Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Psychological PPE: Mental performance coaching

By James Rychard   

Features Training Week firefighter training firefighters mental health training wellness

In the fall of 2017, I was witness to an event that left me awe-struck: I saw Volta by Cirque du Soleil. Having never seen a Cirque du Soleil show before, I had no idea for what I was in for. Volta, a performing arts performance based on extreme sports, included a beloved teenager past-time of mine: BMX. Apart from the risky tricks these performers could do with bicycles, Volta was unique because there was a story behind the theme.

Choreographed to tap into long-time memories, the theme focused on how the host had lost touch with his inner soul in pursuit of fame. With the help of a chief from a group called Free Spirits, the host embarks on a serendipitous journey to rediscover himself; in doing so, he re-lives his younger years.

Sitting in the audience, I was more than enamoured at the level of talent. From acrobatic ladders to BMX tricks – the amount of practice needed to produce a flawless performance must have been substantial. Given that the artists are performing with such a degree of risk, blunders, mistakes and errors must have been worked out and eliminated during rehearsals. Polishing and perfecting requires considerable effort but comes with high degree of pressure. My question was: how do these artists handle the expectations of performing flawlessly? The answer was a Mental Performance Coach (MPC).

MPCs serve like a personal trainer for the mind; they teach, for example, how to remain focused and poised amongst of a consuming number of distractions. Like Olympic athletes, artists perform at an elite level. Thus, to maintain composure, focus and perform excellence, having an MPC helps to keep the mind focused on the job at hand. Former Cirque du Soleil coach, Jean Francois Menard—who now has extended his subject matter expertise for Canada’s Olympians, and the NHL Montreal Canadiens—says, “Cirque du Soleil artists have a demanding job, performing hundreds of times a year with few breaks. I quickly noticed that proper mental training was the key to success on stage.”


When we look at the fire service industry from a 30,000-foot perspective, we can see that there is an element of sport missing. In fact, choosing to look at the industry through an athletic lens helps us to see why firefighters can be regarded as athletes; let’s call it “industrial athletes”. The training, the coaches, the classroom and field instruction—it’s all very similar. Like performing artists and Olympians, firefighters need to focus to get a job done, so in essence they are performing on a stage too.

For example, when arriving on scene and the incident commander instructs a firefighter and their captain to create a trench cut across the roof of a building to help stop the spread of the fire for effective extinguishment – that takes a lot of work. In addition to the strength and muscular endurance required to hold the saw, bent over, walking backwards along the roof’s width, all the while remaining situationally aware of roof vents, can be very demanding on the body and the mind. Comparing that level of exertion by a firefighter to an athlete or an artist, similar elements of athleticism are needed to be successful. Firefighters need to train and focus like artists and Olympians: physically, mentally and spiritually.

Accordingly, if we can agree that a firefighter should be regarded as an athlete, and professional athletes and performers need mental performance coaching, then adding a MPC to a fire service’s organizational chart is plausible, necessary and, most importantly, a proactive way to help firefighters perform on a public stage.

For a firefighter to build health and career success, a balance of the mental, physical and spiritual realms is needed. This is why MPCs are vital to help make that happen. Their training identifies exactly what needs to be done to create an Ideal Performance State (IPS), and an IPS is one of the things MPCs strive for with all artists and Olympians.

Unquestionably, the volume of mental and behavioural health issues continues to rise in both the United States and Canadian fire services, whether it’s career, volunteer or a combination system.

Interestingly, the Harvard Business Review published an article that accentuates the importance of athletics mixed with business. This article, appropriately titled “The Making of a Corporate Athlete”1, demonstrates that training for peak performance is the key to success in the boardroom. Dr. Jim Loehr, a performance psychologist, stated that to maintain an IPS, athletes should use the high-performance pyramid. This pyramid is made up of four capacities—physical, emotional, mental and spiritual—and instituting good rituals will help to maintain and link each level. Ultimately, if it can work for athletes and corporate executives, then it can work for both firefighters and fire service leaders as well.

Years ago, during the dynasty of the Phoenix Fire Department and its Fire Chief Alan Brunacini, Deputy Fire Chief Dennis Compton commenced a mental performance movement for the fire service industry. Chief Compton collaborated with late Dr. Gary Mack, a sports psychologist, to merge the world of firefighting with sports psychology. In other words, they created the original iteration of the industrial athlete. Captured perfectly in “The Mental Aspects of Performance for Firefighters and Fire Officers (The M.A.P.)”, Compton’s and Mack’s book addresses the important of mental performance for the fire service. Further, it supports the benefits that an MPC would help to instil.

An excerpt from the book says, “It is a mental fitness program designed to help you develop emotional muscle and mental toughness so that you can excel throughout your fire service careers. It is an inexpensive and powerful performance improvement concept that integrates into any training curriculum and program.” Decades later, their book is still in circulation; however, the mental performance movement seems to have taken a back seat. No organization has yet to introduce an MPC into the fiber of a fire department.

Unquestionably, the volume of mental and behavioural health issues continues to rise in both the United States and Canadian fire services, whether it’s career, volunteer or a combination system. Something needs to be done. It’s not just about focusing on the four capacities that make up Dr. Loehr’s performance pyramid or purchasing Chief Compton and Dr. Mack’s M.A.P book; a personal trainer for the mind helps both the firefighter and fire service leader to remain engaged when they are unmotivated, and focused when they are distracted. It is the higher level MPC instruction when coupled with these two great resources that have the propensity to reach a firefighter and a fire service leader mentally. Given that Chief Compton started this movement decades ago, perhaps it’s time to consider carrying on the torch and continue the legacy he and Dr. Mack started for the fire service.

I left Cirque du Soleil’s ginormous tent pondering at the level of talent and confidence needed to perform a flawless performance. Thinking about how close the performers were to risk of injury or even death, I realized that the fire service was the same. We, too, perform at high levels with similar levels of risk. I had an a-ha moment.

What happens when one of the performers falls, a firefighter gets injured, or loses their confidence in what they can do? Who helps them? For professional and Olympic athletes, and performing artists—MPC does. It keeps them focused on the performance, helping them rebuild their confidence to be able to perform under severe distraction.

If mental performance coaching is required for elite-level performers, then perhaps a mental performance coach is what the fire service needs too. As I let this idea marinade over the past five and half years since I saw Volta, I unequivocally believe so.

Focusing on the mental, physical and spiritual components of a firefighter is so vital to a long career. To do that, a MPC helps them to stay on track. Since this is an unconventional concept for the fire service industry, the only question remains is: who is going to go first and champion the addition of a mental performance coach to their training division, creating an optimal training and professional development system?


  1. Loehr, Jim and Tony Schwartz. “The Making of a Corporate Athlete.” Harvard Business Review. January 2001. Accessed at


In addition to being a firefighter and R2MR instructor from the city of Burlington, Ont., James Rychard is an advocate for mental and behavioural health in the fire service, sitting on multiple association committees. He can be reached at

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