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The Problem With Pinball Training

What is Pinball Training?

I just made it up – the term, not the concept. The concept is real, and it is the cause of ineffective training strategies which leave public safety instructional designers and instructors chasing their tails trying to address perceived training issues.

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What's Causing the Performance Issue?

Don't be in a hurry to "blame" or change training for every issue

I recently read an article which addressed the topic of police excessive use of force allegations, and conflicting science and court opinions regarding injury and death in various circumstance. These incidents have caused a national discussion between police and citizens, laypersons and experts, politicians, media and whoever else about what needs to be done to address these violent or harmful encounters.

The Reactive Mindset

These officers need training! – Right? If they were trained, the training and the policy need to be changed! – Right? When we change the training and the policy, we need to eliminate things like “deadly chokeholds”! – Right? Yup, that aught’a do it.

Too many public safety organizations engage in what I call “pinball training.” Pinball training is the practice of responding to the outcomes of incidents and tragedies, or perceived trends of performance failures (bumpers), by manipulating training content or focus (flippers) in ways which are more reactive than strategic.

Evidence-based Practice is Good, But...

Training content should not blindly follow the research theory of the day​

Training can easily become a virtual pinball. Hence the author’s comment “Yes, it is important for contemporary law enforcement leaders to be aware of research pertaining to law enforcement actions. But to rely on them for modifications to training and/or policy is risky” (Ranalli, 2022, para. 12).

Go with a Human Performance Improvement Professional

Ineffective training strategies are frequently the result of inadequate (or nonexistent) needs analysis. The true need, or root cause, is misunderstood by the general public, and misdiagnosed by the organization. Is it a skills/knowledge (training) issue? Is it a competency/capacity issue? Is it a policy/procedure issue? Is it an organizational culture issue? What if it’s more than one thing, or all of the above?

If you don’t know how to conduct an adequate, defensible, training needs assessment or formative evaluation, and lack the in-house expertise to do so, hire an expert to help.

No one wins at pinball training – no one. It’s best not to play at all, lest you end up looking like a clown, or worse.

A Few Reflections

These are a few additional insights about Ranalli (para. 17, 2022), cited below. Science is evidence-based. It cannot be effectively supported with non-evidence-based instructional practices. Here are three essential considerations:

  1. Evidence-based human performance and adult learning principles.
  2. Critical task identification, analysis, and instructional design for both skills and cognitive decision making.
  3. Scenario-based dynamic training to build medium to far-transfer learning experiences.

Regarding #3, the training value isn’t necessarily “limited” due to “diverse and case-specific” outcomes, as suggested in the article. Try these approaches to use diverse data to your advantage:

  • Take a human performance improvement #HPI approach to training development, delivery, and evaluation.
  • Find the essential dimensions of measurable commonality necessary for consistent desired performance.
  • Strategically reevaluate, refine, and revise policy, resources, training, and feedback.

The Article (Ranalli, 2022)

I recommend reading the entire article for yourself when you have time. Click the title image here for access.

“To clarify, science does have value in helping to guide and develop training and procedures for officers to follow. Examples include science involving human performance under stress and how human beings learn and retain information. Both can help develop training programs to prepare officers to make better decisions. By contrast, causational factors of in-custody deaths are so diverse and case-specific, the training and procedure value is limited. Following the law and understanding the risks will help mitigate the harm, which is our ultimate goal” (Ranalli, para. 17).

Ranalli, M. (2022, April 18). Police use of force: Managing risk and mitigating harm. Lexipol. Retrieved April 24, 2022, from

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