Working with Special Forces

Published On: November 6, 2019Categories: Industry, Interviews

From elite high performance sport to working with Canadian Special Operation Forces. Dale works with professionals who train because it can be a matter of life or death.  

CSCA – How did you get your first job working tactical forces individuals?  

This has been my 10th year working within the field of high performance. I began my career working part-time for the Queen’s University Varsity Strength and Conditioning program where I was completing my undergraduate Bachelors of Physical and Health Education.  

As soon as that first door opened in the performance world, I knew that was exactly what I wanted to do. I spent the next decade seeking out the best and the brightest in the field and took every opportunity I could to learn from them. I continued to take jobs that I thought would immerse me within environments where I could gain exposure, challenge my beliefs, and expand my coaching toolbox. Having put in the hours and paying my dues, I was hired at York University as a Strength and Conditioning Coach for their Varsity Strength and Conditioning program, and from there, I was led to the Canadian Sports Institute Ontario (CSIO) as the head Strength and Conditioning Coach and Eastern Hub Lead of Sport Science for Athletics Canada.  

My career has cumulated to this point with my current role as Lead of Strength and Conditioning for Canadian Special Operations Force Units from Petawawa. This is my first professional experience working with a tactical population, where I have been able to bring my decade of coaching knowledge and network in tow. I attribute my readiness to work within this area to two primary factors:  

  1. Build a strong network of professionals you want to collaborate with and learn from   

For any young professional entering this field, I urge you to place a premium on developing your network. There are many passionate people in all areas of human performance, you can learn something from all of them. We are fortunate within this industry, few fields have so many people, who, if you make the effort, are willing to share and help you along the way.  

One of my favourite quotations by Isaac Newton represents this perfectly; “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon shoulder of giants”. I think it is important to make the distinction between online acquaintances and a real relationship. Your network is not how many followers you have on twitter but the time you’ve spent developing real relationships through learning, sharing and demonstrating that you care and value mentors and colleague’s time and expertise.   

Because of the network I have throughout the sports system, my current opportunity was made available. This position gives me the chance to work with a group of passionate colleagues who had decided to leave sport to build something that had not been done before within the Canadian Special Operations community.  

2. Capitalize the opportunities to learn and grow from all of my previous successes, lessons, and failures   

I have had many successes and failures throughout my career. These growth and development opportunities allowed me to comfortably take this job and gave me the confidence and competence to succeed in this challenging environment.  

Even 5 years ago I would not have been prepared or mature enough to succeed in this role. This doesn’t mean others won’t succeed at a younger age, nor is it intended to discourage young coaches from applying to any jobs that may become available. But, in being honest with myself, I would have been challenged at a younger age to succeed in this environment, I needed to gain maturity in a variety of environments with a wide variety of personalities to understand my strengths, weaknesses and blind spots. The mistakes and lessons allowed me to be able to handle the responsibilities of working with Canadian Special Operations personnel.   

CSCS – What Skills do you need to be successful in this area?  

Not unlike all coaching and human performance roles, the ability to interact and connect with Special Forces Operators (SF Ops) within our group is critical to any successes we might have. Trust, connection, and the ability to show value are the only currencies we possess as performance practitioners. When it comes to working with SF Ops, the increased stakes make these values (connection, trust, value) the foundation of our decision-making process. This is achieved through:  

  1. Developed competency within your given space 

The SF Ops we work with are highly intelligent and invested in making decisions that allow them to do their job and survive, therefore whether they choose to listen to recommendations is largely dependent on their appraisal of our competency. In this sector, we will be questioned frequently and challenged (much more than in sport). For this reason, it is crucially important that as a performance practitioner working with SF Ops we possess a wide knowledge base on performance related subjects, keep current on what information they may have been exposed to, provide feedback when we understand a subject and defer to experts when we do not. The best way to destroy trust within this environment is to provide false information for the sake of trying to appear competent.   

