Filed under: Mental performance
“Sport psychology” uses the principles of psychology to help optimize performance in athletics. These concepts can be applied to just about anybody (including Warfighters) in any setting where performance matters, so sport psychology often gets dubbed “performance psychology.” Regardless of the name, this focus on the mental aspect of performance fits into a holistic approach to Human Performance Optimization (HPO).
A major focus of sport or performance psychology is mental skills training, building a “toolbox” of mental skills based on sport science and clinical/counseling psychology techniques. These scientifically based methods can be applied to Warfighter performance too. Some basic tenets of performance enhancement within military and sport settings include maintaining high awareness, motivation, and self-control, either by reducing how “amped up” you get or by learning to interpret these feelings as either meaningless or helpful to performance. A well-trained Warfighter can either calm down and think, “I’ve got butterflies, but no big deal,” or “I am psyched up and ready!”
Mental skills are important, but they’re only part of a performance psychology package. Performance psychology looks to fix or improve performance by: 1) training skills to proactively address problems, 2) improving resilience to avoid problems in the first place, 3) enhancing performance, and 4) reducing stigma around getting help with problems after they’ve appeared. In applying performance psychology to Warfighters, training is customized to meet the needs of specific groups, focused on real-life applications, and taught in a way such that skills are learned for optimal functioning both at work and at home. HPRC endorses holistic training programs that include performance psychology, such as One Shot One Kill (OSOK), a platform that helps Warfighters to customize their own systematic training.
We all have goals—to lift a certain weight, to cycle a century, or to run a marathon in a certain amount of time. Of course, not all goals are fitness oriented; maybe you want to climb in rank at your job or finish college by a certain date. Whatever your goals are, keep in mind that they’re easier to accomplish when they’re SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable/Action-oriented, and Time-sensitive. Goals are not just about dreaming big; they’re about achieving.
HPRC’s printable SMART goals worksheet will help you to get on target. Using this tool will help you to:
- think through exactly what you’re aiming for;
- determine if the goal is a good fit for you;
- measure and monitor your success;
- pay attention to the language that you use; and
- break down the overall goal into chunks.
And for more guidance on making your goals achievable, you can check out HPRC's Answer on SMART goal setting.
No single mental technique can do the job for you, just as no single tool is the only one in a construction project. You can’t hammer a nail with a wrench! HPRC offers nine rules and strategies for your mind’s toolbox to help you perform your best. Check out HPRC’s Performance Strategies on “Mental skills for optimal performance” to learn more.
The term “mental toughness” is often tossed about, but what is it really? And do you have it? Mental toughness is important to the success of Warfighters, athletes, business people, and others who have to overcome adversity to be successful.
Sport psychologists and others interested in optimal performance talk a lot about mental toughness, but it’s a bit complex, so it’s often misunderstood. Mental toughness is not just one trait; it’s a mixture of them.
Boiling it down, mental toughness is a strong belief in yourself and an unshakable faith that you control your own destiny. If you’re mentally tough, you can remain undaunted by adversity.
If you have these 4 Cs, you’re mentally tough:
1) Control: You feel in control of your emotions and influential with the people in your life.
2) Commitment: You embrace difficulty rather than running from it.
3) Challenge: You believe that life is full of opportunities, not threats.
4) Confidence: You know you have what it takes to be successful.
Mental toughness is a psychological edge that some are born with and others develop. It allows you to consistently cope with training and lifestyle demands better than those who don’t have it.
You can develop mental toughness through a long-term process of developing mental skills. Leaders can promote mental toughness by creating a learning environment centered on the mastery of those skills (listed above) and by being generally supportive, encouraging Warfighters to maintain positive relationships. Over the long haul, to maintain your mental toughness, you need to continue honing mental skills, and you need a self-driven, insatiable desire to succeed.
When you have to focus continuously for long periods of time, your brain does, in fact, become tired. Take a break: The symptoms of being mentally burned out can include irritability, lashing out at others, inability to plan, problems with decision-making, lack of drive, and performance errors. Mental fatigue can set in before you’re even aware you need a break, leading to the types of attention problems that ultimately lead to poor performance.
Mental fatigue can also include:
- Lack of clarity in your own head
- Conflict between what you’re thinking and what you are actually doing
- Feeling like you are in over your head
Mental fatigue can also make you feel tired physically, which is why it can be a greater risk for those who must sustain both focus and physical alertness. A brain busy with non-relevant matters also can be tied to feeling “spent.” You not only lose your mental edge and feel more exhausted, but you probably won’t push yourself physically as hard as you need to.
Fortunately, there are ways to combat mental fatigue. The best way is take a break and escape to a place you find relaxing or inspiring. However, if you’re in an office or on a mission, there are various mind-body strategies you can try. Mindfulness techniques are “mental push-ups” that strengthen as well as refresh your brain, so give them a try and give your brain a break.
