Brian Willis: politie training en politie trainers

In this blog and podcast we talked about a lot of things regarding police education and police trainers. We talked about motor learning, human error, what good training looks like, challenges for police education (block and silo for example), developing good police trainers, mental skills training for police and so much more! In addition to this blog, we have recorded a multi-part podcast that goes into more depth on some of the topics. The podcast come in a following post. Before you start reading and listening I close with Brian’s words for first responder trainers: ‘look for the smallest change with te biggest difference’. Today.

Brian Willis Bio

I am a retired sergeant from the Calgary Police Service in Canada. I started with the Calgary Police Service in 1979 and I retired in 2004. In my 25 years with CPS I served as a patrol officer, tactical officer, patrol supervisor and the last 8 1/2 years I ran the Skills and Procedures Unit where we were tasked with developing and delivering training in mental preparation and conditioning, officer safety, subject control tactics, incident command and emergency vehicle operations for both recruits and our in-service personnel. I was also a member of our crowd control unit for 19 years, the last 15 as the supervisor in charge of training and development and served as Deputy Commander during World Petroleum Congress, G-8 Summit and some other events.  

I am still and active law enforcement trainer and currently operate a training company called Winning Mind Training ( The areas of focus of my training are professional development for law enforcement trainers, leadership, mindset, performance enhancement imagery and mental preparation. 

I also I operate a professional development membership site for law enforcement trainers and leaders called The Excellence in Training Academy ( Through the EIT Academy I provide weekly content to the members in the form of interviews and webinars. There are currently over 400 interviews and 23 webinars in the Member’s Area of the Academy. The interviews are with experienced trainers, change agents, leaders, law enforcement professionals, authors, researchers, coaches, teachers, and experienced military operators. 

My goal is to expose members of the Excellence in Training Academy Community to a broad a range of information, on a wide range of topics, all with the focus of seeking to continually enhance the law enforcement profession by helping trainers improve their training. To that end I am continually looking for people to interview who can share insights into research, training, coaching and leadership that will provide actionable steps for the training community. 

In addition to my work with public safety professionals I have served as a mental preparation coach for athletes from a variety of sports including two Canadian Olympic athletes.

I also proudly to serve as the Deputy Executive Director for the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA).

I believe the goal of all training and trainers (Academy, in-service and FTOs) is to help the men and women we train become dextrous, adaptive, problem solvers.

Note: I want to precurse my answers regarding police training in the US with some context:

  • While I was a police officer in Canada for 25 years I have been attending training in the US for over 30 years and delivering training in the US for close to 25 years. For the last 18 years the majority of the training I have delivered to police personnel has been in the US.
  • There are approximately 900,000 law enforcement professionals in the US. There are 18,000 police agencies in the US, the majority of which are 50 officers or less, with many those being 20 officers or less. While many people outside of the US tend to think of the large agencies like NYPD and LAPD, they are not the norm.
  • There are hundreds of law enforcement academies in the US. A Department of Justice report stated that in 2018 there were 681 state and local law enforcement training academies in the US. This number may have gone up in the last 5 years and does not include federal law enforcement training academies. The length of training in those academies ranged from 653 hours to 1017 hours. The average length of the FTO (Field Training) phase was 508 hours.
  • There are fewer agencies and academies in Canada. In Canada, like the US, there is no consistency in the length of training and the manner in which training is delivered.
  • I am cautious therefore about making global, sweeping statements about police training in the US as there are drastic differences across the country, within states and regions and between academies. I will endeavour to provide a reasonable overview.

What are the three most important challenges in police education in North America?

