Dr. Jason H. Davidson DC, CSCS
As a strength coach, consultant, and clinician, I am frequently asked to evaluate a certain athlete, or team’s needs in relation to a specific goal or task. In doing this I use current research, hands on training/experimentation, and years of practical experience to arrive at the result. In recent years, I have been fortunate enough to use these skills to assess numerous different special operations divisions of our nation’s military, and have come to some interesting conclusions. The following write-up will describe what I found to be the inherent problems across the board, as well as my recommendations for their improvement.
Please keep the following in mind as you read this if you are active or former military. I am a civilian. I am a strength coach, and chiropractor. I work on athletes from a performance and clinical perspective almost exclusively, and have been doing so for some time. Knowing my skill set ahead of time, I frequently get asked by military units to critique their training. I know there are many things that I do not know about the military, especially special operations, and I probably never will entirely. What I do understand is human performance, and how to relate job/sport-specific tasks to functional, comprehensive, year-round training that meets specific needs. Over the years, and through my military contract experience I am beginning to understand things better, but please understand the perspective from which this information comes.
AGENDA AND COMPLIANCE
Imagine this: I am a football coach in central Texas in mid-august. My kids report for two-a-days and I give them the breakdown for the season. I tell them the goal is to be State Champions this year and I encourage everyone get everyone on board. Then I tell them “Ok, go ahead and lift, run drills, exercise, eat and do whatever you think you need to do to be a better football player regardless of position, ability experience etc., but just be ready to have an undefeated season come September. Now, go ahead and get to work!” How many reading this expect that we would be successful in meeting our agenda for that season? Exactly. The same is true for any unit in the military. If we do not have any congruency in our training; if there is no system, we can only be as successful as each individual’s best effort at whatever they decide to do. If no one is doing the same thing, it will be very hard to be successful. I think the point is clear. It is a coach’s nightmare to walk into a situation where no matter what they do or say, the ones being coached can do whatever they please. It is an exercise in futility. I feel that focused, task specific training needs to be implemented on some level, so everyone can begin to be on the same page.
I would like to continue now with a discussion about specificity. In the human performance world, specificity refers to the similarity between the work that is being done in training/practice and how well it correlates to the demands of the activity or sport. Demands can span the spectrum from physical, physiological, psychological etc. but all relate to the given task or sport.
Take wrestling for example. There are specific time constraints (7 minutes for NCAA, excluding overtime). There are weight restrictions. The movements are multi-directional, and multi-planar. The work requires a huge anaerobic engine as well as anaerobic endurance, and cardio-respiratory base. Common areas of injury are the neck, and knees. The matches are relatively short, but extremely intense. Often your opponent may have ill intentions as well. They may not only want to win; they may want to destroy you. Even without any general knowledge of the sport, or programming, would you say that running 3-5 miles each day, and doing sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups, is the best we can do here? Will this give us the right prescription for skill, power, conditioning, and injury prevention? The answer is no. We need to take ALL of the above into account when designing our training. The more accurately we can reproduce the live situation the better off we will perform and execute the task. Here the task is to win and survive to wrestle another day.
This NEEDS to be applied to special ops and other military groups with utmost urgency. I had an interesting discussion with some of the operators from the last group I was with. I had them do a simple task. They wrote on the whiteboard what they and their peers typically do, in regards to strength/conditioning in any given week. I had them list it as a percentage that they spend doing certain tasks i.e. “jogging…45%”. Then I asked them to write what the physical demands were on a typical deployment or mission. Then I asked them to compare the two. Their jaws hit the floor, and the room was filled with almost embarrassing chuckles and giggling from all. The point was made. The two were polar opposites. The most obvious was that this group indicated about 60-70% of their time in the gym had to do with some prolonged run, with or without kit etc. They listed that <10% of their time was spent on sprint work or similar. During their deployment they mentioned that they rarely jog any distance of any kind, and that most of their task required sprinting. This is just a simple example. It does not address all the other things that did not make any sense. Again, the point was clear. From then on, they all understood that what they were doing during training had very little relevance to what they do on the job. The potential of this team was not even close to being tapped into.
STANDARDS, MEASURES, AND TESTING
With any sport, there are tests that indicate to the coach or clinician that progress is being made. There are gold standards to which we hold athletes accountable. I will use football as an easy reference. Although it may vary from group to group, and state to state, you will not have any football combine without a minimum of the following tests: 40-yd. dash, pro-shuttle, vertical jump, bench press, height, weight, wingspan (and other physical measurements). Some will add a few more agility tests, like the “T-Drill” or “L-Drill” or some other factors. Certainly, in the weight room the best back squat, front squat, power clean, bench press, and deadlift are up on the wall. Now, I’m not saying that these are the best indicators, but they ARE a standard. They provide some kind of baseline. In the clinic we can use XR, MRI, CT. We measure joint angles and palpate tissue. We use orthopaedic, and neurological testing, as well other objective and subjective measures to indicate progress.
