Training the Tactical Athlete
Admittedly, I’m not too big on the term “tactical athlete” because of the sweeping misconceptions surrounding it. However, it is the population that I’ve worked with pretty much exclusively over the last four years. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some truly amazing people who also happen to be world-class athletes. I’ve also been very fortunate to work where I do at VHP, which has given me just about every advantage to succeed as I could ask for. It’s been a steady learning curve throughout all four years, steeper at times than others, but seeing something I need to improve on never seems to fade. In this article, I’d like to cover some of my major learning points and insights on working with the tactical population.
Defining the Tactical Population
This is the most important part of the discussion surrounding “tactical athletes”. We need to be very clear on our definition of this group because it can vary greatly. For instance, when you hear tactical athlete you most likely think of things like “extreme” or “intense” as we normally envision the crawling, grueling 20-something year old fighting his/her way through Special Forces selection. But what about the hundreds of thousands of others who are on the other side of the selections, and say 10-12 years into their careers and riddled with injuries?
For all intents and purposes, tactical, is simply referring to military personnel and first responders (i.e. fire fighters, police/swat, EMT). In a sense, that would be no different than grouping basketball, football, volleyball, and softball athletes together and just calling it “athlete training”. Nevertheless, once we get past the semantics of it all, the difference between working with tactical and sport athletes is really quite minimal. Broadly speaking, there is no difference in the training protocol or approach- we do an interview and assessment, put a plan together, and execute that plan to improve performance.
Tactical vs. Sport Athletes
Despite the approach being the same there are some fundamental differences that we need to be aware of when planning for training. The simplest way to perceive the tactical athlete is that of a “jack of all trades”. The exceptions to this are easily identified, such as a young recruit who has an upcoming Physical Standards Test (PST) or on a bigger scale, preparation for Special Forces selection or deployment prep. The obvious exceptions notwithstanding, most military personnel will have just about the same training demands and goals. These demands, contrary to most conventional sport athletes, are wide reaching and can often become compounding in training.
As this applies to programming, where the conventional athlete is going to have refined training modes to meet specific outcomes, the tactical athlete is going to be spread thinner. There are of course situations where, for instance, an Operator that may have very specific training demands to meet specific operational requirements. But in most cases, we’re thinking back to that “jack of all trades” mindset. To paint an easy example, take a look at the broad training demands for conventional athletes as compared to a tactical athlete:
Irrespective of sport or tactical athlete, the training always meets the individual needs that sometimes go beyond the constructs of “sport specificity”. But once that’s established, for the tactical athlete, we really want to broad stroke approach. They need to be equally proficient in duty with hiking long distances under load while also being able to sprint and accelerate in short, quick bursts and be able to react and bend in closed off situations. Remember though, just because we use the word “tactical” doesn’t mean they are thrusted into impossibly rigorous training that never weans. We need to perceive them simply as athletes who need to improve performance in what they do- which happens to be militaristic duties and combat.
For some of my athletes I am very close to the conventional athlete split (i.e. bench/squat/dead progressive load), with some plyos and high force impact drills implemented as well. For others, we may only work up to movements like DB goblet squats, DB incline press and elevated hex bar deadlifts and only moderately include them. The point being, tactical training is no different in that the demand of the training intensity and exercise selection are governed by the athlete’s ability and movement profile and nothing else. It’s the coach’s job to be adaptive, not the athletes.
Along with the “X’s & O’s”, there are some intangible aspects of working with the tactical population we want to be aware of. Most of these pertain to things like character, personality, and how to interact. The intangibles are the glue to your training being successful and your coaching being influential. Consider this the underpinning to the overall training outcome.
Effective Communication: Quick, Clear, Concise
Everything in their world revolves around being direct, responsive, and quick. Just as we modify our coaching/communication styles to work effectively with youth athletes, we must do the same for those on the opposite end. With my athletes, things like making direct eye contact and using minimal verbiage while giving instructions is a direct extension of the world they come from. I think this is especially important for me, as I never served time in the military. It’s important for me to demonstrate what’s familiar to them to help bridge the trust gap.
Know Your Audience; Know Your Boundaries
I’ll admit, I don’t have much in common with most of the people I work with, at least not on a surface level. Although this is an easy excuse to abstain from conversation, it cannot be a barrier in the development between coach and athlete. I had some difficulty with this early on, being that I’m generally reserved in nature. Learn about their world, take note of their interests, figure out what makes them tick. Of course this doesn’t mean you need to obsess about it, but take initiative to have a handful of conversation topics that aren’t training related. More importantly than anything else though- don’t be a zealot. They will know if what you’re doing and saying is inauthentic.
