First Responder Mindset: 3 Principles for High Performance
Marie Ridgeway, MSW, LICSW, RYT
First responders have high-performance careers. Sleep, rest, exercise, hydration, nutrition and other factors are essential for helping first responders meet the demands of the job. But the difference between those who live up to and maintain their personal and unique potential and those who don’t is their mindset.
Many first responders start their careers with stellar physical fitness and a high-performance mindset, only to see it erode. Toxic stress, major losses, compassion fatigue and bureaucratic frustrations add up over time. What we saw with the thousands of officers we worked with in 2020 and 2021—two of the most difficult years for law enforcement and in Minnesota in particular—is those who have a solid mindset did much better than the rest and were able to weather the challenges exceptionally well.
Following are three principles for developing a high-performance first responder mindset.
#1: Don’t Wait Until You Feel Like Making a Change
We often plan or hope to start a healthy habit such as prioritizing sleep, nutrition or exercise once we feel like doing it. But this isn’t an effective approach because our brains work the other way around: We have thoughts about what we should be doing, feelings about what we would like to be doing, and judgments about ourselves if we don’t meet the standards we hold for ourselves.
We can’t bring our bodies somewhere that our mind has never been.
The human mind is complicated, and we can get lost in these subjective avenues and get stuck in our head. But when we orient ourselves around action and start with the behaviors, we find that our thoughts, feelings and perceptions will follow. Set out your workout clothes, shoes and water bottle so that when your alarm goes off, you’re not having to make a decision about exercising, you are simply acting. This allows you to enter the system from the easiest angle. When you get yourself physically moving forward—even in a small way—you set up a dopamine circuit that gives you more motivation to take the same action in the future.
Stress is the very reason why sleep, exercise and nutrition are so important for first responders, and it’s also the thing that can either bog us down with our feelings and perceptions—or move us forward to take the action steps to stay healthy.
#2: Focus on What You Can Control
If you made a list of everything you worry about, it might fill a whole page of paper. Now imagine crossing off everything on that list that you can’t do anything about. That probably narrows it down, right? The only things we have control over are our thoughts, our attitude, our actions and our effort. We can choose our thoughts like we pick out our clothes in the morning (as long as it’s not a workday where you have to wear a uniform!). We choose the attitude we take toward everything, we choose which actions we will take (including the words we choose to say), and we decide how much effort and energy we devote to anything.
For the items on your list that you can do something about, write down the options you have to address them and circle the best options. Now you have your to-do list. As for everything else, you will never get back the time or energy you spend on things you can’t control. Make it a practice to filter your thoughts and focus on what you can control. We are always influencing those around us; the more you are dialed into what you can control, the more positively you will affect those around you.
#3: Envision the Future
Can you see for yourself where you would like to be in the future? Your vision might include a healthier state of mind, a stronger or more fit body, or improved relationships. If you don’t know where you are going, it is very difficult to get there. Can you envision yourself navigating the challenges you are likely to face along the way?
We can’t bring our bodies somewhere that our mind has never been. Set yourself up for success by envisioning where you would like to be in what amount of time. Work backward from there, mapping out the steps you need to take. Keep your steps simple and small for the quickest success. If you set a step for yourself that is difficult to reach, you are less likely to take the first step. Mapping out very small and attainable steps will help lead you down the right path.
Developing a high-performance mindset will help you cultivate resilience, prepare for unexpected outcomes and keep strong relationships to help you through difficult times. A high-performance mindset is key to processing the cumulative trauma so many first responders experience. And it’s essential for having a long, healthy, happy career.