Born in Minnesota and raised in Nebraska, Erickson was a three-sport athlete in high school, competing in football, wrestling, and track. Following high school, he played football and ran track at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska. After three semesters, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and became a machine gunner, deploying twice, including to Afghanistan in 2012.
Jonathan then went back to school in Oklahoma and became a wildland firefighter. After two seasons of firefighting on The Kaibab National Forest, including trips in support of firefighting efforts in Montana, he returned to school at Arizona State University. He is now the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Liberty Performance Training in Phoenix, Arizona, and is the director of their tactical program. He holds a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification (CSCS) from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and a USA Track and Field Level-1 certification.
Freelap USA: Adrenaline is a different beast when you are the one pulling the trigger on a battlefield. Clearly, doing sets of squats and cleans won’t replicate war, but how do you look at competitive training environments and testing as a way to help with the neurotransmitter side? You have been behind a gun and have had to fire a live shot in the real world—what was the value and, of course, limitation of your physical training?
Jonathan Erickson: You will never stop the fight-or-flight reaction or the multitude of chemical reactions happening in your body. During a firefight, someone’s heart rate can reach 200 beats per minute. Things like fine motor skills, vision, and depth perception start to deteriorate. The best thing to do is train in those conditions so you can be prepared when the time comes.Mental toughness comes from training in high-stress situations and building confidence in those situations, says @firefit0331. Click To Tweet
People like to talk about mental toughness, and there is a huge debate on how to train it. Mental toughness comes from training in high-stress situations and building confidence in those situations. If I can build your confidence by doing magazine reload drills after running sprints and shooting in live-fire scenarios, I can train you to be more confident when someone is firing back at you. If you can get used to the stress of high intensity, you can potentially keep your heart rate lower when it’s time for the real deal.
Instinct will take over as a kind of “muscle memory.” Fortunately, my training leading up to Afghanistan was extremely well done. We did extended hikes with machine guns, bodyweight and buddy-weight exercises, and running multiple times a week. I also was fortunate to have a section leader who made sure I was in the gym four times a week doing strength training with him. We did endless machine gun drills, disassembly/reassembly, movement to contact, magazine reload drills, shooting, moving, and communicating and immediate action drills.
By the time combat started, it was as instinctual and natural as something like combat can feel. It is hard to come up with a limitation because the only thing we really didn’t have is live fire back at us. We used grenades and simulation paint rounds, but it is hard to mimic the exact emotion and rush of real combat.
Freelap USA: Watching someone die on the job, or just hearing about it, can create a lot of fear and emotional load to the body. Unlike a game that lasts a few hours, a tactical job lasts potentially all day. How do you see conditioning play a part in tactical fields?
Jonathan Erickson: I never saw someone die during wildland firefighting, but I did during my deployment to Afghanistan. During a night raid, our radio operator’s antenna hit a low-hanging wire and he got electrocuted. We pushed the rest of the night and into most of the next day, and we had to finish the mission with one less Marine. In a situation where there are already endless things to worry about, you cannot afford to have physical conditioning be another one. If my Marines can push through physical demands and not go down due to physical weakness, I don’t have to worry about another Marine out of the fight.When you have a program to follow before the season or before deployment, those kinds of (long, tiring) days can seem easier because you have the work capacity built up, says @firefit0331. Click To Tweet
The same is true in wildland firefighting. You can find yourself on a fire for an entire day, get very little sleep on the ground, then have to get after it again the next day. I found myself working 16 hours multiple days, getting a few hours’ sleep on the dirt, and having to wake up early the next day only to fight the same fire again, after it spread exponentially overnight. Those things can wear heavily on your emotions.
When you have a program to follow before the season or before deployment, those kinds of days can seem easier because you have the work capacity built up. Some crews are only 10 people; hotshot crews can roll up to 20. Regardless of size, everyone on a crew has a job, and if you lose one because they are too weak or have not built the work capacity (either physically or emotionally) for the job, the crew is not as effective. That can mean acres lost on a fire, or one less gun in a fight.
Freelap USA: You are holding a course on tactical training to help strength and conditioning coaches see the nuances between sports and tactical jobs. What are some examples of differences in programming? Obviously, most of the training is general and doesn’t need to be “specific,” but just squatting and benching may neglect the demands of a tactical job that require more applied skills.