  1. Finding ways to shift from the traditional models of blocked and siloed training and simply teaching to the test and instead finding ways to implement the elements of making learning stick, which include reflection, active / effortful retrieval, spaced practice, desirable difficulties and interleaving into their training. It can seem overwhelming to look at completely revamping a training curriculum. The place to start is by breaking down the silos within the training section and bringing everyone together to talk about how to begin to implement some of these elements. Agencies also need to break down the silos between recruiting, and the academy, in-service and field training elements in the agency.
  2. Looking at training from the perspective of The Infinite Game. This requires seeing training as an investment, not an expense and being willing to invest not only in training, but in the ongoing professional development of trainers. It requires looking at training as a career long process from pre-hire to post retire. Ideally agencies would embrace the philosophy that every day is a training day and dedicate at least 10 minutes at the start of every day to training. This would be in addition to the annual training currently provided every year. 10 minutes a day, 4 days a week, 48 weeks of the year results in 32 hours of additional training every year and 800 hours of additional training over a 25-year career. 10 minutes a day, 5 days a week is 40 hours a year and 1000 hours over a 25-year career. An Infinite Game mentality also involves delivering leadership training throughout people’s careers starting with the pre-service academy.
  3. The political climate, especially in the US. Anti-police and special interest groups, supported by some politicians, have been pushing the Defund the Police narrative, while at the same time calling for better trained police officers. Taking money away from police budgets is not going to result in better trained police officers. We have seen politicians enact legislation, unsupported by evidence, research or science that directly impacts police training. Valuable training time and money are being used to conduct now mandatory training, which the research shows is often ineffective because of the content, the manner of delivery and the climate that is driving this forced training. The political climate is also impacting recruiting and retention for agencies resulting in significant staffing shortages in many agencies. These staffing shortages make it difficult to be able to pull officers away from operational duties to send them to training.

What are the three main challenges in educating police trainers in North America?

  1. Getting agency executives to understand the importance of selecting the right people, providing the necessary training up front and providing ongoing professional development for trainers. A one-week instructor development course may be a good start, but it is not enough. Some of these programs are still doing the same exercises as were being done in those programs 40 years ago. A one-week instructor certification course in a system of firearms training, or subject control tactics training may be a good start, but it is not enough. Many instructor certification courses are simply longer student courses. You do lots of repetitions of the skill, or shoot lots of rounds, but you do not learn about principles of adult education, you do not learn how to diagnose problems, ask great questions to help guide the student to their own discovery of how to fix the issue, provide effective feedback when appropriate, use video effectively, understand the power of words or understand how to help prepare the mind for where the body may have to go. In some instructor certification programs, there are no opportunities to actually teach and few offer opportunities to help a struggling student work through their issues and improve their performance. As a result of the current model most police trainers are trained in just one area (control tactics, firearms, EVOC, intermediate weapons, criminal law, traffic law, vehicle stops, etc.). This adds to the siloed nature of training in academies and in-service training. Developing good trainers requires a significant long-term commitment of time, money, and other resources. Sadly, not enough agencies are willing to make this investment. Are there direct simple small steps to make?
  2. Time. For many trainers, training is a peripheral duty not their full-time assignment. They are already working long hours in their main job and any additional training, learning and preparation work must be done on their own time cutting into already limited time with family and for rest and recovery. When they do get pulled in to help teach their team is left shorthanded potentially causing resentment and animosity with their supervisor and peers. For those where training is a full-time assignment some are teaching almost full time leaving limited time for professional development. In some cases, the training demands make it difficult to pull people away from instructional duties to send them on courses and conferences.
  3. Understanding and applying the research on teaching, coaching, and learning. There is a push for training to be evidenced based and research informed. This requires trainers, who often do not have backgrounds in research, to read through large volumes of research papers looking for transferability of the research and actionable takeaways they can apply to their training. When reading the research trainers have three basic questions: What? So what? Now what? What does the research say and what are the findings from this research project? So what does that mean to me and is it applicable and transferable in any way to our profession and our training? Now what do I do with that information to enhance my training programs? I have read a number of research papers where there were no answers to the ‘So what?’ And ‘Now what?’ questions. In some cases I have reached out to one of the authors of the paper to see if I am missing something related to those questions. Reading research papers and textbooks can be tough sledding and it is frustrating when you get to the end to find out there are no actionable steps. One of the other challenges with research is that it is often conducted in a very narrow scope and in controlled lab settings, which is not reflective of the complex, chaotic, tense, uncertain and rapidly unfolding events police often deal with. Thanks to the work of Force Science and others we have seen an increase in research done specific to the world of policing over the last 10 to 15 years. However, there still remains a limited body of research specific to the profession so trainers need to make the link from research done in other domains to the policing profession. The reading, reflecting, rereading, pulling out key elements, making connections and finding ways to implement any actionable items all takes a great deal of time, energy, and commitment. Trainers then need to work with curriculum designers or others in their agency to find ways to work the new information into their training in a manner that is consistent with requirements of the regulatory bodies.

