Gap, Set, Force – A framework for mental toughness.

11 mins read

I recently had a pair of experiences that I knew I’d need to write about. A friend from my volunteer fire station whom is also a career firefighter rode shotgun in our tanker as we went on parade through the neighbourhood with our truck adorned in Christmas lights, collecting donations for the food bank and offering a little holiday cheer. We shared a conversation about her future. We talked about meaning and how to aim at the highest possible good. Later in the weekend, I had the opportunity to train with our department’s forcible entry prop. Today, while on a run, where I get most of my good thinking done, I started to build a bridge between those experiences. I’d like to write an article as an exercise toward developing that idea – gap, set, force as a mental framework for mental toughness.

We talked about things like aiming correctly. That’s something I’m really passionate about. At the end of the day, we have a really finite amount of time, so, where we orient ourselves is of critical importance. The faster you can align yourself to doing the most amount of good you are capable of producing, the more time you’ll have to try to do just that.

To build a framework for mental toughness, do the most amount of good you can possibly produce.

In doing so, you’ll have to constantly adjust your aim as you find the parts and pieces of your mission that aren’t quite in line with the best kind of person you could develop yourself to be. That means, in short, you’ll have to fail.

The trick is, you will then have to recover.

If you can build yourself to recover quicker, you’ll set out about the course you’ve plotted after a failure and spend less of your valuable time delving through those caves of sorrow and despair.

I was introduced to some of these lofty ideas by Jordan Peterson, a thinker from the University of Toronto who suggests the pivot point of meaning is personal responsibility. In the context of our conversation, we admitted that interacting with suffering or the otherwise incoming failure was inevitable. Because we’re destined to be confronted by darkness, we’re in turn granted a gift by this understanding.

The barbarians are looming.

To properly consider how we might develop ourselves to be more resilient, it’s important to define what we mean by that. Typically, resiliency is seen as the ability to withstand trauma. I think that’s a great place to start, but there’s more to it. It’s the ability to stand against that which provokes us to harm and continue our work despite the threat.

The example I use most is about a castle and the barbarians that crest over the horizon. Imagine you’re a king or queen of some far off land. As you survey your territory, you come upon a clan of barbarians out along the ridges. They’re coming.

There’s nothing you can do to stop them from arriving. But, you have time. You can build and prepare.

If we name that clan ‘interacting with trauma’ or ‘that which could harm us’, the parallel we can draw offers us the chance to fight against the waves of unstoppable, incoming failures and suffering that await us in life.

Resiliency is about preparing for a future where you’ll be stood against trouble. Let’s focus this conversation on a framework for mental toughness that we can compare to a tool-set we already use; forcible entry. Without being too oblique, I think there’s a good comparison here. Forcible entry is predicated on gaining entry to something that is otherwise secured. Alongside mindset, sometimes you have to force the door open.

Princeton District firefighters running reps on the door.


Let’s say we’ve sized up the situation and have determined the need to force a door. Maybe it’s because there’s somebody trapped inside. Maybe we have ideas and ambitions locked away inside somewhere – if only that door could be smashed open to bring them out to fresh air. We approach the problem with the right tools – and the good news is, we already have them on board. We’re here because we’re equipped to solve this problem, after all.

The first thing we’re responsible for is creating the gap. Without it, the system fails. A good gap creates the space for the rest of the work. Our tool is wedged into a tight space. Sometimes, with a little extra convincing in the form of strikes from the blunt end of an axe. Interesting. Do you need to smash open a part of yourself just enough to wedge the right tool into place to adequately move forward?

Smash open. That’s a hard way to say something. The thing is, if you just start smacking the edges of a door frame without enough composure and careful handling, you’ll wreck the frame. Likewise, you must manipulate your aim so as to be gapped enough to progress but not destroyed. That said, you’ve got to drive your tool far enough past the point of security so as to make a gap. A delicate balance. You’ll probably need to fail a few times to properly feel the difference.


Okay. We’ve got it started. The tool has driven past the frame. Now, we need to capture our progress. Here, we drive material into the gap we’ve created to make sure we don’t lose any ground. Sometimes, that’s easier said than done.

Anybody who has trained on forcible entry knows the frustration of the axe-head sliding from it’s spot. Or, how about fumbling with a wedge with your off hand while the rest of your body keeps pressure on the gap you made?

By comparison, setting the space we’ve made is easier than creating the gap. Building a framework for mental toughness is along the same idea. Without reservation, we have to begin with the idea that our outlook has to be forced open. That’s a difficult premise to fully recognize within ourselves. To ‘gap’ our current frame of reference is to pry it open with force. Certainly, from the perspective of the door, not a friendly ordeal.

Setting our hard work from sliding closed is necessary. Here, we regoup and prepare for the big movement. With this purpose in mind, we can ask ourselves if we’re aimed correctly. Once you’ve set the gap, are you good with the work you’ve done so far?

After all, the next step is literally breaking through the locks and barriers. With this in mind, you must critically analyze your position. You’ve made the decision to adjust the way you’re thinking. Your tool has driven open – by force – the first line that holds it closed. The gap is taken up. Sometimes, to hit the heat, we need to break through the door.

Are you willing to force yourself into change?


Pry. Pull. Heave.

When we’ve made a gap between the door and the wall and jammed up the space with something to capture that progress, the last step is a powerful movement. Here, we set about using the best tool we’ve got. We are already equipped with everything we need to make this happen. We have the tools in hand, the right frame of mind and a correct aim. Furthermore, we have the strength and endurance to make it happen.

Changing the way we think about mental health and building a framework for mental toughness will require quite a bit of gap and quite a bit of set before we can force our way into the future. We need to make sure that we can get any kind of space to make a little more progress toward being better outfitted for the job. Settling into that space, we can block the door’s way back and get ready for the effort required to move forward. Finally, we make the push. We tear from the structure until we’ve made enough space to move forward.

Look actively for ways to gap your mind. Wedge the space you create. Force yourself to move forward.

Alongside the technology – the axe and haligan – afforded to us by the heritage of our trade, it is our muscle and bone that move us forward. Past the obstacle of the hinges and boards, we bash and bang our way through. If that’s what is needed, then that’s exactly what is needed.

So, get to smashing.

Bill Dungey is a volunteer firefighter in Ontario, Canada. He is focused on fitness, mindset development and finding training opportunities to help the fire service make things better.

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