Personal Performance Plan: Application of Mental Skills Training
to Real-World Military Tasks
Mental toughness, or the ability to stay focused, composed, and confident in stressful situations, is a key factor contributing to success in any performance-related field. Distractions, anxiety, and fear are challenges faced every day both on the job and during training by athletes, Soldiers, law-enforcement officers, and other similar professions. The mental training program proposed and discussed here provides a structured approach to the training and development of the mental toughness skills (e.g., confidence, motivation, attention control, and emotional regulation) necessary for individuals to perform to their highest potential on any task. The method by which this is accomplished involves teaching cognitive-behavioral techniques, or mental tools, such as goal-setting, mental imagery techniques, cue words, positive self-talk, and energy management techniques, that have been repeatedly related to both mental toughness skills and performance in a variety of contexts (Balague, 2005; Deci & Ryan, 1985; Driskell, Copper, & Moran, 1994; Feltz & Landers, 1983; Hall, 2001; Kendall & Panichelli-Mindel, 1995; Mamassis & Doganis, 2004; Meyers, Whelan, & Murphy, 1996; Murphy, 2005; Ryska, 1998; Schunk, 1995).
Several meta-analyses have concluded that mental-skills training is positively related to confidence, emotional control, attention, and performance (Greenspan & Feltz, 1989; Meyers, Whelan, & Murphy, 1996). After examining 23 performance-enhancement interventions, Greenspan and Feltz concluded that interventions that included cognitive- and relaxation-based training tended to be most effective. Moreover, the combination of cognitive and relaxation training was more effective than utilizing either method individually. In addition, after examining both quantitative and qualitative data from 90 different studies, Meyers and colleagues concluded that mental skills training that included goal-setting, imagery, effective thinking, attention control, and emotional regulation was positively related to performance. Therefore, it seems clear from previous research that mental toughness is related to performance and can be enhanced by systematically training and applying various cognitive-behavioral techniques.
In addition to the teaching and application of specific mental tools, several authors have recommended a mental skills training approach that emphasizes specific mental skills during each of the different time periods associated with performance (i.e. preparation, execution, reflection; Fiore, Hoffman, & Salas, 2008; Orlick & Partington, 1988). In their research involving Olympic athletes participating in a variety of sporting events, Orlick and Partington found that the best athletes developed systematic mental preparation procedures which included a pre-competition plan, a competition-focused plan, a plan for dealing with distractions, and a plan for competitive evaluation. Furthermore, they also found that athletes who applied specific mental tools at certain times (e.g., imagery prior to execution) tended to achieve the best results.
For years, sport participation has been seen as a parallel to military training that helps to prepare one for military situations. In particular, the lack of predictability and ambiguity of outcome, the real and perceived costs of winning and losing, and the risks associated with participation all play a role in the emotional responses that impact athletic performance. Although the magnitude of stressors present in military situations is often greater than those present in sport, issues surrounding pre-performance preparation and training, decision-making, attitudes, stress regulation, teamwork, leadership, situational awareness, and other constructs studied in sport psychology are critical to high-level performance in both arenas (Janelle & Hatfield, 2008). However, research and applications that connect these two fields are scarce (Fiore & Salas, 2008; Ward, Farrow, Harris, Williams, Eccles & Ericsson, 2008). In an effort to address the paucity of literature relating sport psychology principles and military techniques, a recent supplemental issue of Military Psychology was devoted specifically to the discussion of possible ways in which performance and military psychology might be integrated to enhance learning, task execution, and decision-making within the military population (Fiore & Salas, 2008). In the final article of the supplemental issue, Fiore et al. (2008) discussed several ways in which the concepts and ideas presented throughout the issue might be researched and applied in military settings. The present article seeks to build on several suggestions put forth by these authors, specifically, the development of a mental skills training protocol firmly anchored in existing learning theory that incorporates mental tools into the preparation, execution, and reflection phases of any task.
Learning and Educational Approaches
Based on research demonstrating the effects of mental skills on the performance of athletes, the Army Center for Enhanced Performance (ACEP) has developed an educational program designed to teach Soldiers about the importance of mental tools and skills. The purpose of this program is to help Soldiers understand how to apply mental tools and skills to a variety of tasks, as well as to provide Soldiers with practice utilizing those tools in realistic training environments (Brown & Csoka, 1993; Zinsser, Perkins, Gervais & Burbelo, 2004). The education and training of this Army program focuses on developing mental strength and unlocking the full potential of Soldiers by enhancing adaptive thinking, mental agility, and self-regulation skills.