What does education for police officers in North America look like (what training, duration, content, etc.)?

  • There is no national standard for training police officers in Canada or the US. In the US there are 18,000 police agencies and hundreds of training academies. The basic pre-service academies in Canada and the US vary from 13 weeks to 28 weeks. In that time they seek to cover all the fundamental knowledge and skills necessary to be able to function on the street as a police officer. Some of those academies are regional academies, and some are controlled and run by a single agency for their own recruits. In some academies you pay your own way through and then find a job after you graduate and in others all the recruits have been hired by agencies who sponsor them to go through the academy. Some academies are live in academies and in others the recruits live on their own and simply attend the academy each day. Some are run like military boot camps and others are run on an adult education model where they have discipline and high standards without all the screaming, yelling, physical punishment and constant stress. Some are run as part of a multiple year criminal justice program.
  • In some agencies when recruits graduate from the academy they enter a structured Field Training Program. Unfortunately, there are still several agencies who do not have a structured Field Training program and as a result the post academy training is hit and miss as to its effectiveness. For those agencies who have a structured Field Training program we are slowly starting to see a positive shift where the first number of months focus on training and coaching the new officer to learn how to apply the skills and knowledge from the academy on the street. That training phase is followed by a multiple week Evaluation Phase. I feel this is a significant improvement over systems where the new officer is evaluated every day, often against the standard of where they need to be in three of four months. These evaluations often result in the new officer receiving low scores every day for the first number of weeks, which I believe has potential negative consequences from a competence and confidence perspective. They should know that it is ok to struggle as it is part of learning, growth and development. Ideally this would be a concept they learned in the academy. In order to implement effective Field Training programs agencies need to make sure they put the “T” in the FTO (Field Training Officer) and teach FTOs how to be teachers, trainers and coaches, how to utilize questions to guide learning, how to conduct effective debriefings, effective use of imagery and language and the proper use of video review.
  • Outside of the Field Training phase most agencies have annual in-service training. This ranges in length and content. Much of the content is annual recertification in things like control tactics, firearms and first aid. Other topics include current high-profile topics such as de-escalation, dealing with people with mental health issues, implicit bias, and duty to intervene. Unfortunately, in many agencies professional development training to improve emotional intelligence, leadership skills, critical thinking, decision making and problem-solving skills as well as investigative skills are voluntary.

How are police trainers trained in the US (where, what content, duration, etc.)?

The training for trainers is as varied as the training for officers. In some agencies new trainers attend a 40-hour Basic Instructor course and a 40-hour instructor course in firearms, control tactics, or some other area of specialty. For some trainers that is where their formal training stops. If they want to attend additional training courses or conference, they have to do so on their own time and at their own expense. 

In other agencies they identify potential instructors early and work to develop them over a period of time before placing them into a training position. Some use select interviews and webinars from The Excellence in Training Academy as part of the onboarding process for new instructors. Some agencies seek to continually develop their trainers by sending them to a variety of instructor schools and conferences. In some agencies there is the expectation that when you return from a course or conference you will provide training for fellow trainers on what you learned, then engage in discussions about ways to implement key takeaways into the training programs. Some agencies utilize expertise of people within their agency who may not be in formal training positions to provide additional training for their trainers. These might be crisis negotiators, tactical officers, officers with experience as medics, and current and former high-level athletes to name a few.