Equally with this population, it’s important you know where your boundaries are. Again, me being a civilian is going to make that barrier a little firmer and a bit more distant. I think one of the best things that happened for me being in the position I am now is that I had no preemptive knowledge of what I was stepping into. This didn’t give me any opportunities to seek out false information or impression on “how to act”, which can be ill-advised guidance that creates some sort of manufactured veneer. The answer is simple- be 100% who you are. Authenticity and transparency are highly valued in their world, they’ll be receptive to honesty, even if it isn’t spot on with what they may want to hear.
Take Thorough Notes
There is often a lot going on with these athletes. This can be in regard to injury and surgical histories, which is often the case for me, or it can be a host of upcoming testing batteries and/or specialty training trips. They can also often have things with work that will be physically competing. With so many variables at hand, it’s imperative that you get as much notice/awareness ahead of time as possible and organize training accordingly. Also know, this isn’t just in terms of physical notes. With my athletes, abrupt changes in work occur often, which can then subsequently affect training eligibility on short notice. Changes at work can also take a toll on sleep, which again then consequently affects training status.
All of these factors are things to stay mindful of. The way I look at it, anything that has the potential to impact our ability to train, I want to know about it. This way, not only can I do my best to put together a coherent plan ahead of time, but also have a backup/alternative in my back pocket at all times. Taking thorough notes helps you to stay on top of how training is manifesting and gives you the opportunity to identify any trends or patterns in the process.
Sleep, Cognitive, Vestibular
These are again items that need to be considered, pretty much irrespective of the population you work with. However, with the tactical population these are much more common, for obvious reasons. I think it’s important to be very upfront about the limitations of your practice, and that you will implement anything you can to help or accommodate for these dysfunctions, but that if anything is truly significant it will likely be beyond anything you can solve.
With sleep being the most ubiquitously disruptive item for my athletes, being able to identify when to pull back on training intensities is imperative. The tricky part with this population is that they are literally trained and conditioned to do two things: 1.) Mask any pain/discomfort and weakness (including tiredness and feeling unwell) and 2.) Push as hard as you can, no matter what. Rest when you’re done, not when you’re tired. Often times the most difficult part of working with these individuals is getting them to understand that not EVERYTHING we do is going to be done to complete exhaustion. Or, similarly, convincing them that we don’t need to just “push through” even though they only had 3 hours of sleep last night. The consequences of doubling down on sleep deprivation can be brutal, don’t jeopardize irreparable consequences just for the sake of checking boxes.
Speaking to the cognitive and vestibular issues, the symptoms or challenges with these can be wide reaching. For cognitive impairments, some will have difficulties with multi-step instructions or complex/combination movements, in which you may need to instruct new items incrementally or repetitively. Others may have hearing impairments whereby you need to be sure they can see your mouth anytime you’re giving them instructions or feedback. For those with vestibular dysfunctions, I’ve found a lot of success in just simply giving them a single point external focus. It can literally be as simple as using a bright sticky note with an X on it for them to focus on while moving. Additionally, with my vestibular athletes I will be sure to include a good amount of single-leg balance/stability work with them, primarily through warm-up and movement prep. As this group begins to advance, challenge them by simply moving in sequential, combination type patterns. Be inclined to use creativity and intuition, this group benefits from “learning” new things on the fly.
Specific Training Considerations
I’ve worked with hundreds of tactical athletes, and I can say easily over 50% of them had some type of major shoulder and/or neck injury. The most common soft tissue injuries in my world are SLAP and rotator cuff tears, most of which had been well after surgery. Additionally, degenerative damage to the cervical spine is very common in this community as well, most often due to the consequences of wearing head gear and kit. This also propagates the presence of severe forward head posture significantly and should be carefully considered in training.
What I’ve noticed with SLAP/cuff tears (as is true for almost any surgery) is that much of the athlete’s ability will be dependent on how well the surgery was done. For some of my older athletes (Veterans) who had the repairs done in the 90’s and 80’s, the procedure wasn’t as sophisticated and precise as it’s done now. The ramifications and limitations for this group can be much higher. Generally speaking, overhead flexion can be compromised quite often, and should be monitored carefully when starting out.
