Uniformed Police Officers, wearing body armour and carrying Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine guns pulled tightly into their shoulders, stepped silently through the busy supermarket’s doors.
It was a hot and humid July day on the south coast of England; people were going about their weekly shop and the smell of cheap sunscreen hung lazily in the air. The store’s tannoy was calling for someone to help at the checkouts and people were busying themselves taking items from the shelves and placing them into their baskets.
Some of the shoppers who saw the two men enter, stopped and just stared – their eyes following their movement with a sense of foreboding curiosity; others seemed oblivious to what was about to happen.
The policemen aimed down their sights – wherever their eyes went, the barrel of the weapon would quickly follow. With each purposeful, yet muted step, they slowly drifted apart as they made their way to the back of the store where their target had last been reported. People would later report a strange sense of calm that accompanied the men, a professionalism or a seemingly innate confidence.
They would also later note that these men were not as young as they would have expected; these guys must have been in their forties, their grey hair complimenting their darkened and sun-wrinkled skin.
‘STAND STILL! STAND STILL!’, came the shout from the first Officer as he focused his weapon on a young man holding a box of breakfast cereal.
‘SHOW ME YOUR HANDS! BOTH HANDS! DROP THE BOX AND SHOW ME YOUR HANDS!’, demanded the second man.
Someone screamed. People started to run.
The Officers continued to move deliberately towards their target, their demands getting louder and, all the time, never once looking away from the sighted picture of the young man’s chest – the greatest centre of mass and the preferred landing ground for a 9 mm Parabellum bullet.
‘DROP THE BOX, DO IT NOW! SHOW ME YOUR HANDS!’
As the demands increased, so did the activity of the mystified shoppers – like confused sheep they ran in all directions. Some crashed into each other, whilst others just stood and watched, their bodies rigid from witnessing the unfolding drama.
The young man’s face was a picture of utter surprise; one minute he was a teenager, casually picking out some breakfast cereal and the next he had two old guys pointing guns at him and shouting.
Suddenly, he released his grip on the box and, as it dropped to the floor, he lifted the front of his shirt and pulled out a small pistol from the waistband of his shorts.
‘It’s not real!’, he cried.
His advice went unheeded as the first of four rounds slammed into his chest.
*BANG, BANG… BANG, BANG*
A 9x19mm Parabellum cartridge is relatively low powered when compared to those in rifles found on the modern battlefield. The bullet leaves the barrel of an MP5 at just over 1,000 feet per second. This means that it tends to remain lodged in the target’s body as opposed to travelling through it and potentially striking an innocent bystander.
On impacting the young man’s chest, just above and to the right-hand side of the sternum, the first round penetrated the skin and immediately smashed through the ribcage sending bone fragments deep into the chest cavity and the sidewall of the heart. The chest bone altered the bullet’s trajectory, deflecting it upwards and into the right lung, sending it tumbling and creating a permanent cavity of crushed and lacerated tissue.
It may have been survivable had the next three rounds not come crashing into the man’s chest soon after, further destroying precious tissue and ripping through his vital organs. Very soon, hypovolemic shock caused by severe blood loss would prevent vital organs receiving the oxygen they so desperately needed and the injuries would prove fatal.
Well, that was the intent at least.
‘CEASE FIRE!’ came the command from the back of the hall.
‘That’s it guys, listen to my commands – make your weapons safe, UNLOAD, show clear.’
And, with that, the lights came up in the firearms kill-house and the weapons were cleared for inspection.
Another training exercise complete and another de-brief about to begin.
As the two men made their way back to the armoury, they gave each other a knowing look.
‘It’s going to be the same again,’ said the taller man, ‘how did you find it?’
‘I don’t know, I just felt the same – I can’t do anything about it,’ the shorter one replied.
‘Well,’ came the reply, ‘we both don’t need this, I’m happy to just stay on the traffic cars with you – we don’t need guns in the vehicle at our age.’
And, as they made their way to the de-briefing room, they both laughed about how much of a struggle their fitness test had been earlier in the day and how the taller guy had put his back out from doing too many sit-ups. They both agreed that they were getting old and they were feeling it. It felt good to laugh about themselves and, they agreed, if they had failed the final test, they planned to go to the nearest Police Club bar and sink a few beers to commiserate, anyway.
The truth was that my father and his partner didn’t really want to be firearms officers in their Constabulary. They had been asked by the Chief Constable because of their previous military service and because he felt that his current firearms Officers were just all a bit ‘too young’. No matter how much they’d stated their reluctance, the Chief was a drinking buddy and had talked them into taking the course anyway, ‘you know, just to see how they got on’.
‘Davies, Johnson – get in here and sit down, I need to talk this through with you,’ called out the instructor in the darkened debrief room.
‘Oh no,’ they both thought, ‘not again.’
As they took their seats, they saw the familiar map of the kill house on the board and, next to it, recordings of their heart-rate and other data points taken during the exercise.
Back in the late 80s, the collection of fitness based biometric data, the physical, physiological or behavioural characteristics of a person, wasn’t an easy thing to do. The devices people would wear would be cumbersome and required leads to be stuck onto the body to sample heart rate and perspiration. Smart phones didn’t materialize until the early 90s and Bluetooth wasn’t invented until 1994 so, back then, the whole thing was mechanical and embryonic. In any case, apps and fitness tracking was still some 25 years away so the data the two men had provided in the kill house was still being analysed by their instructor as they took their seats.
My father was an averaged size guy, his hair a bit grey around the edges, a smoker and someone who enjoyed the odd pint or four with his friends. His partner, Tom, was a wise man, tall and of a heavier build – the kind of guy to be into hydroponics or to read books on the breeding patterns of the Pygmy marmoset. Although they were cut from different cloths, they had crewed traffic cars together for far too many years and understood each other well.
