The importance of realistic training

In 1993, Ramzi Yousef, an Al-Qaeda terrorist, drove a van laden with explosives into the parking garage of the World Trade Center in New York. Twelve minutes later, the 600kg bomb detonated, opening a 30 meter wide hole in the concrete floor of the garage, and killing six bystanders. The bomb blast caused smoke to raise through the building, resulting in the complete evacuation of everyone inside. In all, 50,000 people left the towers following the bomb blast.

Whilst appearing to be a success, in many cases it took over two hours for people to evacuate, which was deemed unacceptably long. In subsequent studies, one of the reasons found to cause this slow evacuation was a complete lack of any fire drills; many of the workers in the WTC complex didn’t know where the stairs were located, or how to evacuate. Additionally, appointed fire marshals has been trained to evacuate people to the stairwells, but not told what to do once this had happened. As a result, many people hung around, waiting for further information.

Learning your lesson

The book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why uses the 1993 bombing as one example when analyzing how to respond to a disaster. Several themes run throughout the book and the first one is the importance of learning your lesson.

Seeing the events unfold in 1993, Rick Rescorla, head of security at Morgan Stanley, who had offices in the World Trade Center, developed some highly realistic training sessions for the employees under his control, and subjected them to fire drills at random times, where they were required to evacuate from their floor. As a result, the employees were well trained and versed on how to evacuate the building, which, on September 11th 2001, no doubt saved many lives. When the towers collapsed, 2,687 Morgan Stanley employees had successfully evacuated the buildings, and only 13 were killed. One of those killed was Rescorla, who was making his way back up the towers when the collapsed, in an attempt to persuade a Senior Vice President of the company to evacuate.

Rescorla clearly learned his lesson. Rescorla realized there were a number of short-comings in his evacuation procedures after the 1993 bombing. Firstly, the first responders—fire, police, and paramedics—were not going to get to the people he was responsible for in time; he had to get them out. The second was that he would have to train the employees of Morgan Stanley to evacuate. Given his military background, Rescorla acutely understood the numbness of panic, which is why he resolved to train his employees so they knew what to do if, and, in Rescorla’s opinion, when disaster stuck.

Creating context-specific training

Another theme in the book is the importance of realistic training. The 1993 events were a clear demonstration of a lack of context-specific training. Despite being told what to do in a fire, the employees hadn’t practiced what to do, and so hadn’t experienced it first-hand.

In sport, we often spend a lot of time considering the optimum way to physically prepare athletes to compete, but we also tend to ignore realistic practice. This isn’t the same as in other spheres. Airline cabin crew undergo highly realistic training to prepare for evacuations; they have to evacuate a fuselage that is on actually on fire, for example, or one which has been plunged into a giant swimming pool to replicate a water landing. Fire crews will often practice their drills in a building that is on fire, allowing then to prepare to work optimally in the conditions they will face in an emergency. Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) famously practice hostage rescue situations in their “Killing House’ with live ammunition, with other members of their squad posing as hostages. In this training situation, which is obviously built up to, the damage of failure is colossal, which is why these troops are confident that, when placed in situations where the will have to use their skills for real, they will be able to do so with maximum effectiveness.

Developing realistic training scenarios within sport can be difficult, primarily because we often think the purpose of training is to develop athletes physically. However, that isn’t the main purpose of training at all; instead, it is to prepare athletes to perform at their best. Let’s take an example from my career as a sprinter. A typical speed session here would perhaps be 6 x 60m with around 6 minutes recovery – a classic session, designed to develop maximum velocity. However, when I was competing, I’d be required to run 100m once, or maybe twice with an hours recovery in between. The 6x60m session, whilst preparing me physically, didn’t accurately replicate the situations I’d be finding myself in when competing; how to control my arousal in order to perform well, how to maintain relaxation when trying to respond to pressure from a rival, etc. One of the most realistic sprint sessions I used to take part in was when I was based in Bath with Malcolm Arnold. During the indoor season, we would have a block start session that utilised electronic blocks. This session was competitive (we always ran with at least one other athlete), and timed up to 30m. We would also only do 3 starts in the whole session, and if you did a false start you would be in a lot of trouble – just as you would be in competition.

A similar example comes from bobsleigh push-training. During competition, you cannot practice getting into the sled on ice during a warm-up – so instead you have to rely on your training background. On the push track, you can have as many warm-up runs as you like, simulating getting into the sled. But, because having practice loads during the warm up doesn’t mimic competition, as the training season progressed I started to avoid practicing my loads during warm up on the push track, building my confidence that I could handle this when the competition season arrived.

Strength through exposure

As you can see, developing realistic training is a crucial component of preparing people for high stress situations; professionals in jobs where there is risk of a disaster design and undertake highly realistic training frequently. So why don’t we in sport? I believe it makes sense to do so; perhaps there is value in replicating competition conditions as much as possible during a training session, in order to best mimic the environment the athlete will find themselves in. In doing so, we expose them to situations and feelings they might rarely experience outside of direct competition, which should have an important preparatory effect.