tactical athlete

You Are Not a Tactical Athlete

When it comes to fitness, you and I should only care about how someone can coach, and their background/knowledge in coaching. Anything else in the badass department is just a bonus. I myself am a former U.S. Army Infantry Officer, Ranger, and police officer. I like to shoot guns and wear pants with too many pockets as much as the next tacti-cool guy; however, my former professions are NOT why you heed my advice when it comes to strength training, or being fit in general. I'll give you a few reasons why.

You’re Not a Tactical Athlete

By: Nick Koldewey

I recently purchased a subscription to a website called “WHOOP.com.”  Upon signing up and paying the subscription, they send you a heart rate monitor to wear 24/7 that tracks all your biometric data.  As I was going through the app on my phone to set up the device, I was filling out my user profile with my name, age, height and weight, etc.  Then it asked me about my current fitness level with several options to choose from: Professional Athlete, Collegiate Athlete, Serious Fitness enthusiast, Recreational Fitness Enthusiast, and – the big un’ – Tactical Athlete.  

For me, going through its setup procedures and seeing an option for “Tactical Athlete” as a legitimate option that I could select to identify myself with was astounding.  More or less, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back in my thinking. I mean, I know the difference between a professional and collegiate athlete, and even the difference between serious and recreational fitness enthusiasts, because there are clear definitions of what those things mean.  For example, it is safe to say that you cannot call yourself a professional athlete if you are playing pick-up, shirtless, beach volleyball outside your Airforce base (cue ‘Playing with the Boys,’ by Kenny Logins) (1).  So, what the hell is a “Tactical Athlete” anyways? This question has been bothering me for a long time, and as it has been said before, words mean things.

Within the past decade, the fitness world has seen a slow rise in the concept of the “Tactical Athlete.”  There is no real definition of this, at least, from what I have seen so far.  Many, many training programs and schools out there attempt to define the “Tactical Athlete,” and some have even built their entire business model around the concept.  Heck, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) has a certification called the “Tactical Strength and Conditioning Facilitator (TSAC-F).” This certification is quickly becoming the “gold standard” for police departments, and many require that the instructors involved in fitness training, for new recruits and officers alike, have a TSAC-F.  Before I left my police department, a certified TSAC-F instructor put on a weeklong “Tactical Athlete” course,… and you bet your ass I took that class.  

The class covered broad fitness concepts—like the differences between strength, agility, power, endurance, etc.—in an attempt to define the “Tactical Athlete.”  Yet, the instructor could not teach someone how to do an air squat, let alone one with a barbell. Unfortunately, he is in charge of generating and enforcing the fitness standards and curriculum for our entire police department, with over 1600 sworn officers. You know what this instructor did have, however?  Experience—and a lot of it. With over 20 years of service to the department, serving in multiple specialty units, and countless hours of training, you could say that this instructor knew a thing or two about police work. But now the question arises: Does experience – even extensive commendable on-the-job experience – qualify someone to as a fitness expert?

With this concept of the “Tactical Athlete” comes the teachers, or the authority figures, of such “athletes.”  Who is the authority figure of your rugby team? Well, the rugby coach (duh). This goes for just about any sport.  Any coach or authority figure needs two main things to be deemed effective: knowledge and experience. A coach needs knowledge of the sport—the why for how you move, practice, and compete the way you do.  Then the coach needs experience applying the why in the sport itself, by both having played the sport and coached it.  Add in some effective communication skills, and you have yourself a pretty damn good coach.  Yet, in the “Tactical Athlete” community, this does not seem to be the case. All the tactical community cares about is experience:  How many years of service do you have? How many awards have you won? How many high-speed/low-drag schools have you been to? How many times have you been immersed in a jungle fighting an alien lifeform that can track your body heat and is goddamn invisible?! (2)  

The average American citizen assumes that because jobs in the military, LEO, and first responder fields not only have physical fitness requirements to get into the professions but also require a degree of physical fitness to do the job well, that these tactical-types would know a thing or two about getting stronger and fitter.  How many times have you heard that “so and so” is an ex-Navy Seal, or ex-Special Operations, or an ex-Ranger who is now on a plane full of prisoners who took over the plane and now he has to be a hero to take it back (3)? And this guy does 300 pushups a day, and runs 8 miles, and yells at himself in the mirror; thus, he is qualified to speak on physical fitness training. Right?

Now, I should clarify that I am not on a quest to bash Rangers, Navy Seals, SWAT, Razak’s Roughnecks (4), or whatever other types of badassery jobs that are out there.  So, I should preface what I am about to say with this: I am honored to be part of a nation that has individuals that volunteer to put themselves in harm’s way. Secondly, I am grateful that some of these individuals take an extra step and go through a grueling selection process to join an elite unit that is associated with their particular organization.  Not only can very few do this – maybe (and that is a big maybe) the top 1% of the nation – but they do it to allow the normal folk to go about their business, live their lives, and hopefully, be happy.