There was something about them both that led criminals to just stop what they were doing and come quietly. Not that the two men were menacing at all but my father’s deep welsh authoritative accent would command respect from even the most hardened of criminals on the dark, cold roads of southern Hampshire and Tom, well, Tom would use his superior logic to just out reason you, plain and simple.
‘I’m not going to lie to you guys, it’s not looking good and I’m worried about it again,’ said the firearms instructor as he stared at the charts.
‘Your footwork, communication and drills are all sound. Kid pulls a gun, kid dies – we all get it, but that’s not the issue is it?’ he concluded.
‘Is Chris still a pathological killer?’ joked Tom as he nudged his partner on the shoulder.
‘You can shut it, Tom,’ came the reply, ‘look at your chart, you’re worse than me!’
Laughter filled the room, they’d been in this position before and the situation was seemingly hopeless, yet again.
‘Look,’ chuckled the trainer, ‘have a cigarette guys, calm down, we’re going to get to the bottom of this one way or another.’
My father stood up and approached the board. Accepting a light from the instructor, he took the smoke deep into his lungs and began to study his data.
There was no doubt about it, the more intense the experience the kill house delivered, the lower his heart rate sank. In fact, all his and Tom’s metrics were the exact reverse of the younger Firearms Officers. No wonder the staff were having issues with the two men, their arousal levels were flat-lining the closer they got to the delivery of extreme violence.
‘Tom,’ my father asked looking at his partner’s statistics, ‘do you ever sweat, I mean like ‘ever’?’
‘I do when your wife invites me into your house and you come home early!’ he snapped back prompting more hilarity from the three men.
As their laughter filled the room, it attracted the attention of another firearms instructor who knocked once before entering.
‘Guys, have you solved your issues yet?’ he asked, looking quizzically at the two men.
‘No,’ Tom replied, ‘still crazed killers, unfortunately.’
‘Right,’ continued the interjector, ‘grab some lunch and be back here for 2 pm. The Chief’s got a guy from the Regiment coming down, he says he thinks he knows what’s going on with you muppets.’
And, with that the morning was over.
It was my father who explained to me the rest of the story.
A little before 2 pm, my father and his partner returned to the briefing room area attached to the kill house training facility where they met their instructor and another man.
‘Chris, Tom, this is Dan, we invited him down from Hereford, he thinks he knows what’s wrong with you idiots. I’m going for a tea, I’ll leave it for him to explain, have fun,’ said the instructor casually as he left the room.
‘Guys, the reason your heart rates are low is precisely because your skill levels are high and the challenge is, too; this puts you into a state of flow.’
The room was silent as the men embraced the new information. ‘Flow’ was a new concept at the time and was being studied by only a small number of specialist teams such as the Special Forces instructors who’d learnt about it through their military psychologists.
Seeing the blank expressions, Dan continued.
‘Having read your reports over lunch, I’m convinced that you guys are just probably more highly skilled than the younger guys. This means that they will be in a state of heightened arousal but you guys will have entered a state of ‘flow’. Your instructor tells me that you’re both ex-military which is what I’d expect to see from guys like you – it’s not unusual so don’t worry about it.’
Both men nodded, my father lighting another cigarette and passing it to Dan.
‘Cheers, Chris – look, here’s the deal. If you are highly skilled but with a limited challenge then you’ll find yourself in a state of ‘control’ – this means that you are in charge of the situation because you know you are competent in what you are doing. However, if the challenge is high and you lack the necessary skills to fully deal with it then you will be anxious or aroused and we see this in our Special Forces recruits when they first start training. The key with you two guys is that you do have a high skill level from your previous military training and your mind is embracing the high level of challenge – this means that you descend from the high state of arousal and climb from the high level of control into a ‘flow state’.
‘Right,’ my father replied, ‘and that’s a good thing?’
‘Yes,’ replied the visitor. ‘In psychology, a flow state is also called ‘being in the zone’ and is the mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of focus, full connection, and satisfaction in the process of the activity.’
After Dan’s explanation, my father and his partner were both cleared for firearms duties and went on to crew Armed Response Vehicles for the next few years until they packed it in as their ages got the better of them.
When you are in a flow state, an everyday experience, such as making a cup of coffee or writing an essay, becomes an opportunity for enhanced self-fulfillment. What the Special Forces instructor was talking about was the work of a psychologist, called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who was a renowned social scientist and devoted his life to the study of what makes people happy, satisfied and fulfilled.
His findings show us ways we can lessen stress, fear and anxiety and increase feelings of happiness, joy and excitement. Flow also helps to increase our concentration levels, mental agility and promotes health and longevity. It helps us to live in the moment or, as the 1970s spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, would pose, to ‘Be here now’.
To attain a flow state, your skills and ability have to match the challenge that is set. If the challenge outweighs your skills, you will feel anxious and aroused. This is often why we feel nervous when we start a new job or sign up to a new gym – we just don’t know what to expect. In fact, this area of anxiety depicts a new pilot’s life quite aptly, they are very much challenged and are yet to develop the skills to deal with it. However, if your skill level is high but the challenge is low, then you’ll just get bored. And, this is often why pilots stop flying – the flying eventually becomes routine but the pilot’s skills are now high so boredom sets in.
So, next time you feel anxious or bored, have a think about what is challenging you and how prepared you feel to tackle it with your current ability. And, if that challenge is a couple of armed police officers with a sighted picture of your chest area when you’re buying breakfast cereal at your local supermarket – trust me, the challenge you face far outweighs your skills.
* If you want to know how you can enter flow states in your workplace whilst also banishing self-esteem and negativity issues whilst boosting your integrity and purpose, then contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk about my 10 Week ‘SPIN Recovery Programme’.