Tactical and Technical

The Elite Vs Tactical Athlete

By James Wright May 14, 2019

Last July on the Cove, James Wright gave us an article called Art Vs Science in Coaching. Today we are please to publish a follow-on article examining the debate around periodisation and the comparison of the elite athlete and the tactical athlete.  

Click here to read a pdf copy of the article.

Traditional military training has focused on the artistic development of enhancing a soldier’s capability to continue to fight irrespective of external stimuli. The military physical continuum has focused predominantly on aerobic modalities whilst neglecting other facets of physical conditioning which play a critical role in the holistic development of the tactical modern-day war fighter facing the dynamic anaerobic battlefield (Girdler, 2010). Research has shown there are significant benefits to a holistic approach (Naclerio, Moody & Chapman, 2013) but whether or not this is applicable to a defence context is still questioned. The purpose of this review is to identify the benefits of a strategically integrated periodisation program as they apply within a highly functioning, operational Infantry Battalion within the Australian Army.
Why a periodisation program is beneficial to the modern fighter
The optimisation of a tactical athlete requires the assessment of the modern-day battle field. According to Caplan (2018), historically, "the essential goals of warfare have not changed, but the way wars are waged certainly have. A hundred years ago, men marched to battle, lined up against one another, easily identifiable in their uniforms, and used weapons that, for the most part work up close and personal." In today’s warfare, soldiers are required to be agile, fast, powerful and strong with a dynamic ability to change modalities at short notice. This highlights the similarities of the tactical and elite athlete, demonstrating the need for training programs for elite athletes to cross over into the training of the tactical war fighter. Training approaches for integration of strength, speed, power, agility and many other much needed physical capabilities have been shown to require a periodisation model that has flexibility built in for change and is able to adapt to ever-changing circumstances affecting the quality of workouts (Lorenz & Morrison, 2015). Additionally, sequencing of workouts to limit over-reaching and development of overtraining syndromes that end in loss of duty time and injury are paramount to long-term success (Kreaemer & Szivak, 2012). Allowing adequate time for rest and recovery and recognising the negative influences of extreme exercise programs and excessive endurance training will be vital in moving physical training programs into a more modern perspective as used by elite strength-power anaerobic athletes in sport today (Lorenz & Morrison, 2015). Because the war fighter is an elite athlete, it is time that training approaches that are scientifically based are updated within the military to match the functional demands of modern warfare and are given greater credence and value at the command levels. The development of periodised training modules and individualisation of programs are needed to optimise the strength of the modern war fighter. This is now possible with the knowledge, educational pathways, training technologies, and resources that allow this to happen. Ultimately it only takes command decisions and implementation to make this possible (Kraemer & Szivak, 2012).
Similarities between the tactical and elite athlete in superior performance
According to Bompa and Haff (2009) if an athlete expects superior performance, they must be exposed to a systematic and progressive increase in training. This means stimuli thatis designed to elevate the athlete’s physiological and performance capacity (i.e., cross the threshold of adaptation). Therefore, it is of utmost importance that a systematic and well- organised training program be followed to include superior adaptations of the main functions of the body. This highlights the similarities in training requirements between the tactical and elite athlete, although the organisational objectives differ with potentially extremely devastating outcomes. The end state for both domains is the functional adaptation and increase in tactical/elite athletic performance. Regardless of being a tactical or elite athlete both require the increase in stimuli to gain the adaptive edge. The systematic and progressive increase may differ in specificity but the fundamentals are the platform to development (Bompa & Haff, 2009, p.10). According to Haff & Triplett (2016, p.584), training programs need to be logically designed so that they are structured in a systematic and pre-planned manner, allowing variation of training volume, intensity, frequency, density, foci, mode, and exercise selection in accordance with the athlete’s needs and sport’s requirements. Central to the effective programming of training interventions is the concept of periodisation (Naclerio et al., 2013). The tactical athlete’s requirement to operate in a dynamic agile battlespace means that the variation cycles discussed in this literature are paramount to the success of the modern war fighter. The needs analysis differs in the tactical athlete requirement to the elite athlete yet the approach is consistent. The similarities between the literature (Bompa & Haff, 2009; Haff & Triplett, 2016) suggest that modern approaches in periodisation have interlocking themes associated with best practise periodisation.
Defining the tactical athlete; what is the difference?