To maximize learning efficiency and retention, many learning theorists have recommended separating skill acquisition (i.e. sequences of action) from conceptual network construction (i.e. understanding; Von Glasersfeld, 1989). Attaining proficiency in new areas requires that an individual either assimilate new information into existing cognitive schemas (i.e. ways in which the world is perceived and understood) or accommodate new information by creating new cognitive schemas in order for true learning and understanding to occur (Torkington, 1996). However, this conceptual understanding is only one step in the learning process. Conceptual knowledge must be supplemented by examples that illustrate how the concepts relate to specific tasks as well as opportunities to practice applying that knowledge to the chosen task (Gagne, 1985; Mager, 1997; Torkington, 1996). Furthermore, when learning performance-related information it is helpful to structure the training program around objective, measureable, performance-related goals that help students better understand what is expected of them and help teachers/trainers better evaluate students’ learning (Mager, 1997). Also, the performance-related criteria and training focus help students understand the immediate value of the information being taught as well as how that information can be applied to tasks in which they engage.
One useful approach to the creation of a training program that incorporates the objective goals and a performance-focused approach suggested by Mager (1997) was presented by Gagne (1985). Gagne’s model includes nine steps that provide learners with both conceptual and applicable knowledge and experience. First, students’ attention must be gained and then the learning objectives communicated. Next, prior knowledge should be reviewed, the content of the lesson should be presented, learning guidance and practice opportunities should be provided, feedback should be given, learning should be assessed, and opportunities for the learned information to be generalized and transferred into different situations should be presented. By including each of these nine steps into a learning model, teachers/trainers first make it clear what is expected of students, guide them systematically through previous knowledge to new knowledge, and then provide scaffolded guidance in the application of that knowledge, first in specific situations and then in broader contexts.
One example of a specific application of the models discussed above that provides students with conceptual as well as acquisition learning opportunities is To-With-By (Campbell, 2009). This three-phased approach to teaching begins with an overview of theoretical and conceptual aspects of the material taught to students, progresses to guided instruction of small groups of students applying the concepts learned earlier with other students, and culminates with independent work that includes “… drill and practice, performance-based assessments, or project-based learning” (Campbell, 2009, p. 10) performed by individual students. The To-With-By approach is effective because it provides a scaffolded, graduated approach to learning new material, is generic enough to be adapted to any learning situation, and is simple enough for instructors of any experience level to use effectively (Campbell, 2009). Although this method has been used to teach reading and not larger, more physical performance tasks, the approach is in line with both Gagne’s (1985) and Mager’s (1997) models discussed above and should generalize to tasks outside of reading.
The Department of Defense (DoD) has also adopted an approach to training that embraces the tenants of Gagne (1985), Mager (1997), and Campbell (2009). The U.S. Department of Defense Handbook MIL-HDBK-29612-2A (2001) breaks down learning into two distinct components, knowledge learning and skill learning, and provides a useful training format for effectively achieving both knowledge and skill acquisition (i.e. conceptual overview, small group exercises, and individual practice). In the knowledge learning section, several techniques for increasing the efficiency and efficacy of knowledge learning are discussed. For example, when addressing knowledge acquisition, the manual recommends using acronyms, providing only information that is directly related to the task at hand, using familiar terminology, providing task-relevant examples, referencing previously learned information, providing steps and operations that are organized into small groups, and providing group and individual exercises, activities, practice, and feedback. When engaging in skill acquisition, tasks and the importance of those tasks should be explained in a job-relevant manner, demonstrations should be used, common errors and how to avoid those errors should be covered, graduated practice (i.e. scaffolding) should occur, and relevant feedback should be provided (U.S. DoD Handbook, 2001).
In addition to the U.S. DoD Handbook (2001), Army leaders also emphasize the importance of including opportunities for Soldiers to apply conceptual knowledge gained in the classroom to realistic settings. While discussing how mental skills should be trained, Army Brigadier General (BG) Robert B. Brown (n.d.) echoed the training structure presented in the DoD Handbook and reiterated the importance of following up conceptual knowledge with applied practice, “There is a major difference between just instructing [mental toughness] concepts and training them. Soldiers want to see how the concept is used, and so training involves how to use concepts to get better performance than anyone would have dreamed, with fewer resources, in less time.” Thus, conceptual knowledge is critical to successfully utilizing mental toughness tools and skills and should be included in mental training programs; however, conceptual knowledge alone is not enough. The training also has to provide Soldiers with opportunities to apply that knowledge in a supervised, structured, graduated manner during field training to attain the level of performance described by BG Brown.
