Including subordinates in tactical training event design offers considerable learning opportunity for both student and teacher

By Zach Roberts, MTI Contributor


When I was selected for my first SWAT team I was met with the statement “congratulations for making the team, you should keep your mouth shut for at least six months.” Even though I was fairly fanatical about my membership in this new group, I was basically along for the ride for over half a year. I was not allowed to question the standard operating procedure or give suggestions for tactical training evolutions that I thought would benefit the group. Additionally, God forbid I insert myself into the operational planning process which would have been met with a stern “you are the new guy”.

I believe this initial environment I stepped into stunted my growth as an operator and a leader. I was a linear operator for a long time. “This is the way we do things, do it that way” was my mantra. Although I was quickly adapting to my new role as an assaulter on the team, the big picture often was lost to me as I was only focused on my very narrow specific role.

As I progressed through the chain of command, I often held onto the theory that the new guys on the team just needed to watch and learn. The other instructors and I could handle the training design and then focus on making sure the new guys got as many reps as possible. However, reps without understanding are probably about as good as not doing it at all if you want to develop agile tactical thinkers.


Lessons Learned Involving a Younger Teammate in Tactical Training Design

My own experience with designing training alongside a younger teammate has proven to me that if you involve subordinates in these types of processes, your team will benefit in the future.

Tactical training design is a topic that I am very passionate about ensuring is done correctly and efficiently. It’s a complex task that requires a leader to understand the abilities of their team as well as design training in a way that meets specific objectives. Additionally, leaders need to understand how to measure their team based on those objectives to understand if there has been improvement or if additional training is required.

I included a subordinate in the design of a CQB training evolution in order to show him how to set-up the evolution, how to ensure safety, and how to assess performance. During this discussion I explained the training objective first in order to begin to design a program that would assist the team with a complex CQB movement.

We needed to ensure that during training, whichever team member was at the front of the element, they would be able to recognize the correct call and make the right decision. I took my teammate to the site of the training and had him explain first how he thought the movement should happen. He was a junior SWAT operator and although had a general grasp of the team SOPs, complex problem sets in a CQB environment were still giving him trouble with regards to recognizing the problem and using our standards to quickly and accurately make a movement call. This discussion allowed us to have one-on-one training time going over our unit standard operating procedures. It allowed us to have a longer form discussion about tactics that is not appropriate in a team training environment due to ever looming time constraints. During this one-on-one training my teammate was able to take himself out of just being an assaulter on the team and it allowed him to see the bigger picture of the overall problem set. 

We often use the term, “get your eyes out of your optic”, meaning getting your head up and seeing the entire problem set rather than looking through the soda straw view of a red dot optic. I impressed upon him how this act would allow him to see problem sets much earlier in the movement and he would be able to react calmly and make accurate decisions.

I then asked him to watch me while I moved through the problem set and critique my movements. I encouraged him to correct me when I purposefully made mistakes and what his teaching points would be to other members of the team. Our discussion evolved to speaking out how to critique others and how different people respond to various criticisms. This is basically the foundation of the adult learning model that is making its way through professional training courses.

My observations moving forward were that this teammate’s abilities took a significant leap forward. He was able to mentally process complex movements faster, and more importantly, he became more confident discussing the positives and negatives of teammates performance in training. 

This evolution also brought to light my strengths and shortcomings as it relates to being an instructor. I was able to hone my ability to distill complex CQB instruction down to as few words as possible. 

Previously, I was guilty of going on long diatribes after each CQB run because I thought the longer I talked the more everyone understood what I was saying. This kind of after-action review only served to frustrate the overall team and lead to less training because inevitably the conversation would devolve. What should have taken less than five minutes often exceed fifteen minutes as everyone began inserting their two cents into the conversation. 

By working one-on-one with my subordinate, I learned how to clearly explain our training to a larger audience and since I was speaking in a way that was universally understood, I found that training was more efficient due to less questions and confusion about each evolution.



The old saying that “you don’t know what you don’t know” is especially true for tactical teams. With experience comes a greater understanding of processes as you navigate a multitude of environments and problem sets. There is however an advantage to including those that have little experience into the design of tactical training because they inevitably see the environment differently. Their understanding, or more importantly, lack thereof, shines a light on the shortcomings of your training design and instruction technique thus enhancing the effectiveness of the entire team.

The explanation of complex tasks like mission planning or training design allows leaders to transfer organizational standards and practices to teammates that will pay dividends in the future. Subordinates need and want to be involved in the process of tactical training design to learn at the ground level how the over-arching training process works. The byproduct of this inclusion generates ownership in the organization and enhances the dynamics and capabilities of the entire team.

Zac Roberts, Former Military Officer and current Federal Agent and SWAT Team Member.


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