Relentless Pursuit

I recently sat down for an in-depth conversation with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 head wrestling coach of the ninth-ranked school in the nation to speak with him about leading teams.

A search and rescue drill. (Photo by author.)

A search and rescue drill. (Photo by author.)

Rutgers Wresting Team

Coach Scott Goodale from Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, knows how to build successful programs. The New Jersey native started his coaching career at Jackson Memorial High School where, during his tenure, he led his teams to two Group 4 State Championships and four Central Jersey Group 4 Sectional titles. Each season Goodale spent at the helm of the Jackson Memorial wrestling program, the Jaguars were crowned District 21 Team Champions. Twice, he was named the New Jersey State coach of the year, and one of those years his team ended the season ranked fourth in the country.

While relentlessly pursuing his dream of building a dynasty program, a former New York Giants football player with ties to Rutgers approached Goodale and asked if he could write up a plan on how he would save the university’s struggling wrestling program, which at the time was in jeopardy of being dropped. Goodale sat down with his wife at a local restaurant and wrote some ideas down on a napkin. He later presented his finished plan, and before he knew it he was on a six-hour interview for the position of head wresting coach for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. He was offered the job and, after contemplating his options, he accepted the position and began aggressively pursuing what turned out to be the third ranked recruiting class in the country.

“This is going to be a piece of cake,” Goodale thought, with regard to his goal of winning a national title; however, he could not have been more wrong. Yes, he had talent—the practice room was full of highly accomplished athletes who knew what it took to put in the work and win at the high school level—but he also became an enabler, allowing some team members to cut corners. He admitted that his focus was more on the “W” than on the process it would take to achieve success and, because of that, he wasn’t getting the results he and the university were looking for.

You may be asking why I am writing about a wrestling coach in a fire service publication. The answer is simple: If we want to build successful teams, we would be wise to study people who have done just that in various arenas. You see, Goodale and his dedicated coaching staff went from wrestling in front of 22 people in one home match in their first season to selling more than 2,000 season tickets just a handful of years later. Under his watch, the Scarlet Knights produced six All-Americans, three conference champions, 58 NCAA Championship bids, 18 Big Ten Conference Championships place winners, and 42 place winners at the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association Championships. Rutgers is now at the forefront of college wrestling and consistently ranks among the top 10 programs in the country. Before the 2017/2018 season started, half of Goodale’s team members were nationally ranked in their individual weight classes. Here are three key takeaways I obtained through my conversation with Coach Goodale.

Review, Evaluate, and Revise Your Strategy

Goodale believes the adversity he encountered during his first year forced him to have to adapt his strategy and begin focusing on what he refers to as “the big 3”: academics, social, and wrestling. During his first season, Goodale admits that the focus was mainly on wrestling, but when some of the athletes began struggling to keep up their GPAs and were unable to focus on improving their performance on the mats, he realized that when people fall out of balance on one area it tends to have a negative effect in other areas.

This can be especially challenging for the younger generation of athletes. Division 1 sports are highly competitive and today’s “everyone gets a trophy” culture may not be equipping kids with the skills they will need to overcome adversity. Additionally, technology and social media have led to noticeably diminishing social skills among today’s youth. To help solve this problem, Goodale began placing an emphasis on academic success and requiring that all his athletes take a public speaking class and attend events with him where they will be given opportunities to speak in public. When the athletes improved their academics and social skills, he found that they could enter the practice room with the sole intention of focusing on becoming great wrestlers, which is what brought them to Rutgers in the first place. By revising his strategy, Goodale could help prepare his team to overcome adversity in the real world, which in their case means on the mats.

Train to Overcome Adversity

I asked Goodale if it was possible to teach aggression, and he said his staff likes to create strenuous and challenging situations at practice so the wrestlers will be better equipped to overcome challenges when it matters the most. Think for a moment on how this applies to those of us in the fire service. Let’s take a typical search and rescue drill, for example: A couple of firefighters position themselves at the door of a dark room. They remove their helmets; put on their face pieces, which are darkened out with wax paper or something similar; then enter the room to search for a manikin. One goes right, the other goes left; they eventually find the manikin and remove it from the room, ending the exercise. Does that scenario sound familiar? It should, because it is what almost every fire department in the country does when they practice search and rescue techniques (see photo).

Tactically, this drill is fine, but if our intent is to prepare firefighters to overcome adversity in the real world, which in our case means on the fireground, then we must put our firefighters in situations that force them to perform under pressure. What if, for example, we put those same two firefighters through the same exact scenario above, only after the exercise, instead of ending the drill, they were directed to climb up and down a flight of stairs 10 times before advancing to a second room to perform another search and rescue drill? Now their hearts are racing, their air is running low, and they are tired. This creates a more realistic environment. What if you added some additional elements, like a stopwatch to time them or loud music to hinder their ability to hear basic communications? By doing so, we are now asking our firefighters to adapt to the situation, not just follow a wall until they find a manikin.

The point is simple: Repetition is very important, but don’t rely on doing basic drills over and over without adding some challenges that your members will need to overcome. Our job is about solving problems in highly stressful environments. Let’s prepare our members to do that in the real world by creating scenarios they can learn from in the practice room.

Master Basics Skills

Another interesting point Goodale shared with me was that a great wrestler could win a Division 1 national wrestling championship by mastering only three or four basic skills. Say, for example, a wrestler with an unstoppable single leg takedown and the ability to escape when on bottom has the advantage over his opponent. This leads to the question, “How does one master a skill?” The short answer is by practicing and performing that skill so often that you become an expert.

Imagine if you rode on an apparatus with three other firefighters who all “mastered” three to four basic skills. How effective do you think your crew would be? I’d venture to say that you would have the advantage over your opponent as well—the fire.

Three Tips

Here are three great lessons learned from Goodale on how leaders can Step Up their game and achieve better results:

1. Review, evaluate, and revise. The ability to adapt is a key component to success on the fireground. A lackluster first season caused Goodale to rethink his strategy. As firefighters, if we perform at an unacceptable level, we need to revise our strategy so we don’t make the same mistakes twice. Don’t ever forget that a mistake made twice is no longer a mistake—it’s a choice.

2. Train to overcome adversity. Goodale says that everyone is willing to work hard at 3:00 p.m., when it’s time to practice, but the truly great ones are also putting in the work at 9:00 a.m. What are the training habits of your organization? Do you do the minimum and hope for the best? Hope is not a strategy. If you are working a 24-hour shift, you have more than enough time to spend at least three hours on quality training that will enhance your performance on the fireground. Add challenges to your training evolutions that will require your members to dig deep to find the strength and endurance they will need.

3. Master the basics. If every member of your crew mastered three or four skills, along with the ability to adapt and overcome adversity, you would have a solid crew ready to tackle any incident. Mastering skills requires dedication and persistence and can only be accomplished with a relentless pursuit attitude.

I hope you find those three tips as helpful as I did. Don’t wait for things to be perfect. Now is the right time for you to Step Up and Lead.

Visit www.frankviscuso.comazcuytwzyarauxvvxubdwawzvavfueufxa or check the “Flashpoint: The Fire Inside” podcast for the full interview with Coach Goodale.

By Frank Viscuso

Frank Viscuso is a deputy fire chief, an international speaker, a podcast host, and the bestselling author of Step Up and Lead and Step Up Your Teamwork.