A mental training protocol with the goal of providing Soldiers with knowledge of mental tools and skills as well as the ability to apply that knowledge to a variety of situations should include both conceptual and real-world application components. Taking into account the guidance from learning experts (Campbell, 2009; Gagne, 1985; Mager, 1997; Von Glasserfeld, 1989), and the U.S. DoD Handbook (2001), Army leaders such as BG Robert B. Brown (Army Center for Enhanced Performance, n.d.), and various researchers and practitioners in the field of performance psychology (Fiore & Salas, 2008), the conceptual and real-world components should include only information pertinent to the specific task being taught, ample opportunities for real-world practice, and relevant feedback. Finally, the training protocol should address task preparation, execution, and reflection and incorporate mental tools into each of those stages of performance (Fiore et al., 2008; Orlick & Partington, 1998)
A PHASED APPROACH FOR SYSTEMATIC MENTAL SKILLS TRAINING
Army Major General (Ret.) Robert H. Scales (2009) stated that producing better, more effective Soldiers will be the single most important objective to the success of future wars and that the research and development community needs to put more effort into understanding and developing this human component. Janelle and Hatfield (2008), when discussing the current and future challenges of Soldiers, stated the following:
The manner with which [Soldiers] manage information on the battlefield will be critical to both mission success and survival. The advances in weaponry systems that will likely occur in the U.S Military to aid the future warrior will place a premium on attention capacity, decision-making processes, and motor control to realize the advantages of the technologies. However, the elicitation of intense emotional states and uncontrolled arousal under conditions of extreme stress experienced on the battle field will continue to degrade the critical mental processes needed for information processing and task execution. (p. S40)
A better understanding of these factors could be adapted from related fields, such as sport psychology, by organizing and generalizing mental skills to prepare ground Soldiers for the physical and psychological stresses of deployment.
This section introduces a phased approach to applied mental training that could offer a solution to the provision of structured and deliberate mental skills training for Soldiers. It may also act to bridge the existing gap between the performance psychology and military communities in terms of performance-related research and application. The mental training program discussed here provides a framework for integrating structured mental skills training into Army populations. The authors believe that the application and testing of this program will demonstrate a relationship between learning mental tools, developing mental strength, and enhancing performance with all military populations.
Introduction to Personal Performance Plan: Phases and Associated Mental Tools
The Personal Performance Plan (PPP) developed by DeWiggins, Hite, and Alston (2009) consists of four phases each of which is distinctly defined by the mental tools included and the time at which these tools are applied. This phased approach to mental training emphasizes specific mental tools within task preparation, execution, and reflection (see Figure 1). The phased approach to mental skills training has the advantage of teaching Soldiers not only what mental tools should be used, but when and how the tools should be applied to a specific task or mission. In Phase 1, the planning phase, the mental tools of goal-setting and imagery are emphasized. Prior to execution, athletes often use imagery to enhance skill learning and performance (Munroe, Giacobbi, Hall & Weinberg, 2000; Orlick & Partington, 1988). In this planning phase, Soldiers set clear objectives of success and produce vivid images of perfect execution. In Phase 2, the pre-task execution phase, the mental tools of energy management and positive self-talk are emphasized and incorporated into a routine. To perform to maximum potential, Soldiers need to set conditions for success by preparing their bodies and minds for the physical, mental, and emotional requirements of the task (Ravizza & Hanson, 1995; Rogerson & Hrycaiko, 2002). In Phase 3, the execution phase, personalized refocus techniques and cue words are emphasized. Soldiers use task-oriented self-talk (i.e. cue words) and refocus techniques following set-backs to stay in the moment and minimize follow-on mistakes (Nideffer & Sagal, 2006; Orlick & Partington, 1988; Ravizza & Hanson, 1995; Rushall, 2001). Finally, in Phase 4, the recovery phase, the mental tools of imagery and energy management are emphasized. After execution, Soldiers need to evaluate their preparation and performance in terms of areas that should be sustained and areas that need to be improved (i.e. after action review). This evaluation can occur by using imagery to produce a vivid recount of activities and to produce vivid images and feelings of future executions that incorporate the
lessons learned. Soldiers can then benefit from energy management techniques to effectively recover and prepare for future tasks, training iterations, or missions.
The PPP phases are characterized by the use of specific mental tools targeting attention control, emotional regulation, motivation, and confident thinking. To provide Soldiers a small, easy-to-remember list of targeted skills to continually monitor (U.S. DoD Handbook, 2001), the ABC acronym was developed. The ABC acronym represents the major skills that influence performance: A stands for attention, where and how attention is focused at any given moment, B stands for body, and includes muscle tension, breathing, heart rate, and energy levels, C stands for cue words, and includes the self-talk that Soldiers use to boost confidence and motivation during each phase. By regularly reviewing their ABCs, Soldiers can gain self-awareness and the ability to self-regulate through the use of the mental tools mentioned earlier. The ABCs can guide Soldiers’ use of specific tools at certain times in an effort to enhance mental and physical readiness, performance, and recovery.
Effective Training of Personal Performance Plan: From Classroom to the Field
Effective learning includes both conceptual knowledge and ample opportunities to apply that knowledge in real-world settings (Campbell, 2009; Gagne, 1985; Mager, 1985; Torkington, 1996; Von Glaserfeld, 1989). Therefore, utilizing information from Campbell’s To-With-By model, Gagne’s nine steps, Magar’s suggestions, and the guidance provided by the U.S. DoD Handbook (2001), PPP training progresses through successive steps that emphasize education, acquisition, and application.
