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Trainer Talk

Tactical Breathwork—the Key to Staying Calm under Pressure

Tactical Breathwork—the Key to Staying Calm under Pressure


A Police officer is involved in a foot chase. He sprints for about 400 meters and tackles a subject. Control is gained, the subject is secure, and now the Officer needs to "call it in". He activates the mic and starts to speak calmly… or so he thinks. In reality, it's more likely a jumbled mess of words, some shouting and maybe some cursing, punctuated with a lot of heavy panting and mouth breathing. Sound familiar? If so, it’s time to access an important tool in the officer’s toolbox: tactical breathing.

Anyone who has done competitive fighting—boxing, MMA, take your pick—has done something akin to tactical breathing techniques. After a round, the corner man takes out the fighter's mouthpiece and says something to the effect of “take two deep breaths.” This simple step calms and focuses the mind for the next round, because when you are out of breath, the mind tends to race.

In the landmark Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor, the court recognized the fact that officers make split-second judgements in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving. Tactical breathwork after a foot chase or a use of force incident can give an officer a tool that will let him reorganize his thoughts and process stress. This skill is critical. Captain Dan Willis talks about tactical breathing in his book Bulletproof Spirit. He says "it has been shown to immediately reduce stress symptoms and can alleviate certain symptoms of trauma.”

ASP founder and CEO Kevin Parsons—an internationally-respected use of force and training expert—says that one of the components of power is flexibility. He explains that being too rigid during a confrontation can cause significant problems for an officer: "It is tied to tension, fear, nervousness and lack of confidence, and is improved by stretching and relaxation.” An Officer who practices breathing techniques can process stress more effectively, recover quicker, become more alert and aware, and in the end improve survivability and performance.

There are many ways to learn and refine breathing techniques. Centering practices like yoga and Tai chi come to mind, as they focus heavily on breathwork. Another technique is called “box breathing,” which can be done anywhere (and it's free). It is simply breathing in for 4 seconds, holding for 4 seconds, exhaling for 4 seconds, and holding for 4 seconds. This sequence is repeated 4 times and repeated as necessary. An easy cadence for counting is to think of each step as the “1” in the four count, like this:

  • In - 2 - 3 - 4
  • Hold - 2 - 3 - 4
  • Exhale - 2 - 3 - 4
  • Hold - 2 - 3 - 4

Of course, you shouldn’t limit your breathing practice to calm, controlled environments; look for opportunities to apply them to the street. One example: when stabilizing and controlling a subject, we are taught to move to the angle of advantage, present handcuffs and then approach. That moment—which is often when subjects decide to run or fight—would be a great time to take a quick, conscious breath as another important step in your tactical readiness.

Jim Klauba

Chicago Police Department (Ret.)

ASP Trainer since 2011