Making it into a Special Operations Force (SOF) is challenging, to say the least; it requires intense physical and mental stamina. A keynote presentation at the 2013 Association for Applied Sport Psychology Conference highlighted what it takes to be an SOF “Tactical Athlete.” It focused on the ability to “embrace the ‘suck’” (grueling experiences) and remain alert during periods of extreme discomfort—hot, cold, wet, or dry—along with heavy gear, noise, and fatigue.
Unlike most athletes, there is no “season,” so SOFs are required to always be on. This means intense training is part of the SOF experience—a selection process where “survival of the fittest” is the rule. Some of the physical characteristics that can help a person withstand the training are endurance, strength, coordination, and flexibility. Those selected to be SOF personnel also tend to possess the following mental characteristics:
- Above-average IQ: Most are brighter than most other people, and those of average intelligence optimize what they have.
- Complex reasoning: They can grasp and reason through abstract concepts.
- Tolerance of ambiguity: SOFs accept when they are not in control and do their best under those circumstances.
- Situational awareness: They can usually remain aware of their surroundings while tuning into what is most relevant.
- Good decision-making: They have good judgment, even in uncomfortable conditions.
- Mental flexibility: SOFs are able to adapt rather than get stuck on certain beliefs.
And in terms of personality, SOFs generally are:
- Emotionally stable: They do not usually experience extreme highs or lows.
- Stress-tolerant: SOFs accept and cope with stress rather than try to escape it.
- In control of their behavior: They act in accordance with their values, keeping their creed in mind.
- Self-confident: They are not consumed with self-doubt or rigidly confined by other people’s rules but possess their own strong moral compass.
- In control of aggression: SOFs are able to use their aggression in a targeted manner.
- Self-reliant: While they can work well with a team, they are also highly independent.
- Motivated: SOFs tend to have a very strong work ethic.
Finally, success with SOF training begins in part with an attitude. Anyone who yearns to be an SOF must above all cultivate an ability to turn attention outwards amidst “the suck.” Grueling conditions become a cue to remember that your comrades are also hurting and that each of you depends on the others to work hard. Taken together, SOFs embrace their membership in this elite group as an identity.
For more information on mental resilience —or what it takes to overcome adversity and grow stronger—check out HPRC’s Mental Resilience section.
You know the positive effects of exercise on your health: how it can benefit every part of the body and dramatically extend your lifespan. But did you know that—in addition to reducing risk factors for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and hypertension—exercise also can play a role in helping some mental health issues? Physical fitness and regular exercise appear to buffer against depression and anxiety, promote calmness, enhance mood, and help protect against the negative effects of stress.
Exercise also can benefit your brain in other ways. Exercise benefits learning and memory, protects the brain from degeneration, and increases the brain’s ability to adapt after new experiences. Physical fitness and regular exercise promote both physical and mental resilience—something that is important for all to think about.
Worrying is normal. If you tend to think that worrying will help you prevent stress later, you're not alone. Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. Worrying can become a problem all by itself, especially when you're worrying about something that can't be solved. Try this instead: Make a habit of writing your worries down. Keeping a journal or a record, like some people do for weight loss or a training regime (see Rule #9 in OSOK’s 10 Rules of Engagement), can help you see patterns and trends, mark progress, and simply get things off your mind. For some, seeing a concern written down allows them to "forget" it. Keep a journal in a place where you find yourself worrying a lot (except in your car—limit your writing to someplace safe), such as the dinner table or the nightstand beside your bed. When you find yourself worrying, start jotting, and over the course of the week, see if it hasn't helped you get a handle on worrying. If it helps you take action or let go, you've done your mind a favor.
Ever have a buddy ask, “What’s going on inside your head?” Now you can look at the inner workings of the mind—“Interactive Brain” helps you understand how specific parts of the brain can impact basic functions and performance. This tool provides facts about the functions of the right and left sides of the brain, as well as the anatomy of vision, including videos of how head injuries affect eye movement. By going through the sections and clicking the links on the diagrams, you’ll also gain insight into how certain brain injuries such as mild to moderate TBIs can impact performance. Be sure to watch the introductory and anatomy videos that accompany the interactive diagrams, especially if you want to understand traumatic brain injury better.
In an April 2012 Times article Dr. Martin Seligman, whose work on “positive psychology” influenced Comprehensive Soldier Fitness, explains his stance that soldiers can enhance their mental toughness through optimistic thinking. By seeing situations as temporary—“It will go away soon”—or specific—“It’s just this once”—or changeable—“I can do something about it”—you can make it through adversity and perform optimally. The training also emphasizes how resisting negative thoughts such as “Maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a soldier” while expressing gratitude—“I made it farther than I did last time”—are part of the puzzle to building resilience and becoming mentally tough. To learn strategies that can help build mental toughness, visit OSOK’s Mind Tactics module in HPRC’s Total Force Fitness domain.