Success Under Duress

In this article, Former USAF officer and friend L/C Vaught breaks down to me the art of staying focused and composed under pressure. This is what he wrote to me:


One of the most valuable assets any man can possess is the ability to work well under pressure or “duress”. For this article, we will define “duress” as the high stress or pressure that arises from finding yourself in a situation where things will go very badly if you do not rise to the occasion and intervene to effect a positive outcome. (someone is shooting at you, a child is drowning mere feet from you, the building is coming down around you with someone still inside, your truck is rolling backwards down your driveway with a refrigerator in it that will impact your neighbour’s house if you don’t act).

There are many occupations in the world that require a man to regularly work under high pressure when things are “going as planned” and intense “duress” when things go sideways, or not as planned. Such occupations include Law Enforcement, Fire Fighting, the combat arms of the military, Emergency Medicine (to include EMTs, ER surgeons and nurses) just to name a few. Even if you are not in such an occupation, there are many situations in life that may require you to act assertively under duress. While I am of the opinion that some men are simply better under pressure than others, I also believe that all men, who apply themselves, can learn to work under duress to affect a successful outcome if properly trained and motivated to succeed. Training principles of the military’s elite combat units can be used to better enable a man to perform well under situations of duress.

My underlying assertion is that the ability to work well under duress is one of the core building blocks toward becoming capable of handling all sorts of difficult situations. The path that leads to this capability is exposure to proper training principles and an understanding of your bodies physiological response to stress. The idea is that training properly for one type of skill set under duress can build underlying habits that serve well under a variety of situations. I spent nearly two and one half decades in a high-stress, high-performance environment while training with world class fighter pilots from many different countries in a variety of combat, contingency, and training situations. The mode of operation in that environment is to “train like you fight, and fight like you train”. That one philosophy, coupled with a building block approach to training, sufficient repetition to develop “muscle memory”, and always training to “logical conclusions” became the bedrock of creating successful fighter pilots. In the rest of this article I will discuss these training principles and describe how they may increase your capabilities and successful outcomes under situations of high stress or duress.

Let’s break these concepts down with some real world analogies or examples. I spent a few years coaching American football at differing levels from youngsters to High School Varsity football. I was always amazed when working with or watching a coach who ran a practice void of live drills taken to a “logical conclusion”. When game losses occurred, which they invariably do when practicing this way, those same coaches always seemed stymied as to why the boys could look so good in “non-live” practice, and yet play so poorly at game time. The short answer is poor training. Let me explain the concepts that I refer to in quotations: “Muscle Memory” is the bodies’ ability to perform a function of varying difficulty under duress without having to think or process the steps required to perform the function. This occurs when the task has been performed properly so often that it can be accomplished, seemingly effortlessly, even under stressful situations. Human Factors Psychologist will tell you that the number of repetitions required to place something into muscle memory depends on the complexity of the task and can run anywhere from 30-50 for very simple tasks to upwards of 800-1000 for the more complicated tasks. Couple the need for muscle memory with the fact that under duress the first actions that suffer are those that either require fine motor skills to accomplish or require excessive thought to execute. Therefor those actions that can be executed without having to think about them, are less likely to abandon you under pressure. Taking things to a “logical conclusion” in training means not stopping short of likely outcomes expected to occur on game day or in real life situations. For instance, when performing tackling drills, you don’t stop the drill at impact, but rather continue to the logical conclusion of;

A. Taking the runner to the ground,
B. Missing the tackle for any number of reasons, or
C. A training stop is reached such as a touchdown or a fumble occurring.

So to train properly, you must allow enough repetition to develop “muscle memory” when performing the task, and then train the task under realistic conditions, allowing training stops to only occur when a “logical conclusion” is reached. Additionally, for complex tasks you must use a building block approach that escalates in difficulty. The idea is to master the simpler tasks before moving on to the more complex tasks wherever possible. This takes a very disciplined approach to training and the insistence that sufficient time be allocated to train this way. So back to the confused football coach who couldn’t understand the losses. I spoke with one of the High School Varsity coaches after watching weeks of practices that were woefully inadequate in developing the muscle memory required to perform under duress and failing to take the training drills to logical conclusions. When I explained what I was seeing, the coach made several excuses for this type of training, citing fear of injury with such practices and the overly safety conscious environment football was currently under, to name just a couple. The coach never changed his approach and suffered a 1-9 season.

Let’s take a look at self-defense classes which always seem to be high on the list of men wishing to further their life capabilities. If we apply the training principles I discuss above to self-defense training, what type of training environment should we pursue to be successful? Picking a credible self-defense instructor or school is a critical first step towards receiving proper training. Questions to ask: Does your instructor understand the need to train to logical conclusions within the reasonable constraints of avoiding unnecessary injury? Or, is your instructor more interested in putting x number of students through his class, thus earning more money? Does your instructor understand the concept of muscle memory under duress? Are live sparring sessions used to create realistic training? Or is live sparring avoided in favor of less intense training? (Katas or forms for example) Gross motor skill techniques and execution are often more successful than complex motor skill techniques, particularly under duress. Unless you are willing to devote lots of time in the gym or dojo to the self-defense techniques you are learning, it is probably better to pick a school that concentrates on real world self-defense and not world class athletic self-defense techniques.

