it’s intense, chock full of fantastic information, and very worth your time. If you’re looking for some high-speed operator to teach you shooting skills and tactics, it’s the wrong place; Ken makes no bones about his background as a trainer—which is quite refreshing in this age of internet commandos and keyboard ninjas. However, if you’re looking to learn from one of the most innovative thinkers in the training world, who has paid his dues (producing measurable outcomes with real students) and has probably forgotten more about scenario-based training methods and how they affect human operational performance than most of us will ever know, don’t pass up the opportunity.

During the meeting, one area where we found universal agreement (echoed by virtually every serious trainer in the tactical world that we’ve ever spoken with) is that things need to change in institutional training and qualification. In the case of BUILDING SHOOTERS and RBTA, we share a common vision (if perhaps not quite yet a common course): literally changing this world. It sounds ambitious; and it is. However, as Ken said, “I know we can change the world. I did it once already.”

And he’s right. He did.

Force-on-force training—with projectiles that fire from real service weapon platforms—is arguably the most the most game-changing innovation in tactical training of the last century. It changed everything.

Like most things in the tactical world, it started out slow, used by only a few elite units. Then it took off like wildfire, becoming the latest rage. In the earlier days, vendors wouldn’t sell to just anybody. You had to go through a week-long safety supervisor program to be eligible for purchase—even in an agency or the military. Soon though various competitors to popped up, competition drove out many of the controls, and now virtually everyone has (or at least has access to) these training tools, including a lot of people with little to no training in scenario development and facilitation.

This accessibility probably seems like a good thing and, in principle, it is. However, it’s also worth asking, “Why is force-on-force training so valuable?”

Without putting too fine a point on it, the answer is, “Because it’s really effective.”

And therein lies the trouble.

As Force Science instructor, Inspector Chris Butler of the Calgary Police Service says quite matter-of-factly, “Not all training is good training.”

So, what happens to our students if we run really effective, bad training?

Think on that one for a minute—because it happens every day.

Scenario-based training shouldn’t be done haphazardly. When it is, it can really screw people up, which is the opposite of what we want to do as trainers.

On this cautionary note, let’s look at one of the issues that frequently occurs during force-on-force training development, why you should avoid it, and what to do instead.

Scenario-based training is often designed with an expectation of a specific response from the student or students. Every scenario development should start with a primary objective, but a scripted list of student actions isn’t an objective—nor is it realistic. 

To inform this discussion, let’s back up and look at three of the things that a scenario does in terms of its interaction with the student. First, the scenario provides (or at least should provide) some context around what’s about to occur. For example, “You’re a patrol officer. You’ve been called to respond to a domestic disturbance, the wife claims the husband hit her and threatened her with a gun.” This usually occurs in some sort of briefing or based on a scenario card. The “terrain” that the scenario takes place in also helps provide this (for better or worse). 

The second thing the scenario does is provide a set of stimuli—stimuli that change. This is important because a complex, dynamic environment with changing stimuli engages the senses and the brain in the same way they are engaged out in the in the real world. This enables activation and use of the brain functions involved in the OODA Loop—Observe, Orient, Decide. Act. (It’s too much information to go over here, but our earlier article about tactical decision-making is probably worth reading if you haven’t already.)

A third thing scenarios do is provide an opportunity for the student(s) to act. For our purposes in this discussion, this usually means applying the skills required for use of force—often deadly force. As students act, the stimuli continue to change, which should inform their continued actions, perhaps even requiring novel (not previously trained) responses when training reaches a higher level. 

If you’ve read Building Shooters, you’ve probably noticed here that we just outlined here all the neural network types relevant to tactical training and operations, as defined in Chapter Three. That’s what scenario-based training should do: activate the brain. The scenario should engage the same brain functions, in the same way, that they will function for real.

So, back to our discussion. Why can’t we script out the students’ responses? After all, if we make a narrow enough scenario, shouldn’t we predict exactly what they are going to do?

The answer is no, for several reasons. Let’s look at three.

First, people are generally unreliable, at the best of times. Anybody in law enforcement or other profession who interviews people for a living knows, if you ask five honest people to describe what happened, you’ll get five different stories. If you get five people shilling the exact same story, chances are really good that they are all lying. 

The more stress that the students are under, the greater this effect is likely to be. What this means is, even if everything in each iteration of your scenario is scripted perfectly and performed flawlessly by the role player(s), each person who runs through the scenario is probably going to actually see something a little bit different.  

Sometimes, they may not even see things at all, no matter how obvious they are to you as the instructor.  

I remember once making entry into a hallway during a principal recovery and extraction scenario and immediately taking contact. We fought our way through the ambush and continued clearing the structure, missing a blatantly obvious indicator about the principal’s location in the process. It was there. It was obvious. It was really easy to see, and in plain sight. Still, everybody missed it. 

I remember my response when we cleared our way back to the hallway where we made entry. “Please tell me that wasn’t there the whole time.” It was. Talk about a learning experience.

The point is, you can’t expect to predict a student’s actions if you can’t predict what the student is actually going to see.

The second reason scripting out a specific response doesn’t work well, even though everyone gets the same brief, is that not everybody is necessarily going to have the same context going into a scenario. In fact, it’s unlikely, especially if your students are from a wide variety of locations and backgrounds. Even within the same unit or organization, you’re still likely to have this issue until perhaps after exhaustive training has occurred (including scenario-based), as a team.