During the education step, Soldiers attend classroom training designed to provide the essential “core” education of mental training. This core session includes theoretical, conceptual, and practical information regarding mental skills training centered around the ACEP Performance Education Model (see Figure 2), the framework used to teach Soldiers the core concepts and principles associated with the development of mental strength. Following the presentation of core principles, Soldiers translate these concepts into mental tools and techniques. This is accomplished through the Soldiers’ development and practice of specific, relevant, and personalized mental tools during each phase of military task (e.g., move, shoot, communicate, medical) execution. During this part of the class, each Soldier receives a workbook and guided instruction to develop mental tools targeting the requirements of the task and the needs of both the unit and the individual Soldier.
Following the education step is the acquisition step. During this step, Soldiers go into the field and practice using their PPP in more realistic surroundings, beginning with drills
and slow rehearsals and progressing until standards of execution are met (Torkington, 1996). Soldiers reference their workbooks to relate to the previously learned information, observe demonstrations that model proper use of PPP tools, and practice using mental tools in each phase as they relate to the specific task. Throughout this progression, Soldiers receive feedback on the knowledge and mental tools attained in the classroom through detailed after-action reviews (U.S. DoD Handbook, 2001).
The application step references the “combat speed” training of the PPP through multiple iterations and focuses on the full integration of mental tools and skills with physical, technical, and tactical elements during each phase of the task. Soldiers are provided the opportunity to apply their knowledge of mental tools to real-world practice with relevant feedback. Through multiple practice iterations, execution of the PPP becomes instinctual and reactive.
Case Example: Personal Performance Plan Applied to Infantry Training
The following example explains how the PPP was applied over four days with an Army Infantry platoon (N = 25) from a Stryker Brigade Combat Team conducting Military Operations in Urban Terrain training exercises, specifically Battle Drill 6-Enter and Clear a Room (U.S. Army Armystudyguide.com, 2005). The mission-essential infantry task of Battle Drill 6 requires each Soldier to coordinate movement with a team to secure rooms and buildings. The task requires specific physical, technical, and tactical skills to produce a smooth flow into the room and instinctual, reactive responses to various contingencies. The mental and emotional requirements while clearing rooms was similar to many other performances, whether sport or military, which include attention control, emotional regulation, and effective (task-oriented and confident) thinking.
Gaining entry and initiating training with the platoon required buy-in and support from the larger unit leadership. A top-down approach was used to effectively limit the potential constraints and scheduling conflicts of going directly to the small unit, while providing the added benefits of building awareness and support from commanders and Soldiers across the brigade. The approach involved a capabilities brief with the brigade command staff that resulted in permission being granted to approach individual units under their command and to initiate mental skills education and applications. At the battalion level, the assigned ACEP specialist provided core mental skills training first to key leaders and then to all Soldiers across each company. The purpose of this first level of training was to build a strong awareness and foundation for key mental skills concepts and skills. When leaders from these companies and platoons expressed interest in taking mental training further, a protocol was supplied that integrated mental skills training into their regularly scheduled physical, technical, tactical training events. The platoon leader in the case example presented here expressed interest and sought out additional training with ACEP with the primary goal of incorporating mental skills into an upcoming training event, Battle Drill 6: Enter and Clear a Room.
The first step in developing a PPP for this event involved intake meetings with the platoon leader and platoon sergeant to determine unit-level goals and cue words, the structure of both the phases and the subsequent field training of the task, and the amount and timing of leader involvement during the classroom training. The platoon leader had previous exposure to mental skills training as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point. As such, the platoon leader’s buy-in and commitment to mental skills training was firmly established from the outset. This was the platoon sergeant’s first exposure to mental skills training, however, so his buy-in and commitment were not immediately established. The development of buy-in and the support of the platoon sergeant are extremely important due to the significant influence and direct communication he exerts with Soldiers. At the conclusion of two intake meetings, each lasting about ninety min, the platoon sergeant verbally committed to the training and expressed a willingness to support the aims and intent of the mental skills training protocol.
Once the intake was completed, the entire platoon attended a 4-hr class that presented an initial overview of core mental toughness concepts, skills, and tools. The overview covered each module of the ACEP model (see Figure 2) and focused on building awareness and understanding of key factors and skills associated with optimal performance. Following the initial overview, Soldiers were introduced to the four-phased PPP, which guided the specific application of key mental tools and skills to the chosen task. Once the Soldiers understood the four-phased PPP model and the core concepts of mental skills training, the remainder of the class focused on each Soldier completing a workbook with in-class exercises that allowed the personalization of the mental tools used in each phase of the PPP as applied to Battle Drill 6.
To initiate targeted acquisition of mental skills training, Soldiers were asked to commit to the process by taking personal responsibility for their thoughts and actions. Once established, each Soldier completed a performance reflections exercise that aimed to build awareness of differences between best and below-average performances for Battle Drill 6 or similar tasks, regarding factors such as physiological state, thoughts before and after execution, emotional state, focus, and perceptual differences (Ravizza & Hanson, 1995). The initiation and initial exercise were intended to gain the attention of Soldiers by enhancing personal awareness and communicating the applicability of the mental skills to an important task (Gagne, 1985). Once awareness and attention were established, the classroom training transitioned to the acquisition and personalization of specific mental tools in each phase.
