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Article – Constructing the Tactical Athlete: Part 1

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“Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general” Mark Rippetoe.

The Tactical Athlete is a defence member of any age, gender and race, who is physically and mentally capable of withstanding all of the hardships associated with war. These rigours are not just limited to outside the wire, but also experienced inside the wire and when combined with a lack of sleep, poor nutrition and a stressful environment; this sets the parameters to ask the question – what is required to develop the ultimate Tactical Athlete?

In the past 10 years, the fitness industry has seen an abundance of research into the development and enhancement of strength and conditioning best practice. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) is no exception; physical training has progressed and seen the introduction of numerous trials and programs that are solely aimed at preparing men and women for the hardships of battle.

The ability to enact change is difficult. The biggest deterrent comes from a culture focused around high repetition calisthenics and torsion bar workouts, long slow distance running and sessions that invoke the feeling of nauseousness, rather than development and achievement.  Furthermore, we have a physical training culture that lacks an understanding of individual abilities and requirements for development and we develop generic methods of training for the collective group. Training in this way has produced some excellent Tactical Athletes, however is it best practice? What is standing between the ADF and having a production line of members who are combat ready, injury free and capable of any task set for them.

In order to change the culture, the chain of command must be educated on the holistic benefits of a structured physical training program. The implementation of methods to collect and assess data, monitor changes and develop an individual’s strengths and weaknesses in a formal, structured format to enable the development of individual members and therefore, strengthening the abilities of the collective team.

The Tactical Athlete Web

An analysis of the physical performance expectations on individual members can be defined through a ‘Web of Performance’ and when approached holistically, it details the unique attributes of the Tactical Athlete.  In day to day operations, the Tactical Athlete is required to possess a good standard of each skill in order to remain effective, compared to the majority of elite athletes who only require one or two of these criteria in order to be successful in their chosen field.

The modalities found within the Tactical Athlete Web of Performance are speed, power, strength, anaerobic power, muscular endurance, aerobic capacity and movement proficiency. All ADF members should be proficient in each of these modalities.

Image 1: Tactical Athlete Web of Performance

The intent when programming for the Tactical Athlete should be to create a web that is as large and broad as possible. If a modality of the web is deemed to be lacking either by an individual or the team as a whole, this would highlight limitations within the individual or group, and provide commanders and subject matter experts (SMEs) with an opportunity to tailor a periodised training program to improve that skill, without seeing a detrimental impact to other modalities within the web.

When designing a physical training program, in addition to the considerations in the Tactical Athlete Web, the core principles of training must be followed in order to progressively overload the athlete with a specific stimulus that will result in improvement. This in itself requires a shift in understanding throughout the ADF, as making adjustments to modalities within the web are part of the long term training program (12+ months) and will not be seen in the Tactical Athlete in the standard three day per week training program.

Specifics

The testing of each modality should be very broad and not limited to one activity or test; this will avoid skewed data due to genetic and biomechanical advantage that one individual may have in certain activities.

When determining the specificity of the tests being conducted, it is important to note that the tests are not required to replicate what occurs within the operational space, they are merely acting as a means to show the individuals capacity in that particular modality. The carryover to the battlefield of each proficiency is unquestionable.

There is a broad range of roles and an even broader demographic of individuals across the ADF, therefore the testing required for each can be completely different and can be altered depending on the operational tempo or the requirements of the unit.

Modality Testing

Each modality has a specific definition and individual intention, once that intent is discovered a range of specific tests can then be allocated in alignment with the needs of the individual or unit.

  • Speed is an essential quality of the Tactical Athlete; the ability to move quickly for short durations at a high velocity over various terrains and in various climatic conditions is highly underrated within the current physical training culture of the ADF. The overlooked aspect of speed is that it is a distinct requirement for any athlete looking to reach high levels of anaerobic power and aerobic capacity. Within the Tactical Athlete Web, testing is short duration maximal efforts with no additional load. Examples consist of 40 – 100m running sprints, 100m row sprint and 20calorie (cal) assault bike.
  • Power is also an attribute that the Tactical Athlete requires; however, is very rarely facilitated well within unit PT. Power is utilised by exerting high amounts of force at moderate to high velocities. Testing within the Tactical Athlete web can be conducted through the use of the power variations of the Olympic lifts and could be modified through the use of Deadball tosses or an equivalent.
  • Strength is by far the most over looked quality of the Tactical Athlete; strength is the foundation of speed, power and muscular endurance. The physiological benefits of increased bone density, ligament and tendon strength assist in creating a natural ‘body armour’ for the individual, as well as the obvious benefit of being able to move large loads. Testing can be easily conducted through the basic lifts of squat, deadlift, bench and strict press.
  • Muscular Endurance and Aerobic Capacity are without question, the most overtrained elements within the current framework of physical training within the ADF. There is no doubt that the Tactical Athlete requires the ability to move for long time periods whilst undergoing a variety of different tasks, however this style of training has the highest potential for chronic overuse injuries when approached with an old fashioned ‘more is better’ mindset, hence why a goal/intent to the training is required and the training approached through a combination of periodised High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), strength training and specific training. The testing and specific time domains can be modified to align with the operational tempo and role of the unit.
  • Movement Proficiency is the final modality within the Tactical Athlete web, again it can be tested utilising a number of methods, however the most established is through the Functional Movement Screen (FMS). This assessment assesses all of planes of movement and can be utilised in a manner that provides the individual an overview of their movement ability, and allows them to easily identify their weaknesses and identify methods to address those weaknesses; therefore, dramatically reducing the chances of injury. Creating an emphasis on movement quality within the ADF will increase the longevity of each individual as well as see a marked improvement in each modality as an athlete will not be able to express speed, power or strength through certain plains if they cannot move within those plains to begin with.

