Attributes of an Exceptional Trainer

(Graphic by Sgt. Charles E. Humes Jr.)

While cleaning out one of my file cabinets last week, I discovered a copy of the magazine that published my very first training article. It was the November 1983 issue of Police Product News. I was shocked at how aged the pages looked and felt. After adding up the years (which took longer than I expected) I thought about it, and if you’ll pardon the expression: holy crap! I’ll be entering my fourth decade of instructing and writing training articles very shortly. However, what it really means is I have well over three decades of experience as a student of combative arts. I've been a student much longer than I've been a trainer.
Whether you’re a trainer or a street officer, when it comes to training, you have two choices. One, you can do nothing and let your agency decide what training you attend, thus allowing others to control and limit your knowledge base, as you voluntarily condone your descent into the abyss of training incest, or, two, you can take control of your professional education and seek out the trainers and training that you want. Yep. You’ll end up paying for it. However, only you can put a price on your life and success. I’ve asked myself this question continuously:  “If I don’t go out and learn what others are teaching, how can I possibly know if what I'm teaching and/or doing really are the best methods?”

Inspired by this question, I’ve spent upwards of $30,000 out-of-pocket expenses, and in excess of 50 weeks of vacation time on law enforcement tactical- and instructor-level training. This year, I plan to spend several thousand more dollars and two weeks of vacation time to attend ILEETA, as well as the Force Analysis Certification Course presented by the highly acclaimed and respected Force Science Institute Ltd.
Admittedly, I’m a training junkie. I’ve had the privilege to train with and under the tutelage of some of the world’s best trainers. I’ve also attended training that made me want to rip my eyes and ears out of my skull just to stop the annoying sensory input. With this much experience as a student to draw from, I think I’m qualified to comment on qualities that I like to see in trainers and their presentations. Teaching styles vary greatly, and not everyone will agree with me. Nevertheless, the attributes listed below are some of those that IMHO, help to separate the exceptional trainer from the ordinary. Your mileage may vary.
Shorter Is Sweeter
Don’t use lengthy, bullet point slides. Unless absolutely necessary, each slide should contain only a few words and focus on a single learning point. If you’re currently using multiple point slides, look for ways to split them into several separate slides. If it’s not a video, a slide should be up no longer than 30 seconds max. Give your audience something new to look at as often as possible. Basic rule of thumb? My slideshows average around a 100 slides an hour. Remember: Watch your spelling and grammar. Someone will notice if your slides aren’t correct.
Don’t even think the word “presentation” as you start to build yours, as this may allow the mindset of mediocrity to creep into your final product. Anyone can make a slide show that takes three hours to build in PowerPoint. An exceptional trainer lives by the word “production.” Although you won’t have the budget to do what they do in Hollywood, that shouldn’t stop you from maximizing the potential that you do have. Ask yourself: If they were restricted to using the resources available to you, how would James Cameron or Steven Spielberg present your training material? They’d spend a great deal of time ensuring that each slide was perfect, and that the training topics were presented in an enjoyable, detailed fashion.
If you really want to build a slideshow that people will remember, you must learn how to use Adobe Photoshop. Using an almost infinite number of materials, textures and color variables you can make two and three-dimensional text. Photoshop also allows you to build images in layers. By having different layers to appear in timed increments on the same slide, you can create animation and text effects that aren’t otherwise possible with our limited budgets.
For a lasting impact on your students, don’t tell them about your topics -- show them! Use photos and video clips from actual incidents to illustrate your points whenever possible. With the amount of in-car videos available today, if you dig deep and long enough, you can find an example of just about any tactical point you wish to teach.
Be Flexible
Be flexible in your teachings. If you learn something that’s more efficient and effective than what you’ve been teaching, adopt it immediately. I teach knee and elbow strikes for close-quarter self defense. I do so only because I’ve not been able to find anything superior. The minute I learn something better, I’ll be teaching that instead. Bruce Lee said it best: “Absorb what is useful, discard what is not, add what is uniquely your own.” Teaching something that you know is inferior turns training doctrine into training dogma instantly.
Cut to the Core -- and Quick
Police work has been described at times as a somewhat egocentric-driven occupation. Training in any occupation tends to be so, as well. Add the two, and for some individuals it’s a recipe for a self-centered, boring classroom. In sharp contrast, the exceptional trainer swallows his or her ego before entering the class. Although it’s important to set your credibility by discussing the foundation of your qualifications, keep your introduction to no more than a few minutes. Hit the highlights of your training and experience, and then move on to the core material you’re teaching. The class is about what you can tell or teach the students to help them. It’s not about what you can tell or show the students about you.
Keep Students on an Emotional Roller Coaster (Yes, You Read that Right)
Take advantage of the full spectrum of emotions in your productions. You want to make your students laugh, make them cry, make them enraged, make them ecstatic. Keep them on an emotional roller coaster throughout your productions. The exceptional trainer knows that getting your students emotionally involved will hold their attention, and increase material retention, better than any other teaching strategy. Also, when driving them down the emotional roller coaster, always conclude your productions on a high note of positive emotion.
Enhance Confidence
The primary goal as a law enforcement trainer is to enhance the student’s confidence, while simultaneously building his or her competency to prevail under the worst possible conditions. However, you must forge that confidence upon de facto, realistic abilities and skills. Giving your students a false level of confidence, fabricated upon nonexistent skill, is a loose definition for the word “complacency.”  We all know that complacency kills cops!
Be a Student First, Then a Trainer
If you don’t remember anything else from this article, remember this: I believe the most important aspect of being an exceptional trainer is to first be an extraordinary student. The best resource for trainer/students has to be the annual conference of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA) in Chicago. Watch any of the top-tier trainers at ILEETA. Almost without exception, if they’re not teaching, they’re attending someone else’s class. Meticulously comparing and evaluating: information, teaching methods, and teaching analogies. All of which may replace, supplement, prove/disprove, or augment what they’re already teaching. They’re the ultimate trainers because they’re the ultimate students.

In Sum
The day that you think that you know everything, or that you can’t learn anything new, is the day you become a dinosaur.  We all know that their non-adaptive attitude did nothing but set them up for extinction. 
For any sworn officer that lives within a reasonable travel distance of the University of Toledo, Ohio, I’ll be presenting another Critical Combative Concepts Seminar (free to sworn officers) on May 22. Go to for complete information.


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