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Back to Basics
Why are basics so good? If you have to get "back to basics," where have you been? How or why did you get away from basics in the first place?

Back to Basics?

Jack Leonard
Staff Instructor

Over the past few years the terms "back to basics" have been applied to subjects as general as defensive tactics and as specific as handcuffing. The title "Back To Basics" has been used in seminar presentations, conferences, and in articles placed in various law enforcement magazines. Whenever this title is used, three questions should come to mind. First, why are basics so good? Second, if you have to get "back to basics," where have you been? Third, how or why did you get away from basics in the first place?


Many law enforcement trainers are now aware of the significance and importance of survival learning research. Although this may be new to some trainers, research conducted and/or sponsored by Mr. Bruce K. Siddle, founder and Executive Director of PPCT Management Systems, Incorporated, has provided a wealth of information in this area. The research goes back over ten years, and it demonstrates the importance of keeping tactics and/or techniques as simple as possible. Mr. Siddle’s research shows officers the preparations they can take to enable them to enhance their performance in tactical situations. That is to say, at any time just prior to or during a physical encounter with a subject. These circumstances occur whenever an officer has to take physical control of a subject or defend himself/herself against actions of assault. Since this research includes aspects of physical conditioning and psychological training, as well as recommendations for tactical training, the totality of survival learning research would be too large to cover in any detail in a single article. This presentation will be limited to methods of learning/training that can enhance the officer’s performance of techniques under stress.

A certain amount of stress is present whenever an officer has to take physical control of a subject or act in self defense. This stress has an adverse affect upon the officer’s ability to perform tasks that involve fine and/or complex motor skills. Mr. Siddle’s research states that the level of stress experienced by an officer can be equivocated with the officer’s heart rate. The optimal heart rate range for fine and complex motor skills is from 115 to 145 beats per minute. An officer in reasonably good physical condition is going to have a heart rate of between 60 to 80 beats per minute. When faced with the stress of a confrontation, however, this heart rate can easily exceed 200 beats per minute. The math here is obvious; the average officer is not going to be able to perform fine and/or complex motor skills under conditions of stress.

This concept is best expressed in what is referred to as the "Inverted Y Law." It states that as heart rate (stress) increases, the officer’s ability to use fine and/or complex motor skills deteriorates. Conversely, as heart rate increases, the officer’s ability to use gross motor skills actually increases. A gross motor skill uses major muscle groups in actions of pushing, pulling, or strength events. A fine motor skill uses small muscle groups and requires accuracy and/or coordination skills. A complex motor skill combines movements from both gross and fine motor skills.

Keeping this in mind, it is easy to see why subject control techniques should be kept as basic as possible. This also demonstrates at least one reason why the descriptive expression it works well in the class/training room but fails ‘in the street’ is heard by law enforcement trainers. Trainers who require officers to pass written and/or physical examinations for defensive tactics are well aware that such testing produces a degree of stress in the officers. This is most often exhibited as "performance anxiety" during practical examinations for any of the motor skills found in the defensive tactics program. Officers who have demonstrated excellent techniques during practice suddenly make errors because their performance is being evaluated/graded by the instructor. This type of error can usually be easily corrected by having the officer take a break from the testing procedure and then return to perform the skill a second time. This level of stress is minimal, however, to that the officer will experience when having to control a subject outside the training setting. The amount of stress present in "real life" confrontations dictates that the subject control techniques should be based upon gross motor skills.


Law enforcement trainers have seen literally hundreds of subject control systems, tools and tactics demonstrated as "applicable" for officers. One can simply attend any law enforcement training or product conference to observe this process. This is obviously the nature of free enterprise, and it is going to continue. However, since training budgets and time are limited for most agencies, one must be extremely selective when choosing a tool or a system for his or her particular department. Taking survival-learning research into consideration, officers should obviously avoid any tool or training that emphasizes the use of fine and complex motor skills.