Conclusion

Initial testing is required to provide the individual and chain of command with data to outline weaknesses and strengths; testing can then be conducted at periodic stages to monitor the Tactical Athletes performance.

The best method to combat stressors such as sleep deprivation, malnutrition and poor living conditions that are thrust upon the Tactical Athlete is to put the individual in the greatest possible physical condition for each modality.

The needs of each individual within the Tactical Athlete space are only separated by degree; they are not separated by kind. This implies that regardless of the individual’s role, the tests that make up a modality can be altered; however the requirement for the modality itself is undeniable.

An emphasis should be placed on education and conducting training with an intent and end state, this will increase the physical proficiency across Defence.

See the attached examples, find the test that applies to your individual needs as much as possible and see how you stack up within the Tactical Athlete Web.

 

“Constructing the Tactical Athlete – Part 2” will delve into the implementation of unit training programs that will aide in the development of the all Tactical Athletes.

 


About the author: Tim Boland is a Corporal Physical Training Instructor serving out of 1st Combat Health Battalion Headquarters in Randwick Barracks. He is a Level 1 Strength and Conditioning coach, Level 1 Weightlifting coach and Crossfit Level 1 trainer. Along with these coaching qualifications he holds a Diploma in Fitness.

2 thoughts on “Article – Constructing the Tactical Athlete: Part 1

  1. Tim,

    Excellent piece thanks so much for sitting down and putting work like this out there. In particular I think that drawing attention to the fact that Tactical Athletes likely need more broadly and applied fitness traits than many elite athletes is spot on, as is your analysis of the over emphasis in our current training paradigm of aerobic capacity and muscular endurance at the detriment of true strength training. This of course is not to diminish the importance of ‘the base’ that comes with this traditional training methodology, but rather that it’s not enough, can be achieved through more appropriate methods and alone is not what is going to make our force physically resilient for the demands we place on them. I also think that it can’t be underestimated that true fitness for task will make soldiers not just more physically robust, but better able to make sound decisions under pressure and fatigue. All brilliant points.

    I would however caution perhaps the focus on movement quality and in particular the use of the FMS to achieve this. As a measure of prediction for injury this tool has now been solidly debunked in the literature (Bahr, 2016), and if we get the other elements you have spoken about correct, then biomechanical factors will likely be just the 1%ers which are actually far more difficult to change than other physical adaptions, as a lot of them are just the way we are.

    The other element that I see missing from your framework is an understanding of training load (Gabbett et al, 2016) at the individual and organisational level. In talking about professionalising our S&C systems in Defence, the biggest quick win we can get to determine if our interventions to enhance performance are truly meeting expectations and monitor for injury risk is to get better at understanding the impacts that our programming is having on our people. Training load monitoring is a simple evidence based approach to achieve these ends, along with specific skill testing as you have highlighted.

    Again thanks very much for sharing. I am constantly impressed by the push in Army to improve the way we do business to optimise our most important asset and your contribution above is a great one! Can’t wait for the next instalment.

    Nick

    Bahr, R. (2016). Why screening tests to predict injury do not work—and probably never will…: a critical review. Br J Sports Med, bjsports-2016.

    Gabbett, T. J., Hulin, B. T., Blanch, P., & Whiteley, R. (2016). High training workloads alone do not cause sports injuries: how you get there is the real issue. Br J Sports Med, bjsports-2016

  2. Tim,
    Excellent and accurate depiction of the current state of ADF physical training and what needs to occur IOT cause long-lasting change and optimize performance. I strongly agree that without strength not only is a person’s capacity to develop power, speed and muscular endurance hindered, their musculoskeletal system is inhibited to carry and move with load (which is a fundamental tenant of any combat athlete/soldier).
    The majority of injuries within Defence (particularly Army) are soft tissue/overuse injuries either as a result of Sport or incorrect load management. With the CA’s focus on injury prevention, a quantifiable load monitoring system combined with a LTAD approach is required towards physical training. This needs to include not just training loads of physical training, but measure the entire military training day.
    Lastly, a professional “athlete” attitude needs to be taken towards physical training. If you speak to professional athletes they will tell you that they do not enjoy at least 95% of their training. Although there is a time and place for MTG and other such activities, individuals and the entire organisation needs to understand that their training is “work”. Coaching is both a science and art. The science provides the framework, methodologies, etc yet the art is what creates exercise adherence and athlete “buy-in”.
    Great article and I have no doubt that this approach will gain momentum and hopefully invoke systemic cultural change toward physical training. Keep it up buddy!

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