 

Now here is the truth:

I don’t give a f*ck what you are, or what unit you were a part of, or how many kills you have had using an explosive arrow tip (5).  And neither should you. When it comes to fitness, you and I should only care about how someone can coach, and their background/knowledge in coaching.  Anything else in the badass department is just a bonus.  I myself am a former U.S. Army Infantry Officer, Ranger, and police officer.  I like to shoot guns and wear pants with too many pockets as much as the next tacti-cool guy; however, my former professions are NOT why you heed my advice when it comes to strength training, or being fit in general. I’ll give you a few reasons why:

First, if you are basing my fitness training and knowledge on my past military and law enforcement experience alone, you can pretty much guarantee that I have no idea what I am doing, as these organizations do not know what they are doing.  The US Military has a knee, hip, and back injury epidemic on its hands. The US Army has been using the same PT Test since 1980. Police departments nationwide have officers dying of heart attacks on a regular basis because of obesity. Shall I keep going?  

Most of the training in the military and first responder organizations are not based in objective science as 1) the leadership conducting the physical training has no formal training in basic physics, biomechanics, anatomy, and kinesiology and 2) the leadership conducts its training subjectively.  Meaning, if your commander is into running long distances, guess what your unit is doing? Bureaucracy wreaks havoc on any kind of intelligent fitness training because of the nature of its structure. The person at the top is assumed to have both the most experience – which is, most of the time, true – and the most knowledge – which is, in regards to physical fitness training, almost never true.

Second, I have not found one military or first responder organization that includes barbell training as part of their basic fitness training program, or in any other program given to their personnel.  And trust me, some of these organizations have plenty of acronym-heavy, coaching-deficient people. This makes no sense to me. It is universally agreed upon that training with barbells is the fastest and most effective means to acquire strength, and yet pushups, sit-ups, and flutter kicks are still a thing?

So, if it was not clear already, just because you are a special-fighter-tactical-alpha-ninja guy does not also mean you know how to conduct physical training or put someone through any kind of program to meet their physical training needs.  In fact, most of the evidence points to you NOT knowing anything. Strength and conditioning coaches do not need to have played a particular sport to know how to coach an athlete to perform better at it. The same rule applies to the military and first responders.  If you are one of these tactical-types, and you discredit a legitimate strength coach because they do not have the same background as you, you are in the wrong.  And, if you are one of these tactical-types that thinks that, because of your high-speed low-drag background, you are qualified to run a hot-and-sweaty-booty-boot-camp at your local shooting range (as that is what you would most likely do), you are also in the wrong.  Thus, the appropriate response to “you should listen to me because I’m a Green Beret,” is “I eat Green Berets for breakfast.” (6) 

Now that I’ve crushed your dreams, and now that you are screaming at several of your favorite Instagram accounts, “Why have you lied to me tactical-fitness guy?!”  Let us figure out what a “tactical athlete” really is. As we said, words do mean things.

One Term to Rule Them All

When I told a very good friend of mine that I was planning on writing an article on the “tactical athlete” (he is also a former Ranger and current Police Officer), he so eloquently asked, “what is a ‘tactical athlete?’ Someone who works out in cool pants?”

Boom.  Nailed it.

But really, what does “tactical athlete” even mean?  Let’s break it down…

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “tactical” means “relating to or constituting actions carefully planned to gain a specific military end.”  In the military community, we use the word “tactical” to talk about positions, placements of units, or actions that help us turn the tide of battle to ultimately win. 

And, the word “athlete” means “a person who is proficient in sports and other forms of physical exercise.”  Yet, I think we can all agree that when we use the word “athlete,” we are almost always referring to someone who plays a sport.  Meaning, if you go to yoga class three times a week, I don’t think it is okay to call that person a “Yoga Athlete,” as yoga is not a sport.

Thus, the use of “tactical athlete” does not make much sense, as the person we are describing is neither planning anything strategic for a military victory, nor an athlete.  But you know what, put “tactical” in front of anything and it sounds cool, so why not use the word? Sadly, I think this is the only reason that word is used today. Before we change the terminology that we use to describe these types of “athletes,” we should first figure out what these athletes really do.  

What is the difference between a normal athlete and a tactical athlete, anyways?  The reason why we need to know the difference between the two is that we need to know how to train each athlete for whatever particular sport they are participating in.  For example, you are going to train an endurance athlete differently than a strength athlete; you are going to train a football player differently from a professional golfer.  Do both need strength, endurance, speed, power, etc.? Yes, of course they do, but each trait will vary depending on the athlete and his sport.  This is the same in the tactical world, as you are not going to train a police officer the same way you would train an Air Force Pilot.  So, what is the real difference between a normal athlete and a tactical one? As pointed out, the tactical athlete does not need anything different from what a normal athlete does, as the training will suit the fitness traits that will help the tactical athlete perform his or her job.  There is one major difference, however.

