The Mind of The Tactical Athlete

By: Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

The term “tactical athlete” is increasingly used to describe a firefighter. The manufacturers of firefighting PPE (e.g., jacket, pants, gloves, and footwear) are making skillful use of the term to describe how their products can improve a firefighter’s job performance when combating structure fires through gear with more flexibility, better agronomic design, and lighter weight.

The American Heritage Dictionary (5th edition) describes an athlete as:

  1. One who takes part in physical exercise or sports, especially in competitive events.
  2. One possessing the requisite strength, agility, and endurance for success in sports [1].

Certainly, a definition that’s applicable to firefighters, no? Firefighters combating a hostile fire in a structure surely qualifies as a “competitive event” (#1 above). And firefighters must have strength, agility, and endurance to be successful in that competitive event (#2 above).

The Firefighter Combat Challenge is a great example of firefighters channeling their competitive spirit in a fun and productive way.

Most firefighters have experienced competition—and developed a competitive spirit—long before they became firefighters. For many that competition may have involved some of the following:

  • Growing up with siblings (I’m the eldest of the four Avsec Brothers and the competitive stories I could tell you!)
  • Organized athletics (e.g., Peewee football, Little League baseball, basketball, martial arts) through high school, and even in college.
  • Academic competitions (e.g., debate competitions, engineering competitions, foreign Language competitions, mathematical modeling competitions)

Certainly not an exhaustive list but you get my point: Most firefighters come to the job with a competitive spirit. And that competitive spirit becomes more sharply honed through things like departmental chili cook-offs, “Guns and Hoses” events (e.g., police vs. fire hockey or softball contests), and comparing job performance (e.g., between shifts within their station, within their department, to other neighboring departments), or seeking a promotion.

Firefighters Need More Than Just Better Equipment

If we look to competitive athletes today, from those in high school right on through the professional ranks, we see a rapidly growing trend: Athletes feel they need more than simply better physical training and better equipment to perform at an elevated level in their sport. So, for many athletes seeking to gain more of a competitive edge, we’ve witnessed the advent of sports psychology as another tool to be used for improving athletic performance.

Defining Sports Psychology

Bobby Jones, first golfer to score golf’s “grand slam,” as the winner of the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, British Open, and British Amateur championships in a single year, 1930.

The great amateur golfer—considered by many to be one of the greatest golfers of all time—Bobby Jones, was once quoted as saying “The most difficult distance for a golfer is the six inches between their ears.” Jones was referring to the mental fortitude necessary for a golfer to manage the mental pressures of competitive golf, while making good decisions in the “heat of the contest,” and then physically executing the necessary golf shot.

Sport and performance psychologists are experts in helping athletes and professionals overcome problems that impede performance. Some teach strategies that help clients maximize their physical prowess; others collaborate with clients to overcome anxiety or a traumatic experience, such as a ski fall, which is affecting their confidence. Other clients might need help communicating with colleagues or teammates or accepting a coach’s critiques [2].

Source: psychology.about.com

So, it’s easy to see why athletes—be they amateur or professional—have embraced the sports psychologist as a “mental coach”—on par with their hitting coach or pitching coach for a baseball player–who can help them take their game to the next level. That next level being those same abilities alluded to by Jones: To have faith in their abilities to perform, to thrive in pressure situations, make good decisions under pressure, and then deliver physical performance.

But athletes aren’t the only clients. Consider the rigors of performing surgery, for example. Doctors may need help gaining the confidence to return to the operating room after losing a patient. Actors or comedians may need support getting back on stage following a poor review [3].

Sounds like today’s firefighter, doesn’t it?

Psychology For the Fire Service

Mention the term psychologist to most firefighters and watch the grimace that’s likely to come across their face. They’re likely to make that face because they, like many people, view a psychologist’s role through a “mental illness lens.” Thus, the continuing stigma that prevents firefighters from seeking mental health services when stress from their job or family life is having a negative impact on them mentally.

But what if we take the opportunity to reframe the conversation? Instead of consulting with a psychologist when times are “bad,” what if we could help firefighters to “shift their paradigm” about how they view psychologists? A new paradigm—one adopted by many of those amateur and professional athletes—where firefighters view a psychologist as a valuable person who can help them to be more successful in their professional and personal lives while maintaining their good mental hygiene.

I’m a member of the Fire Service Psychology Association (FSPA) an organization dedicated to “bridging the gap between professional psychology and the fire service.” As we’ve discussed how to build that bridge, I’ve learned much about why those athletes have embraced the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) of psychologists to improve their athletic performance. It’s because the same KSAs that a psychologist employs to help a patient with a mental health challenge (Reactive) are just as useful on a “mentally healthy” person (Proactive). When a psychologist does that for the mentally healthy client (e.g., an amateur or professional athlete) they’re giving that client the KSAs they need to:

  • Understand how the brain reacts to stress and the physical manifestations that go with that response and how to manage those manifestations.
  • Recognize when life events are affecting their mental and physical response in a negative way.
  • Learn how to make “course corrections” on their own (self-help) when job or family stressors begin encroaching on their mental hygiene.
  • Recognized when they need some “coaching assistance” from their psychologist because they don’t feel their self-help is working.

More About FSPA

Another part of that “bridge” that FSPA is looking to build is to provide psychologists with the KSAs necessary to be more effective—both proactively and reactively—for firefighters. FSPA is working on that through the collaborative efforts of its members, a membership that is open to both psychologists and members of the fire service. To learn more about FSPA and the work it’s doing, and how to become a member, visit the FSPA website. Also, Like FSPA on Facebook, and Follow FSPA on Twitter.

References

1. Athlete Definitions | What does athlete mean? | Best 7 …, https://www.yourdictionary.com/athlete.

2. Sport and Performance Psychology Delivers Peak Performance, https://www.apa.org/education-career/guide/subfields/performance.

3. Ibid.

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for FireRescue1.com and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, rpa1157@gmail.com.