Most of what is written about deliberate practice focuses on the technical aspects of developing a skill: how divers and gymnasts develop their amazing body control, how chess players pick the best move out of dozens of possibilities, how engineers come up with effective designs for computer chips or bridges or drug manufacturing processes. And certainly technical skill lies at the heart of any good performance. But it is not the only factor. Psychological factors can have a profound influence on performance as well.
Coincidentally, this week I ended up talking with two different people who are interested in how psychological factors influence performance and who have developed training programs that seek to shape these psychological factors. They work in very different fields, and I found it very interesting and instructive to compare their approaches. So in this installment we will take a look at how an instructor in Australia is working with first responders to improve their performance under stress, and in the next we’ll see how a music teacher is helping students put emotion back in their playing.
Phil Richards has spent over three decades fighting fires, both on the ground and with air attack, and during that time, he told me, he noticed that there were a number of people who were technically well trained—they understood the mechanics of fighting fires—but they would fall short in the field. In the messy, high-stakes, high-pressure conditions of a fire scene, they would make mistakes, fail to act as they had been trained, or sometimes even freeze up and do nothing at all. The main shortcomings were in decision making, Richards says. In short, the firefighters were good at knowing how to do something, but they sometimes fell short in figuring out exactly what they should be doing.
To address this, Richards has been running training exercises for firefighters and other first responders for more than twenty years. His goal in these exercises is to identify people’s weaknesses and challenge them in those areas, pushing them to make mistakes which can then be used as the basis for learning moments. If, for example, he observes that someone doesn’t cope well when overloaded, he will shape the training exercise to put increase demands on that person.
Although for competitive reasons Richards keeps most of the details of his training exercises pretty vague, he sketches out the sort of exercise he might use with a team of firefighters:
They begin sitting in a training room. Then the phone rings. Someone answers and takes down the details. The rest of the team is on edge waiting to see what it is.
There has been an explosion in this building, smoke is coming out, and a couple of people are inside. The team responds. There will be an actual building; there may be real people inside. Sometimes the building might even be on fire, but even if it isn’t, the exercise still feels real. This is live.
We may have done some other exercises where we’ve conveniently not reminded them to fill up the firetruck’s water tank, or maybe they have already responded to another job. Either way, the result is that they have only a quarter of a tank left—not nearly enough. We might have another truck arrive just a little bit late. Soon the guy working the pump looks down and sees the hoses starting to collapse. In that moment he’s running out of water, and there are two guys running into a burning building carrying a hose, depending on it. What does he do?
What these guys are feeling is very close to what they’d be feeling in a real fire. The guy on the water pump realizes he’s got two guys in the building about to be compromised. He’s likely to start yelling—but not do anything very constructive. His only option is to pull those two firefighters back out of the building, but he’s got to respond calmly and quickly. [And all of this time Richards may be coming up with distractions and things going wrong to ramp up the pressure, as needed.]
At the end, we might have two guys inside the building lying down on the floor [as if they’re dead] because their hose didn’t have water. If the other guys aren’t reacting enough, we may talk about the families of those two on the floor: What will you think when you see them? What if you have to tell them what happened to their husband or father or brother or son?
It creates a rather intense emotional experience.
Afterward, Richards assembles the team and has them go over what happened. He will ask some questions—What happened when you were on the pump when you realized you didn’t have water? What could you do differently? —and then sit back. Although he may be talking specifically to the pump operator, everyone else in the room is listening and coming up with their own answers. There is generally a sense of shared failure, so all the team members have an interest in exploring the failure, figuring out what went wrong, and how to avoid that in the future.
In this example, Richards notes, the fundamental problem was that the team did not fill up the firetruck to start with. That, he said, is a lesson they won’t forget.
More importantly, though, the lesson that these firefighters are learning is how to operate in a stress-filled environment. Stress makes people forget their training and do things they might not normally do. In his years fighting fires, Richards says, he has found that the key to an individual’s success is how well he manages stress. The exercise gives the firefighters a chance to feel the sort of stress that they might encountered in the field and to learn how they react to stress when the stakes are low.
Richards tells a story about an experience he had as a supervisor overseeing the fighting of a fire. There was a great deal of smoke and uncertainly about exactly what was burning, and in the confusion a firefighter got crushed between a firetruck and another vehicle. Richards found him and rendered aid and comfort, but there was little he could do—the man was too badly injured. Losing a firefighter in this way traumatized everyone there, but what made it worse was when a police officer arrived on the scene and people realized that the fatally wounded firefighter was his son. Having lived through that experience, Richards says, he figures that he has probably already seen the worst he is likely to see—a thought that he uses to help himself deal better with any other stressful situations that he encounters.
And, ultimately, that is a major goal of his training exercises. No one dies, no one is hurt, but the stress is real, and the firefighters learn that they can handle it. “My training is about providing those experiences that cause their mental model to say, It’s going to take a lot to stress me. They learn that they can cope with more than they thought they could.” And once they understand this, they are much more likely to be able to do what they have been trained to do even in the middle of a highly stressful situation.
“There is a whole new territory out there,” Richards says. “What I’m finding in the scenarios is that the people in the group know what’s going on, and they start to talk about it in the group environment. Verbalizing it lets them deal with it. I’m inoculating them for the live environment.”
In short, Richards is focused on psychological training rather than technical training. His sessions may include technical aspects, but he believes that the real weakness in the training of firefighters and other first responders is not on the technical side—the skills involved with using water to fight a fire or moving through a burning building and pulling people out—but rather on the psychological side. People naturally respond emotionally in stressful situations, and this can hurt their performance. So Richards helps them develop the psychological skills necessary to handle the stresses they encounter in their jobs.
This sort of approach has obvious applications in a variety of areas—essentially, any job where there is a great deal of stress that can interfere with performance. Not just first responders, but emergency department personnel, members of the military, and so on. And, as I couldn’t help pointing out to Richards during our conversation, even chess players might benefit. In the famous 1972 world championship chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, Fischer behaved very erratically, even forfeiting Match 2 (out of a maximum 24), claiming that the TV cameras were making too much noise. After that, Spassky essentially fell apart, losing five of the next eight games, and many have suggested that he had been psyched out by Fischer’s antics. Some even thought that Fischer had forfeited the second match with the specific goal of psyching Spassky out. Fischer might well have won the tournament no matter what, but it seems a good bet that Spassky would have at least put up more of a fight had he had someone like Richards providing psychological training beforehand.