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Staying in the Game

By Mark vonAppen

Keeping team members engaged during training is paramount to achieving high performance levels when they are called upon to act. How do we accomplish this in training when our fires continue to decline, when our training budgets are being slashed- when our firefighters have to continually come off the bench and perform at elite levels on skills not practiced for weeks or even months? How do we keep our heads in the game?

We do it by taking mental reps and staying engaged all the time. Easier said than done you say?

Hear me out.

January 1, 2012

Green Bay, Wisconsin—With Aaron Rodgers (the Packers starting quarterback) resting for the playoffs, Matt Flynn (the second string quarterback) knew he had to be ready to run the Green Bay Packers offense.

Was he ready?

You bet ya.

Rodgers was bundled up on the sidelines in cold and blustery conditions at Lambeau Field, and Flynn had a career day with 480 yards passing and 6 touchdown passes - the final coming with 1:10 left in the final stanza, giving the Packers a 45-41 victory over the Detroit Lions (a playoff team) in an improbable regular season finale.

“It’s very humbling when you think about all the great quarterbacks who have played here. I couldn’t have done it by myself- obviously.”

Flynn is right- he couldn’t have done it without his teammates. He couldn’t have done it if his coaching hadn’t prepared him. His team would not have been able to win if Flynn wasn’t prepared to perform. Flynn’s performance was the result of what was largely mental preparation for a record setting day for he and the Packers.

Did this guy come out of nowhere to set these records?


His performance on New Years Day 2012 was the product of a lot of reps- some of them physical but most of them mental.

Matt Flynn has been with the Packers all year- he has been the patient understudy to Aaron Rodgers waiting in the wings, studying his lines, knowing his part so that when the lead actor goes down, he can step in and play the lead in Hamlet without the audience having a clue- each soliloquy must be expertly delivered if the show is to go on. He has had his head in the game all season, in every snap of every practice, in every film session, and in every play of every game as he stood on the sideline wearing a baseball cap and carrying a clipboard.

Coming off the bench every day

How does a football player perform at such a high level against a quality foe after seeing so little playing time throughout a sixteen game crusade? The parallel we are drawing may seem- on the surface at least- to trivialize our profession by making comparisons to a game played for entertainment value on a weekly basis.

Much of what we are expected to excel in as rescue professionals equates to coming off the bench cold, without adequate time or training, and the public (our fans) demands that we perform at an expert level every time. The diversity of our profession, with our fires becoming few and far between, makes it nearly impossible to be experts in everything we are thrown into.

But we have to be- so we’d better find a way.

When we fumble the ball- in a manner of speaking- the results are real and often irreversible.We may live and die with our favorite sports team on a superficial or emotional level on Sundays in the stands or on the couch but we could literally live or die based upon our depth of knowledge and preparation for combat on any given day in the fire service. We have to be ready to go no matter what we are confronted with.

Time out! We weren't ready for this one. I'm stumped coach, got any ideas?

Hot, dark, and smoky with people trapped is not the time to hesitate and consult the playbook. There are no time outs to confer with the head coach while the house is ablaze. Through proper training- whether it is physical or vicarious- we can be prepared come what may. We, like Matt Flynn on that windy, snowy, January Sunday at Lambeau Field have to be ready for whatever the opponents– Lions, Tigers, Bears, or fires- throw our way.

The consequences on the gridiron are nowhere near comparison to those of the fireground, but the level of preparation in the arena of sport is much higher on the whole than what exists in our theater of operation. With so much potentially at stake this cannot be so. We can learn a lot from the sense of urgency in preparation that successful athletes and coaches employ when preparing to face an opponent.

Eyes and ears required

When we are called upon, the eyes of our brothers and sisters, the eyes of the community, and now, sometimes the eyes of the world are upon us. We had better be ready. We had better be the guy who has had his head in the game- preparing mentally and physically so that when the starter goes down, and we are faced with adverse conditions- we can hit the field and lead the team or arrive at the incident and play a supporting role towards solving the problem without the team missing a beat.

We can go out and practice- but practice alone does not necessarily improve performance. Training sessions must be germane to the situation to which the drill is designed to replicate. Drills must be as realistic as possible to recreate the stressful situations under which we must thrive. To truly maximize time spent in training everyone must engage in the drills while they are performed- not just the firefighter performing the task. Those not actively involved in performing the task must observe intently to get the vicarious experience of performing the skill. Each skill builds on the previous skill- the knowledge compounds as the training session progresses.

The mechanism for successful training delivery is maintaining focus and high concentration levels at all times. The player- or firefighter- must trust that all skills are important and keys to their ability to achieve their desired goal. They must believe that the coach- or drill instructor- has the ability to take them to Plus Ultra- beyond where they thought they could go or what they thought possible.

The destination might be scoring every time the team is in the red zone or achieving knock down and completing a primary search in a safe and timely manner. The point is- it’s the journey of training that gets us there.

All training has value in some form- it is equally important to you and your teammates. The reason for this is if you’re not actively engaged in every training evolution- either physically or vicariously- then you run the risk of making the same mistake as the person who performed the skill before you. This might be because you were looking up at the clouds, or thinking about lunch as the teaching and training was taking place- wasting the short amount of time we are afforded during the day. This cannot be allowed to happen.

We must have the trainees eyes and ears- their undivided attention- at all times.

Thrust into action

During training sessions keep those not actively involved in the physical aspect of the drill mentally engaged by asking those waiting their turn some questions. This is done to get a reading on whether or not they’re paying attention.

Keep people involved vicariously:

  • What is the situation?
  • Under what circumstances do we perform the skill and why?
  • What is your responsibility in the scheme/ evolution?
  • What are the consequences if the skill is misapplied?
  • What is the back up plan (audible) if this doesn't work?

Even if a trainee is not actively involved in a training evolution they should observe those who are to see how they perform the skill. If you’re not the starter, lack experience, or if there are long intervals between high RPM incidents, and you only get a small amount of practice you have to be involved in 100% of the training evolutions. You must always be mentally engaged- in order to receive the benefit of the vicarious experience. If we are unable to get every trainee the physical reps to create the neuromuscular pathways to ensure muscle memory then we must get them mental reps.

Our business is serious- this we can say without hesitation. We have to engage our members in training and they have to get the message in order to perform at a high level. The way to truly achieve this is to ask yourself some questions.

  • How do we coach our people in the most effective manner?
  • What is the best form of delivery for the subject matter?
  • Are we maximizing participation and repetition in the time allotted?

Safe, efficient, and effective operations take time and energy to pull off. Nothing much can be accomplished by individual means. Successful campaigns are symbolic of the hard work and dedication of everyone involved- if any one person fails to do their job the whole plan potentially unravels.

We all know that there is no substitute for high repetition hands on training. We also know that this type of training is simply not always a realistic option given the premium placed on our time. Not everyone is assured the same amount of practical, hands on experience. This is our reality.

Training must have an impact on our people every time we set foot on the drill ground. The reason that training must be impactful and done right every time is because if we can’t afford the time to do it right- when will we have time to correct the scars created by inadequate or improper training?

The job is about vigilance and preparation.

You only get the ring if you win.

by Mark vonAppen

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