How do you train a mental process change? If your goal is to teach someone how to bend their mind a certain way, what steps must you take to achieve that? It is well documented that when a person enters the military and goes to boot camp, the military tears them down as a person and rebuilds them as a soldier. Trainers apply the same concept in police academies and fire academies across the country. They do this because they have to teach the person a different way of thinking; a way of reacting to situations that are beyond normal experience and require specific mental processes to survive.
In 2000 I graduated from Police Academy in California after a year and a half of night school and weekend trainings. Working full-time while attending Academy and studying for a massive amount of written and practical exams was by far the hardest thing I’ve done in my life. In college I pulled just under a 2.5 GPA by graduation. In Academy and almost all of graduate school I was a 4.0 student (darn that one A-). My instructors didn’t suddenly find a remote portion of my brain to tap into and make me smarter and help me get better grades. The truth is, I always was a 4.0 student, they just taught me the discipline and the mental focus I needed to make better decisions. (And if you are wondering, large volumes of push ups on hot asphalt can be a very strong motivator to make sure you studied the night before!)
When the Boston bombing occurred many news commentators noted with amazement how the National Guard members, police officers, and firefighters ran towards the bombing locations and not away like the rest of the crowd. These incredibly honorable and brave men and women were at that point reacting based upon the training they’d received; training that enabled them to react in a manner opposite their natural reactions. Humans typically will flee from danger, not run towards it.
What allowed this mental transformation to take place at the academies? There were key elements involved that can be replicated for any mental retraining that I experienced first-hand:
- There was a strong leader present to oversee the mental retraining – the students were guided every step of the way through their training by someone very well versed in the mindset that needed to be created. This leader or group of leaders made corrections constantly and in the moment of error so the students never wandered far from the path.
- This leader or group of leaders demonstrated the new behavior on a regular and consistent basis – they didn’t just talk about the mindset, they lived it, constantly.
- There was a significant and long-term immersion of the student into the new behavior – this immersion allowed old habits, behaviors and thought processes to be forgotten because they stopped being used almost immediately. It was akin to someone going on a diet and removing every non-diet food from their home. Little opportunity existed to fall back into old behavior patterns.
- The retraining often occurred through multiple learning methodologies – our lessons on Officer safety for example weren’t just classroom lectures; they hired actors to place us in realistic scenarios and then let us practice what we’d learned. When we made a mistake, they corrected us immediately, demonstrated how to do it properly, and then had us re-do it.
- Students were regularly tested on the new way of thinking and either re-trained or reinforced in their choices – assessment was a huge part of the training and occurred in many different formats. We had multiple choice exams, verbal exams in class, verbal exams under stress (if we got it wrong we had to do push ups), practical scenario exams, and even one exam at night where a SWAT member playing the role of bad guy jumped out from behind a tree with a machine gun and started firing blanks at us. At every step we were given immediate feedback to help us improve.
I image you are probably thinking this can be difficult to carry out in a business setting. Unfortunately, we can’t give people push ups for failing an assessment (think how much healthier America would be if we could!) But remember you probably aren’t trying to train a radical mental shift like they do in boot camp. Often the goal is much simpler and the application of the above principles are there, but less intense. The principles can be simplified down to this:
- Have a good trainer that is dedicated to the subject matter and very present
- The trainer needs to live the new mindset as an example
- Immerse the trainee in the new mindset
- Teach through multiple methods
- Assess often and in varied ways
Mindsets can be changed, but it takes more time than simply teaching a skill. There is a reason boot camp is three months and academies can be six months or longer. Don’t expect radical change overnight, but if you apply these principles, it will come.