Keep this in mind; most fights are very short lived (in the 30 seconds range) and nearly always go to the ground. Pick a school that includes some grappling and a reasonable amount of gross motor skill striking techniques. By choosing your instructor and emphasis of techniques wisely, and applying the above training concepts when learning, you can go a long way toward becoming capable of defending yourself in a variety of different situations. High school wrestling is one of the best “bang for your buck” self-defense skill sets you can learn growing up. Add a few solid striking classes with some submission techniques and you will likely find you are quite capable of defending yourself. As adults, consider a school that teaches very basic submission wrestling/grappling techniques along with solid “gross motor skill” striking techniques (elbows, hammer fist strikes, palm heel strikes). Here are some other necessary components of any self-defense program, many of which can be used in totally unrelated high stress situations. (I will identify the transferrable components with an Asterisk *) Some amount of hands on training or at least a discussion of soft/vulnerable targets of the human anatomy. A bar fight or high school scuffle is one thing. A fight for your life may require the use of some very unsavoury techniques that involve soft targets. Conversely a man must be able to defend those same soft targets. (groin area, solar plexus, brachial nerve bundle, eyes, trachea, knees, etc.) Developing and then maintaining the proper mindset* must be taught. (Never give up!! You are not out of the fight until you have stopped breathing!) Proper breathing techniques* must be developed in order to not be the victim of tunnel vision or brain fog, which often occurs under duress. Proper breathing allows you to help control a racing heart, the spasticity that often occurs from too much adrenaline in the blood stream, and the phenomenon of brain fog or tunnel vision under duress. Proper physical conditioning* really helps with the proper breathing techniques and allows optimum performance under duress. Learning to expect the unexpected* from an assailant. This will keep you flexible and mentally agile which can make or break a self-defense situation. Combine all of the above training/fighting considerations and you will have a very solid self-defense training program.

Leadership skills from the USAF

No discussion of performance under pressure would be complete without a discussion of the big “Mac Daddy” of any and all high stress situations; Situational Awareness! So what is Situational Awareness (SA)? It is the ability to be aware of your surroundings, in a 360-degree bubble, while knowing what your current status is with regard to that bubble. Are there threats nearby and if so can you prioritize them from greatest to least? Are you in an improving situation, a declining situation or simply holding on for dear life? Do you have the capability to change your situation? Are you even aware of what your situation is? In fighter aviation, maintaining situational awareness in a variety of rapidly changing environments was critical to survival in both the training and combat environments. Many a fighter pilot have met their end, from losing SA at a very inopportune time. There is not a lot of room for error when you are moving at 8 miles a minute while very close to the ground, or in a gaggle of several manoeuvring aircraft. This is why fighter aviation is often equally as risky in training as it is in actual combat. So how does this all important topic apply to increasing your capabilities under duress? A critical step towards success under duress is to always know your surroundings. In order to avoid a negative outcome or becoming an unsuspecting target you must be aware of the environment you are operating in. Are you in good guy territory or bad guy territory? During the daily grind of life, it is often very hard to know. One thing is for sure however; if you are mentally consumed by any one thing, your cell phone for example, in the middle of a crowded public venue, or a back alley, your SA is apt to be very low. This is known as tunnel vision which tends to get exacerbated under duress where we usually concentrate our entire focus on that one thing that is causing us the most stress. A good football coach will teach his players to keep their heads on a swivel so as not to get blown up by a blocker they never saw due to excess focus on just one area of the field. I watch people all the time run into objects or other people while absorbed in cell phones with no awareness whatsoever of their surroundings. That makes them a very large target for someone wanting to prey on them. Before I tie SA into success under duress, I will offer this free tip to all the cell phone junkies out there in general, and any man seeking to be more situationally aware: If you must text a quick message, or read a text/IM/Tweet or Face Book, while in a crowded or dark, austere environment, do the following: Stop walking, find the nearest wall, put your back to the wall, check your surroundings very quickly, and then perform your cell phone magic. If it takes more than 5-7 seconds, continue to briefly scan your surroundings every 5-7 seconds until you are done. This allows you to maintain a high level of SA, protect your back, and greatly reduce your chances of becoming a target. Very simple, yet very effective. In general, try and always keep your head on a swivel and your SA as high as possible as often as possible.

So what do these training techniques and increased SA have to do with successful outcomes during real world, random acts of high stress or duress? Very simply, they become habits which you can apply to any situation. Example: You are in a violent car accident on a busy highway at midnight with unknown victims of unknown physical conditions. What will your response be? Your heart will likely be racing, with your adrenalin possibly off the charts, creating mental fog and impairing your ability to think and act. You however have trained well throughout your life and you know that you must control your breathing to clear you mind, allow yourself to think and analyze. You also know the importance of SA and once you get your breathing under control and are thinking properly, you begin to quickly assess the situation so you can act with proper survival priorities. Perhaps you first need to get yourself and those with you away from any additional physical harm that may befall you while out in the middle of the street (where the accident left you), with others, not trained as you have been, in a dazed state of mind at midnight. You begin to herd those able to move away from the dangerous highway. What next? Breathe! You now think to delegate someone to call for help while assessing if immediate life-saving action is required. If life-saving action is required, that becomes your next priority. Breathe! Communicate your situation with emergency services as soon as practical. EMTs show up, no further injuries are sustained and a very risky situation is brought under control because you were trained and knew how to act under duress.

The bottom line: If you properly train, understand the physiological effects that high stress or duress can have on your performance, maintain your SA, and apply the techniques I’ve just discussed above, you will become much more capable to create “success under duress”.

As always; Train well, live well, be capable!