Practice Design Pressure

Training with anxiety: Evidence from police training

Why should coaches aim to add pressure to training?

Well, the effects are clear.

Arne Nieuwenhuys and Raoul Oudejans investigated the effect of training under high pressure conditions for police officers in combat.

The study

27 police officers participated in the study. All participants engaged in a training program that aimed to improve their ability to shoot accurately.

The study included 4 phases: pre-test, training, post-test, and retention test.

Each testing phase required participants to shoot at a target from 5 metres away. However, the tests were performed in 2 conditions – a low anxiety condition and a high condition. In the low-anxiety condition, participants shot at a life-size mannequin. In the high-anxiety condition, participants shot at an actual police instructor who shot back at the participant occasionally with soap cartridges (Note: this officer was wearing protective equipment!).

For the training phase, participants were assigned to one of two groups:

  1. Experimental group (n = 13)
  2. Control group (n = 14)

Both groups performed the same shooting tasks during training. This involved shooting at opponents in the police academy training facilities (the authors paid close attention to replicate the police officers actual combative environment). The experimental group, however, experienced the opponent occasionally shooting back. Consequently, anxiety increased for these participants.

Both groups performed four 60 minute training sessions across 4 weeks.

Participants gaze behaviour (i.e., where they were looking) was measured during the testing sessions (however, data was only available for 3 participants in the pre-test, 8 participants in the post-test and 10 participants in te retention test).

The results

  • During the pre-test, both groups performed worse under high anxiety.
  • During the post-test, the control group continued to perform worse under high anxiety, while the experimental group showed large improvements.
  • During the retention test, which took place 4 months after the post-test, the differences between the groups were still evident. However, the results were less clear. This was likely because the control group learnt from the experiences during the pre- and post-tests when shooting under high anxiety; hence, their performance under pressured improved in the retention test.
  • Participants reported that training under high anxiety improved their ability to focus on shooting accuracy when faced with pressure scenarios.
  • Analysis of participants gaze behaviour showed that good performance under anxiety was accompanied by relatively low scan ratios. This was thought to be indicative of calm gaze behaviour. Hence, as the authors stated: “… training with anxiety might help to regain the calmness and attentional control that is necessary to achieve optimal performance.”

Take home message

The authors summarised the results with the following statement:

“… the results on mental effort and gaze behavior suggest that positive effects of training with anxiety may be explained by improved self-regulatory processes which cause individuals to become more effective in paying attention to task-relevant sources of information”.


Nieuwenhuys, A., & Oudejans, R. R. (2011). Training with anxiety: short-and long-term effects on police officers’ shooting behavior under pressure. Cognitive processing12(3), 277-288.


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