When evaluating a system, tool or technique, PPCT utilizes what Bruce Siddle refers to as the Components of Acceptability. These are simply titled Tactically, Legally, and Medically. Tactically; does this apply to the tasks my officers are going to have to perform in the field, and can they learn this quickly and easily? Legally; what are the legal implications of using such a system/tool/technique? Medically, what are the medical implications to the subject when this system/tool/technique is applied to the subject? Whenever a training officer views something new, he or she should use these three evaluations to determine whether or not the tool/training is appropriate for the department.


With the importance of keeping law enforcement training at the basic level whenever possible, why have departments/training officers felt it necessary to get involved with tools or tactics that involve fine and/or complex motor skills? There is no simple or easy answer to that question, but speculation can be done in two general areas. The first involves the emphasis our society places upon "new things." The second may be the result of feedback from officers who have become bored due to their high number of years as an officer.

Looking at the history of law enforcement training in the modern era, one can easily see the pendulum swing. A new tool or technique arrives and is adopted by some departments. This is seen as "new" or "modern" or the well-worn phrase, "state of the art." For whatever reason(s), this becomes popular in law enforcement training. Popularity increases usage; then comes the first injury or death; next comes the first lawsuit, and then the tool or technique is given a "second look" by the training community. Or, something new appears, and emphasis shifts once again to "the latest thing."

This is not to say that law enforcement trainers should not keep their eyes open to new tools or tactics. However, trainers should not fall into the trap of moving to something new just because it is new or currently popular. By remembering and applying the Components of Acceptability to evaluate any new tool or technique, trainers/departments can avoid the pitfall of straying from "basics" (gross motor skills).

A second possible cause of leaving the basics is boredom and/or dissatisfaction expressed by the officers being trained. For example, how many repetitions of handcuffing can you get from your officers in a training session before they begin to do more talking than practicing? Or, they may simply tell you they are tired of cuffing and want to do "something new." This is perhaps one of your greatest challenges as a trainer, and you should not give into change simply for the sake of something different.

When PPCT was in its early years, Vance McLaughlin, Ph.D. recommended that research be reviewed/conducted to determine the most common types of resistance faced by police officers. The subject control system would then be based upon officers controlling subjects who exhibited those types of resistance. In this way, officers would concentrate training in areas that would apply to their work in the field. This process revealed four most common types of resistance encountered by police officers on patrol. Since the PPCT Defensive Tactics were developed for the patrol officer, the system was shaped to deal with the four types of resistance deemed the most common. Along with the appropriate control technique, the four most common types of resistance are as follows: resistance during handcuffing/speed cuffing; resistance from the escort position/joint locks; passive resistance/pressure point control tactics; active aggression/defensive counterstrikes.

By utilizing basic skills while training to deal with these four most common types of resistance, field or "street" officers are making the most of their training time and budget. These officers do not necessarily need "new" training to hold their interest. It is simply a challenge to the trainers to make the training interesting as well as applicable. Once the basic skills have been mastered, refresher training should be minimal with respect to the actual techniques. If the trainer observes mistake in a technique or its application, obviously some remedial work is necessitated. Once the skills reach an acceptable level, the trainer should then move into scenario training. This training should begin slowly and should provide the officers with realistic situations they may encounter while performing their duties. With proper safety equipment, the trainer can then move ahead into more dynamic training. Protective suits, padded training areas, and the proper trainer/officer ratio will allow this type of scenario training to be conducted safely. Such training will permit the trainer to maintain officer interest without leaving the arena of basic skills.

With effort and ingenuity, trainers can facilitate the maintenance of basic skills and avoid the "trap" of going into "advanced" skills just for the sake for change or newness. If trainers reflect upon their earlier seminars, they should remember the "KIS Principle:" Keep It Simple. Perhaps the next wave of articles or seminar presentations will reflect that principle and incorporate the phrase, "Staying With The Basics."


Siddle, Bruce K. Sharpening The Warrior’s Edge. PPCT Research Publications: 1995.

Siddle, Bruce K. Defensive Tactics Instructor Manual. PPCT Research Publications: Revised August 2001.