Hey Coach: Put Me In

Let me pose a simple question to you. How many of you can remember sitting on the sidelines during a football game and yelling out to the coach "Hey coach, put me in; I can get the job done"? I do not know about you, but it has been a long time since I suited up and ran out onto the field as a defensive tackle. As a matter of fact, I believe that Lyndon Johnson was president at the time. Maybe it wasn't football, perhaps it was some other sport, but the act was the same. We wanted the coach to pay attention, so we yelled. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it made the coach mad.

What was it that made the coach so important? On the one hand he controlled any possible shot you had it playing in the game you loved so much. On the other hand, there was the importance of his skill at imparting the knowledge he had about playing the game. This skill was critical because it gave you a better chance at succeeding in your chosen sport. 

It was the way in which these two coaching functions came together that allowed another function of coaching to come into play. If your coaches were anything like mine, they were first, and foremost, motivators. Each of us normally looks for control, enrichment, and motivation from those we look to as coaches in our lives. 

In Management in the Fire Service, 4th ed. Carter and Rausch tell us that, "…a distinction must be made between coaching and counseling, terms that are often used synonymously. Coaching, which is as much a part of an officer's job as counseling, concerns assisting firefighters and lower-level officers to gain greater job-related knowledge." Even such a solid bureaucratic organization as the U.S. Army has recognized the importance of the leader as a coach.

Many years ago, a methodology was introduced that required both superiors and subordinates to communicate at the beginning and end of each performance rating period. In this way goals could be jointly set, agreed to, and performance closely monitored by both parties to the coaching equation.

One of the benefits of this method of interaction was that it allowed for the development of a set of coach and players relationships. It brought the players closer together. I recall this type of interaction from my many decades of service and the active and reserve forces of our nation. More frequent interactions began to occur during the rating period. In many cases this led to surprising improvements in the performance on the part of the players involved. You ended up with better coaches and better players.

Let me suggest that this is a two-way interaction, because the person doing the challenging has to work that much harder to stay ahead of the person who they are stimulating. Think of the benefits for any organization when this system of coaching and challenging takes hold and begins to spread. Knowledge, training, and skills become important elements in the day-to-day operations of the agency. 

Under this self-motivating system of operation, people see the benefits of striving for greater knowledge in the organization around them. They begin to seek knowledge because it is important for them to stay abreast of the skill levels of their coworkers. These folks see people moving upward in their department as a result of their ability to demonstrate a higher level of knowledge and operational skills.

Over the years, people have told me that they see this way of operating as the, "I don't want to look stupid in front of my friends" approach to fire department operations. When properly cultivated, this can be a tremendously rewarding and successful style of coaching and leadership.  

Imagine what it might be like to work in a fire department where people actually started to enjoy working with one another: a fire department where there was constant, challenging, back-and-forth interaction. Think of what a positive, challenging environment this could be. 

Coaching can be the solid first step in moving in this direction. However, it is critical that coaching efforts be supported by those folks at the top of the department food chain. If this boss laughs at coaching, so will the troops. I have seen this happen and it is indeed a sad occurrence. 

Interpersonal coaching relationship efforts can provide an effective route for the transmission of an organization's vision and mission statement. But if top-level support is not in the cards, do not despair. Good coaches at any level can have a solid, positive impact on the people with whom they work.

Think about what it is that makes on Captain (or Battalion Chief) better than another; more rewarding to work with and more fun to be with. It is probably the fact that the officer who is a better coach is the officer who is a better leader. This holds true whether it is at the company, battalion, or division level. 

What then does it take for you to become a better, more successful coach? First and foremost, you must enjoy being with people. I cannot tell you how many times I have written or lectured about this, but it is still overlooked by many. If you discover that you like people then it is up to you to ensure that you become technically proficient in the fire protection and suppression field. 

Let me suggest that you become friendly with those people who sell the fire service textbooks in your area. You will need to develop a solid, professional library to assist you in gathering the requisite knowledge for your coaching endeavors. You cannot help other people if you are not equipped with the necessary knowledge. You cannot help others if you lack the knowledge to do the job. How can you correct another's mistakes if you lack the knowledge to know what is right and what wrong when you observe others at work? 

Once you have developed what you feel to be a solid technical grasp of your firefighting skills, it is then critical for you to begin delving into the world of subjects such as instructional methodology, human relations, leadership, management, and psychology. It will you take quite awhile to become proficient in these subject areas.

Perhaps by the time you have gained knowledge in these areas, you will have been promoted to a level wherein you can use these skills to help others. If you have done your homework and paid attention to the world around you, you should be ready. If not, people will surely notice and you will suffer for your inability to help other people.

Can you still be a coach of you are not an officer? Some of the greatest lessons I have ever learned came from my peers. A friendly, knowledgeable pump operator can create a whole new generation of capable pump operators through the use of coaching techniques. And many times they will not be aware of the fact that they are coaching others. It might just be that they know a lot about pumps and a lot about people. Oh, and did I mention that they enjoy playing well and sharing with others.

Think about it for a moment. There are really just three things that a coach does:

  • They make people aware of things.
  • They help people to improve their ability to do things.
  • The help other people to overcome their fears and reservations about doing things.

Trust me when I say that it doesn't take a college degree to do these things. All it takes is a bit of hard work, a genuine smile, and a deep and abiding concern for your fellow firefighters. Come on coach let me into the game … the game of coaching for a better fire department. 

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