Confessions of a Field Training Officer, Part 3

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So, here we are. I’ve confessed to making a lot of mistakes as a trainer. I’ve confessed to being a teacher and how that may have influenced my training approach. I’ve confessed to being an evaluator, and described how that definitely affected my training approach in a negative way. And I’ve confessed to being a role model (all right, not such a juicy confession, but still…) and how that may have influenced my trainees. Well, what then?

I propose a different model: the field training officer as coach. When I enter a teacher-learner relationship thinking of myself as a coach, I can teach, I can evaluate and I can be a role model—the difference being that I’m more focused on the learner and the learning.

What Do Coaches Do?

We often immediately think of sports when we hear the word “coach.” While this is an excellent framework, coaches exist in education, professional situations and even therapeutic settings. Essentially, a coach is someone who supports another person to achieve a specific goal. For our purpose, it may not be difficult to imagine a training officer as a person who helps an academy graduate reach the goal of solo patrol.

One of the key aspects of coaching is that both the coach, and the person being coached, believe the person being coached has the ability to achieve the goal. This is most commonly seen in sports, where the athlete or a team of athletes is supported and encouraged by a coach to compete at their highest level and to win in competition. An FTO who acts as a coach teaches with compassion, evaluates with positive intent, and models without creating, expecting or imposing limitations.

In a professional setting, a coach may spend more time asking questions than lecturing or attempting to transfer information. The questions may be to facilitate clarification in the trainee’s mind. In a policing context, for example, a question might be, “When you walked up to the house, what was on your mind?” Or questions may be used to direct focus: “When you stopped the car, what were you going to look for, and what did you intend to say to the driver?” In either instance, the coach’s goal is to facilitate the trainee’s learning, lead them to apply lessons learned and cause them to contemplate factors they may not have considered. In this way, the coach supports the trainee’s efforts to be successful, interjecting relevant content only when necessary.

An FTO who acts as a coach teaches with compassion, evaluates with positive intent, and models without creating, expecting or imposing limitations.

Many of us believe we learn best by “doing,” but this is only part of the story; we learn best when we reflect on what we’ve done. Good coaches allow learners to practice. Great coaches cause learners to reflect on what they’ve done so they can repeat success and improve on it, as well as identify errors or failures and learn from them.

Coaching can include elements of teaching, evaluating and role modeling. It might also include a variety of other strategies that would also support the trainee’s success. One successful sports coach has provided enduring insight into the practice. John Wooden, the basketball coach for UCLA during the 1960s and 1970s was, by all measures, a winner. His student-athletes won multiple championships in consecutive years, and his team produced future Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Gail Goodrich.

Coach Wooden’s Approach

In his book, Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court (1997), Coach Wooden provides some tips we can apply to envisioning the field training officer as coach:

  • Put your learner first. Coach Wooden advocated caring about the individual, not just as an athlete or a means to an end (winning championships), but as a person who has a goal. He recognized his coaching position as one of great responsibility to his students and he demonstrated that he valued them as people, perhaps more than he valued them for their athleticism.
  • Respect your learner. As an FTO, it’s often easier to expect respect than to reciprocate. Our paramilitary structure may be partly to blame, and our mindset as a teacher may also play a role. For Coach Wooden, giving his players respect was critically important to their success. He believed pride was a better motivator than fear, and pride comes when you give respect.
  • Motivate your learner. Coach Wooden believed knowledge alone isn’t enough to achieve the desired results; a coach must motivate his people. We can imagine the difference between a smart, motivated cop and a smart, unmotivated cop. I can tell you which one I would prefer to work with—and which one I would prefer to support toward solo patrol.
  • Allow your learner to struggle. Being a coach doesn’t mean making everything easier for a trainee. Coach Wooden believed goals should be difficult to achieve and goals achieved with little effort are seldom worthwhile or lasting. Moving from academy graduation to solo patrol is a difficult goal, and it should require reasonable effort. When done correctly, a trainee and the FTO have cause to celebrate a worthwhile accomplishment. On the flip side, an FTO is not there to create white noise, or to make things more difficult than they need to be. Remember, a coach should support the learner. They should neither carry a trainee nor obstruct progress.

Coach Wooden’s reflections inspired me to consider what I’d learned since 1988 about training. It’s quite a lot, and it’s the result of getting older, examining what I knew and didn’t, accepting some coaching, practicing it in turn, and reading. Any of us can do it (although the getting older part can be trying at times) with a bit of effort, some honest self-awareness and circumspect reflection.

In my career I went from field training officer to training program coordinator to training program supervisor. I learned along the way from all my experiences. But like my trainees, I don’t expect you to learn from my experiences; I expect you to learn from your experiences. I can only hope my experiences offer insight into ways you might be more effective now, so years from now you don’t think to yourself, “If I only knew then what I know now.”

And that’s my confession.

Roger Buhlis

ROGER BUHLIS is a Law Enforcement Training Content Developer for Lexipol. He worked as an officer and sergeant for 26 years before retiring in 2012. Roger continues to teach policing professionals and has 30 years of experience training and teaching. In retirement, Roger earned a master’s degree in Adult Education in 2015.

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