Smith (2018) suggests tactical fitness is not about workouts, it is about work. It is not about working out to get good at working out, it is about creating programs that carry over into real life movements like lifts, carries, crawls, runs, rucks, swims, mobility and even analytical and creative thinking. It uses non-traditional equipment to lift and carry loads that are not equally balanced (Andrew, 2017). Tactical fitness is about choosing a profession where your fitness may one day be the difference between life and death for you, your friend or someone you are trying to help. Not only will your health and fitness be developed, but your ability to react as you have been trained and think clearly under stress is an absolute must. This suggests that the unquantifiable situations and outcomes that the modern war fighter is placed in require the dynamic ability to be fluid yet proficient in modalities of training that relate directly to job specificity (Smith, 2018). An elite athlete has the workouts that are dedicated to the organisational objectives of win or loss but does not have the emotional/mental stress and connection in decision making that can lead to life or death. The suggested fundamentals follow the same principles but outcomes of an extreme nature are a bi-product at each end of a spectrum.
According to the effects of periodisation versus non-periodised resistance training on army specific fitness and skills performance, conducting a form of resistance training within a structured program will enhance and optimise the specific fitness and skills performance of the war fighter (Stone, Heishman, & Campbell, 2017). This research highlights the importance of the implementation of a holistic integrated strategic periodisation program. More evidence is required in detailing the resistance training protocols; however, the fundamentals of incorporation have been justified (Stone et al., 2017). The use of tactical training is described by Bompa and Haff (2009) as the ability to maintain tactical proficiency under conditions of fatigue, which is an important determinant of competitive success. Therefore, the athlete’s tactical training must include sessions that require the athlete to perform under conditions of fatigue. The reverse ideology of elite athlete having to relate to the tactical athlete in this text suggests how relevant the two professions are. Both require systems to integrate a holistic package that is specific to the realms of elite or tactical athlete.
The indirect correlation of periodised models between elite and the tactical athlete have been reviewed. The assessment based on the literature suggest the fact that there is more of a physical relationship than once considered. The themes associated with a periodised program for an elite athlete provide the evidence that a structured continuum with a periodised approach will increase the strength and conditioning and assist the adaptation cycle whilst minimising the risk of injury. The proposition that the tactical athlete would benefit from an integrated periodised approach in the physical strength and conditioning and job specific skills development with the implementation of resistance training has been demonstrated.
This review suggests that the correlation between the elite and tactical athlete is bound by the requirement to have periodisation to enhance specific outcomes. The integration into an Army Infantry unit would be comprehensive in encompassing the elite athletic realm into a tactical setting; however, further analysis is needed to understand the relationship between the implementation of a tactical resistance training program within an integrated strategic periodised approach. This research will enable a holistic bodied approach to developing the skill, task specific strength and conditioning and enhance the adaptive cycle associated with modernising the military approach to physical fitness. As such, it is recommended that further research is carried out in the area as it could lead to the mitigation and/or reduction in military specific injuries. The second order effects of a reduction in injuries enhances the capability which in turn is a force multiplier. Empowerment of the Junior Non-Commissioned Officer in having the ability to guide structured periodised programs in a group setting could lead to optimising outputs associated with leadership. Given the evidence presented that highlights a significant connection between elite and tactical athletes, these fundamentals need to be explored to not only fill this gap in empirical research but enhance the opportunity to develop better military systems to intensify the abilities of the modern war fighter.
Andrew. (2017). Tactical Truths. In Read performance training. Retrieved from https://www.readpt.com/tactical-truths. Alvar, A.B.,
Deuster A.P., & Sell, K. (2017). NSCA’s Essentials of Tactical Strength andConditioning. Champaign, IL:
Human Kinetics. Bompa, T. O., & Haff, G. (2009). Periodisation: Theory and methodology of training (5th ed.). Human Kinetics: Mitcham, South Australia. Caplan, L. (2018). How has warfare changed over the past 100 years? In enotes. Retrieved from https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/how-has-warfare-changed-over-last-100- years-82719
Girdhar, M. (2010). Emerging trends in battlefield air strikes. CLAWS Journal, Wnter, pp. 104 – 115.
Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning (4th ed.). Human Kinetics: Mitcham, South Australia.
Kraemer, W. J., & Szivak, T. K. (2012). Strength Training For the Warfighter. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2, 104-118.
Lorenz, D., & Morrison, Scot. (2015). Current concepts in the periodisation of strength and conditioning for the Sport Physical Therapist. International journal of sports physical therapy, 10(6), 734-747.
Naclerio, F., Moody, J., & Chapman, M. (2013). Applied periodization: a methodological approach. Journal of Human Sports and Exercise, 8(2), pp. 350 – 366.
Smith, S. (2018). What’s the difference between tactical fitness and regular fitness? InMilitary.com. Retrieved from https://www.military.com/military-fitness/general- fitness/whats-the-difference-between-tactical-fitness-and-regular-fitn Stone, B. L.,
Heishman, A. D., & Campbell, J. A. (2017). The effects of a personalized vs. traditional military training program on a 2 mile run performance during the Army physical fitness test (APFT). Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, (in press ahead of print) doi 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002176.