The mental skills and tools for each phase of the PPP were structured and refined during the intake meetings with platoon leadership to be specifically applied to the requirements of the task, Battle Drill 6. During Phase 1, leaders set unit goals and priorities and guided Soldiers in the development of specific actions and attitudes the Soldiers could adopt given their individual roles in the task. The priorities and specific actions included a clear and common understanding of previous learning, current skill level, and expectations and methods to evaluate future improvement (Gagne, 1985; Mager, 1997).
The primary aim of the platoon’s training event was the application and integration of mental skills into the physical, technical and tactical priorities of field training. The training priorities set by platoon leadership supplied each Soldier with specific and clear actions for how he would contribute during the training exercise. More specifically, the expectation was for everyone to quickly let go of mistakes, be in the moment, and develop a personalized understanding of mental skills, through the phased approach, to apply toward future training. Also during Phase 1, Soldiers learned key concepts associated with mental imagery and practiced creating clear, vivid images of their weapons and simple tasks (e.g., clearing a weapons malfunction) and progressed toward imagery of more complex task execution.
During Phase 2, Soldiers developed a personalized pre-execution routine consisting of a mental check-in, energy management techniques, and positive self-talk in an effort to funnel their ABCs into a state of optimal readiness. The platoon leadership developed cue words corresponding to key moments during pre-task execution. A pre-determined phase line or intersection on a map was used to define when squad leaders in each vehicle would verbally inform Soldiers of the need to initiate their personalized routines designed to help the transition of their attention, energy and thoughts toward execution. For example, the cue words of “ready to roll” meant that the unit was about 10 min away from the objective. Similarly, once the unit was about 2 min from the objective, the squad leaders would communicate the cue words of “prepare to dismount.” This phrase meant that Soldiers should continue funneling their minds and bodies, using their personalized mental tools and techniques, toward their ideal mental, physical, and emotional states for task execution.
In Phase 3, Soldiers learned task-oriented cue words designed to guide the proper execution of Battle Drill 6. For example, upon exiting the vehicles, the cue words of “cover” and “security” were used. Then, to guide task execution after exiting the vehicles, the platoon leadership adopted a list of cue words developed by an experienced Command Sergeant Major who was an expert in Battle Drill 6. These cue words guided attention to the most important aspects of execution according to the individual roles of Soldiers “in the stack.” (e.g., cues for first Soldier entering the room were path of least resistance, corner, corner, scan, collapse). The intent of these cue words was to sustain attention in the moment, limit the influence of inappropriate thoughts, fear, anxiety and other distractions, and enhance instinctual, trusting, and confident actions. Furthermore, the Soldiers developed an individualized refocus technique consisting of effective breathing techniques, a physical release, and cue words or confident phrases to help them quickly recover from distractions and mistakes.
Finally, in Phase 4, Soldiers learned about mental and physical recovery and practiced several energy-management techniques using biofeedback equipment to build an awareness of the connections between thoughts, emotions, and physiology. The recovery techniques were designed for use during both tactical pauses in execution and at the conclusion of a training iteration. The intent of the platoon’s leadership was that every Soldier effectively and efficiently recover following training iterations and effectually image their execution, personalize the feedback received, and produce images of future iterations that incorporated that feedback.
Following the classroom session, members of the platoon applied the PPPs during their field training over the course of three days. During the first day of training, Soldiers practiced PPPs during short-range marksmanship zero and qualification exercises. While incorporating aspects of the entire PPP, leaders emphasized the mental tools of imagery and the personalized refocusing techniques. All Soldiers, including two new Soldiers who recently completed Basic Combat Training, met the brigade standard during the first iteration and met the battalion’s more stringent standard on the second iteration. The platoon sergeant (personal communication, January 9, 2009) commented that he had never witnessed such results and stated that it generally takes new Soldiers several trips to the range to achieve such a high degree of proficiency. In addition to demonstrating a high level of accuracy, the platoon leader also noticed an improvement in the efficiency of its training relative to another platoon:
Another platoon was doing [short-range marksmanship] side-by-side and they were out there two to three times longer than us and they still didn’t qualify all of their Soldiers within that day. … I absolutely saw some of the benefits [of mental skills training] just watching [other platoons] and then looking at our half of the range and watching us go through it, I definitely saw a difference. … When we are able to increase our efficiency it just benefits the platoon, because we aren’t wasting time out on the range (Platoon leader, personal communication, January 30, 2009).
