Developing or Sorting Toughness?
Lessons we can learn from elite military units
I am currently reading Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness by Steve Magness and am thoroughly enjoying it. He explains in the book that a lot of our understanding about resilience and toughness in sport comes from folklore (although it is shifting).
When we think about mental toughness and resilience, I am not sure there is a better group to look at than elite military units. There is certainly much to gather there, but as Magness points out, we are taking the wrong lessons away.
In this week’s 3 Point’s we’ll take a look at developing vs sorting mental toughness, how the military develops it and the research that backs it up.
1. Military units are known for their intense training and testing programs. Navy seals’ hell week comes to mind, but each unit has their own variation of a demanding bootcamp. If we use Team Denmark’s definition of mental strength (toughness), “the ability to act in a way that is consistent with your values and game plan, even when you are under pressure and face difficult thoughts and emotions”, then it’s fair to say that completing hell week or a bootcamp is at the peak of mental and physical toughness.
However, where we’ve gone astray according to Magness, is that we have mistaken these demanding tests as means of developing toughness. It is not. It is a sorting exercise. As Magness writes, "The NAVY Seals hell week wasn’t designed as a method to toughen up and develop soldiers; it’s goal is to separate those who could survive the rigors of war."
Speaking generally, we have confused sorting and developing in sports. Whether it be intentionally early practices, running at practice, or strength and conditioning sessions for the sake of building mental toughness, they are likely not developing the mental toughness we think we are.
2. So, how does the military actually develop toughness?
Mental skills training. The United States Military is the largest employer of sport psychology practitioners and have made them an integral part of their developmental programming. Every recruit into the military receives mental skills training. Mental skills training sessions are provided in classroom settings and embedded into field exercises. The goal is to provide the skills and learning opportunities to develop the mental strength required of them.
"Telling people to relax doesn't work unless you've taught them to relax. The same goes for mental strength." - Dr. Brian Zuleger, Mental Performance Coach
While exposing trainees to stress is critical, Magness explains that, "stress inoculation doesn’t work unless you've acquired the skills to navigate the environment you encounter".
3. Turns out there’s good reason for their investment in mental skills training.
A research study published in 2015 studied the effects of mental skills training with a group of 2,432 military recruits across 48 platoons. The recruits were split up into two groups, one receiving mental skills training from trained professionals and the other (control group) received military history sessions. The sessions consisted of 8-total hours over the course of ten weeks.
The researchers found that soldiers in basic combat training showed that cognitive skills training resulted in:
Soldiers using the mental skills of self-talk, relaxation, control of negative thinking, and automaticity.
Higher levels of self-confidence at earlier phases of the training
Better performance relative to the active control condition.
Success of the study led the Army to permanently incorporate mental skills training into basic combat training. The training has since spread to a larger commitment to mental skills training for soldiers, families and army civilians.
Interested in learning more about mental skills training or how to find a qualified professional? Reach out!
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