Train Your Brain for Optimum Performance

By Barbara A. Schwartz  |  Calibre Press

Elite athletes train their brains for maximized performance under pressure. Officers need to incorporate similar training to optimize their cognitive performance in life and death situations.

Jim Leo, founder of Pit Fit training in Indianapolis, explains, “We train race car drivers to process sensory inputs, identify and interpret information, make a decision, act on it, and it has to happen very quick.”

Sounds like the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act).

Leo designed his “neurocognitive training” to stimulate the brain’s neurological pathways. His goal is to improve drivers’ ability to make split-second decisions in a race car traveling 220 miles per hour while moving hands and feet, trying to read and comprehend displays, making steering wheel inputs, and dealing with: an elevated heart rate, an activated fight or flight nervous system, and extreme environmental conditions like heat and humidity.

Sounds like an officer’s working conditions.

To improve drivers’ reaction time, visual clarity, multiple object tracking, perception scan, eye/hand coordination, focus, and sensory-motor functions, Jim Leo uses high-tech equipment demonstrated in this video: Watch

For race car drivers, visual acuity is essential in making decisions on the track. Same for police officers who have to make shoot/don’t shoot decisions in seconds and in low light level conditions. Leo uses sophisticated technology for visual training shown in this video: Watch

Police officers won’t have access to the expensive equipment Leo uses to train Indycar drivers or that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson has in his basement, but there are similar drills you can create at home with your kids, spouses, or other cops that will train your brain for peak performance under pressure.

For example: Hang a bed sheet or tablecloth on a clothesline, swing set, from rafters in your garage, or along your open garage door. Stand on one side of the sheet and have someone, like your kid, stand on the other side where you can’t see them. Have them poke your baton into the sheet at random points and heights. Then you push the baton back. Repeat.

Be creative with your flashlight. Cats love to chase a laser pointer. Let your kids do the same for you.

Leo instructs drivers to practice refocusing the convergence muscles in the eye by identifying an object at 10-, 30-, and 50-foot distances, and quickly switching back and forth between the objects. Front and peripheral vision can be exercised with ball drills. Concentrate on an object in front of you while the thrower moves around you and try to catch the ball.

Jim Leo states that our senses get more acute when limited. He has drivers train and make decisions with a strobe light flashing giving only glimpses of images. Many duty lights have a strobe setting you can train with including at the gun range.

“Don’t get stuck in one routine,” Leo advises officers. “To be at the top of your game you have to expose yourself to different obstacles that force you to formulate plans and overcome those obstacles.”

The brain needs new stimuli to keep growing new neuropathways. Leo advocates that officers learn to play a new musical instrument. Race car drivers are especially attracted to the drums.

Leo points out that for most sports a bad decision or mistake can result in losing a game. For officers, military, or race car drivers poor decision-making can result in death or catastrophic injury. “Repetitive, quick reactions that are life and death have longterm ramifications on the nervous system,” Leo added.

He calls this “decision fatigue” which impairs a person’s ability to make quick decisions under stress. Exposure to horrific incidents and the worst of human nature complicates decision fatigue for officers.

Decision-making skills suffer under extreme stress because the brain’s prefrontal cortex gets taken offline during sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) activation. The goal of training your brain is to keep the prefrontal cortex engaged and functioning in pressure-filled situations.

Nick Davenport, founder of MindBody1, trains drivers, mixed martial arts fighters, olympians, military, and law enforcement officers. His insight into what officers face on the streets comes from idolizing his father who retired after thirty years as a Florida police officer.

Davenport calls himself “Mr. Mental Muscle” and says the brain is a muscle that needs to be trained and exercised. He emphasizes that the brain is wired for sensory input and 80% of that comes from vision.

He has created drills officers can perform with items found around the house. The goal is to give your brain a decision to make and execute that decision with a body movement. Timing the exercise adds stress to the drill.

1) Separate a deck of cards into two equal face down piles. Simultaneously, flip the top card on each pile. Place the higher card to the left and the lower card to the right of the original piles until you have gone through all the cards. Time yourself. Try to beat 13 seconds consistently.

The following Stroop exercises require you to visit links to complete the exercises.

2) Time how long it takes you to read aloud from left to right the color of the ink and not the word. Ignore reading the written word. Only respond by the color of the ink. Time yourself and repeat to improve your time. This challenges the region of the brain associated with impulse control and pain/fatigue perception. Davenport says those who do well on this task have better self-control and discipline.

Stroop reading exercise A: Watch

Stroop reading exercise B: Watch

3) In this dynamic Stroop exercise instead of saying the color of the ink aloud the participant moves to a cone or object (labeled red, yellow, green or blue.) Use colored construction paper, color paper plates with markers, or kid’s sidewalk chalk to draw colored circles on your driveway or patio. The dynamic movement adds another level of stress and focus as well as physical fatigue. Time the exercise and keep trying to beat your time. Video example: Watch

Use this link and your phone for the visual stimulus for the exercise.

4) Place paper cutouts of circles, triangles, rectangles, and squares in different colors on a floor. Have your kid/spouse/friend call out a shape and color. Run to and step on that color or shape. Variation is to affix the shapes to a wall, call out the shape, and throw a ball to the correct shape.

To make the exercise more stressful, Davenport suggests the helper call out an arithmetic equation such at 5X3 or 42+80. If the answer is an even number step on a red rectangle, if the answer is an odd number, step on a yellow triangle, etc. Change the parameters to increase the skill level: if the equation is subtraction and the answer is an even number, step on a red circle, etc. Or, correlate the color to a number: red is five and blue is three. Call out red plus blue or red times blue.

Next time you are at the range, record the sound of gunfire, then play the recording while you perform the exercises. This will train your vision to stay focused and your brain to maintain executive functioning while dealing with the audio distraction of a life-threatening sound.

Davenport maintains an Instagram site where he posts exercises including tactical shooting drills.

Put down your golf clubs and try a different sport that emphasizes eye/hand coordination and body movement such as racquetball, handball, pickle ball, or tennis.

Use these exercises as a foundation to create your own. Keep in mind that the goal is using your vision to give your brain decisions to be carried out by body movement. The more complex you can make the decision-making process the better (i.e., adding solving math equations).

In these times, when every action an officer takes is scrutinized in the media, you must train your brain for making life and death decisions under extreme stress conditions.

If you come up with a creative training drill of your own, please share it with us at: editor@calibrepress.com.

About the Author

Barbara A. Schwartz has dedicated her life to supporting the brave officers of law enforcement. In her younger days, she served as a volunteer for Indycar’s predecessor Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART.) She trained as a race car engineer with the PacWest and A.J. Foyt teams.

Certified as a first responder peer supporter by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) and the Law Enforcement Alliance for Peer Support (LEAPS), she specializes in trauma-induced grief, injured officer support, suicide prevention, and traumatic event reactions.

She maintains memberships in the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) and the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA).

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