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Battling Second Thoughts in the Academy

Battling Second Thoughts in the Academy

Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith

You’ve filled out the endless applications, taken the tests, sailed through the interviews, rocked the physical agility test, and chosen your police department; now you’re finally in the academy. Whether you find yourself at the local junior college or at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, there’s no doubt this is going to be tough, and its just going to get tougher. What if you find yourself faltering? What if you start having doubts; about your chosen career, about the academy process, about yourself?

I was one of four women in my academy class (in January of 1981) at a time when women were not welcome in this profession. We started on a Monday and by Friday I was the only female left standing, and we had a long way to go. If you’re considering becoming a cop, about to start the academy, or you’re halfway through and you’re not sure you can make it to graduation, consider this advice:

Be Prepared Physically

Start prepared, both mentally and physically. According to Dave Smith, (aka, “J.D. Buck Savage,” legendary police trainer and former staff member at the Arizona Law Enforcement Training Academy (ALETA), starting at a low level of fitness is the number one indicator that you will have a difficult time in the academy. All too often, police officer candidates do just enough to pass the physical agility test and then stop working out. Months later when they are called up for the academy, they are not ready for the physical challenges that lie ahead. Make fitness a part of your daily routine long before you begin the academy. You will benefit not only physically, but emotionally as well.


Your level of reading comprehension is also tantamount to your success. Cops have to know a lot about some things and a little bit about almost everything else, so you’re going to spend a significant amount of time hitting the books. Prepare yourself by doing as much reading as possible, especially if you’ve been out of school a few years. And yes, this means actual books, not your favorite blog. Go to your local book store or shop online for some good non-fiction best sellers that interest you. Books on leadership, psychology, or communication might help you out in the academy or later on in your career. Read a few chapters and then test yourself on how well you remember what you read. Write a summation of the first three chapters, and then go back and see how you did. This is one of those skills that takes practice, so be willing to put in the time.

Grow a Thick Skin

As you begin the academy, accept the fact that you are entering a paramilitary situation. I began the academy two weeks after leaving college, and I was stunned when in the first hour I was being shouted at, swore at, and ordered around by the academy staff. As a kid right out of college, I had no idea this was going to happen! Understand that to test your ability to deal with stress you will probably be “hazed,” or put in very stressful situations that may seem confusing and certainly not politically correct. Don’t allow yourself to be abused, but also understand that law enforcement is a difficult job and your instructors have to evaluate your ability to function in a crisis. If you’re offended by the f-word, sexual references in the context of scenario training, or being called names other than the one your mother gave you, being a cop probably isn’t for you.

Take Good Notes

As classes begin, get in the habit of taking good notes; review and revise them frequently. Many people find it easier to remember a concept when they’ve written it down. Find out what kind of learner you are and what helps you to remember things. If you’re an auditory learner, record the concepts you’re trying to learn and play them back on your IPOD while you’re running, but keep in mind that sometimes “old school” is still the best. Even in this age of computers, there’s nothing better than flash cards for remembering laws, codes, Supreme Court cases, etc. And study, study, study, and then study some more. Put in the time…this isn’t school, it’s your career.

Ask Questions

Never fail to confess that you don’t understand a point, a concept or a tactic. The instructor is the best person to give you insight so don’t wait to talk to your peers that night or on a break, ask the instructor, either during or after class. Laws, criminal code, search & seizure concepts and reverse arm bars can be confusing, so get clarification when you need it; don’t wait until you’re in the middle of a test to ask!

Form Good Study Habits

Share your frustrations with others, but in a positive way. Don’t whine and complain. Start a study group and ask your most successful classmates for suggestions on how you can improve and endure, and then follow their advice. Don’t make excuses. Don’t get involved in any of the class drama (there will be some, trust me), and don’t fraternize. In fact, put your social life on hold as much as possible. If you’re single, this shouldn’t be a problem, but if you’re a spouse, a partner, a parent, or you’re caring for your own aging parents, this can be more difficult. Try to put the academy at the top of the list, and remind your family and friends that this is temporary. If you do end up having issues at home that are affecting your performance, be upfront with the academy staff if it’s appropriate. Your mom’s battle with cancer is a legitimate concern; breaking up with your girlfriend is not.

Positive Self Talk

When things get really tough, remember what it took to get there. Keep in mind that less than 2% of all candidates who apply ever get to where you are right now. Look back and reflect on how far you’ve come. Sometimes you have to take it one day, even just one step, at a time. Utilize positive self talk and remember this won’t last forever. Envision positive outcomes for yourself; visualize yourself acing your next test, crossing the finish line easily on your next run, hitting center mass fifty times during your next session on the range. If you are struggling, look in the mirror and ask: “What can I do to make things better?” Take personal responsibility for your performance, and don’t worry about class standing and awards. Such things become irrelevant the minute you sit down next to your field training officer during your first shift as an academy graduate.

You have chosen an amazing profession full of adventure, frustration, laughter, disappointment, danger, and most of all, service. The academy is designed to prepare you for all of that and more. Enjoy the challenge and revel in the camaraderie, as it will go faster than you think. Adopt the number one concept we teach in deadly force confrontation courses: “Keep Fighting No Matter What!” Good luck!

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