Using a graduated approach to learning (i.e. scaffolding; Torkington, 1996), Soldiers spent the next two days applying their PPPs to room clearance. Time was devoted to training and practicing each individual phase until leaders were satisfied that Soldiers understood how to incorporate their mental tools into the physical, tactical, and technical elements of Battle Drill 6. The process started with Phase 3, having Soldiers gain a clear understanding of the physical, mental, and emotional requirements for effective task execution. To begin, squad leaders drilled each Soldier on the cue words until they were satisfied that Soldiers committed them to memory. Platoon leadership then modeled a deliberate and faster “combat speed” demonstration of the meaning and proper movement associated with cue words for each position of the “stack.” The Soldiers practiced within their squads the walk and talk through until progressing toward full “combat speed” movement, with cues becoming more of an internal monologue and execution more instinctual and reactive. Phase 2 was trained in a similar fashion, with Soldiers talking through personalized routines, observing leaders’ model routines, and rehearsals of squad and individual routines toward full “combat speed” executions. The mental skills for Phase 1 were practiced by doing guided, individual, and kinesthetic imagery as applied to the objectives and priorities of a simulated training mission. The recovery element of Phase 4 was incorporated between training iterations, before the After Action Review (AAR), and within natural breaks and tactical pauses in action.
The platoon then rehearsed the PPP from beginning to end during both day and night iterations of a simulated mission. This training began with the platoon leader communicating the operation order at the forward operating base, moved on to Soldiers’ preparation for and execution of Battle Drill 6, and ended with the return to the base and completion of an after-action review. The platoon’s discussion during the AAR focused primarily on the main objective of integrating mental skills into field training of the event. To this end, lesser importance was placed on the physical, technical or tactical features to sustain or improve. Several Soldiers, along with platoon leadership and ACEP performance specialist expressed thoughts about the usefulness of the four phased approach during the preparation for and execution of the training mission, along with focus items for future mental skill improvement.
Phase 1 helped Soldiers clarify their objectives, define success, identify potential obstacles, and rehearse flawless performance. One private first class commented, “I thought about it more; visualizing in my head I could see what was going on” (personal communication, January 9, 2009). A corporal stated, “We talked through each step we were going to take and afterwards … we did a real simple imagery. We worked it out physically, got the physical motion along with the mental aspect, and it worked a lot better. Everything came together just right” (personal communication, January 9, 2009). One team leader commented, “I can only do so much, the guy that is going to brief you on the [guided imagery]. It is up to you, the individual, to place yourself in what he’s talking about” (personal communication, January 9, 2009). The ACEP specialist stated, “Each time we do imagery, you should be noticing the image getting more controlled and more vivid … that will improve with time, but you should be trying to incorporate as many of the senses as possible … the more you bring that all in, the more you can get your arousal up and make it more realistic so you can use your ABCs and refocus techniques to keep you in control” (personal communication, January 9, 2009).
Phase 2 provided Soldiers with cue words and routines that established a common language, facilitated communication, fostered understanding, and guided preparation, all of which set the conditions for mental and physical readiness. The platoon leader relayed the importance of adjusting the use of squad level cue words that corresponded with phased lines by stating, “Ideally, we have all three [cue words]. … Make sure if you’re calling out the cue word of ‘ready to roll’ that if you do not have enough time to give that cue, then go straight to ‘prepare to dismount’. That’s why we have cue words set up, so Soldiers know what state they have to get prepared for” (personal communication, January 9, 2009). One team leader stated, “A lot of the time, ‘Joe’ doesn’t know what phase line means . . . or what’s going on. When you incorporate the mental imagery to it and put a verbal aspect to it everybody gets involved. It’s no longer ‘Joe is just a Joe.’ ‘Joe’ knows what the (…) is going on, just like this Army is supposed to work. And it all comes together” (personal communication, January 9, 2009). The ACEP specialist stated, “You don’t know if you need to amp up or amp down [with your routines] unless you are aware of where you’re at right now and where you need to be as you exit the ramp. Do a quick check-in of yourself and figure out do I need to amp myself up or calm myself down. The more times you do this [mental check-in], the quicker you’ll start realizing what that ideal state is and have that awareness to execute the correct technique off of that” (personal communication, January 9, 2009).
The Phase 3 cue words and re-focusing technique helped Soldiers stay in the moment during execution and recover quickly following set-backs which allowed them to persevere through moments of distraction and frustration. The platoon leader stated:
“I thought, with the exception of a few mistakes in there when you let your mind go elsewhere, that we had good control. I think everyone was on the same page due to the imagery and everything. Granted there was a lot of stuff thrown at you … a lot of shooting, it was real loud and some different obstacles that you probably didn’t foresee happening, but since you were in a good state of mind you handled them pretty well. The whole point of this exercise is whether you can maintain focus on the objective, can I reign myself in and complete the mission with added stress. … That’s why we have [mental skills] in place, so if you get flustered or confused you have a method to remain in control” (personal communication, January 9, 2009).
One private first class commented, “When all that fire was coming at us I was like ‘oh (. . .)’ I was still amped up from going through the first door, but I was able to refocus by taking a breath while I was still moving and saying ‘turn it on’“ (personal communication, January 9, 2009). Emphasizing the benefits of the refocus technique, the platoon leader stated, “Typically, before this, if a Soldier made a mistake in Room 1 it wasn’t until Room 4 that he was back on his ‘A’ game. It’s simple. When you make a mistake you get flustered, if you have a way to refocus . . . it minimizes the amount of follow on mistakes” (personal communication, January 30, 2009).
