By Rob Shaul
You may be surprised that I’ve emphasized this principle in every programming course I’ve taught. Not the message you’d expect from a strength and conditioning coach.
It first came to my attention when working with a West Point Sandhurst Team several years ago. The team hadn’t done well at the previous Sandhurst competition and asked for my help in designing a training plan. To start I took a look at their event scores from the past comp.
The team had asked me for fitness programming, but looking at their scores, what they needed most, and what would have the most impact on their competition results, was better marksmanship. Their scores at the range had cost them the most points. Fitness training wouldn’t improve that.
Sometimes an emphasis on fitness can be a distraction from needed technical work in other areas of performance. A true professional is constantly and honestly evaluating and working in all areas of his/her job performance, prioritizing which area of improvement will have the most impact, and acting accordingly.
With our professional freeskiers, what separates those at the top and the up and comers is how they answer when I ask them for the biggest technical weakness in their skiing form, and the drill or drills to correct it.
The best skiers have quick and specific answers to both questions. Others struggle with the first question and have no idea how to answer the second.
This issue came up again recently when working with a wildfire Hotshot crew. I visited the crew for a day to conduct some swim PT and water confidence training, and for a quick presentation on MTI’s approach to tactical fitness.
Hotshot and other wildland wildfire crews report to their duty stations in late April for initial training, and two weeks later can be called up to fight fires. A lot must be accomplished in these two weeks – equipment survey and maintenance, team building, communications, and instruction/review of all the latest in firefighting tactics, safety procedures, case studies, etc.
At the Hotshot crew level, it seems every crew has their own initial fitness assessment or suffer fest and training approach during the remaining of the two weeks. My sense is this is true for all the wildland firefighting units.
What practically happens is those two weeks are spent completing physical smoke sessions trying to get the crews fit for the season. As a result, many of the firefighters are exhausted, and the retention of the non-fitness training during the two weeks suffers. Fitness training gets in the way of technical practice.
So after my visit, I received a call from a wildland firefighting interagency oversight group. The reason group was calling is there have been 5+ cases of rhabdo at wildland firefighter units this year – and they want to prevent this in the future.
In my ideal scenario, there would be a standardized, mission-direct fitness assessment given at the beginning of two-week train up. The assessment events and procedure would be readily available to the firefighters, and each would be provided a 6-8 week assessment-specific training plan to prepare for it.
Those who failed the assessment on day 1 of the train up would be sent home. Those who passed would continue on with the training – but because they had already demonstrated their fitness, physical training would be limited to 1-2 hours each day – and the rest could be spent on the needed technical practice needed before the season start.
There are other examples where fitness training gets in the way of technical practice, and it’s something tactical units and mountain athletes must be conscious of. At my courses, I encourage students to always keep their eye on the ultimate goal – mission performance – and honestly evaluate their fitness and technical skills with mission performance in mind.
Mission performance is all that matters. A super fit soldier with poor marksmanship needs to replace some gym time with time on the range. Likewise, a super fit alpinist who’s rope system self-rescue skills are sketchy, needs to replace some fitness training time with self-rescue practice.
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