Time, money, and availability to attend training are always challenges when it comes to continually training trainers. I believe one of the keys with trainer development, as it is with all training, is to do a little a lot. 10 minutes a day of training focused on becoming a better trainer is a great place to start. This can be in the form of in-person training, accessing audio content focused on instructor development or reading articles or research papers related to training. The key is to continually have follow-up discussions in person or on Zoom to discuss what people are learning and how they plan to apply what they are learning. This will make training courses and conferences they attend a richer and more meaningful experience because of the wide and deep knowledge base they have and the important questions they are seeking to answer.

How is mental skills training (mental skills, performing under pressure) organized in the USA? In the Netherlands we work with 5 skills (self talk, visualization, self regulation, goal setting etc.). Are these skills integrated in the other trainings?

I believe the goal of all training and trainers (Academy, in-service and FTOs) is to help the men and women we train become dextrous, adaptive, problem solvers. This is about preparing the minds and bodies of the men and women we train for where they may have to go. Mental skills are obviously a huge part of that.

Mental skills training is an area I have been a huge proponent of for close to three decades. As retired LAPD Sergeant Stacy Lim says, “You need to prepare the mind for where the body may have to go.” That is why all these elements of mental preparation have been part of the Excellence in Training courses and Performance Enhancement Imagery courses I have been teach for the past 20 plus years.

However, few agencies that I am aware of are addressing this in a comprehensive manner. Unfortunately, in many training programs they still pay lip service to mental preparation by saying you need to be mentally prepared and do mental rehearsal, but are not actually teaching or training it. There is still a flawed sense of what “mental toughness” is, which is why I recommend every trainer read Do Hard Things by Steve Magness.

We have been seen Mindfulness training work its way into law enforcement training thanks to the work of Richard Goerling ( and others. Some of the mindfulness tools like meditation are helpful for self-regulation. On the topic of self-regulation, we are starting to see an increased awareness in the area of emotional intelligence, which can be beneficial in this area. Breathing is another effective tool that has been talked about a lot over the years, but effective breathing techniques have not been taught to the point where they are habitual responses on the street. New research out the Huberman Lab at Stanford School of Medicine led by Melis Yilmaz Balban PhD. has shown the cyclic sigh or physiological sigh as the most effective breathing technique to regulate the nervous system. If we want to break it down to its simplest form, then we need to teach officers to use exhale focused breathing (make exhale longer than the inhale) to help manage levels of arousal on the street.

Imagery (I am not a fan of the term visualization) is a powerful tool in the area of mental preparation that law enforcement in North America has been slow to embrace. I began incorporating imagery into training with the Calgary Police Service in the mid 1990s. In 1999 we began to drastically expand the use of what I now call Performance Enhancement Imagery with recruit training with huge success. Imagery is something everyone does anyway, we just need to help them understand how to be more intentional and deliberate in its use. As trainers we can augment the imagery their already do for themselves by building guided Performance Enhancement Imagery into training. Once you understand the principles and concepts of Performance Enhancement Imagery you are only limited by your own imagination as to how you use it.

Language also plays an important role in preparing the mind for where the body may have to go. This means that trainers need to be cognizant of the language they use when teaching and learn to communicate to officers in positive terms what they want them to do. Trainers are often conditioned to communicate to their officers in negative language. As a result, they spend a lot of time telling people what not to do, telling them what will get them killed, sued or fired. Language is also the words we use in the conversations we have with ourselves, about ourselves, in the privacy of our own mind. Therefore, we need to teach officers how to effectively manage the internal dialogues continually going on in their heads. Some simple examples?