Phase 4 focused on recovery and using imagery to rehearse the feedback received following the training iteration. The platoon leader stated, “Everybody, right now take 3 or 4 deep breaths, relax, the mission’s over, and let the tension flow out. Inhale deep, 4 or 5 s exhale. Alright. Shake it out a little bit and take a minute to relax and gain control of yourselves before we start. It was a good execution of the 4-phase process once again. Let’s get right to it” (personal communication, January 9, 2009). Then, the platoon discussed the training execution with the aim of identifying performance elements that went well and those that needed to be improved. The platoon’s leadership concluded the training by commenting, “We will continue to build on our technical and tactical abilities but this training right here, getting our minds right, is very important, and I think you’re all grasping that, too” (personal communication, January 9, 2009). The ACEP specialist also stated:
“You’re getting a better handle on the phases. … obviously with the imagery and the way you’re talking cue words and using refocus techniques, that you’re starting to get this. The more you use [mental skills], the more it will become automatic and you’ll find out what works for you as an individual. Understand those four phases, what’s most important now, and get yourself there. That’s what this training is all about” (personal communication, January 9, 2009).
The intent of PPP mental skills training was to provide leaders and Soldiers with a mental skills training protocol that could be applied in a systematic way to any real-world task or situation. The comments referenced above document some of the Soldiers’ beliefs and observations regarding the effects of the specific mental skills training protocol, and may correspond to the establishment of buy-in with specific members of the platoon. The platoon leader commented that the continued use of the PPP and subsequent operational success suggests that the protocol is both easy to understand and easy to apply to multiple settings, “You can apply [mental skills training] to every single battle drill . . . and anytime we are stepping outside the [forward operating base] or outside onto a training mission, we’re ready to go” (personal communication, January 30, 2009).
After practicing the mental tools and skills for several months, both on their own and with formal instruction, and applying them to multiple training exercises (e.g., marksmanship, situational training exercise and squad live-fire exercise), the platoon participated in a brigadelevel mission readiness exercise, during which the platoon achieved great success and was singled out as the “go-to” unit. In this sense, the battalion commander entrusted the platoon to a larger quantity of missions, in general, and also assigned them to the most important and critical missions relative to other platoons. The platoon leader attributed a portion of that success to the utilization of mental skills:
My platoon excelled on individual and collective levels . . . I think what separated us from every other platoon was our mental edge and our ability to bring calm to the fight. From the skills we built through [mental skills training] and other related training, we were able to continue pushing the momentum despite all of the obstacles the enemy threw our way. (platoon leader, personal communication, March 24, 2009)
The platoon leader described one specific instance during training that involved a mass casualty situation during a routine patrol through a market place:
Despite all of the chaos, we were able to control the situation, eliminate a fierce enemy attack, and [withdraw Soldiers] to our combat outpost in less than 30 min. During our after action review, our battalion commander told us the average time to react to that situation was just shy of 2 hr. We performed in this manner consistently throughout our entire field training exercise, and I have to give [mental skills training] a lot of credit for our success (platoon leader, personal
communication, March 24, 2009).
Because success in future wars will hinge more on the performances of individual Soldiers than the creation and utilization of new technologies, the military can benefit tremendously from training protocols designed to enhance Soldiers’ endurance and ability to sustain attention during combat (Scales, 2009). For years the tools and skills that have been systematically trained and applied in the field of performance psychology have enhanced the confidence, attention, consistency, motivation, and training efficiency of athletes all around the globe (Driskell, Copper & Moran, 1994; Feltz & Landers, 1983; Mamassis & Doganis, 2004; Meyers et al., 1996); and because these mental skills are also essential for Soldiers to perform to their maximum potential (Fiore, Hoffman & Salas, 2008; Janelle & Hatfield, 2008), the psychological techniques used to achieve these results “… should be adapted to prepare ground Soldiers as well …” (Scales, 2009, p. S31). To maximize efficacy, mental skills training protocols should be grounded in the current performance enhancement and educational literature (Fiore et al., 2008) and should incorporate ample opportunities for Soldiers to practice the tools and skills they have acquired in realistic training environments (Brown, n.d.; Gagne, 1985; Mager, 1997; U.S. DoD Handbook, 2001).
The PPP is presented as a framework for integrating mental skills training into military populations. The PPP mental training protocol provides a systematic way to train mental tools and establishes a link between these mental tools, the development of mental toughness, and enhanced performance on a variety of military tasks. Specifically, it provides guidance as to which tools to use and when to use them to positively impact performance. Initial applications of the PPP suggest that it may introduce a common language, provide a systematic approach that is easy to understand, and guide Soldiers in the application of mental skills in a myriad of situations.
