207 — Winning The Tactical Games with National Champion Jacob Heppner

Ever wonder what it’s like to be one the fittest people in the entire world? Maybe, but have you ever considered what it takes to reach that level, and then transition that status into new endeavors? Well, our own Jeremy Stone visited world-class CrossFitter and Tactical Games National Champion, Jacob Heppner, to find out.

Tactical Games Champion Jacob Heppner
Tactical Games and CrossFit Champion Jacob Heppner provides great insights into fitness and competitiveness. (jheppner66 Instagram page)

Jeremy got a taste of working out with Jacob, which you can hear about by listening to the podcast. He then sat down, after recovering, and talked in depth about CrossFit, the Tactical Games, and general competitiveness. It’s a great interview with a unique guy. We’ll hit the highlights here, but you’ll need to listen to get the details. That’s just how this works, you know.

College Football Backup to Top CrossFit Competitor

Jacob played college football at an unnamed NAIA school, though he says he wasn’t very good. We’ll take that on faith. He says he was the team math whiz charged with keeping the other guys eligible. The math talent scored him an internship in systems analysis at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, where an Army major invited him to try CrossFit. Looking for a way to stay fit after football, Jacob agreed, even though he didn’t know anything about CrossFit.

Jacob showed up and, not being familiar with many of the exercise skills, didn’t think he performed well. But the CrossFit people saw something and encouraged him to come back for more training and to compete. So, Jacob looked into the CrossFit Games, realized it was a sport, and thought it might give a competitive guy something to do after football.

Jacob Heppner in the Tactical Games
Jacob Heppner is a serious dude. (jheppner66 Instagram page)

We’ll let you listen to Jacob’s CrossFit journey in his own words, but let’s just say he did very well. In only a few short years, he went from enthusiastic new guy to being declared the sixth fittest man on the planet at the 2019 World CrossFit Games. Looking at Jacob’s Instagram page, we’d love to see how the top five do it because, dang. Jacob is a serious dude when it comes to working out, as Jeremy learned firsthand.

Jeremy says he was a little worried about working out with Jacob, but he found that Jacob is a good coach, “able to challenge somebody without really shoving their face the dirt. Because anybody can get absolutely destroyed, but you’re not gonna learn anything.” Jacob agreed, saying, “That’s kinda like the motto of CrossFit. Everything is kind of scalable.” Different people have different paces, “but at the end of the day, did we get the stimulus we wanted?”

To that end, Jacob started Grit Performance, an online capacity-based, non-skill program. It features exercises that everyone can do at their level. “We’re gonna sweat,” Jacob says. “We’re gonna hate ourselves for 20 minutes and by the end of it, we’re gonna be like, ‘Man, that was terrible, but it was really fun.'”

By 2020, CrossFit had become a full-time job, with sponsors, including Nike, to satisfy. The passion was ebbing, and Jacob started looking for something else. He didn’t know it yet, but he had already laid the groundwork for that change.

Dog in a hardhat
Jacob’s dog, whose name, I believe, is Winston. Included here because dogs are awesome. (jheppner66 Instagram page.)

Transitioning to the Tactical Games

Jacob began combining workouts and shooting in 2018. It wasn’t a big deal. Just something new to try. But his Instagram posts drew suggestions to check out the Tactical Games. He looked at it, but CrossFit was still his thing and he filed it away. But looking for something else two years later, Jacob decided to try one event at the April 2021 Tactical Games. He began training, describing himself as “the most dangerous novice on the planet,” at the time.

Jacob says the shooting is the same throughout the Tactical Games divisions. The differences come in the fitness challenges. Being a world-class CrossFit guy, Jacob entered the Elite Division. He did well, placing fourth behind three top Tactical Games guys. But he didn’t just breeze through the competition. His CrossFit chops meant he excelled at the fitness parts, but his weapons skills were not where they needed to be.

Jacob showed up with his rifle scope not zeroed and the scope mounted backward. But the Tactical Games guys squared him away and encouraged him to compete. He said that attitude helped him “fall in love with the sport.” Like CrossFit, Tactical Games competitors want everyone’s best shot. They want to win, but they want it to be against the best everyone can bring, and they want everyone to have fun. Jeremy says that matches his experience in Precision Rifle Shooting.

The Tactical Games

Jacob explains the different Tactical Games divisions and the rationale for the Tactical Division, which is very interesting and makes a ton of sense. You should listen to that. Jacob and Jeremy then discuss proper Tactical Games weapons, gear, and setups. Jacob stresses that new participants don’t need “Gucci gear,” which is a trap many fall into.

Jacob Heppner teaching
Jacob Heppner teaching Tactical Games at T-Rex Arms. (jheppner66 Instagram page)

“Show up with what you have,” he says. The point is to get good with your everyday stuff, then you’ll learn what you need, and what you don’t, as you progress. Basic stuff includes a pistol with at least 10-to-12 rounds capacity, holster system, an LPVO-equipped rifle, a good sling, and a basic plate carrier. Jacob and Jeremy go into more details, but that’s the basic stuff. Jacob does say to make your gear, including your rifle, as slick as possible, because weight during the fitness phases is a big deal.

Showing up and competing is how you learn. One big thing will be talking to experienced people, seeing what they use, and learning why they like certain things as opposed to others. Jeremy points out that waiting until you think you have the perfect setup, or your skills are good enough, is a great excuse to never do anything at all.

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

Jacob talks about how CrossFit and Tactical games are similar in that the athletes are not hyper-focused on one event. Rather, they must be good at many things. He likens them to the Olympic decathlete. The decathlete might not be gold or silver medal material in any single event, but they are good enough across a range of events that the complete product is very good indeed. They may not be finely tuned athletes (or maybe they are), but they are certainly very well-rounded athletes. And Tactical Games events translate to the real world.

Jeremy asked Jacob how he addressed building his shooting skills for the Tactical Games. Jacob replied that he approached it the same as he did with CrossFit, which requires a wide skill set. He found experts who taught various shooting skills, whether it be long-range rifles, defensive pistols, or other specialties. He took the courses and learned the fundamentals.

He now practices those fundamentals and adds to them by increasing speed, adding stress, or whatever, just as any serious firearm student does. Jeremy notes that advanced shooting is really just fundamental shooting done faster. Jacob says he breaks down complex movements into their “atomic elements.” He practices those, progressing until he can put them all together.

Jacob Heppner Coach
A good coach cares about their athletes’ success. Jacob obviously cares. (jheppner66 Instagram page)

A Very Interesting Discussion

In all, Jeremy’s 45-minute or so talk with Jacob was very interesting. I’ll admit to purposely staying away from CrossFit, though I’ve often thought the Tactical Games look cool. But the stuff they talk about can be applied to any skill you might want to develop. Jacob obviously understands not only how to develop himself, but how to coach others. I coached high school football for 18 years. I recognized some solid principles in how Jacob approaches his craft. Give the podcast a listen. I bet you’ll come away with something positive, even if you don’t aim to be the next Tacticool Iron Man.

 

William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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