Trevor S. Thrasher: Controlling stress will help put a person in the optimal zone for decision-making and performance. This can be accomplished by controlling the approach to the situation, developing operator resilience, using active mind-body measures, selecting appropriate TTPs, and establishing confidence through training and conditioning.

About the author

As a combat veteran U.S. Army Green Beret, Trevor Thrasher has unique and wide-ranging special operations experience. His credentials include law enforcement SWAT, high-risk protective work in non-permissive environments, and counter-terrorism direct action missions done unilaterally and with foreign special forces.

Trevor served as primary defensive tactics instructor for the Omaha Police Department, primary tactical instructor/advisor to a foreign commando counter-terror unit, and is responsible for the groundbreaking curriculum known as High Threat Systems and Reality Behavior-Based Conditioning©.

Thrasher is an 88 Tactical Partner and Senior Instructor.


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Trevor Thrasher: Tactical Skills and High-Threat Decision-Making

The Article

High-Threat Decision-Making is a logical extension of High-Risk Decision-Making.

Let me explain: Both aspects include the necessity to make potentially life-threatening judgments under the pressure of being short of the safety, information, and time needed to make such decisions carefully.

The work of pilots, firefighters, and rescue personnel generally meets the definition of high-risk, and therefore they can follow the principles of High-Risk Decision-Making.

But a situation will become much more complex and challenging when the threat includes a potential opponent to your efforts.

Adding factors such as a non-permissive environment, hostility, lethal threats, and the potential or actual “use of force” to such a situation, we will need more layers in our definition to understand (and train effectively) any decision process in the given context.

Professions such as being a soldier, police officer, or fighter pilot are at the highest tier of difficulty in decision making because these professions put the decision-maker into a competitive cycle of life and death decision-making.

The existence of a competitive threat differentiates these situations from more uncontested high-risk decisions, making them high-threat.

That’s why I prefer to differentiate both aspects in our training and the use of the term High-Threat – because additional non-permissive or hostile opponents not only include risk but also opposing forces.


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Improving decision-making should focus on three core concepts

Many professions learned early on to use science to understand high-risk decisions better, and they have spent considerable resources developing methods to reduce errors and promote efficient performance.

For example, NASA, the F.A.A., medical professions, and even driving-based programs have emphasized risk reduction through an understanding of human factors and human behavior.

Unfortunately, until recently, law enforcement and the military have kept themselves in the dark and still resist the force of science because of dogma, ego, and tradition.

In 1973 Shelford Bidwell is quoted as saying the primary issue with finding out what truly happens in combat is on ‘dangerous ground because the union between soldier and scientist has yet to move past beyond flirtation.’

Improving decision-making should focus on three core concepts:

1. Decision-making and stress are completely intertwined.

2. The OODA loop (observe, orient, decide, and act) is at the mercy of stress, and high-threat situations often remove conscious decision-making.

3. Hard skills and tactics are too often trained in isolation (and fail because of it) with little to no focus on decision-making. Decision-making is, in fact, a mental skill with numerous physiological aspects that should be a focus of training.

For this article, I will discuss the first concept in depth.

Survival Stress

There are many definitions of survival stress.

They generally include the perception of challenging demands, lack of confidence in dealing with them, and the threat to life or limb, leading to the automatic activation of the “fight or flight” system to some degree.

A low to moderate level of S.N.S. activation can help decision-making as it keys up the senses, removes distractions, and prepares the body to fight or flee immediately with less reaction time.

High to extreme levels of stress do the exact opposite.

Many fail to understand that performance will decrease no matter the actor’s skill at a certain level of stress.

This performance curve is known as the inverted “U” or the Yerkes-Dodson Law.

It is a law for a reason. It is consistently provable and repeatable.

Controlling stress will help put a person in the optimal zone for decision-making and performance.

This can be accomplished by controlling the approach to the situation, developing operator resilience, using active mind-body measures, selecting appropriate TTPs, and establishing confidence through training and conditioning.

Split Second Syndrome

Failing to manage the S.I.T. factors puts the decision-maker into what has been called “split-second syndrome.”

The term was first used in a Police Marksman Magazine article written by an unknown police lieutenant.

This is a condition characterized by hasty decisions made from a state of desperation and fear without sufficient knowledge of the facts at hand.

Unfortunately, this is precisely what too much stress does to decision-making.

Avoid this when possible and certainly do not force split-second syndrome because of poor tactics.

The results can be devastating and can create significant liability at many levels.

Is it a Stick or a Snake?

During human history, your ancestors often had to make quick decisions with errors that could be costly.

So costly that they could mean the complete loss of a bloodline.

With almost zero medical capability, minimal protection from predators, and a constant risk of starvation, the brain became hard-wired to prioritize a threat response in sudden, ambiguous situations that could cost a life.

Psychologists call this the “stick or snake” analogy. Imagine your ancestor midstride walking down a path at twilight, noticing something squiggly-shaped lying across the trail.

With no time to observe and orient further, and the process taking place automatically without conscious thought, your ancestor had two choices: assume it was a stick and keep stepping, or believe it was a snake and freeze or leap over it.

One mistake cost about a calorie, the other the loss of life.

Therefore, brains are hard-wired to assume things are dangerous with high stress and little time to evaluate and think.

I do not consider this an error; it is a simple and reasonable survival function, but it is not one designed to deal with the use of force law and civil litigation.

Causing split-second syndrome by tactical choice will promote the stick or snake response.

You can easily find cases where this occurs.

For example, we have seen a dangerous suspect who, after a struggle, quickly points an object at a pursuing officer.

Without knowing for sure if it is a phone, taser, or gun, the officer logically responds as if it is a worst-case situation.

Another example is seeing a group of officers fire at a subject perceived to be armed, experiencing continuous gunfire.

Again, not knowing with full awareness if it is the suspect’s or fellow officers’ gunfire, they keep firing.

Surprisingly, the law enforcement community has done a terrible job explaining this to the public.

The reasons are political and not practical.

A Better Position Equals a Better Decision…

Unfortunately, some officers are allowed to habitually disregard trained tactics and procedures because few people are willing to resist to the point of death.

Although some officers will often deal with subjects who will kill them given the opportunity, many officers will never cross paths with such resistance.

This variance allows some to condition a complete lack of tactical response promoting panicked and poor decision-making that further endangers them and leaves their agencies vulnerable to liability and perception problems.

The goal of sound tactics is to provide you with every advantage possible pre-, during, and after the encounter.

When danger is unfolding, a better position equals a better decision, and the control of stress is the control of skill.

A tactical approach that puts the S.I.T. factors in your favor avoids split-second syndrome and the stick or snake response and will go a long way to keeping officers safe.


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Photos by 88 Tactical | Aaron Guzman | Trevor Thrasher

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