Canadian Firefighter Magazine

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Psychological PPE: The miracle

March 24, 2022
By James R. Rychard

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There is a story inspired by the U.S. hockey team at the 1980 winter Olympics that stands out above many others. Regardless of what nation you belong to, this story and its outcome will always be remembered as the miracle on ice.

Let’s start near the beginning, with Herb Brooks, sitting at home on the sofa with his father, watching his hockey team win an Olympic gold medal. The year is 1960 and after making the previous two Olympic teams, a young and deflated Brooks was the last cut for this year’s team. Ever since that moment, Brooks was determined to move from player to coach, eventually coaching a U.S. hockey team.

During the late 1970s, the U.S. was in crisis. The American economy was suffering high inflation rates. The 1973 oil embargo hiked gas prices through the roof and supplies were low. The human-factor disaster of Three Mile Island nuclear plant left a leery feeling about nuclear power. The Vietnam war which lasted much longer than expected; the war itself a significant blow to the confidence of the U.S. A new president was coming in who offered hope, while in the spirt of fresh starts, coach Brooks was vying for the head coaching job of the 1980 Olympic team.

Unfortunately for the U.S., the Soviets dominated international hockey; they were a juggernaut having won Olympic golds in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976. In other words, they took over Olympic hockey for two decades. No one could compete with them. The Soviets had perfected their craft with consistency, and the U.S. were just looking to maintain a presence at Lake Placid, home to the 1980 winter Olympics.

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Having devoted a better part of 20 years to NCAA college level hockey, Brooks built a national-winning program with University of Minnesota Gophers. This experience set up his head coaching opportunity for the U.S. team. In fact, when he interviewed along with many other coaches who were all competing for the top spot, it was what Brooks shared with the interview panel that won him the job.

In order to beat an indomitable force like the Russian hockey program you need to understand why they win and embrace the idea. The American program was filled with lots of talent. But what the Soviets do and do so well is “they take their talent and use it inside a system that was designed for the betterment of the team.” In other words, and at the time, even professional hockey players (NHLers) who focus solely on themselves miss the mark of playing for the team. Brooks had a lofty goal to beat the Soviets at their own game. To do that he embarked on a hybrid-style of play, requiring four areas of focus: conditioning, discipline, creativity, and team chemistry.

Awestruck by what the U.S. hockey panel heard, they organized a week-long camp for hockey potentials, hoping to pluck out the best ones. Unbeknownst to U.S. hockey, Brooks’ vision for his Olympic hockey team had already been conceptualized. He studied the players he needed to compete, ones who were willing to adopt his four areas of focus. Surprised and miffed that no one else had a say in selecting players, the team was pre-selected. Even Brook’s assistant coach Craig Patrick told him that he was missing the best players who were in the camp. But Brooks was not looking for players to compete at NCAA level. He wanted players who could compete at international level of play.

Without missing a beat, Brooks turned to him and said, “I am not looking for the best players Craig, I am looking for the right ones.” It’s not about finding star players who focus on themselves, but the ones who aspire to work together as a team to reach a goal. Brooks knew what he needed and by selecting the ‘right players’ he could build the team he deemed worthy to compete at the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid against the Soviets.

No matter how we choose to look at the fire service, there are elements of sport to it. We compete in games, we work together as a team, and we are governed by a coaching staff who try to make us the best we can be. How often in the fire service do we hire firefighters and/or fire officers who have wonderful resumes comparable to a professional first draft athlete? CVs peppered with long lists of courses, degrees, and experiences; on paper they look outstanding! Yet, once hired they focus solely on themselves.

The U.S. hockey team won the 1980 winter Olympics. What Brooks and his hockey team accomplished was nothing short of a miracle. He took amateur level players and turned them into international hockey players; ones who changed the narrative. Brooks would profess, it is not about selecting the best players (employees) it is more about selecting the right ones.  Employees who are willing to work inside a system that was designed for the betterment of the team.  An unconventional philosophy-style of play, but one that worked.

Brooks defied what U.S. hockey was willing to do based on what they had done for years. When we take players who want to work for the betterment of the team, we can also create miracles inside our own organizations, ones that have Olympic gold outcomes.

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 jaymzr007@hotmail.com.