James Wright

Jimmy Wright has many years experience in sport and fitness. Within the military his postings have included 16 ALR, 2 CDO, 1 RTB and 7 CSSB. He is currently posted to 1 CHB. Outside of the military, he has worked  for a number of professional sporting organisations such as the South Sydney Rabittohs, Port Adelaide Football Club as well as individual elite professional athletes.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


Inline with what Jimmy has stated here, I believe this article sets up the discussion for the gradual and wide-spread implementation of tactical periodization, specifically within combat corps. Ideally, this would see a synchronization between unit PTI's, CFL's and Unit and/or sub-unit commanders in the development of the yearly training program. Initially, this would create a larger work scale and greater logistical massage, however, if the elite athlete model is anything to go off, the strength and conditioning coaches (PTI's) work hand in hand with the Head coaches (unit commanders) to develop sound training programs. This would idealistically, create a system whereby the job specific tasks (e.g. ECN 343) would be incorporated into the PT program, thus minimizing the current gap between PT and their job. The desired end-state for this would entail greater physical fitness, great proficiency in the specific roles, and less preventable injuries - in particular, those which are a result of too little or too much volume. I am a firm believer that the direction in which we are currently heading with the "modernization" of physical training in the Army is extremely exciting, however, we have some way to go before we 'catch up' with the industry standard best practice as an organization. Articles and reviews such as this are a great step in the right direction and hopefully create some extremely productive discussion.

This article has posed significant considerations and questions to the type of fitness our modern soldier should be exposed to in order to perform at its absolute optimum. I commend the author for highlighting and bringing such issues to the fore, as quite often our focus of adhering to mandatory governance and legislation, can take us away from the real needs and considerations of our most vital asset - our foot soldier! I look forward to future updates and actual programs that can segue to this holistic approach to fitness.

Jimmy, Great article! I agree with Lachlan’s comment above regarding the greater integration of PTIs with the CoC to produce the desired outcome. My question to you is: What does the desired outcome look like? My follow up is: What do we need to implement to approach the outcome? Would this see a fundamental shift in physical training from foundation training to the unit or could this be accomplished with amendments to existing training? You bring up an excellent comparison with the elite vs tactical athlete comparison which identifies the obstacles such as inadequate rest and nutrition. I would like to add the obstacle of competing priorities to highlight the difficulty of implementing a program (say 8 weeks) when a soldier may be sent on courses, sent out field or take rest during this time. Keep up the good work

Another great article, Jimmy. Your efforts to modernise our approach to physical conditioning is commendable. Your perspective would be interesting on how we can better employ periodisation to transition soldiers from the street (many who've previously lead sedentary lives), through ab initio training to become tactical athletes within units. Elite sport has many years experience in developing post-adolescent sportsmen and women into athletes capable of playing with and competing against fully developed adults, and I'm sure there's lessons we can learn there. We currently use PESA as a metric for assessing minimum job physical standard (which is another topic in itself), but seem to be struggling to develop soldiers to a sufficient level within the ab initio timeframe to be able to pass this assessment. This type of intellectual approach to the physical (and in many ways mental) aspect of human performance is highly important to maintaining a competitive edge in a geopolitical environment only increasing in complexity.

Great article Jimmy and fascinating for someone outside the military to consider the differences and connections between both types of athlete. The outcome of event puts the importance of the training approach into context and why your research and work is critical. As the unexpected is the norm, the tactical athlete approach to training is much more complex and makes me wonder how many units, groups, soldiers should be in peak condition ready for the unexpected? I reflect on some sports, where larger teams schedule peak condition between sub groups for their expected competitive calendar, which is a much simpler system to design

As the paradigm shifts within Defence towards a culture of objectively measured, evidence-based periodised training, soldiers are becoming stronger, faster and generally more physically capable. For modernisation to occur, physical preparation needs to become an essential part of planning, especially during significant periods in the field. Despite the large amounts of research supporting strength, power, speed, aerobic and anaerobic training and their various benefits, commanders must adopt a professional approach toward physical preparation, making it part of the culture-norm (which fortunately is beginning to occur). Jimmy highlights some great points around the importance of a holistic, integrated strategic periodization program and the requirement for psychological/cognitive elements to be addressed within tactical athletic programming. I strongly agree with Lachlan’s perspective on tactical periodization, as military job requirements regularly involve a decision (tactical dimension), an action or motor skill (technical dimension) that require a particular movement (physiological dimension) and are directed by volitional and emotional states (psychological dimension). As such, traditional “Battle PT” should evolve to incorporate these four elements instead of replicating circuit training in different dress. Articles such as this promote discussion and collaboration, further improving the end product and raise the skill level through group facilitated learning. Jimmy, great follow-up piece and keep the discussions coming!

James, Great article. When looking at the periodising of a tactical vs elite athlete we could perhaps follow the same periodising model of that of an Olympic athlete. The Olympic athlete is periodised over a span of 4 years with the peak/end state being the Olympic games. How can we transfer that to our tactical athlete? Perhaps we base our periodisation modelling off the Brigade Force Gen Cycle "Reset, Readying, Ready". Which would see a Battalion periodised over a 3 year span with the peak/end state being "Ready" and meeting PT related METLs along the way for each Force Gen Cycle such as a being able to Squat, bench, Press, Deadlift x amount of bodyweight & complete the appropriate PESA for that Force Gen Cycle.

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