Soldiers with the 1st “Tiger” Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, entered the rolling back country of Fort Hood on Dec. 2 for a frigid two-week field training exercise with some new tools in their mental arsenal, thanks to an innovative program originally designed for professional athletes that is changing the way the Army does business.
The new training teaches soldiers the same techniques top-tier athletes use to focus their energy before, during and after competing.
“I noticed that professional athletes get a lot of attention in this realm,” said Capt. Ryan Swisher, Apache Troop commander. “They have sports psychologists who focus on their mentality before they go into a game. I thought, why don’t soldiers have those resources? Soldiers have so much more to deal with.”
With a little research, Swisher discovered Fort Hood already offered an asset that fit in with his thinking called the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness program.
The program is part of the Army’s Ready and Resilient campaign, which is designed to change the Army’s culture concerning negative and high-risk behavior, to include soldiers, families and civilians. The goal is to create professionals with the skills to maintain a balance of mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health both on and off the battlefield.
Swisher quickly discovered this change in the way the Army approaches the mental health of troops has opened the door for some unorthodox programs that, until now, would have seemed out of place in the ranks.
He enrolled his soldiers in the 10-hour mental resiliency course taught by master resilience trainers.
The classes lean heavily on sports psychology and teach soldiers a range of techniques to deal with stress.
“This wasn’t just PowerPoint slides,” he said. “It was exercises in mental agility, energy control, and breathing exercises.”
Brad Williams, a master resilience trainer performance expert who teaches the program at Fort Hood, said he views soldiers as tactical athletes.
“Just as an athlete would have a strength coach, we’re also a type of coach,” he said. “We just happen to specialize in keeping the mind strong.”
Williams and three other trainers from the program joined the 1st Squadron troopers in the field to observe their progress a few days after putting them through the 10-hour class. Clipboards in hand, the trainers joined troopers in the field.
Back at the forward operating base, the trainers gave each platoon after action reviews and created hands-on activities to test the soldiers on their freshly learned performance enhancement skills. Beth Athanes, a trainer that graded the tests, said the purpose of the obstacle course was to build confidence in the new methods.
“When we come out here we can see why performance enhancement is so important,” she said. “Our objective is to take soldiers’ skills and abilities and make sure they come out when it matters the most. We don’t want them experiencing doubt or hesitation when they need to be on.”
The squadron’s troopers also discovered the program’s benefits.
“I definitely feel any soldier can use what they’ve taught us,” said Spc. Anthony Boyakin, a rifleman, after finishing the obstacle course. “There’s a lot of good mental techniques that help us get into the mindset of what we need to do, so that we’re not distracted from the mission, but at the same time they taught us ways to take in everything around us. I think these techniques work, and you can change them up to apply them to what you need.”