Trainers should be intentional and deliberate about weaving elements of mental preparation and conditioning into every training session. Mental preparation should be part of total preparation for police professionals, not something that is a separate, optional element of preparation. This requires a cultural shift where we look at creating a high-performance culture from the start of people’s careers. Currently most of the psychologists employed by or contracted by police agencies are clinical psychologists, and they perform critical functions in the profession. I would love to see us get to the point where we are also employing sport and performance psychologists to help create that high performance culture starting at the academy.

There is currently a lot of focus on the ecological approach and within it the Constraints Led approach. Is this a good development and if so why?

I believe it can be a positive development if it is messaged and sold to trainers in the right way. If we tell trainers, “You have been doing it wrong for your entire training career. Now we will show you how to do it right.” There will be huge resistance. If we help trainers understand this is a potentially different way of teaching motor skills and may help officers develop the skills that will allow them to solve new and novel problems more effectively in the field, then we will likely have more success. Applying the ecological dynamics framework is a way to help evolve physical skills training to help best prepare the men and women we train for the chaos, complexity, and uncertainty they will face on the street where every call involves new and novel elements. I believe the ecological dynamics framework, when applied properly, will help the men and women we train become dextrous, adaptive problem solvers than the technique focused model of rote repetitions of techniques in static environments attempting to get officers to master a specific technique.

The concept that the performer (the officer), the task they are attempting to accomplish and the environment they are in are always interconnected makes sense to trainers when you explain it as does the concept of perception – action coupling. It does, however, require trainers to start thinking differently about how they design and deliver training. Moving from the “expert” telling trainees what to do, how to do it and when to do it to a designer of learning environments and a coach who walks alongside the trainees and embracing the “Ask More – Tell Less” mentality can be hard for some trainers. There is a line in one of the passages we explore in the Excellence in Training Course where the person reflecting on his college rowing coach’s style of coaching said, “He made us better, but he could have made us great.” If what we have been doing has worked to a certain point and made people better, could we adopt some new training principles and potentially make people great. This is why I believe the purpose of trainers and training is to help the men and women we train become dextrous, adaptive problem solvers. We need to stop blaming the officers when they fail to perform to the level we expect in the field and instead ask, “What piece of this do I own?”

Are police trainers in North America motivated and equipped to start using the ecological approach in their teaching and if not, what is needed?

In answer to the first part of the question some are motivated, some are not, and some are unaware of the ecological dynamics approach to skill acquisition and adaptation. Change is hard. Change is messy. Change requires a lot of work and change involves a lot of unknowns. There are more people talking about the ecological approach to motor skills training and working to help trainers understand what it is and why it can potentially be a positive shift in our thinking and approach to physical skills training.

Are they equipped to start using the ecological approach? Some are. Some have been doing it for over 20 years without the terminology. Some are working to gain the knowledge and understanding to apply the principles, and some have yet to be exposed to the concepts.

As far as what is getting the way, and what is needed, I think it first starts with stepping away from the “all or nothing” approach some in ecological dynamics world are advocating. I believe that ecological dynamics is one of many pedagogical models, or frameworks, that can be useful in police training. The reality is that very few, if any trainers, have the ability or authority to completely change the manner in which training is delivered in their agency or their academy. Another element that gets in the way with ecological dynamics is some of the terminology. The first step is to help trainers understand what the ecological dynamics framework is and how it can be applied to the training of motor skills and motor learning. Once trainers understand the framework then they need to focus on their Circle of Control and Circle of Influence and determine how they can begin to weave elements of ecological dynamics into their training, while still meeting the standards dictated by the regulatory body or bodies. Very often those standards are linked to the old methods of instruction, involve rote repetition of skills to develop “perfect” technique, and are focused on teaching techniques in static environments rather than developing an understanding of principles and concepts, which can be applied in a variety of dynamic and realistic environments. Trainers interested in utilizing the ecological principles need help in understanding what they are and simple ways they can begin to implement them into their training.

