“I learned a ton…that will make me a better instructor.”

-SGM (Ret.) Kyle E. Lamb, Author of Green Eyes & Black Rifles

Article 057: Second Order Effects: The Unintended Impacts of Qualification Structure

When looking at the establishment of standards and criteria for large organizations (and, particularly, for training academies) it is also important to look at the unintended effects of these requirements. This is especially important when individuals who may NOT be highly motivated and personally dedicated (or who are simply overwhelmed and lacking the support necessary to implement them effectively) use them.

We have consistently observed that qualifications have a series of impacts in armed workforces. One of these is the creation of a benchmark standard—an expectation of performance. This happens regardless of what rhetoric is used, what labels are used, or how the standard is applied.  If it is “the qual” that must be passed professionally to attain or maintain a job – then it becomes the default benchmark expectation.

This expectation of performance does several things. 

1) It creates a lower limit baseline of performance.  This is where the people who will be the most likely to cause firearms related performance problems for any armed workforce will hover—because they can. We can’t just look at a test from the perspective of its impact on resources and time to train, we also must consider its systemic impact on quality and longevity of overall skillset of the workforce, particularly the bottom tier of it. 

2) It creates a framework and system for competitive performance. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the people who barely pass on qual day, are the top performers.  These folks will compete with each other to see who does the best—typically based on the standard of measurement.  Why? To paraphrase Sir Edmund Hillary, when asked why he set out to climb Mt. Everest, “Because it is there.”

Measured standards are something to compete in. The scores taken are the ones that count. Who wants to win a contest that doesn’t matter and lose one that does? It is much easier to compete based on the data that is actually being collected and reported. (More to follow on this.)

3) It creates a performance governor. This is one of our biggest beefs against many standard methods of qualification, even those that focus on discreet skills performance. They are often hard enough that people must practice in order to pass them. Yet, they are still frequently easy enough that they can be passed with mediocre (or sometimes even poor) shooting technique. 

This means that both practice and qualification often serve to reinforce what are at best mediocre skills networks that become truly entrenched in the student’s brain and are very difficult to undo later.

Once a student is asked to perform at a higher standard – it is not simply a matter of improving existing skills, tweaking timing in subcomponents of performance etc. Moving to the next level requires a ground-level relearning and remediation that is impractical to achieve for many armed professionals (or even simply working professionals in any vocation who have multiple competing priorities).

Please note that our recent book Hitting in Combat is a good reference for explaining the scientific “why” behind some of the brain mechanics that are in play here, specifically when point shooting techniques are involved.

4) Standards becomes the focus (and often also the purpose) of training time.  This is something that virtually everyone in the industry at this point “knows” should not happen. However, it does happen. And in our experience it always happens at a systemic level.

As an industry we have spent a lot of years giving lip service to the different concepts of training and qualification. However, in reality, lip service is generally all this ever becomes.

Systems are shaped by mandatory standards. That is just how it works because it is how people work. Everything else will always be an afterthought. 

5) Standards become the central point of “gamesmanship”.  What we mean by this is that people will want to do better on the test – and to advantage themselves with respect to the test. These effects not only occur with test performance optimization, but they also occur with gear optimization.

It is likely that the reader has done this personally (certainly the author has). Examples include cheating a holster over from its normal carry position for a better grab, wearing special range clothes that don’t snag like actual street clothes might, unsnapping retention on a holster, etc.

And, why not? If one’s livelihood is potentially at stake based on one’s test performance, what is unreasonable about optimizing that performance? The consequences of failure on the trainee’s life, while not a matter of life and death, are real and potentially severe.

The effects of this are relatively obvious – the operational value of the training is watered down because what is being practiced is some variation of the operationally required skill and/or equipment – often altered by bypassing a part of the actual required skill (like clearing a cover shirt or getting all levels of retention disengaged) that is difficult, cumbersome, and often interferes with effective performance outcomes.

Yet another related (but different) impact of this “gear gaming” is that the measurements of performance taken during a “gamed” range performance give a false reading on levels of operational readiness.

Bypassing these factors on the range makes for better scores. It does not make for better outcomes in the field.

It is tempting to look at some of the systemic impacts of standards that are listed above and dislike them – even state explicitly in paperwork or in training that these impacts are not the intent of the standard, or that the impacts shouldn’t happen.  Unfortunately, this is a bit like ignoring gravity. These are consistently observed systemic impacts of mandatory standards and they will happen, whether you like them or not and whether you want them to or not.  Pretending otherwise will not help improve either performance on the range or operational outcomes.

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"The clearest, simplest, most well-founded psychomotor training program I have seen for developing shooting skills."
-Dr. Bill Lewinski
Executive Director, Force Science Institute
"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