Administration and Leadership, Columns, Training

Authentic Education: Practice the Way We Play

Issue 3 and Volume 39.

Police lore tells of a time when officers were trained to unload the brass casings from their guns after shooting, put them in their pocket, then load new bullets. The problem was that the “bad guys” could shoot the officers as they went through this elaborate exercise, and many officers who did so in a shootout during the late ’60s to early ’70s died with brass in their hand or pocket from this flawed training.1

As history shows, how you’re trained can make a huge difference in real-world performance, and understanding all facets of training can better prepare your students.


Why do instructors continue to have students start training sessions with saying, “The scene is safe. I have body substance isolation on”?

Have EMS students wear all protective gear and use working equipment during training scenarios.

Have students wear all protective gear and use working equipment during scenarios. Photo Chris Nollette

This isn’t horrible, but we’re teaching students habits that become muscle memory and may be problematic in a real-world application. They need to practice the way they’re going to play in the field: Approach all scenes the same way; wear gloves and glasses in every lab session; if outside, ensure helmets and reflective vests are on, etc. It’s critical students rehearse scenarios the same way they’re going to instinctively respond in the streets.

A young marine said it best when he stated, “My old Gunny taught me that in combat you do not rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training.”1

Classroom application: Students need to wear all safety equipment and have all equipment available (jump bags) with every scenario. Never let them pretend to wear gloves or safety glasses. Whatever you expect them to do on the street they should do in the class—or you’re teaching them something else entirely.


Too many classes “pretend” and the students and the instructors fail to capture the true essence of what must be learned. If we’re truly to practice the way we play, we need to pay more attention to not only the moulage but other scenario factors. What if students had working equipment and the setting was more authentic? You don’t need an expensive simulation center or a scenario village—take the students to the mall, a local business or a thousand other realistic settings to practice and train in.

Classroom application: Do scenarios outside the classroom. It’s more realistic when the public can mingle, environmental factors can become a factor (night, rain, cold, wind), real sounds make vitals a little more difficult, etc.


The book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People states we should foster the habit of starting with the end in mind.Too many of us do complex scenarios that have no real teaching outcome—we just haven’t thought it through. Educators must decide what they want to accomplish and move forward with clear expectations and benchmarks. If your goal is to put stress on students to see how they react under pressure, then be aware of the research as it pertains to raising heart rates. For example, we can learn a lot from soldiers who go into a combat situation.

The book On Combat states, “There is a zone that exists, generally between 115 and 145 beats per minute, when you are at your optimal survival and combat performance level.”1

When soldiers reach heart rates at or above 175, there’s a definite decrease in physical agility and mental focus, setting up a catastrophic set of events.1

No instructor can argue that stress and failure are important parts of learning, but it’s important students realize just how much stress is too much and how long it can be handled.

Classroom application: Teaching students how to lower their stress and breathe properly may help them overcome the devastating effects researchers see when the pulse outruns the thinking-and-doing process. Consider having instructors or other students take the pulse of the student under pressure to see how they’re performing.


Concentrate on the concept of practicing the way you want students to play. Their language, dress, equipment and authenticity of the learning experience should create opportunities to succeed not only in the classroom but also on the streets. 


1. Grossman D, Christensen L: On combat: The psychology and physiology of deadly conflict in war and in peace. Warrior Science Publication: Millstadt, Ill., 2008.

2. Covey S: The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. Free Press Publications: New York, 1989.