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An interview with Mike Gillette on the Genesis of his new Dragon Door Certification program, Mental Mastery

October 8, 2012 01:00 PM

Dragon Door:   How did you first become involved in the mental aspect of training?
Mike Gillette:   I had been involved in law enforcement training for several years. In the mid 1990s, I was primarily teaching in an academy environment. The curriculum was use of force topics—the various tools and techniques law enforcement and corrections officers use to motivate better decision making. Intermediate weapons like batons, chemical sprays, and empty hand techniques each have their own methodology and language. So, when someone designs a training program for a specific topic, there's a human tendency to drill down and focus on just that one thing. But that one thing is merely a single tool in the toolbox. I became aware that each sub-discipline was so encapsulated, that it was hard for the end-user to see how they all fit together.
If I was teaching baton tactics, after reviewing the nomenclature, rules governing its use, and any relevant case law, we would go outdoors for scenario training. Because it was "baton day," a self-fulfilling prophecy would occur—every problem would suddenly require a baton solution. If the scenario was investigating a noise complaint, it would somehow require wielding a baton because that's what we're practicing today. If we were recertifying to carry pepper spray, then every problem would suddenly be resolved with a healthy dose of pepper spray.
We had very isolated ways of looking at tools that were supposed to be part of an integrated cognitive process. Problems can have multiple solutions, and can also evolve through multiple solutions very quickly. If someone has to mentally retrieve a separate hardbound encyclopedia to handle each possible solution, a decision can't be made quickly or accurately enough. We were teaching in a way which was unwieldy and dangerous to the end-user, so I began to integrate the concepts for dynamic conflict situations.
Of course, extreme emotions will play a part with one or multiple people involved in a given situation—along with the officer's own psychological and emotional responses. I'm not a psychologist, but I always analyzed our training and tried to figure out ways to improve it. I concluded that I needed to make the training scarier—in a productive way. For example, when it was time to requalify with our pistols one year, I set up the indoor shooting range in a way which would make it more environmentally valid. With permission, I removed some of the light bulbs, and cut rolls and rolls of black plastic into sections to create a maze-like entrance. I also suspended additional black plastic cut into strips which hung down from the ceiling. Normally the range would feel very familiar, but a police officer doesn't have that luxury in the real world. By rearranging the entrance to the range, by the time an officer was inside, he or she had no idea which direction they were facing. Immediately this created anxiety, since it's only safe to shoot in one direction in a range.
Dragon Door:    Sounds disorienting!
Mike Gillette:    Yes, and it's dark. Additionally, I lined the walls with more plastic and sprayed all kinds of horrible anti cop graffiti with bad language on it. Instead of the usual plain targets, I used targets which looked more like angry, aggressive people . So, this was my first, admittedly low-budget attempt to introduce a little bit of anxiety—and it was remarkably effective. It sounds silly and primitive, but I knew I was on to something when I saw the results. Subsequently, I made sure that every time we trained, the training area would be environmentally valid, and every problem would have a multilayered solution—no more one-size-fits-all responses. That was really the beginning.
Dragon Door:    What were the results with the environmentally valid shooting range?
Mike Gillette:    Some scores suffered, some didn't—overall, I saw a higher level of engagement. The officers were a lot more careful than they had been with the regular annual qualification course. For someone who carries weapons as part of their job, over-familiarity with the regular test can make the officer too comfortable with the process.
Mike Gillete
Dragon Door:    And this further inspired your interest into mental training?
Mike Gillette:    Mental training is something everybody likes to talk about now. For example, many members of the "warehouse gym" crowd say they're developing the mental side of their training. I think that they are, but only in a very narrow bandwidth. Learning to press on and manage fatigue are important lessons—but that's just one part of the equation. So many concepts in mental training get a lot of lip service—we say we do it but we don't really do it.
Pumping up clients up by saying, "You're doing great and it's amazing," doesn't make a coach a master motivator. Coaches and instructors realize there's a deficiency in this skill set, and it's almost always on the mental side. If I yell at someone to concentrate, think positive, focus, or visualize their success—but can't explain to them how, then how can they do it? The information is just not available in the athletic training community or in many other fields. If we don't have techniques to help our clients in this way, then we're just doing a lot of well-intentioned yelling.
Still in the 1990s, after I had really begun to study this topic, I reconnected with a friend from junior high I hadn't seen in years. As a teenager, he was well known for his magic shows. Now he was specializing in inventing mental magic effects—where the performer appears to read minds for example. He sells his effects to professionals all around the world. At the time, he was doing a lot of research into neurolinguistic programming and the use of specific words and phrases to magnify the emotional impact of the effects.
