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Discipline: Keep Cool

by Dr. Phillip Stephens, May 7, 2018

One of my teachers frequently used the phrase, "Keep a cool tool." Samurai Miyamoto Mushashi expressed this a bit more eloquently centuries earlier, saying, "You must remain calm at all times; in this way you can control the attack."

Lack of control is inefficient. A fighter must not lose composure. Controlled anger is fine, but control is the defining element, as controlled emotions like anger can be focused for maximum efficiency. You can see how the principles begin to come together.

Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper referred to a principle he called coolness. Cooper was a U.S. Marine who served during World War II and the Korean War. He founded the American Pistol Institute, which later became known as Gunsite Academy in Arizona. He is credited with developing the modern technique of shooting, which is a two-handed stance rather than one-handed shooting. He is the author of numerous works and taught gun fighting technique.

He agreed anger was not an obstacle to efficiency as long as it was controlled. He also noted that self-control was something a sociopath does not possess. Most opponents or enemies do not possess self-control, so coolness is not a bad way to view discipline. In the balance of things, failure to be calm and disciplined under violent threat can have deadly consequences.

On April 5, 1970, a gunfight left four California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers dead in Newhall, California. The incident has been credited with initiating the police officer survival movement, and has been recounted in many law enforcement journals.

Around 40 shots were fired in the firefight. Several shots were 12-gauge buckshot rounds from CHP officers that inflicted only one superficial wound on their assailants. The firefight lasted four minutes at a range of under 7 yards. It occurred at night making visibility poor.

There are many factors that favor attackers and sociopaths, such as having the element of surprise on their side in most instances and poor lighting conditions as in the Newhall incident. These elements may have factored into the shooting outcome with the CHP officers.

It should not be marksmanship that resulted in the death of the CHP troopers that night, but there have been questions about familiarity with their weapons and reloading them since the incident. Quite a few changes to police procedures and training were initiated as a result.

Allowing for all the other variables that resulted in poor marksmanship at such close range in the 1970 incident, it was ultimately the loss of concentration that affected the outcome. Under stressful firing conditions, the troopers lost their cool and were outgunned by focused killers whose fire was more disciplined. According to an assessment by Massad Ayoob, one trooper was killed before he was able to fire a shot. Another fired once before being killed. The third trooper fired six shots and was killed before he could reload his revolver. The last trooper fired three rounds from his shotgun, inadvertently ejected a fourth round, and fired four from his revolver before he was killed. But this isn't a rare incident. Missing at close range during stress firing conditions occurs more often than you'd expect.

Although police departments routinely train officers up to 25 yards on a firing range, most gunfights occur in fewer than 10 yards. The hit ratio at such a close range is remarkably low.

In one New York Police Department study of gunfights between 1994 and 2000, officers' hit ratio was 38 percent at fewer than 2 yards. At 3 to 7 yards it drops to 17 percent and 8 to 15 yards 9 percent. These are trained officers and many factors contribute to the low ratios. But the overriding variable is disciplined fire, as there is growing evidence that training under low light conditions and stress fire situations helps improve these numbers.
Fast-forward to the present day with officers who have many years of experience with updated training techniques to achieve discipline under stress. One such officer escaped national news by not firing rather than utilizing disciplined fire. An incident makes national news only when an officer gets it wrong or someone is killed. Discipline under stress has proven to be effective in many modern instances despite the media spotlight given to select cases.
Off-duty law enforcement officer Burnis Wilkins was at home when he heard shots nearby. He then saw a young man running toward him. Wilkins accessed a weapon and ordered the man to stop. The man, who was carrying a handgun, began to run away from Wilkins.

Wilkins gave chase. Upon reaching an obstacle the young man spun around. Wilkins noticed the slide was locked back on the man's weapon, which meant it was jammed or out of ammunition. Though some say it was still a risky move, Wilkins held his fire and apprehended the suspect, who had allegedly just fired the weapon wounding others.
Imagine the discipline under stress that Wilkins's actions required. He put himself at great risk, but this officer practiced what he taught others as a law enforcement instructor. Discipline and "coolness under pressure" can be achieved with training and practice.

Discipline under Pressure

We probably can attribute about 30 percent of our susceptibility to anxiety to DNA, according to a study among twins. But that still doesn't mean we can't control that 30 percent, which leaves a lot of room for outside influences to impact how cool we are under pressure.

Boston Celtic player Bill Russell routinely became so nervous before games he would throw up. But he was always cool under pressure during games. Anxiety may be a factor regarding performance, but it is clear that many control the correlation while others do not.


British Officer Lionel Wigram led one of the earliest studies to examine this phenomenon. In 1943, he noticed that each time his 22-man platoon encountered enemy fire his men responded in the same manner. A few reacted coolly and returned fire. Fewer would panic and try to escape. But the vast majority would freeze, unsure what to do.
Survival psychologist John Leach studied a random group of people who found themselves in a sudden disaster, such as a fire. He noted similar results to Wigram's earlier observations. About 10 to 20 percent stayed calm, the majority (about 80 percent) were dazed and hesitant, and about 10 to 15 percent panicked. Leach refers to this as the 10-80-10 theory.

Keep in mind that in 1943 the training of soldiers was nowhere near current-day training. Contemporary training methods have shown that realistic training conditions improve discipline under fire.

In the civilian world, simple fire drills improve responsiveness to these emergencies and increase coolness under pressure. But again, many people stand around seeking more information. Information improves discipline.
Well-disciplined people who function well under stress share certain core beliefs:

  1. They see uncertainty as an opportunity and not as something dangerous.
  2. Under stress their focus is on how to improve the situation.
  3. They maintain a sense of commitment instead of withdrawing helplessly.

Interviews with people who have been involved in stressful situations yet maintained their composure reveal that all of them felt a level of fear. So keeping cool isn't the absence of fear. In many cases fear even helped fuel their response. It is the ability to focus fear into productive activity that makes the difference. This disciplined approach to functioning under pressure trains the mind to avoid being driven by distractions during stressful moments.
Disciplined training produces a specific pattern of behavior or character. Discipline is structured behavior that enhances improved actions both physically and mentally. Drills, constructive punishment, rewards, goal setting, and otherwise practicing a code of behavior under certain conditions improve reactions to situations. Discipline has the power to shape character.

Taekwondo legend Jhoon Rhee contends that discipline could solve many of society's problems aside from just winning fights. In an article published twice in Black Belt Magazine, Rhee says that people are a product of education. If they are taught to be communist, they become communist. If they are taught to be liars, they lie. But if they are taught to be honest, they are honest. He says why not teach discipline? Rhee believes teaching students the virtues of hard work, honesty, and respect is the solution to many of society's issues.

Don't Wobble

Master Ummon was a zen master during the T'ang dynasty in China around 864–949 CE. He once said that, "if you walk, just walk. If you sit, just sit. But whatever you do, don't wobble." His point was to always be disciplined and poised. It was rare for a Samurai to succumb to passion or emotion. A Samurai was not known to ever lose his cool. Whether walking or fighting, a Samurai maintained a sense of discipline to a poised pattern of behavior and character.

Discipline is simply the ability to do what is necessary regardless of whether it is convenient.

The above is an excerpt from Winning Fights: 12 Proven Principles for Winning on the Street, in the Ring, at Life by Dr. Phillip Stephens



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