* Image from Sports Coaching Brain website
Recently the head coach of the University of Illinois men’s basketball team, Bruce Weber, found himself in some hot water after making some comments to the press after another frustrating Illini loss. Coach Weber said, “The sad thing about the whole thing I guess is it’s my fault. Instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coached not to lose all year. It’s sad to be honest, but it is what is.” Now, to give a little context, the Fighting Illini had started out the season 10 – 0. They currently sit at a mark of 16 – 10 and only 5 – 8 in the Big 10. The season has gone a little down hill since its lofty beginnings and Weber has found himself in a precarious position in regards to his on-going employment. These recent comments have had many speculating he may need to begin looking for other avenues of income generation. Personally, I don’t care. Never been an Illinois fan. I’m a Domer. As in, Notre Dame. So the Illini don’t really matter to me as a sports fan, but what drew my attention was Weber’s outlook on coaching. It got me thinking about how we in the fire service lead others and train for our job.
“Instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coached not to lose all year.” Do we do that as a profession? I think in a lot of ways we do. As an officer do you lead your company, battalion or department to truly excel or just not to get into trouble either by your higher-ups or by the residents or media? As training instructors do we train the troops to a level that is high-functioning and truly professional or do we do just enough to try and ensure no one gets hurt or killed? Do we see certain things like VES, aggressive Truck work or self-rescue techniques as too lofty a goal to attain and be proficient in or something our department is not capable of? Do we see our abilities as a department and our people as limitless or do we see them as restricted or capable of only so much and only to a certain, usually low, level? Are we constantly leading and training for mediocrity?
Whether you are an officer, at whatever level, or involved in training in some way your job is the same. You are a coach. You are a coach to a certain number of members. A company, a battalion or the whole darn department. Your job is to evaluate your team, find their strengths and weaknesses, improve on both of them through practice, evaluate the competition and come up with a game-plan that will lead to a successful outcome. How you lead these members gives a lot of insight as to what your goals and your organizational values are. Are you simply leading and training to get by or are you shooting for the upper reaches of performance? The big leagues or the minor leagues. Local competitions or the Olympics. Your people will pick up on it and some will seek to achieve only the level they perceive to be required of them. Others will look to surpass that level but will there be enough of those types of individuals to make a difference on a grander scale? If your officers or organization is setting a tone of, “just don’t lose“, or in our case, “Just don’t do something stupid to get us on the news,” or “Just be good enough so that we don’t routinely create new available parking spaces every time we have a fire,” will those over-achievers have enough influence on their own to raise the collective bar? Probably not.
Training can be looked at in the same way. Do we show up at the drill ground and simply go through the motions of whatever subject we are covering that day or do we challenge our students and ourselves in the course of meeting the objectives? I’ll admit that in some of the drills I have put on the scenarios or the situations in which the students find themselves may have been on the extreme or unrealistic side. I’ve caught flack for it too. “We’ll never be in that situation,” ” We would never do that,” “I’d never be stupid enough to get into that mess,” are all things I’ve heard regarding something I’ve put together. My opinion is that if we train on the extreme side then the routine (and I hate that word in regard to our profession) becomes easy. Or, at least, easier. Are we training to win, and to advance that line in difficult situations, or make those rescues under terrible conditions, or are we just training not to lose and advance the line with no obstacles or make rescues when the people are fully mobile and easily accessible? You can’t train day in and day out for Cactus League play (in honor of the Cubs pitchers and catchers reporting today) and then go out and expect to be able to face mid-season MLB competition the next. While the bread-and-butter residential structure fire may be what we face the most often we should still be training for the Paxton Hotel or Happy Land Social Club, in my humble opinion.
I’ve worked with a particular officer who’s only standing order is, “Just don’t get me in trouble.” I kind of equate that to what Coach Weber said and how it got him into trouble. I know I’m convoluted so try and stay with me, here. Essentially Coach Weber admitted to coaching his team not to go out and take a win as if it were the only option but to try and avoid losing if possible. Two totally different mindsets, yes? What I take away from this particular officer’s credo relates in a way (at least in my brain). Don’t do anything I’m going to have to answer for, i.e. don’t do anything that might make me lose my job. And, although not outright said, I take it as implied that a level of status quo is to be maintained. In my ears I hear, “Don’t go out there and achieve greatness, just don’t do anything that might draw attention to me.” Does that make sense? Now I’m even questioning my own line between the two points. Oh well, I know what I’m trying to say.
As officers you can’t just lead to get the members to follow your wishes, they’re going to do that anyway simply due to your rank. You need to try and lead them in such a that makes them want to achieve greater levels of proficiency. Greater levels of responsibility. A great “can do” attitude. And that starts with you and how you coach them. As instructors we need to challenge our students and make them overachievers. We need to coach them as if every game is the Super Bowl, because if we treat every game as if it doesn’t really matter then we’re never going to get there.