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Paper – Elite Human Performance in the Australian Army: Lessons from the Soviet Sports System

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The Australian Army generally considers its people as its resources and capability. With this in mind, soldiers should ideally be at the elite level of human performance. This would assure a greater probability of success in combat, and reduce the potential of injury in training and combat. It would also safeguard physical longevity – the Army gaining greater efficiency and usage of its key resource. In reality the Army does not have a proven system or service-wide culture that develops cutting-edge levels of human performance. The Army does not adequately develop, prepare, or sustain elite levels of fitness as the norm. Biased, uneducated opinions and views are held by a great many of all ranks. Compared to elite levels of sport, the Army is well behind the times in fostering elite human performance. Resources and interest, are gradually being invested in developing human performance. There are some ways to go before the Army can generate and maintain tactical athletes fit for purpose.

This paper will highlight key aspects of a proven elite athlete development system that has some applicability to the Australian Army. This will include the background and application of the Soviet Sports System by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) during the 20th century, highlights of youth athlete development models in the West, consideration to the contemporary injury rates in the Army, and discussion on how aspects of the Soviet Sports System models could be conceptually applied to the Australian Army through the Force Generation Cycle. The application lessons from the Soviet Sports System would better prepare soldiers for combat and longevity.


About the author: Pete Tarling is a Field Artillery Officer, serving as a Battery Commander in the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment.  He is a Level 1 Strength and Conditioning Coach, a Level 1 Powerlifting Coach, a Level 1 Sports Power Coach / Club Weightlifting Coach, and a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer. Along with his coaching qualifications, he holds Certificates III and IV in Fitness and is studying a Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science.

3 thoughts on “Paper – Elite Human Performance in the Australian Army: Lessons from the Soviet Sports System

  1. Hey Pete,

    Thanks for a phenomenal piece. IMHO you nail so many of the issues that will need to be overcome if we truly want to get serious about optimising the physical capacity and performance of soldiers to create a tactical edge. But also balance the unique societal pressures associated with growing an elite environment without the flexibility to discriminate based on natural talent and previous development. Your narrative review of the lessons learnt from the Soviet System are something that I will be commending to all of my colleagues in the Rehab and S&C space.

    I would like to put forward one point for consideration however. I agree that currently we don’t have the right skill mix broadly to implement an elite program in Army predominately due to a lack of integral professionalisation of the S&C and Human Performance Research within our ranks. But I would argue that there is another avenue to grow this approach, without the necessity for the creation of a completely new job role. You argue that Physio’s are solely utilised in the ‘rehabilitation’ phase when in reality this profession is internally undergoing a significant shift in the elite environment. More and more the evidence is moving away from the traditional model of physiotherapy of a bit of a rub, some strapping and low grade exercise – to an understanding that in order to optimise performance a blurring between the S&C and Rehab space is essential and the knowledge gap between ‘physio fit’ and ‘elite fit’ needs to be closed. In this way many physiotherapists are now seeking post graduate qualifications in S&C and in the elite environments many physios are becoming the Heads of Performance departments (the Fremantle Dockers being one such example). I recently completed a course at the AIS where 4/7 physios lecturing were Masters level qualified S&C professionals. Maybe my profession needs to also take a good look at itself and motivated individuals blaze a path to enable interdisciplinary human performance optimisation throughout the whole cycle of conditioning, maintenance, recovery, rehab and reintegration.

    Nick

  2. Hey Pete,

    Thanks for a phenomenal piece. IMHO you nail so many of the issues that will need to be overcome if we truly want to get serious about optimising the physical capacity and performance of soldiers to create a tactical edge. But also balance the unique societal pressures associated with growing an elite environment without the flexibility to discriminate based on natural talent and previous development. Your narrative review of the lessons learnt from the Soviet System are something that I will be commending to all of my colleagues in the Rehab and S&C space.

    I would like to put forward one point for consideration however. I agree that currently we don’t have the right skill mix broadly to implement an elite program in Army predominately due to a lack of integral professionalisation of the S&C and Human Performance Research within our ranks. But I would argue that there is another avenue to grow this approach, without the necessity for the creation of a completely new job role. You argue that Physio’s are solely utilised in the ‘rehabilitation’ phase when in reality this profession is internally undergoing a significant shift in the elite environment. More and more the evidence is moving away from the traditional model of physiotherapy of a bit of a rub, some strapping and low grade exercise – to an understanding that in order to optimise performance a blurring between the S&C and Rehab space is essential and the knowledge gap between ‘physio fit’ and ‘elite fit’ needs to be closed. In this way many physiotherapists are now seeking post graduate qualifications in S&C and in the elite environments many physios are becoming the Heads of Performance departments (Dean Kennealy at the AIS being one example). I recently completed a course at the AIS where 4/7 physios lecturing were Masters level qualified S&C professionals. Maybe my profession needs to also take a good look at itself and motivated individuals blaze a path to enable interdisciplinary human performance optimisation throughout the whole cycle of conditioning, maintenance, recovery, rehab and reintegration.

    Nick

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