EMS leadership: Are you winning the Super Bowl within?

Balance your emotional reactions with rational decisions to win the internal big game

By Sam DiGiovanna

As we near the culmination of the NFL season, you might be planning a Super Bowl party or obsessing over your entry in the agency’s Super Bowl Squares competition. But there’s another kind of Super Bowl you need to be aware of. It’s the battle between emotions and rational thought that takes place inside all of us. And unlike the big game on TV, it never ends – and the repercussions are far more important to us.

Let’s call the two teams the Emotional Commentators and the Rational Observers. As you go about your day, these two teams battle it out, playing a tug of war on how you perceive events.

Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark (55) during a news conference on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 for the NFL Super Bowl 54 football game in Aventura, Fla. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark (55) during a news conference on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020 for the NFL Super Bowl 54 football game in Aventura, Fla. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Team Emotional Commentators

When the Emotional Commentators are winning, your day might look something like this:

As you’re driving to the station, another driver tailgates you for a half-mile before making an abrupt move to pass and pull in front of you, only to brake heavily because there’s a red light ahead. “What the hell are you doing?!” you yell inside your car, to no one in particular. You can feel your blood pressure rising. Why did he do that?

You arrive at the station and check your email. There’s an angry message from the previous shift leader saying the equipment on the rig wasn’t properly put away. Your chief has written to point out that you’re late on completing your annual EMS CE. While you’re reading, you overhear two EMTs complaining about the new schedule of cleaning chores you instituted last week. It’s like everyone’s out to get me. Why can’t they be more positive?

See what happened with the Emotional Commentators running the ball? They take their power from the amygdala, the area of the brain that processes emotional reactions and regulates your body’s flight or fight response. The Emotional Commentators are much like the commentators during the real Super Bowl: They analyze and critique each action, producing a play-by-play response to what you’re experiencing.

Team Rational Observers

Battling this emotional response are the Rational Observers. When they’re stacking up the points, your day might look something like this:

At the station, you listen as several crew members share stories from a music festival they went to over the weekend. At first, you wonder why you weren’t invited. But then you remember that building camaraderie was one of your goals for the year. You feel happy for them and proud that your crew is starting to come together.

With the day finally over, you’re greeted by an upset neighbor who complains about the people next door: The kids are noisy, the dog always barks and the parents fight all the time. You remind her not to take things personally. “We were like that when we were young,” you say.

See what happened when the Rational Observers were commanding the field? You stop making everything about you, you temper the emotional drama and you grow more empathetic. The Rational Observers create distance, allowing you to see the big picture rather than obsessing over the play-by-play.

Winning the Battle

As humans, we’re wired to experience events emotionally. And that’s OK – it makes us human! But emotional responses are quick and impulsive. Remember, the amygdala controls our flight-or-fight response; it must be quick to react. And we all know that when we react quickly, we often miss the bigger picture.

I’ll let you in on a gambler’s secret about the internal Super Bowl: It’s not really about one team winning. The key is to create balance. If you let the Emotional Commentators dominate, you’ll be caught up in a soap opera of your life. You’ll revisit the same thoughts over and over, convinced you’re not being treated fairly, or you’re being left out, or no one likes you. You’ll fail to take into consideration that rarely are things just about you.

If you let the Rational Observers dominate, you may deprive yourself of the spontaneous outbursts of emotion that are part of being human. You’ll critique your daughter’s piano recital instead of watching it with a big goofy smile on your face. You’ll conserve energy instead of giving it all in the annual EMS vs. fire flag football game. You might earn a reputation for being cold or distant.

If, on the other hand, you can learn to pit these two teams against one another, incorporating both emotions and rationality in the way you perceive and react, you’ll be the winner.

So as the big game nears, focus on being a good coach in the internal game as well. When you hear negative and untrue play-by-play starting to take hold, call on your rational side to see things from a different perspective. In the Internal Super Bowl, it’s time to start winning!

[Read next: What football can teach us about patient assessment]

About the author

Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as fire chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif. He is also a consultant for Lexipol Fire Services

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