Even during real-world operations, everyone brings their own set of personal experiences to the contextual application, stimulus recognition, and decision-making functions. In scenario-based training, this effect is amplified significantly—owing to the artificial sterility of the environment. The human mind tends naturally to “fill in the blanks” (and there will be blanks), based on its own set of experiences and expectations. Ever hear a halfway decent cover band play requests and wonder how they know every song so well? It might surprise you to know that they actually don’t. Your mind fills in a lot of the notes they miss.

If each person’s experiences are different, they will probably be working off different contexts with which to inform their understanding of the (different) stimuli they are seeing—each student’s mind is filling in the blanks with different information. By the way, guess who else this applies to? That’s right, you! You might be surprised how open to interpretation or even downright confusing your applied context is to somebody whose brain is filling in the holes with a different information set that you are. You might also be surprised what the student sees from their vantage point and how it differs from your vantage point. Only, they are doing it all under the stress of an evaluated scenario, not from the comfort of a padded chair behind a keyboard or the catwalk above.

Most scenarios (especially the more complex ones that last longer than a few seconds) can be described as a progressive series of decisions and actions that culminate in an outcome. Each decision and action contribute to the development of the scenario. Different perceived stimuli combined with different contexts are naturally going to result in some differences in decision-making, which can affect the actions taken, even if you assume the exact same objective and tactical application. The more that this happens, the more a student’s actions are likely to diverge from your desired, scripted list of activities.

Finally, the third reason scripting out an exact response as your expectation of performance doesn’t work too well is because there really is more than one way to do almost everything, especially when it comes to tactics. Some might be better than others, but that doesn’t necessarily make “others” wrong.

Several years ago, when I was still in a semi-operational role, I asked a subordinate to start working on scenario development for some on-going in-service training evolutions. I showed him a few templates from previous training events and asked him to start by defining the objective of the training.

He came back to me several days later with a literal play-by-play of the actions that he wanted to see the students perform. This isn’t the actual scenario, but it will give you an idea of how it was written, “Unit will receive notification of shots fired and will respond. First, they will drive to this intersection. Then they will dismount the vehicle and proceed on foot to this intersection. Then they will conduct a radio call. Then they will form a stack on this side of the building and enter the building through this specific door…,” and so on.

After reviewing the document, I asked him, “What if they don’t do this?”

His response was something to the effect of, “Well, that’s what they will do; that’s the objective. That’s how this should be done.” 

The idea that the students might well do something completely different than what he visualized in his own head while developing the scenario on paper simply didn’t compute to him. It never registered as a possibility—much less that this different activity could still be right.

This shouldn’t suggest that decisions and actions can’t be wrong; they certainly can be. However, it’s worth circling back to what we are trying to do with a scenario. Specifically, we want to use and connect the same brain functions required for real-world operations, in the same way they will be used for real.

This means that we want the students to make operational decisions based on context and based on what they see—NOT based on what they think you want them to do. “What is in Instructor Smith’s mind right now?” Is the last thing that should be in a student’s cognitive processes during scenario-based training. If it’s not relevant on the street, it shouldn’t be relevant in training. (By the way, this whole thing gets exponentially worse if (as often happens) there are multiple instructors involved, each with their own personal interpretation of “what right looks like.”)

This is not how the OODA Loop should function. When we develop training systems, we want to help make it easier for people to think and make decisions—not harder. 

Do you think that adding a guessing game regarding your personal preferred script for their specific movements helps engage a student’s brain in an operationally effective way? Remember, scenario-based training is really effective. What if they do that for real—because you taught them to? 

Should a former student who is out on the street fighting for their life take the time to consider what your preferred script might be for their performance? Or, should they be making decisions and taking decisive action——whether their decision was ultimately the best one possible one or not based on your personal tactical preferences?

Getting inside the enemy’s OODA Loop and acting decisively with speed, surprise, and violence of action are the keys to not just surviving, but to thriving in armed conflict. As a trainer, what is more likely to facilitate this outcome on the street? Is it confident, decisive, decision-making intended to solve the problem based on perceived stimuli and context? Or, is it adding in a step of comparing each potential decision and action with what a specific instructor’s opinion of it might be?

What’s better? Observe, Orient, Decide, ACT (preferably shortened to something closer to Observe—ACT through a well-developed mental framework and well-designed training) OR, Observe, Orient, Decide, Compare, Reject, Decide, Compare, Reject, Decide, act…uh…uh…hmmm…is what I did OK? Will he/she like it?  

Again, this type of training is very effective. The mental processes you build here may well manifest on the street. So, which of these two mental processes do you want your students to take into combat?

The bottom line is that a specifically scripted response is not only unrealistic as a scenario-based training objective, it’s actually counterproductive. As I’m sure every reader of this article already knows, timid, tentative decision-makers are a liability on the street—so don’t build them in training. 

Instead, use scenario-based training to develop operationally desirable brain processes. Then, connect these brain functions to the same contexts, stimuli, and actions that your students will need operationally.

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"Easily one of the more important books of our time when it comes to preparing police, military and armed civilians for armed lethal combat."
-Kenneth Murray
Author, Training at the Speed of Life
Co-Founder of Simunition