The difference between a normal athlete and a tactical athlete is the game.  A normal athlete knows the game is on Friday or Saturday at a certain time.  He knows the rules of the game and how long it will last. He even knows the number of games he will have each season and who those games will be against.  He has time to prep for the game, getting his gear prepared, making sure his nutrition and hydration are optimal, sleeping long enough, and even prepping mentally before game day.  

The tactical athlete, however, knows none of these things.  He does not know when “the game” is going to be, who it’s going to be against, or how long it is going to last.  The stakes of the game are much higher, too, as a loss for the tactical athlete could mean the loss of his life. The tactical athlete is not playing a game, or match, at all.  Sometimes they just have to yell, “Irene! F*ckin’ Irene!” (7) and get after it.

Time for a quick war story:

I was working as a police officer on patrol in my assigned area.  I was sitting in my police cruiser in a hotel parking lot next to a highway doing what cops do best—looking at my phone waiting for my shift to end.  Then a hot call came out over the radio: a guy was trying to break into someone’s house. He had just kicked in the front door but realized that people were still in the house, so he made a break for it.  The caller said he started running toward the highway and was unsure if he was armed. After looking up the address of the call on my computer in my police cruiser, I noticed that the address was less than a mile away from me.  I hit the lights and sirens and sped off toward the address, keeping my eyes open in hopes of seeing the guy fitting the description running down the highway. Sure enough, he appeared and was running down the highway in the opposite direction.  As I was still on the highway and driving fast, I sped right past him. I slammed on the brakes and stopped my cruiser in the middle of the road, jumped out, and started chasing him on foot. I was giving him commands to stop, but bad guys do as bad guys do, he kept running—guess it was the guy, as good guys don’t run from the police.  I kicked it into high gear and started to speed up. He kept turning back, looking at me as if to judge my distance. I got closer and closer. We had been running for at least 200 meters at this point, and I was about 10 meters away from him. As a former high school collegiate and college state champion rugby player, I have found myself in this very situation many times on the rugby pitch.  I was itching to crush this guy, but what would happen after that when we are both on the ground next to a highway? Would he give up and let me handcuff him, or fight?   

When I was about 10 meters away, the guy abruptly stopped and started to quickly pivot around to face me.  Normally when someone stops abruptly like that and turns to face you, he has a weapon; and, from the call, I was unsure if he really did have a weapon or not.  As he was pivoting, I started to screech to a halt. I couldn’t see his hands yet, but I took no chances. I began to draw my sidearm. By the time he was facing me, I was pointing a gun at him and giving him commands.  I proned him out on the asphalt with his arms spread out like a ‘T.’ My only next goal was to try and not sound too out of breath on the radio (and failed miserably). Backup arrived, and we put him in cuffs. Mission accomplished.

I tell this war story as simply one out of the millions of examples from when you can go from sitting comfortably and browsing your phone to an all-out sprint in boots with about 30lbs of gear.  Lucky for me, my “game” ended at gunpoint in a matter of minutes, but it could have ended in a long fight, or something much worse. This is no game.  There was no prep time, no knowledge that this “game” would occur on that day at that specific time.  No pep rally before and no beers in the locker room afterward.  Afterward, I went back to work.

I’m not a tactical athlete, and neither are you.

So, what then shall we call ourselves if we are not athletes?  I propose a new term, and that term is a “Responder.” If you are military, law enforcement, or a first responder (duh – right in the name on that last one), you respond to events.  Your events are not planned in the same sense that an athlete plans to prep and perform at a game or match.  Your events also require a different kind of training and preparation that is completely different than an athlete.  And, you are at much more risk of losing your life than an athlete is.

Words mean things, people.  Henceforth, let’s do ourselves and the tactical community a favor and start using “Responder” to refer to these amazing men and women who volunteer to protect us each and every day.

Oh, and for the record, I did choose “Tactical Athlete” for my WHOOP profile.  Guess I should send them this article.

Bonus Points for anyone who can name all seven movies quoted above (don’t look it up!). Post on BLOC Slack or Instagram:

Nick is an avid lifter and has been experimenting with weights since he was 13 years old. That’s when he started playing rugby, and he wanted to get bigger and stronger to dominate on the pitch. Since then, he has used a variety of training methods, but none more effective than Starting Strength.
Nick attended Radford University in Southwest Virginia, where he earned a B.S. in Philosophy. After university, Nick was commissioned into the U.S. Army as an infantry officer. During his four years of military service, he attended many training schools, including Ranger School, and deployed to Afghanistan. After the military, he moved back to his home state, Virginia, and worked as a Police Officer for two years. Currently, he works in the private security sector.
In addition to working with BLOC, Nick lifts and trains clients out of his gym, Blue Ridge Barbell, located in Northern Virginia. If you can’t find him in the gym, you will find him on the shooting range, practicing Jiu-Jitsu, coaching a local rugby team, and spending time with his wife and daughter. Nick has a passion for teaching people how to become their best selves through strength training. He holds Professional Barbell Certification (PBC), and a Personal Trainer Certification from the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA-PT). Nick specializes in working with the military, law enforcement officers, first responders, and security personnel.

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