Why Don't We See First Responders As Elite Performance People?


The Mightify team will be resplendent in white this weekend, excited in anticipation along with much of the country – except maybe for our clients and friends North of the wall or West of the border quickly donning their new-found dark green…

Whatever the result in Yokohama, for many in action it will be their last cap, last try, last tour. An incredible high or a crushing sense of what could have been, followed by… well, who knows?

What this has to do with the support structures we’re building for the emergency services is actually a lot more obvious than you might think, and comes back to one of the key tenets upon which Mightify is built – answering the question:

“What happens next?”

You get into the game at 18 or 21. It’s not easy.

It’s what you’ve wanted for a long time.

You train, learn and develop your skillset to be picked for the role you dream of.

You forge a close bond with your team-mates, who become a family.

You sacrifice most of the things normal people do.

Someone else decides when (if) you eat, sleep, train, sets your schedule, gives you a uniform and a number and a strong sense of collective, almost tribal identity. You take on the shape of that new family, shedding your own edges along the way.

On the good days, you can’t see yourself ever doing anything else.

However, one day it will come to an end. Perhaps through injury, perhaps because your home life changes and your priorities change with it, perhaps because retirement looms, perhaps because you don’t get picked for that position after all. We know, statistically and very sadly, that illness/injury/trauma is not just a possibility but a probability.

Those points, in my opinion, describe being a first responder just as much as a sportsperson.

What happens next?

In many professional rugby clubs, as in other sports, the next chapter isn’t as daunting and unknown as it used to be. That’s because the past few years have seen a move towards proactive career and personal development programmes culminating in a forward-thinking resettlement system.

For example, having “non-rugby” activities embedded in a professional contract from day one: which could mean anything from learning a trade, workshops on starting a business, insights into other industries and loads more. Broadening horizons.

Why would clubs do this? Sounds nice but doesn’t make commercial sense, right?

Wrong. Statistics exist in various places that players on such programmes perform better. Call it a return on investment in the boardroom, a competitive advantage at the breakdown – it works. Digging deeper, it’s not hard to see why: human beings who feel valued and supported will go the extra mile to give back. Run further, tackle harder, enter every contact with 100% commitment in the knowledge that whatever happens, it won’t be “The End”.

Clubs with better performing players win trophies. Trophy winning clubs (if well run) make money, if you want to focus on the business. They also attract the next generation of top talent. They build a

reputation for excellence that makes their wider community strong advocates for their approach. Winning is a habit that comes from years of doing the small things well. From a place of critical friendship, I would say that the emergency services have been consistently doing many of the small things badly (or not at all) for years – with clear results.

So much of this is about options, and the feeling of having options. We know all too well in the emergency services that perceiving that there are no choices is a dangerous place to be. It leads to stick-or-twist, high risk decisions. Being “institutionalised” is often about feeling that however bad things are, they must be endured as that’s the only option. It doesn’t have to be that way – we live in an age where transferable skills are absolutely a global currency and a global language. It has never been easier to enter traditionally closed sectors or occupations – the danger that comes hand-in-hand with that is that there has never been a noisier age of external influences and red herrings. So, the key is tailored, intelligent programmes that recognise the environment of our people and give them the correct tools to be empowered as to their own options. Unlocking those hidden gems we call skills and self-belief.

Professional sport recognises that attracting, developing, retaining and caring for talent requires a proactive and bespoke approach. If we are to truly value first responders as the professional athletes, performers and technicians that we ask them to be, there is no excuse for continuing to deprive them of this support.

I’ve set out my “manifesto” for this support before, and will do again and again – but it starts from the beginning, it stays with each individual throughout their career and it’s there for them when the time comes to ask that question again. It isn’t rocket science, it isn’t hugely expensive – but it does require a few more open doors and open ears in positions of power.

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