From the ecological approach, is there still room for an important concept like automation of skills?

Let me be clear that I am not an expert in the field of ecological dynamics. I have done a great deal of reading on the topic, done online training programs to better understand the applications in sports and interviewed a number of people on the topic. Some of the people I have interviewed are considered experts and some are trying to figure out how to implement the frameworks into their coach and teaching.

As far as there being a place for automaticity, if we look at the definition of automaticity being, “the quality or fact of being performed involuntarily or unconsciously, as a reflex, innate process, or ingrained habit”, then I believe there is. That should not be our goal for all training, but when it comes to certain elements like drawing a firearm, I believe the capacity to do that without conscious thought, in wide range of situations is critical. 

Much of the literature around ecological dynamics is related to athletic performance in sport. While there is a lot we can learn from sport science, sport coaching and athletic performance, law enforcement brings a whole different set of challenges. The Performers, Tasks and Environments are often drastically different in policing compared to sport, especially elite sports.

If we go back to the goal of training and trainers being to help the men and women we train become dextrous, adaptive problem solvers then automaticity in certain areas likely plays a role. Despite what we now know about the brain and the nervous system, the reality is that we still know very little. Therefore, I believe that we need to focus on taking what we do know from experience and the research and continually strive to find ways to help officers become those dextrous, adaptive problem solvers.

Should we be striving to make everything in practice as close to the game as possible? What is the difference between specificity and representativeness? Where do you stand on this question?

I believe that as quickly as possible we need to have officers train in contextual environments that as much as possible represent some of the elements officers will be exposed to on the street. This does not mean that they play the whole game every time, but rather that we facilitate training that slices of the game and work up to playing the whole game. This requires that trainers focus more on principles and concepts and less on specific techniques.

It also requires that we incorporate the elements of variability into training by continually varying the individuals they work with in training, so they work with partners of both genders and partners of varying size, strength, skills, and fitness levels.

We also need to continually vary elements such as time and distance, levels of aggression from the subject, the presence of weapons by the subject, a wide range of types of attack, fighting on the ground, fighting from the ground, lighting conditions, levels of fatigue of the officer, potential injuries to the officer, other people in the environment including people videoing with their phones, multiple attackers, confined spaces, various surface levels, other potential hazards such as traffic and falls, and the list goes on.

As far as specificity versus representativeness I would lean towards context and representativeness over specificity. By specificity I am referring to teaching a specific technique to defeat a specific type of attack in a specific environment. I think the danger in that is that the likelihood of that specific set of circumstances ever existing on the street is very rare. Because training time is so limited, I would rather focus on training principles and concepts that can be applied in a variety of situations to solve the existing or emerging problem. This can be accomplished by training in a variety of situations both physically and mentally and training the nervous system to solve problems. We continue to see officers on the street struggle to try and apply a technique in a dynamic situation on the street rather than take advantage of the opportunities for action afforded to them by the situation. While it is easy to blame the officer, I believe that is a training failure. This all goes back to my belief that the goal of training and trainers is to help the men and women we train become dextrous, adaptive problem solvers.  

3 books every LEO trainer must read!

  • Do Hard Things by Steve Magness
  • Make It Stick By Peter Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel
  • The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek

2 podcasts every LEO trainer must listen to!

  • The Emergency Mind Podcast with Dan Dworkis (I highly recommend Dan’s book The Emergency Mind as well.)
  • The Trainers Bullpen with Chris Butler

1 blog every every LEO trainer must read!

  • From a selfish perspective I want to say my Excellence in Training blog ( ) but, then in keeping with the 3-2-1 theme I was going to recommend James Clear’s 3-2-1 Thursdays Newsletter. It is easy to read and has simple, actionable content. I finally decided on recommending The Human Diver Blog by Gareth Lock. There is a lot police trainers can learn from Lock’s exploration of Human Factors in the world of diving.