What public safety professionals can learn from Olympians

How to hone tactical athletic prowess, develop specialized skills, embrace teamwork and shine in the spotlight


The 2020 Summer Olympic Games are finally underway in Tokyo. Thousands of athletes from more than 200 countries weathered the one-year delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and will be competing against one another in dozens of events. Olympians often inspire us as much or more than they entertain us because of how they have dedicated their lives to becoming the best of the best.  

More than the well-known Olympic motto, “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” which means “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” the Olympic creed is perhaps better applied to the work of public safety professionals and first responders. The Olympic creed reads: "The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well."  

"Journey" is more fitting than “fight” for public safety professionals, as I believe strongly in the sentiment of embracing the journey and taking pride in the effort it takes to serve your community. On the eve of this summer’s Olympic Games, I can’t help but ponder what we can learn from the Olympians.  

An Olympian rarely says “me” or “I” when discussing their winning performance. Instead, they use their moment of triumph to praise the family, coaches and fans who made their success possible.
An Olympian rarely says “me” or “I” when discussing their winning performance. Instead, they use their moment of triumph to praise the family, coaches and fans who made their success possible. (Photo/Getty)

We are tactical athletes 

There is no doubt that the work of a police officer, corrections officer, firefighter, EMT or paramedic requires athletic skills. As a tactical athlete, you need a mix of power, agility, flexibility and endurance to meet the challenges of the job.  

Like Olympians, a tactical athlete is dedicated to year-round conditioning and training to maintain and improve their fitness. The finest tactical athletes in our midst: 

  • Use a training plan or regimen for daily exercise that is focused on functional movements to prepare for the full-body demands of the profession.  

  • Work with a coach to set goals, identify gaps in their fitness and receive actionable feedback based on their performance.  

  • Complement their physical training with mental exercises to improve their ability to perform under stress and gain knowledge to have a tactical advantage.  

  • Understand that peak performance begins in the kitchen with healthy eating that fuels their high expectations for on-the-job performance.  

  • Prioritize sleep, including naps, as critical to wellness and safety.  

  • Take days off to indulge in activities and relationships unrelated to their profession.  

  • Cautiously use or abstain from supplements, drugs and alcohol.  

Generalize, then specialize 

Many Olympians dabbled in many sports before focusing on their Olympic sport as a teenager or adult. Participating in a variety of individual and team sports built skills generalizable to any sport, such as agility, balance and coordination. Along the way, in team sports, they probably learned about spacing and tactics for group success. Each sport likely came with a different set of coaches, training philosophies and measures for success. Those experiences helped our Olympians seek out future coaches who matched their goals and approach to training, as well as informed how they might mentor other athletes or coach up-and-coming athletes.  

Similarly, public safety professionals are wise to initially be generalists. For example, it is standard advice for an EMT, a position that requires less than 200 hours of training, to work for a year or more as a great way to see lots of patients, learn how to manage a call and become a basic life support expert. Paramedic training, which can be up to 2,000 hours, is the first step toward EMS specialization. A paramedic still knows a little about a lot, but as a paramedic, there are more options for specialization, like becoming a tactical medic, community paramedic or field training officer. 

Police officers also gain experience in patrol, the generalist of law enforcement, before applying for and training to become a SWAT operator, investigator or school resource officer. Firefighters do the same by working on an engine or truck company before seeking out specialized training in heavy rescue, hazmat or pump operations.   

Because specialists almost always have opportunities or assignments to teach, coach or mentor during their time as a generalist, this is the time to begin developing a coaching or teaching philosophy. What training tactics will you use or not use? How will you revise or innovate the teaching or coaching tactics you receive? If you become a student of how you and others learn, your path to specialization will be smoother.   

Public safety is a team sport 

Single officer patrol cars or a lone paramedic in a quick response vehicle aren’t alone any more than Katie Ledecky in the pool, Simone Biles on the gymnastics mat or Allyson Felix on the track. Each of these athletes is supported by coaches, trainers, support staff, and their friends and family.  

Similarly, public safety professionals are supported by dispatchers, trainers, field supervisors, fleet techs, chaplains, friends and family. When the team is strong, mission-oriented and committed to successful outcomes, the personnel on the frontlines can deliver gold medal-worthy performances.  

The Olympic Games also remind us that a team effort can outperform the solo efforts of individuals who strive to do it on their own. The U.S. Women’s National Soccer team is licking its wounds after a 3-0 thrashing from Sweden in their opening match. The U.S. Men’s National Basketball team struggled in pre-Olympic losses to Nigeria and Australia.  

Your squad, shift or company doesn’t need to have the best individual performer or the department superstar. Instead, we know from countless examples in and out of sports, that a group of above-average, but not great, individuals who commit themselves to team goals, buy into the system for achievement, and are led by a humble leader toward a vision of shared success can often outperform teams dominated by a single superstar.  

Prepare for the spotlight  

Olympians can have their highest highs and lowest lows in the spotlight of worldwide competition. You may not have the world watching, but there are always cameras capturing your responses, words and tone with suspects, patients and bystanders, plus your body movements and even body language.  

Remember, your world – neighbors, friends, family and supervisors – are watching. Move with purpose. Speak in a way that will earn you admiration. Interact with others in a way that clearly shows your dedication to your mission and craft.  

Finally, when you get your moment on the podium, who will you thank? An Olympian rarely says “me” or “I” when discussing their winning performance. Instead, they use their moment of triumph to praise the family, coaches and fans who made their success possible. They praise their co-competitors for pushing them harder than they could have imagined. They encourage others to pursue their dreams, see that anything is possible, and recognize that the journey was as meaningful, if not more, than the triumph.  

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