Tactical Strength and Conditioning and Law Enforcement Health and Wellness. S&C Coach Profile: Becky Swan

Published On: July 29, 2021Categories: Industry, Interviews

CSCA – You are in your 11th year with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) but prior to joining the department you worked primarily in sport. Can you tell us a bit about your professional experience prior to starting with the VPD?

BS – When I was a student at Sheridan College, I worked as a student therapist for McMaster University’s men’s rugby and woman’s basketball, as well as with the Hamilton Tiger Cats. In 2007, I graduated from Sheridan College and started working as an Athletic Therapist with the Vancouver Whitecap’s Residency program and the Women’s National Soccer Teams (Senior and U20). I trained personal clients for a while but between travelling with soccer and working in a clinic as an Athletic Therapist (AT) it was sporadic. I joined the VPD in the fall of 2010. I continued to work with Soccer Canada for the first few years. In the fall of 2013, I realized that I could not give adequate energy to both. I absolutely loved working with the team and staff and really do miss it. I saw the impact that I could have at the VPD and wanted to start pushing for more development in the area. In 2015, I started my Masters of Rehabilitation Science at UBC.  I focused my projects on officer wellness and completed a study on implemented workplace-based rehab in police departments.

CSCA The scope of your role with the VPD has expanded significantly. I know a lot of these changes were the result of you recognizing a need and taking action to make it happen. What were some of the big changes and what was required to make them happen?

BS – My first position at the VPD was “fitness coordinator”. My duties were varied and included, fitness testing (occupational and standard age/gender-based testing for staff and applicants), active rehabilitation, creating general fitness or S&C programs, facility management, health promotion and sharing of wellness resources.

My office happened to have a treatment table so I started to inquire about providing manual therapy as a part of my role. There was initial interest and I set up a meeting with my Inspector and a few officers from Human Resources to explain the benefits of treating on site and that it would come at a minimal cost to the VPD as I was already hired. They loved the idea.  I laugh at our ignorance now as during that meeting, we brainstormed on how to convince employees to use this “free service”. Our plan was for me to write a monthly article on different injuries, what people could do about them and that they could come in for assessment and treatment. I never got to those articles. Word spread fast and I was filled up in less than a month. 

To make the program successful, I had to earn the trust of the members and assimilate into the culture of the department. I was mindful to check my ego and to carefully select times and ways to show them what I knew and could do. I showed genuine interest in helping them, had many conversations, learned FROM them and showed up when they went through hard times or the department went through losses. Once trust was established it was amazing how they provided opportunities to help me as well.  They assisted me to “research” and improve my understanding by experiencing their jobs.  I got on their horses, did night time ride alongs, took bites from a canine member, ran the emergency response physical PARE test CLICK HERE TO VIEW VIDEO, did courses with them and watched their tactical training. They know I am there out of curiosity and a desire to greater understand so I can better help.

The demand for training and rehab grew and I was quickly overwhelmed. A part time physiotherapist and a part time fitness coordinator joined the team in 2016 so we could meet the growing demand for rehabilitation and training. Currently the VPD is working towards having an external therapy company provide on-site treatment delivered with direct billing to our extended benefits program.  My team will focus on training, acute care and small issues that need more of a consult than a full treatment plan and supporting members on light duties so they can recover and become fully operational. This transition to a “hybrid” training/treatment model has taken a few years but will provide greater access to multi-disciplinary training and treatment with minimal impact to our operating budget. Getting more officers fully operational will positively impact both officer and community safety. 

Tracking, managing and storing all of the documents related to training, treatment and wellness became a big challenge. Some files were paper and others electronic.  A significant amount of time was spent manually entering test results and creating programs with supporting exercise photos. When one of the 1500 VPD members requested their fitness or training history it became challenging to efficiently compile. In early 2012, I put a business case together for a platform that could store files, generate data, and improve efficiency of creating training programs.  We wanted to provide members with the ability to access parts of their file. The project was assigned to IT but they were swamped. I was advised to find a platform that already existed. I found a few cloud-based options but, at the time, none met the security and data requirements of the department. Cloud-based platforms were eventually approved and I found and applied for an applicable grant through the Vancouver Police Foundation to fund the project. As the financial request was significant, I was requested to present to our executives and the Foundation’s Selection Committee. I highlighted the problem and connected it to the VPD’s strategic plan. I spoke to the associated benefits to individual VPD employees as well to the improved functioning of my unit that would result in positive impacts across the VPD. The process of learning how to engage the stakeholders and decision makers was beneficial. If I had simply talked to the improved efficiency in my specific area, it is unlikely that the grant would have been approved.  To provide a sense of timelines, the grant was approved in 2017 and we are just now finally implementing the program. This experience highlights being in a unique position within a police department. New initiatives are encouraged but if they really differ from how things were done in the past, things can get delayed as a result of unexpected turns through the chain of command or as a result of natural positional changes of those in the decision-making process. Expect change to take some time in police departments. If you do not have a strategy, patience and a drive to persevere it will be a challenge to work in this environment. This is not unique to the VPD and is regularly expressed by colleagues who work in American police departments.

CSCA – You and your team provide services to an organization of 2000+ sworn officers and civilians. How have you built out your team and structured your services to best meet the needs of a workforce this large and diverse? What type of facilities and equipment are required to support the work your team does?