2. Mature interpersonal skills   

Our SF Ops come from all walks of life, have overcome immense challenges and as a result have a wide variety of personalities. Putting a priority on developing mature interpersonal skills allows members of our High Performance cell (HP cell) to serve the SF Op who choose to put their life on the line for others and their trust in us. By developing a mature ego and understanding of our Operators’ life demands we can also, within the HP cell, develop the humility and understanding that our role in developing their physical competencies and capacities, while important, is only a minor piece of what makes an SF Ops successful.   

3. Dynamic planning and flexibility 

 We all know the dynamic nature of sport, the best-laid plans can change at the drop of a hat, in Special Operations this is no exception flexibility is central to Canadian Special Operation Forces description “High-readiness organization, able to deploy special operation forces on very short notice” ( Individuals who require highly structured environments, consistent schedules, and rigid plans will have a difficult time accepting and excelling in this environment.  

4. Move past dogmatic training philosophies 

Many of our SF Ops have a high training age and have been high performing for many years. Therefore, many of the SF Ops we work with have extensive experience in a wide variety of training methodologies and are well-read in health and human performance. Within this field, you need to respect what may have worked for others in the past. This will challenge you to remove any dogmatic pedagogy around how someone “should” train, you must become educated and well versed in working with a variety of training theories and beliefs. Understanding how powerlifting, strongman, CrossFit training, etc. can be intelligently modified to fit our SF Ops’ needs are critical to buy-in and gaining access. After time, gaining trust and demonstrating competence we implement incremental changes in programming to ensure sustainability, longevity, and expanding their bandwidth.  

CSCA – What are 1-2 of the differences between roles in this area compared to previous S&C jobs you have had?  

There are similarities in the preparation of Athletes and SF Ops, but it is not the same; SF Ops, like athletes, are high achievers within their realm of expertise, they can execute tasks the average individual could never dream of. However, Operators are not athletes, they have athletic traits, they express impressive physical capacities and exceptional skills but equating the two is something that stunts the progression of Human Performance in tactical populations. While our SF Ops may cycle through periods of “high readiness” they have no “season”, an Operator must always be prepared at a moment’s notice to be deployed to any location and effectively execute a potentially “unknown” task.  

By necessity, this affects the way we prepare them. If our job as human performance practitioners is to simultaneously improve the human weapon system and increased longevity of the SF Ops, then we have to escape the dogmatic thinking that preparing high performing SF Ops is equivalent to athlete preparation.  

During varying periods of an athlete’s preparation cycle, they will prepare in ways that move them across the health vs. performance spectrum, by necessity there will be periods of increased risk to augment performance, this is followed by periods biased towards prioritizing health, rest and restoration. How a performance team manages this shift is akin to the natural cycle of athletic preparation; intensification, peaking, recovery. With SF Ops no such cycle exists because no season is present, therefore how the performance team and individual SF Ops manage their micro undulations of stress and recovery is the critical factor to providing an opportunity for the Operator to have a long successful career.  

All our programming is centered around longevity, sustainability, accessibility of skill and establishing a broad operational bandwidth. My previous job in track and field was centered around specialization, preparing an individual to execute a specific task at a world-class level 4-6 times per year.  

SF Ops by necessity are master generalists, they succeed on a wide variety of task requirements under an ever-changing environment. Because there is no defined “competition” it is a challenge to benchmark an Operator’s progress. We monitor our Operators through many of the traditional methods utilized in sport performance but without a period where you and the Operator can assess progress in training it can quickly turn into simply working out, or preparation without purpose.  

To help combat this we try to develop “functional” tests and opportunities for unit members to express their fitness. Several times throughout the year we attempt to create challenging environments for our members to demonstrate their abilities, this is usually centered around some form of team challenge involving both physical capacities and skill-based competencies. This artificial competition allows us to improve cohesiveness and provides individuals the confidence that the training they have engaged in has prepared them to execute physically diverse and demanding tasks on demand.   