Jonathan Erickson: The first thing we do is a needs analysis, where we identify what energy systems our athlete will utilize and what their major movements will be. Of course, there is a lot of overlap in tactical jobs, but they are each nuanced and different. A police officer may have to sprint and tackle a bad guy, while a wildland firefighter may have to run a chainsaw for eight hours. These two tasks utilize different energy systems.
In the program we run at Liberty, we try to have as much carryover for as much of the tactical population as possible. We incorporate things like buddy carries and drags, single arm kettlebell carries to simulate ammo can carries, loaded front carries, and sled pushes and pulls, and we also utilize sprinting and recovery runs. However, one of the main focuses of this course is not necessarily individual exercise selection, but rather precise athletic performance under pressure.The biggest difference (between tactical and sport athletes) is that a tactical athlete may be fighting for their life instead of a number on a scoreboard, says @firefit0331. Click To Tweet
There really is a lot of carryover from training an athlete to training tactical populations, but the biggest difference is that a tactical athlete may be fighting for their life instead of a number on a scoreboard. While writing our tactical programs, I keep a quote from a Navy SEAL in mind: “The goal is to be as strong as you can for as long as you can, and you’ll be damn hard to kill.”
Freelap USA: Working in a brick-and-mortar gym has changed since COVID-19. How do you manage to keep clients confident that the facility is clean and safe? What is your routine now?
Jonathan Erickson: When the first shutdown happened, our owner made the decision that we would not shut down long-term. We took a whole weekend to clean the entire gym, and we called every single member on our list. We started only allowing 10 people in the gym at a time by sign-up through our app. Once the spots were filled for the time, you weren’t allowed to sign up.
We also had everyone wipe down everything they touched with bleach spray. We told people to stay home if they didn’t feel well, and that we would pause their membership if they were furloughed or lost their jobs or simply chose to stay away. We also hired a cleaning service to come once a week and do an even more detailed cleaning of the entire gym.
We ended up having kind of two separate government-mandated shutdowns, and when the second one happened, we went back to the 10-person time slots. As time has gone on, we have let the gym return to normal operations while maintaining strict cleaning protocols. Luckily, we cater to a more advanced training population who each take on a great deal of individual responsibility to help us keep Liberty clean and safe so the focus can remain solely on increasing performance measures.
Freelap USA: Testing is a part of job requirements now, and some assessments are better than others. How do you develop tactical athletes to perform well on tests without trying to game them? Do you use the tests as benchmarks in training, or do you try to make the tests easy for those with a high ceiling to score without directly preparing for them?
Jonathan Erickson: If I am the one writing the test, it will be a direct reflection of the energy systems needed and strength required to perform the job, and it will not be easy! I think if you properly train your athlete or tactical athlete for their sport or job, any test that they need to perform will come naturally, and you won’t have to game it. We can look at what the test entails and see if it has things that will directly translate to the job, and then we can train specifically for that.
Tests don’t always translate. The NFL Combine, for example: The 225-pound bench test is not really a great test of whether a football player will be good. The same can be said in the Marines: Part of the fitness test is a timed 3-mile run in a T-shirt, shorts, and running shoes, but never once did I run 3 miles in Afghanistan.If you properly train your athlete or tactical athlete for their sport or job, any test that they need to perform will come naturally, and you won’t have to game it, says @firefit0331. Click To Tweet
So obviously, not every test translates directly to the job performed. We can take time to train for that 3-mile run, but I would rather have my Marines ready for an extended hike carrying a full combat load. The 3-mile time will get better as our hikes get longer and harder.
On the other side of that, sometimes you do need to practice the small details. Like the NFL draft with the 40-yard dash and the 5-10-5. The athlete will work on starts, the correct stance for both, and exact steps. It is a more exact process than what an athlete will see in a game, but to show out at the draft, they have to get them down. We can run the gambit of whatever test is required, perform a full training cycle, and then retest at the end to see the progress they have made in those criteria. But again, if you design and implement your program well, there shouldn’t be a test that you can’t absolutely crush after a training cycle.
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