I was taken on tour of the training facility at a compound recently. With me in the room were one or two of the medical staff, and several officers. I asked, “If I were a coach of this unit, what would be my measure of success? What tells me, as a coach, that I am doing a good job?” The answer was interesting, in that there really was no answer. Generally, I was told that if the guys on the unit liked me, that this would be sufficient. Well, I believe myself to be a pretty likeable person, so I was thinking that this should be an easy gig. Obviously, I am being slightly sarcastic. Any coach would have to prove their merit with sound programming, and good teaching ability, plus be “a good fit” for whichever unit employed them. I understand this. This conversation just showed me that in this example, there really was no plan, or standard in terms of strength & conditioning that was to be expected from this unit’s operators. Need I remind you that I am not referring to execution of job specific tasks and/or proficiency of said tasks, but tactical strength and conditioning only. I think it would not take too much to sit down and figure out a battery of tests ranging from mobility/stability screens, agility, movement, strength, power, and or capacity related to job duties. I know that each deployment may present different variables in regards to terrain, temperature and climate, culture, altitude and other extremes. Still, I think there is a common ground; something concrete, that can be observed and measured to ensure that there is progress. I think this would not only ensure that maximum potential was reached, but also the safety of each individual and the combined unit would be obtained as well.
There is a lot of information out there in regards to overall fitness, and in this case fitness for operational readiness. I will repeat myself slightly by saying I have noticed certain trends. The most common I have seen are the hypertrophy/run programs (HR), CrossFit-Type (CFT), and the comprehensive AP-type (APT) programming. I will not take sides to any of the above other to say that the HR program will get you nowhere as a tactical athlete, and there are various positives and negatives about the other types, in my opinion. This starts to get a bit interesting because every strength coach has their own “flavor” or “touch” that they bring to programs like the ones listed above, or they may have come up with something that they feel is completely unique and does not fit into any of the above. I think CFT is a tool, like anything else, and is not the be-all-end-all of hardcore training. I actually find more detrimental elements to this type of programming, yet some of it is excellent is it’s raw form. It just needs to be revised to fit, and used at the appropriate time. APT programming is exceptional, but to me lacks some of the more gritty-type training that might be of more use in the tactical environment. Overall, I feel it is a sound understanding of the concepts, science, and philosophy that goes into the development of these programs, along with years of experimentation and evolution that will produce the best result. Then yes, of course, to each their own. Everyone will have their opinion, just as I do, and it is up to the educated mind to make the right decision for their specific needs.
Getting the best information in the hands of our special operations units is indeed a challenge. The fact that someone like me is even writing an article like this shows that there is indeed the realization that more needs to be done. It all begins to come together now. First we need to have a united idea or vision of what we want for our units. We then need others to buy in or be compliant with these ideas. Only then, when a system is established, can we educate about that system and what it entails to make it successful. Surely someone like myself can come in and teach any aspect of performance from Olympic lifts, to speed work, movement prep, or pre-habilitation etc. This is great, and is extremely valuable; to those that are in attendance. I guess if any isolated individuals are playing with aspects of human performance, that they should be taught properly, and educated about the proper technique, philosophies, inherent risks and benefits of said programming. I just wish it would extend further than that. I think it will at some point, but I can’t help to think that for every group that I have worked with, the individuals that were present at the time benefited the most, and each successive group received a further watered-down version of what I taught, until it was just as though I was never there at all. This is a shame, because it should be there all the time. At bare minimum, even if there is never any mandatory training, or gym protocols to follow, there should be a credentialed strength coach present to assist those that want to do more, and be more efficient and effective. Perhaps if a small sphere can be influenced, the masses will follow.
In closing, I would just like to say that anytime I have worked with the military as a consultant, it has been an incredibly fulfilling, and rewarding experience. It is an extreme honor to help in my capacity, those who protect our nation and the free world. Every time I have coached a military unit I was treated with the utmost respect, and more importantly, everyone was excited to learn and apply the information from my experiences. This is a very gratifying feeling as a coach. I think it’s out there; the idea that there is more to learn, and that a paradigm shift must occur. I will continue to make myself available to help push the development of sound programming throughout our nation’s Special Operations units, and beyond. I know the majority of us train hard, now we need to train smart, and encourage others to do the same.