The variability of our SF Ops; The average age and variety of life experiences of the individuals I now work with is another major difference from my previous job. In my previous roles, most athletes I worked with were 18-30 (predominantly under 25). The cohort of individuals I now work with vary from 22 years old to over 50 years old. This provides challenges to applying a consistent approach across our population. The aging SF Operator has many different considerations than an individual freshly coming off course. Life, family, injury and work requirements of SF Operators with years of service are much different than anything I’ve experienced previously with collegiate, professional or amateur athletes.  

The number of considerations that need to be accounted for when developing a program is vast and decisions around efficiencies and longevity must trump all. It is not unusual for some of our SF Operators to have schedules that are full for 12+ hours of the day and, in these cases optimization is king, critical windows of trainability can be short.   

Working with a more mature population has also provided the opportunity to develop deep friendships with the SF Operators I work with. Many of my current relationships are built around a two-way mentorship, the people I get to work with teaching me things daily, it is not as much a formal coach-athlete relationship like I’ve experienced in the past but a mutual exchange of knowledge, ideas, and experience.  

CSCA – How do you upskill your knowledge and network as an S&C coach?  

We are now in a time where knowledge is abundantly available to young aspiring strength coaches. There is so much knowledge available that it becomes difficult to develop an effective lens to filter all the information the internet has to offer. Establishing your core principles as a Strength and Conditioning Coach will help establish your “north star” with regards to preparing others for performance.  

Establishing your core principles and values should come through personal experience, trusted mentors and principle-based material. Physical preparation is complex but not complicated, establishing a few core principles can effectively guide your practice.   

Once you have established your core principles you can take the first step to upskilling your knowledge and network. To do this you must effectively develop a system to identify your pressure points, weaknesses, and blind spots. Through regular reflection and an honest review process, you can effectively identify the areas where you can benefit from skill development. Getting regular honest feedback from peers and mentors will also help this process. Once you have established a strategic needs analysis for your professional life you can effectively develop a plan, this will then drive your professional development and networking efforts.   

We are lucky in Canada; we have such a strong network of world-class performance practitioners throughout a wide variety of organizations that are willing to help anybody who reaches out. I believe that this is a real strength of our Canadian system, it is encouraging that we have individuals who have created organizations like the CSCA as a vehicle to connect professionals across this country. To anyone that is looking to have a career in this field or is facing a challenge they are struggling to overcome, I encourage you to reach out to anyone of the individuals within this network, I guarantee if you show passion for this field they will readily help you to the best of their abilities.  

CSCA – What advice do you give individuals just entering the field who desire to work in the same area as you?  

It does not matter which area of performance you want to work in; sport, tactical, health or wellness, your first step to having a successful career is to develop your coaching skills. I encourage anyone new to this field to take every opportunity available to develop their toolbox as a coach, it is a really special thing to have someone trust you with their goals, aspirations and the opportunity to guide them through whatever their dreams might be.  

While coaching has many technical components to it, it is the ability to connect and develop trust that will set you apart as a coach. When I am hiring someone, I want to see that they have demonstrated the ability to coach a wide variety of individuals, have success in a variety of contexts and have demonstrated the ability to learn. Because of the high performance setting in tactical populations is relatively new we currently draw our hires predominantly from the sport performance world.  

As a young coach don’t worry about trying to get tactical specific experience, find the best opportunities to coach as many individuals as you can and surround yourself with the best coaches available   

The final piece of advice that I would give to anyone who has a desire to work in this area is to make it your mantra to be a solution-based practitioner. Curiosity is valuable, it will drive innovation but in the end, the individuals and groups we work with have hired us to help solve their performance related problems.  

Just like training methodologies, performance related issues are often complex but not complicated, we often lose sight of this by complicating the performance enhancement process. You will always be a valuable asset to your team if you keep solving performance related problems, people will always make time and resources for someone who helps alleviate their road blocks, pressure points, and obstacles. At the heart of it, all we do is build relationships and work to solve problems.    

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