The Sports Science of Firefighting: A 5 Part Series.
PART 2. "High performance isn’t, ultimately, about running faster, throwing harder, or leaping farther. It’s about something much simpler: getting better at getting better." --James Suroweicki
In his New Yorker page-turner about “the performance revolution” in sports over the last half century, James Suroweicki argues for infusing the sports science analogy into all professions and activities. He tells the story of an NBA forward in the '70s who went from a college superstar to a near drop-out in the pros. Being giant and athletic carried him through minor league play, but athleticism alone couldn’t cut the mustard against the rest of the best in the nation.
That’s when he met Pete Newell, who eventually became the go-to man in basketball for skill-specific training. An evolution over the next 3 decades arrives Suroweicki at a simple conclusion: 50 years ago, the thought was that you are what you are — gifted or not. But "today in sports, you are what you make yourself into."
In 2015, athletes from high school age onward carve themselves into sport-specific machines with the help of strength coaches, sprint specialists, nutritionists, play coordinators, engineers, and so on. Nano-seconds matter (think Olympic Downhill) and inches separate winning and losing (think Superbowl). There are pros and cons to this movement. The cynical version is that this pressure for perfection is putting unfathomable burden on kids from too young an age. As a former kid-gymnast turned collegiate athlete, and future parent, I get it. But the flip side is that this human quest to be "better all the time" teaches people important life lessons about hard work, competition, risk, and success. Now, it's not just the born-gifted guys who hold the trophies. It's anyone who steps up to the plate with a brain, a work ethic, and a team.
And it defines how as firefighters we should approach the most blessed burden of all: the opportunity to save lives.
My belated run-in with this article was timely. It affirmed my message about firefighter fitness training: your power to perform in that fateful moment comes from how you prepared in all the moments before. Fighting fire is the ultimate sport — it’s a fierce, timeless contest between industrial athletes, loaded with 50 lbs on their back alone, with another 50 lbs of tools in hand, on a vertical, concrete field, against a relentless, tireless, and uncontrollable opponent. Unlike most athletes who focus on a narrow set of skills with a single tool (except, perhaps, pentathletes), firefighters must be masters of many crafts on a playing field that constantly changes.
They haul long lengths of water-charged hose, stabilize off-balance weight while operating hydraulic extrication tools, crawl in low-motion positions (all but blacked out), and climb endless sets of stairs. They position 4 story ladders, hammer repeatedly into roofing materials, carry human victims out of windows, work in search and rescue units, and move in buddy teams to advance hose line. All this while communicating, managing, and organizing through the chaos.
As firefighters, not only is it smart to train, tweak, and improve our physical performance as athletes do — it's our duty. Our job is to keep ourselves alive, keep other people alive, and put out fires. Those objectives are inextricably tied to our superior physical health and abilities. And forget the people we’re saving and the property we’re salvaging for a sec — we owe it to each other to be as fit as we possibly can. Because at the end of the day, in that moment of truth, we have to look each other in the eye and truly believe:
I got your back and you got mine. I’ll save your life and you’ll save mine.
For those who toss the word around too lightly, that’s what “brotherhood” really means. It means a commitment to be better all the time for each other and for our profession.