Accelerated Heart Rates and Elite Performance

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This Force Science News is a summary report of Dr. Bill Lewinski’s presentation to the Police Psychological Services Section at the 2023 International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in San Diego.

The presentation covered:

  • The myth that high levels of arousal will always impair performance;
  • How attentional and cognitive workspace can affect performance under stress;
  • How outcome-focused attention and process-focused attention can impact performance;
  • The physiological and psychological differences that can result when interpreting events as threats versus challenges; and
  • Groundbreaking Force Science research comparing eye tracker video with synchronized body camera video.

Arousal, Skill, and Performance

Skill and performance at all levels are intimately linked with arousal. Although some industry professionals maintain that high arousal will necessarily result in poor performance, this is not the case. In fact, when a high level of arousal (often measured by pulse beats per minute (bpm)) is combined with sufficient skill, performance can be enhanced. Consider that Supercross racers will jump long distances while maneuvering a 220-pound motorcycle, simultaneously judging their landing on a rutted track and maintaining effective race tactics. Motocross, professional downhill skiers, Formula 1 drivers, and tennis players on a fast volley can hit up to 200 bpm while engaging in skillful and effective performance.

The ability of athletes to perform at elite levels, even with extremely high heart rates, has caused police professionals to rethink the relationship between heart rate and performance. There is overwhelming evidence that high arousal levels and elevated pulse rates do not automatically result in perceptual distortions, the loss of fine and gross motor skills, or a catastrophic cognitive collapse, as some have believed. Attempting to predict physical or cognitive performance simply by noting pulse rates is wholly insufficient and can lead officers to unnecessarily doubt their ability to perform under high levels of arousal.

Focus of Attention and Performance

In a 2008 Force Science publication, we reported our findings after measuring brain activity and information retention of trainees participating in the month-long London Metropolitan Police pursuit driving course.  At the end of training, trainees perceived four times more information in the pursuit environment than at the beginning.  They demonstrated extremely high levels of skill and decision-making under driving and testing conditions, including speeds up to 150 mph.  Recognizing that one-third of the class usually failed, Force Science was asked to help identify factors that might be used to screen applicants more effectively. 

Force Science monitored how the trainees managed their emotional arousal during training and on the final test runs.  When officers in their final testing had a critical moment, such as a pedestrian stepping into their pursuit path, their post-incident response occurred in one of two ways.  In some cases, the driver’s emotional arousal continued long after the critical moment.  This prolonged arousal appeared to influence their subsequent driving and led to test failure.  In more successful cases, the drivers almost immediately reduced (or regulated) their emotional arousal and returned their focus to high-level effective and responsive driving.  It appeared as if this quick return of their focus on driving facilitated the use of their emotional arousal for effective performance.

Kinesiologist Dr. Joan Vickers has researched a concept she refers to as “the quiet eye,” a strong visual focus and its positive effect on athletic proficiency and emotional arousal.  Dr. Vickers’ work with athletes led Force Science to consider whether those pursuit trainees who renewed visual and cognitive focus after a near miss might unconsciously tune their emotional and physiological arousal into facilitators of improved performance.

Training Police and Athletes

As we consider how factors leading to improved athletic performance might apply to police officers, we recognize a significant difference in training and experience between police and athletes.  For example, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, state and local police training on firearms averages around seventy (70) hours.  Although the use of decision-making simulators and reality-based training continues to increase, our experience with firearms training continues to involve minimal decision-making experience.  Seventy hours of training on the basic use of a firearm is the hourly equivalent of a high school athlete playing one sport for half a semester.  Unlike police recruits, high school athletes acquire practice and game-play skills.  This “game knowledge” equips athletes to identify what, where, when, how, and from whom the play evolves.  Like athletes, police officers must build skills, apply those skills in varying circumstances, and learn how to read plays for effective decision-making and performance.

Evidence for Reframing the Narrative

Could it be that poor officer performance under stress, particularly that involving the loss of motor skills and perceptual and cognitive disorganization, is not the inevitable result of an elevated heart rate and a high level of arousal?

Can training and experience in high-threat, complex, rapidly evolving situations help officers avoid debilitating psychological, emotional, and physiological effects and facilitate more effective performance—even while experiencing extremely high pulse rates?

Have researchers been misattributing high heart rates alone to low levels of performance instead of recognizing the roles of test condition novelty and the inexperience of the officers?  Consider that an officer’s perceptual and cognitive disorganization during stress-induced research scenarios (or real life) may be the equivalent of placing a high school athlete with one semester of training into a professional game—but with life and death consequences.

Force Science recently observed evidence consistent with this theory.  In a recent study, officers responded to a simulated critical incident, during which they displayed elevated heart rates.  From the initial setup, which included affixing body cameras, eye scan gear, and three-lead heart monitors, to the end of their participation in the study, officers’ heart rates ranged from 86 to 181 bpm, with an average of 165 bpm during the simulated shooting.

After analyzing how officers performed during the high-stress portion of the 15-minute scenario, we found two discrete performance clusters. Officers with tactical training, military experience, and/or experience in critical incidents performed very effectively (perceptually, cognitively, and tactically). Those without that relevant training had significantly impaired performance with a high level of perceptual, cognitive, and behavioral disorganization.

In the next issue of Force Science News, we will start with an explanation of the work of Dr. Hans Selye from McGill University in Montreal, the father of stress research.

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