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You Are What You Practice

Learning through failure can lead to success

By David Rhodes 
Published Tuesday, March 1, 2016 | From the March 2016 Issue of FireRescue

It’s been said that repetition is the mother of skill. If you are an instructor, you probably know the value of repetition in skill-level tasks in your attempts at training the new generation. So, we can repeat a task over and over and expect that if we are repeating it correctly we will increase our skill level in that area. If we are coaching sports, we know that our team will only be as good as the way we practice. So saying that “you are what you practice” has a lot of merit in everything that you do.

Repetition of Tasks

I remember watching a freestyle Frisbee™ competition when I was in high school, and I was amazed at the ability of these competitors to spin that Frisbee™ on their finger for what seemed to be an eternity. This is known as a “nail delay,” and in the Frisbee™ world it is an essential skill to be able to do other acrobatic tricks. I attempted the nail delay in my backyard and was unsuccessful for days. There were no Google™ or YouTube™ videos to watch, and I knew no one who could give me any pointers.

After hours and hours of failed attempts, I finally read the little book that came with the 133-gram Wham-O™ that explained the skill very well-in other words, it had pictures, so I was able to understand. I took the new information and practiced relentlessly for hours and hours, and after a solid week I had some small success. My days were focused on being able to master this skill. With the help of a good friend, who was also into Frisbee™ tricks, we met our objectives and we were soon demonstrating (“showing off”) our amateur abilities after school to the amusement of our classmates.

We must have failed at our tricks 1,000 times each before nailing the first successful one. Our failure, however, fueled our desire to overcome the obstacles that were keeping us from pulling off the nail delay, under the leg, toe tip, behind the back catch. If anyone happened to watch us practicing, they would see us being hit in the head, deflections off the hand, missed catches, falls, trips, and even wild throws. Every failure in practice was a step closer to our goal.

Learning Through Failure

Just a year or two later, the same held true for me while preparing for the Georgia Smoke Diver course. One of the requirements was donning the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) in 30 seconds from closed case to breathing air (using a Scott 2a with a low-pressure hose). This included having your helmet and gloves on before the time would stop. Failure after failure forced me to rethink my process and experiment with other methods, and soon I was getting close.

Once I was able to break the 30-second mark, one of the guys who had already completed the Smoke Diver course gave me a few pointers that shaved off even more time. He realized the importance of me working through failure before he solved the problems for me. He understood the importance of practice! The minimum standard was 30 seconds so I trained to 20 seconds, which gave me a 10-second buffer should something unpredictable happen. After hundreds of practice runs, I was successful with a bragging rights time of 19 seconds when it counted!

Many from academia strongly discourage failure. Our society has rejected failure and instituted no-failure policies. Many have instituted no success policies also in that everyone is a winner and gets a trophy for just showing up instead of achievement. We have become obsessed with not allowing anyone to fail to the point of avoiding practice because not everyone may be as good as the others. As we continue to develop a fear of failure, because of the stigma it creates, we start to avoid things that we are not absolutely sure we can accomplish, especially when there is group of peers around to watch, laugh, and ridicule our clumsiness.

What Are You Practicing?

So this brings me to ask, what are you practicing every day? What are you obsessed with to the point that you want to be able to do it with a predictable level of success? Are you practicing what you would do at a fire? How much time are you spending practicing it? I am not talking about how much time you spend talking or thinking about it, I am talking about how much time you spend practicing for it. Is the only time you put on your SCBA during an incident or a scheduled training event once or twice a year? Is the only time you and your crew stretch a line at a fire or at a scheduled training event once or twice a year? What is it you spend your time doing each shift?

As a chief officer, are you practicing commanding incidents or have you relegated your day to delivering mail, checking e-mails, and attending meetings? If this is you and you are what you practice, then you are a businessperson and not an incident commander. What you are practicing every day is making you something other than a key component in the incident response system. If you’re not practicing, then you are probably pretty clumsy on the scene. But no one would want to point that out to you because the goal has shifted from being skilled and knowing what you’re doing to just making sure that no one gets hurt. Getting hurt is failure after all, isn’t it?

Gordon Graham explains his risk-management matrix by urging us to practice, practice, practice on the high-risk, low-frequency events. We don’t have to worry so much about the incidents we handle daily, because if we are doing them daily then we are practicing them daily. When this occurs, our skill level is very high with those incidents. As chief officers, we can quickly become absorbed into a daily routine that does not include commanding high-risk, low-frequency events. News flash: Structure fires have become those events in most departments. A department may have a high number of fires, but how many have you commanded?

You station officers are not off the hook either. More and more administrative expectations are placed on the company officer each year. If you aren’t careful, your day will consist of checking your personnel’s training hours in some online application to make sure you are on track for the year, checking e-mails, following up on station maintenance issues, checking on a few hydrants, and answering a couple dozen emergency medical services (EMS) runs. So what are you practicing? I bet you are very skilled and proficient at running your training report, doing EMS reports, and knowing by memory where to click to resubmit for the 10th time that there is a leak in the roof. If you are what you practice, then you’re becoming a great administrator. Maybe you spend your time cooking and you are becoming a great cook. We all know that everyone loves a good firehouse cook! Maybe there is even a grant you can apply for so you can buy food and use your skills to cook for the community.

What Do You Want to Be?

Drilling (a.k.a. practice) was once a staple and lengthy part of the fire station daily life. The failures overcome in drilling led to better techniques, efficiency in operations, and adaptability. If you think that your training can be handled with the computer, then you are spending your time practicing to be a student. If you think you can talk your way into learning a skill, then you are practicing to be a speaker. If your day consists of cleaning up the station, cooking, watching television, or surfing the Internet, then you are practicing to be a janitor who cooks and has the potential to be able to predict what might be the lead story on TV or who is predicted to win the next big game.

Being a firefighter at any rank requires a great deal of self-motivation to practice, practice, and practice stretching lines, pumping the engine, raising the stick, positioning the apparatus, managing your air, maintaining accountability, opening doors, opening walls, managing multiple resources in a dynamic environment, rescuing victims, evaluating risks, tracking resources, communicating, sizing up, conducting a class, prioritizing items, and so much more.

You are what you practice, so what are you?


David Rhodes

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