An additional advantage to implementing the PPP program is that it can supplement training that is already on the unit’s calendar. The PPP can easily be applied to training events with minimal disruption, since the phases fall in line with the mission and training structure (i.e. preparation, execution, reflection) that the military already uses. Therefore, additions to a unit’s existing training schedule are minimal.
LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS
Several limitations in the present application should be addressed in future research or expansion of these findings. The first limitation was the lack of a control group to compare outcomes. The first-hand accounts and anecdotal evidence from the Soldiers in the platoon suggested effective use and associated benefits to the phased approach to mental skills training; however, objective data is not available to support these claims. In addition, there was no formal way of determining the degree to which the unit’s success could be attributed to mental skills training and how much was dependent on other factors. Future research with objective measures, control groups, and/or baseline data would add significant support to the qualitative data presented here. A second limitation was the relatively small sample size of the unit. The application of the protocol took the form of targeted training done with a single Army Infantry platoon of 25 Soldiers. Future applications with additional Soldiers would provide opportunities to measure the efficacy and the generalizability of the PPP mental skills training protocol. Finally, it is unknown how long the effects of the training last and how often training would need to be reviewed to maximize retention. In this particular example, Soldiers reported that they were still using the skills during their Mission Readiness Exercise several months after the initial mental skills training took place. Further research examining the number of mental training iterations necessary to maximize retention may be beneficial.
After applying the PPP to various types of military training, platoon leaders and Soldiers have expressed positive anecdotal evidence for the effectiveness of this approach to mental skills training. This evidence points to the efficacy of the PPP when applied to infantry tasks such as marksmanship and Military Operations in Urban Terrain; however, future applications and research should explore whether the PPP is equally effective with more sedentary tasks, such as information analysis and staff work and explore any potential applications with injured military personnel.
Traditionally, mental skills training has been administered at an individual mastery level. However, due to the large population of the Army, individual mastery training for all Soldiers and leaders is simply not feasible. The PPP may be an effective way for large groups of people to personalize mental tools even when the training takes place in a group setting. Because the military trains and performs as a unit, focusing PPP training at the squad or platoon level may also provide additional benefits, such as enhanced leader buy-in and involvement, the provision of training to a higher percentage of personnel, and the development of a mental toughness culture at the unit level. Finally, the feasibility and efficacy of a train the trainer approach should be explored. With current limitations to the number of performance enhancement consultants available, an effective train the trainer approach would
substantially increase the number of Soldiers who receive mental skills training.
Several lessons learned should also be considered for future applications and investigation of this mental training approach. First, the inclusion of squad leaders along with the platoon leader and platoon sergeant in the initial meetings and discussions could assist buy-in and the development of a common language when discussing mental tools and concepts (i.e., phase names, ABCs, re-focus, imagery). In addition, having these leaders present for all meetings and training sessions would provide more opportunities to guide Soldiers’ skill learning and acquisition both in the classroom and out in the field. Moreover, this increased involvement by the squad leaders may help Soldiers make the connection between the newly presented PPP and the tactics, techniques, and procedures with which they are already familiar. Finally, there may be benefits to conducting secondary classroom sessions covering mental tools that may require more practice or a more detailed explanation in order for Soldiers to adequately understand and utilize them (e.g., imagery or energy management).
Because the mental tools and skills discussed come directly from sport psychology literature, the PPP and lessons learned may also be applied to sports and other performance-related populations. Moreover, sport psychology practitioners might benefit from the lessons learned regarding the buy-in and acceptance that was established during the case example. Although the concept of meeting with a coaching staff to develop a common language and a method for reinforcing training with their athletes may be nothing new, the four-phased process and the methods employed to train these mental tools and skills may provide a structure for gaining attention and acceptance that could improve the application and retention of mental skills. In addition, coaches and athletes might benefit from the protocol which focuses on where, when, and how to apply mental skills to better ensure that the athletes are prepared for the specific requirements before, during, and after execution.
Athletic and military communities share a common interest in performance and the related topics of skill acquisition, attention control, stress-performance relationships, resiliency, and emotional regulation. Years of performance psychology research has led to an abundance of knowledge regarding the efficacy and importance of mental skills training, and based on the similarities between athletes and Soldiers, mental skills training may be equally applicable to military contexts. The purpose of this article was to build upon previous performance-related research and shared interests between the sport and military populations, to present a phased approach to mental skills training grounded in performance psychology, learning, and military literature, and to provide available anecdotal evidence that supports the application of this training to a variety of military tasks. Although this investigation is only a first step toward the development of a systematic mental skills training approach with military populations, the information included may provide performance enhancement practitioners, researchers, and military leaders with a platform from which future mental skills applications and research within the military and other domains can be launched.
The authors would like to thank James A. Hite Jr., Ed.D. for his help with research and reviewing the manuscript as well as COL (Ret.) Terry Zoccola for his guidance and leadership, particularly during the initial development stage. The lead author would like to thank Tamara for her support.
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