I approached him because I was spending more and more time teaching communication skills to law enforcement and corrections officers—and this is a group which has to talk to people in the worst possible circumstances. I eventually listened to a lot of his audio tapes while on patrol to see how they could be adapted to police scenarios. None of this was earth shattering, since George Thompson—a pioneer in confrontational rhetoric—had already written a very popular book called Verbal Judo. I didn't go on to do a specialized study of neurolinguistic programming because most of it didn't fit what I did. It's fascinating material, but first responders work in a very immediate world. But, I still wanted to understand how semantics could be used as a sophisticated tool to motivate the decision making of others in a non-scripted way. In many hostage negotiation schools, there's interesting information but it's very scripted—If the bad guy isn't on the same script, that's a problem. Early on, much of what I learned about psychology came from hostage negotiation and interrogation research. There are specific methods based on the type of criminal activity in question or the suspect's past experiences, trauma, narcissistic or other personality disorders, antisocial behavior etc.
Ultimately, I became a strong advocate of mental preparation when I was working in the aviation industry post 9/11. Particularly with United Airlines, on what was the largest training project of its kind, possibly in any industry. We built a training program that basically had a communication skills component, a threat assessment component, and a "how to kill a terrorist" component.
As we approached the beta test time frame, I realized I'd overlooked something. Prior to 9/11, this group of end-users skills had been providing excellent customer service—and here we had designed a program that teaches them how to hurt and/or kill people. We needed to address the cognitive and emotional aspect of using these new skills. Most of the trainees would need a means of mentally clicking into action, while simultaneously realizing they have permission to do what we've taught them.
I enlisted the help of a tough female former police psychologist and author to create a video presentation. I really wanted this predominantly female user group to hear her explain, "It's ok to be scared, but it's also ok to use these new skills." I created the nuts and bolts of the material and she handled the motivational portion. The night before the hands on training, participants watched the presentation and took a computer scored test. So, in roughly six year’s time, I had gone from, "The firing range needs be a scarier place to train" to becoming a strong advocate of factoring in a mental component with many forms of training.
Dragon Door:    Earlier, you mentioned coaches telling their athletes to get tough or visualize their success, then not knowing what to do next. How would you coach someone to get tough?
Mike Gillette:     First, we have to define tough. What does that word mean for the trainee? Defining what that means will bring clarity to the goal. With respect to toughness, we have to look at the trainee and their situation. Are we training a firefighter in a firefighter skill or training a firefighter in the gym? Are we training a soccer mom or sitting down with a group of individuals who have a high likelihood of being taken as prisoners of war? Their mental toughness training is going to be different than that of a basketball team. The broad general use of the phrase "mental toughness" leads to confusion. A coach wants to provide mental toughness training because it's valuable, but the coach's own definition of toughness may not fit the client's needs.
The basketball team will need to access their skills when fatigued, not feeling well, or tired. Fatigue is game-induced, tired means a player didn't sleep well the night before the game. A player also needs to access their skills when he or she is angry about a ref's last call or a really hostile crowd at an away game. Some of these factors are physiological and some are emotional.
I don't celebrate his personal conduct, but Kobe Bryant is an excellent example of someone who always functions well on the basketball court—he literally seems impervious. Here's a guy who testifies in court, then plays mind-bendingly impressive basketball the same day—all while flying in and out of the state. He's an example of someone who's mentally tough—he has the ability to turn off distractions and play extraordinarily good basketball, regardless of whatever he might do off the court.
How can we simulate cumulative fatigue or exhaustion for our basketball players? What types of distractions can be introduce in a practice session that might simulate the cognitive dissonance of hostile fans or general chaos which would effect decision making on the court? Some situations we can't simulate, but we can at least create a similar level of interference. I could add pounding techno music and strobe lights on a basketball court—if everyone can still make their shots with that going on, then we're building better players.
Dragon Door:    That makes sense—the distraction itself doesn't matter, only that it is overcome.
Mike Gillette:     You’re talking to a guy who would put a rock in his trainee’s shoes while they were performing certain defensive tactics in a training scenario. Why? Because it's uncomfortable, and being uncomfortable is distracting.
Dragon Door:     What can you tell us about performance breathing?
Mike Gillette:     I teach a few basic breathing exercises that are absolutely universal. These are techniques I have used myself. For example, I used to perform one technique routinely while driving at high speeds to calls just to calm myself down. With the loud siren going, the radio telling me where to go and updating me—if it's a really hot situation, everyone on the radio is amped up. Dodging traffic with the constant honking and squealing tires, and the fact that in about 30 seconds I'm going to have a meaningful discussion with someone who has a gun also amped me up. I would force myself to do the breathing exercise consistently—granted, I didn't do the eyes closed version. But, it was still effective.