BS – I often describe our services in three main areas: Strength & Conditioning, Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation and Wellness. The services our team provides are unique as we need to consider various different elements. The members and civilians we support are much more diverse than one might initially think. Officer training backgrounds range from little to no formal training to others who are retired professional athletes. Many need programs that focus on the foundations while others require more performance-oriented programming to support the physical and unpredictable nature of their position. There are also significant differences in levels of motivation. Some train extensively to be in top physical condition while others train enough to stay safe, be effective in their job, stay healthy and have a balanced life. 

We also support the health and wellness of the civilian staff who make things happen behind the scenes. Their wellness and performance naturally impact the functioning of the organization. For this group we take more of a corporate wellness approach and aim to positively impact productivity, motivation and their enjoyment at work. Unfortunately, civilians can be overlooked when someone is approaching a police department with a training or treatment proposal

To try and cover such a vast mix of needs requires outside the box thinking and listening during many casual conversations. People will tell you what they need if you listen and ask the right questions. They also provide many amazing ideas. We are really lucky as many of our employees are motivated to get and stay fit. They want more equipment, more programming and more classes. Our facilities have evolved to meet this demand and we now operate 4 gyms and program two group fitness spaces.  In many ways we are lucky to have more demand than we can handle.  

CSCA – You support officers ranging from new recruits to those with very unique roles in specialized units such as marine, canine and emergency response teams (ERT). What are some of the unique programming considerations related to working with a tactical athlete as compared to an athlete from an individual or team sport.

BS – I really enjoy S&C programming with this population. There are some foundational considerations but also many unique individual and position-specific factors to consider, so there is the opportunity to be creative with programming. At the foundational level, officers must always be ready to perform even if they are not in an operational position. They do not know when or in what situation they will have to physically perform. Something as simple as soreness or restricted movement from heavy leg training will negatively impact an officer’s ability to perform when on patrol. Training and recovery need to be coordinated and programming flexible enough to accommodate for longer than expected shifts and inconsistent break times. A strict program will quickly fall apart if days are busy and the officers simply cannot get to the gym. I have found success with programming based on an 8-day week (as operational positions are 4 on/4 off) and scheduling de-loading (every fourth rotation) when operational positions rotate from night shift back to day shift. Members report this transition as being the most difficult. I believe that their body is under enough stress trying to respond to sleep changes that adapting to a training stimulus is significantly impacted. 

There are many equipment and role specific considerations. Some officers such as the ERT team carry heavier loads for shorter periods of time while other officers wear a vest and belt that place chronic loads on the body. Chronic loads cause issues overtime so I like to consider ways to unload them during training such as programming hanging from a pull up after back squats, performing reverse hypers or back extensions and working on maintaining thoracic and hip mobility.

I also consider other stressors that may impact their ability to get into the gym and their ability to adapt to a training stimulus. These could include, but are not limited to, nutrition, trauma exposure, organizational stress, family stress, sleep, and the unique positional and postural positions of their job. 

CSCA You have extensive educational credentials, many achievements as an ultra and multisport athlete and a broad impact of your work. What advice can you provide S&C coaches to best prepare and position themselves for tactical related opportunities?  How can the CSCA support this important work?

BS – I always encourage people to focus on education and continued professional development. There is a growing number of resources on various health and wellness elements for tactical professionals. Take courses and certifications, attend conferences, and read research. Take this information and find a way to blend it with sport S&C experience to best service officers. 

A saying I heard not too long ago (sadly I cannot remember where from) is “I’m here to improve myself, not to prove myself”. I think it really applies well to someone new to working with police or other tactical athletes. Trying to prove yourselves to this population often does not turn out well. If you express genuine curiosity on what they do and the physical demands they go through, they are often eager to show you and help you learn. Some of my biggest jumps and strides in my career have come from my officers telling other police departments and officers about what I do and the success I have helped make happen.

If you see a job posting or plan to submit a proposal to offer your services to a police department, I suggest you learn as much as you can about the particular organization including finding the department’s strategic plan. Find data to support the impact of S&C services as department’s love evidence. Consider and convey how your skills and services can support the department to achieve their organizational goals. 

If you do submit a proposal, prepare for the process to progress slower than you hoped. Projects can take time to reach the stage of implementation so be patient and check in periodically. I am now a firm believer that it is never a no, it is just a not right now.  Sometimes the timing is just off and its worth trying again at a later date.

Reach out and network with those already working in the field. There is a need for a more formal Canadian network for those currently working in, or looking to work in, the tactical S&C space. The CSCA could play an important role in creating this community and helping to advance this niche area. The majority of tactical S&C coaches I know are from the USA and Australia. All have been eager to collaborate and share; we see how much potential exists to progress how tactical professionals can be physically trained and holistically prepared for their jobs. A group of Canadian tactical S&C coaches working together could accelerate advances in the area and help create more opportunities for coaches within departments. This group could engage stakeholders and decisions makers to highlight the many different ways coaches should integrate into departments (training applicants, recruits, specialty units, etc.). There is also a need and desire to collaborate on the standardization of testing and training methodologies while producing resources to help prepare and educate those trying to get into the field. It would be fantastic to see more Masters or PhD research be completed on tactical professionals in Canada. 

Becky Swan M.R.Sc., B.H.K, B.A.H.Sc, CAT(C), C.S.C.S., TSAC-F, is the Physical Health and Performance Team Supervisor in the Employee Wellness Unit of the Vancouver Police Department. Becky is a Strength and Conditioning Coach and Athletic Therapist who presents and consults on Police Officer Wellness through her company Blueline Vitality. 

Interview conducted by Andrew Clark on behalf of the CSCA

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