23 January 2013

Startle Response & Pistol Training

Many in martial arts spend a great deal of time making their startle response work for them, at least those who are training for the realities of combat are.  Sadly, many of those who consider themselves highly trained in the area of pistol craft either ignores the impact of startle response or simply don’t understand it.  Some explanations of the startle response are in order.

The startle response is triggered through sudden audio or visual cues.  The first thing that happens is that we stop breathing.  We have all seen this in people, who for some reason, are deathly scared of something and we have to remind them to breathe.  This first part of the startle response can take as little as 20 milliseconds to occur.  Now, the rest of the fight or flight response begins. We automatically crouch a little to make us a smaller target, our chin comes down to our throat to protect our throat, and our hands come up to defend ourselves.  Depending on the type of stimulus, many people will simply freeze at this point.  This makes sense because the stimulus may not be anything they can fight, and in which direction to move to get away from the threat may not be obvious.  The more pronounced and unfamiliar the stimulus, the more freezing is likely.  Let me give an example.

When I first started bouncing, every time someone would drop a pool stick on the ground, the “snap” of it on the floor would make me jump out of my skin.  This is something that can happen many times during the night, but the sound was never followed by anything that was a threat to me.  On the other hand, someone raising their voice over the level of the crowd often resulted in me having to take action.  Now my mind is conditioned to automatically recognize the sound of a pool stick falling on the ground.  I no longer jump, but simply turn towards the sound as I would for any other sound.  Over time, I have conditioned myself to immediately move in response to any yelling and screaming as I investigate it further.  This was a natural extension of my experience as a police officer, the pool stick was not.  This is an example of conditioning yourself to the particular stimuli of an operational environment. 

Back to the startle response.  Once your startle response is in full swing, you switch from your “thinking” brain to your “survival” brain.  The survival brain is only concerned with protecting us from anything that is trying to hurt us.  Having tools to protect ourselves with is a relatively new thing.  The use of tools and recognizing options are the role of the thinking brain.   As previously discussed, the survival brain is for fight and flight, but the flight we are talking about is gross motor striking, not the fine complex motor skills of shooting.  If prior to the stimulus that causes the startle response, the shooter already has a gun in their hand; there is a good likelihood that they will not recognize other options.  This could result in them shooting, even when it may not be the best solution.  During my police career, I saw several officers draw their gun because they were scared and did not have confidence in their other skill sets.  I called them “gun shakers”.  The same type of officer was also quick to us OC Spray on a suspect.  Both the gun shaking and OC spray has given way to Taser use.  What has not changed is that people do not always respond to being shot, OCed, or Tased as you would expect, and the bottom line is that you still need to go hands on with people.

In reality, the act of drawing a pistol to defend yourself is going to be preempted by loud dialog, other loud sounds, or furtive movement causing you to believe that someone is going to cause you pain.  The incident, especially in the case of the armed citizen, is going to be spontaneous.

Face it, when you go to the range, you know that even during the most intense courses of fire, nobody is going to cause you even the slightest pain.  Your only force option is the gun.  The only thing you need to do is engage targets in reaction to a buzzer or bell that you are waiting to hear.  Even shoot/no shoot training, in most cases, does not put the shooter in any danger of pain.  I have never been on a range where there is the option of running away.  As a matter of ,it is just the opposite.  In my opinion, more than anything else, is what encourages police and citizens alike to get pulled into a scenario and close the distance with a bag guy leaving solid cover.  On the range, there is no pain penalty for moving towards a target.  An over reliance on square range training not only limits your options but encourages you to not recognize those that you have.

Even force on force training with Blue Guns would do a better job of conditioning the shooter to be able to manage their startle response, which in turn would enable them to operate using their thinking mind.  By doing so, options besides the gun could be turned into conditioned responses.  Things like moving at angles instead of straight back, using physical barriers against open hand, edged weapon, and impact weapon attacks, using open hand skills to defend against contact distance attacks, or simply driving away.  The final option of deadly force should not be the most concentrated on.

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