When I teach it, we check our pulse, practice the breathing exercise for several minutes and then recheck. Everything I teach has an outcome attached to it, I come from a pragmatic universe—you can't sell esoteric BS to cops and soldiers, it just doesn't fly.
Dragon Door:    Aside from law enforcement and sports teams, who else can benefit from the Mental Mastery Certification Workshop?
Mike Gillette:    This is a great package of skills for an athletic trainer. If you're a good coach, there are aspects about you that your clients seek to emulate. Many coaches are balanced and focused people, but may not know how to teach these qualities to others. Some coaches start to evolve into a greater mentor role and inherently have the attributes and skill sets to do this effectively —but they are the exception. Most people don't naturally have these qualities, and even if they do, they lack a structured delivery system. They may have a few specific techniques that work—but it's not a complete package.
Dragon Door:     You've recently started Strongman training. It seems like most people involved with old time Strongman performances acknowledge a mental or spiritual approach to these feats. What do you think?
Mike Gillette:     That's a pretty apt assessment. I started with Strongman feats just a few years ago, and quite unintentionally. In 2008, I found the contact info for Dennis Rogers, the most prominent member of the Strongman subculture. He was on the first episode of Stan Lee's Super Humans last year, and the only Strongman ever to appear on Oprah.
I've always been amazed by him because he's a couple years older and a little bit smaller than me. His strength is scary because it doesn't make sense relative to his physique—he's the first to ever bend a crescent wrench in half! I contacted him about private training and he invited me to an event for some of his protégés—basically, a few days of dissecting feats and swapping training methods. Dennis said it would be a great opportunity to get perspective and meet some really high-level guys. I was concerned that at age 46 that I would spoil the mood, but he said it would be fine because they would appreciate my background.
At the event in Houston with Dennis, what I saw from just a few feet away was amazing—it spoke to me on a very personal level. Here were guys at the highest level of their game, using their abilities in a particularly compelling way. They were going into schools, churches, and even prisons, sharing a positive message using their powerful talents. I wanted this so much I hardly could sleep for weeks, because I was 46 and suddenly feeling very average.
Dennis was very encouraging, and a great coach. While I was with him, I bent a horseshoe on my first try. But, here's something strange, he gave me some horseshoes to take home, but I couldn't bend them. Without Dennis and the other guys in the room, I started to doubt that I could do it. But, I kept practicing, and about six months later started to develop some very rudimentary abilities. My eventual success with these skills is very much rooted in my personal belief system and the desire to accomplish these feats. Every one of the feats that I perform is as much about strength as it is about tolerating uncomfortable stimulus.
It's no different than doing 1,000 kettlebell swings—at some point it's going to become uncomfortable, and it will be necessary to access something beyond muscles. The least mystical way I can describe it is an intense need to keep going.
Dragon Door:    How does your vast experience in law enforcement, military and tactical scenarios factor into the creation of the Mental Mastery Certification Workshop?
Mike Gillette:     My varied background has allowed me to work with many very good trainers and a lot of discerning user groups. From 2006, most of my teaching has been through a Las Vegas-based company, and our clientele has been pre-deployment military units, and executive protection teams. This company also runs the only executive protection program that is college accredited. We work with lots of special operations types—all very smart, very quick, and very discerning with no tolerance for BS. All these groups bring in their perspectives and experiences which are assimilated into the next evolution of the material. So it informs my delivery and broadens my perspective.
I want to reiterate that this is an instructor's or coach's course. My intent is to make people proficient enough in the material to start using it immediately. After we complete a lecture topic, we'll split up into consistent small groups for ongoing breakout sessions. The groups will try out the concepts that have just been explained. Each time the group meets to practice, the leadership within the group will rotate. Everyone will experience executing and practicing the technique, and they'll also be accountable for managing or running an exercise session. Participants will gain experience coaching the concepts before they even leave the workshop. There will be a lot of accountability for the material as soon as its imparted—a lot of practical learning and skill cultivation will happen in the context of this training course.
We'll also teach the universal principles of how to be a good coach or facilitator. Since some participants will bring a lot of their own experiences in coaching and leadership, I think that will also be a great exchange. So the methodology, the approach will be, "Here's the information. Here's why we do this and here's what this technique is specifically designed to create. Now go do it, now switch roles." Then everyone will reconvene and we will discuss the experiences; What were the commonalities? Did anything happen which was unexpected? We'll also cover how to take these various techniques and plug them into the client or team's training program. It's not weird, nebulous material - what we'll be doing is well-defined with a systematic approach."
Dragon Door:     So a very practical, usable, systematic approach. It sounds like a fascinating way to improve as instructors, serve clients better, stay safer, or even accomplish what's necessary in a tactical situation.
Mike Gillette:     Right. Out of the lab and into the world.