Some additional observations I’ve noticed working with these athletes include:
-Upper-trap dominance, which subsequently compromises the lats and inner back muscles
-Hypertonic anterior neck muscles (i.e. scalenes, sternoclemastoids) due to chronic overfiring
-Difficulty maintaining neutral head during movement
-Strict glenohumeral hyperextension intolerance (i.e. deep push-ups/bench press/dips)
-Compromised grip strength, hand/wrist function, and elbow restrictions (i.e. supination)
Another one that’s very common for me is disc compressions, most often in the lumbar and sacral area (L4-L5-S1). Occasionally, I’ll see athletes who have thoracic compression, which typically occurs from fast roping injuries or emergency/disruptive jump landings. Thoracic injuries are typically acute in nature, whereas the lumbar are more often developed over time. In either case, any time we’re dealing with back injuries we need to take particular caution with exercise selection and positions we have them work from. The worst thing you can do is trigger a back spasm, these can be brutal and significantly compromise eligibility to train anything for extended time.
With that said, we should be very mindful with axial loading, and be sure to assess if they have any presence of trunk flexion/extension/rotation intolerances. The athletes with history of lumbar injuries will likely be triggered by excessive or improper trunk extension, whereas the thoracic group will tend to have more reservations with flexion and rotation-based movements. Similarly, be cautious putting athletes with lumbar injuries in the prone position. This isn’t as obvious, but they can dump into excessive extension easily in the prone position. The best strategy I’ve adopted is relying heavily on what the athlete tells me directly. When people suffer from back pain, they become almost hypervigilant with what sets it off because the spasms are so severe. So just take very good notes when they describe it to you, and be sure to ask specifically about exercises they’ve both had and haven’t had success with in the past.
The last point I have to include here is the presence of repeat stressors. You don’t need to be a military expert to see the demands, but some of the most common include:
-Shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and IT band syndrome resulting from high volume running (often in suboptimal footwear)
-Labral tears (both hip and shoulder) and these are more commonly developed over time.
-Presence of forward head posture, (weight of kit, helmet, posture in vehicles, etc.) which can be detrimental to cervical discs and often lead to degenerative damage.
-Non-specific low back pain (NSLBP), which can be from a ton of different things. Commonly in my world are residual pain from surgery or disk compression.
In a lot of the cases I work with, athletes have been subjected to these repeat stressors for a very long time, which has created several subsequent movement compensations or impairments/restrictions that manifested over the years. This can make things quite complicated to navigate, but the takeaway point remains- be mindful of what their world demands of them, and don’t double down in training. This really illuminates the dangers of misconstruing tactical for intense or exhaustive. Structuring training this way will only further deplete the energy stores they need to perform in duty, while also continuing to ignore true weaknesses and deficiencies.
Preparing for the Unpreparable
When you boil it down, the tactical athlete in most cases needs to be ready for damn near anything. From my experience, I’ve boiled it down to the following main criteria:
-A delicate balance between rehabilitative and performance training: Almost all are injured, some significantly, but still have operational duties. Work to rehab the injured sites without compromising strengths
-Robustness and durability: Much of their world is a battle of attrition. They need to be durable to endure the physical demands they’re subjected to, and robust to prepare for all the things they could be subjected to.
-Change training modes and focus frequently: Building on the theme, these athletes often have a wide-reaching spectrum of responsibilities and expectations. As such, we need to account for this wide variety in training.
-High variability with exercise and equipment selection: Similar to the point above, consider the benefits to including minor adjustments like grip and stance variation, task complexity, unbalanced/offset modalities, and oscillatory and perturbating methods.
-Include challenges and be explicit with objectives: Almost all of my athletes are genuinely invested in their training. They often ask questions and inquire about the purpose or reason behind things. I think there is a very high cerebral aspect to their professional work and duties, and sometimes, this permeates into training. Be willing to collaborate with the athletes on their training. This population is typically very well informed of training methods and enjoys the conversation and/or learning curve.
I get creative with my training more frequently than most strength coaches, at least I’d imagine. But I always like to recognize that these unorthodox movements or non-conventional methods aren’t just for the hell of it. In my opinion, it’s important that we are comfortable pushing boundaries of what’s conventional, and from there, push the thresholds for finding effectiveness in our training. When we break it down to assess comparatively, we should recognize that tactical athletes and conventional athletes have far more overlap than they do disconnect. Sure, some programming variables are different, volumes and intensities will vary, but for the most part- high level athletes are high level athletes. Everything I include in training is always based on need, demand, and ability. Never more, never less. No matter the athlete or population.