AL, UNITED STATES
FORT HOOD, Texas – Soldiers with the 1st Squadron “Tigers,” 3rd Cavalry Regiment, entered the rolling back country of Fort Hood 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. We have the physical aspect, the mental aspect and the emotional aspect on such a higher level than a sports game, because our lives are at stake.”
With a little research, Swisher discovered that Fort Hood already offered an asset that fit right in with his thinking called the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness, or CSF2, program.
The CSF2 program is part of the Army’s Ready and Resilient campaign, which is designed to change the total Army’s culture concerning negative and high-risk behavior across the full spectrum, 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 that this sea change in the way the Army approaches the mental health of its 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 ten-hour mental resiliency course taught by Fort Hood CSF2 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.”
“We see soldiers as tactical athletes,” said Brad Williams, a Master Resilience Trainer Performance Expert who teaches the CSF2 program on Fort Hood. “Just as an athlete would have a strength coach, we’re also a type of coach. We just happen to specialize in keeping the mind strong.”
Williams and three other MRTs from the program joined the 1st Sqdn. troopers in the field a few days after putting them through the 10-hour class to observe their progress. Clipboards in hand, the MRTs looked a little out-of-place trudging through waist-high shrubbery with foot patrols, scrunched up with troops in the back of Strykers or watching key leader meetings in the mock village square – but the soldiers seemed to welcome their presence.
Back at the forward operating base, the MRTs gave each platoon after action reviews, and created hands-on activities to test the soldiers on their freshly learned performance enhancement skills.
One of the challenges was an obstacle course, designed to simultaneously test situational awareness and memory skills, in which soldiers were sent into three neat rows of metal shipping containers, representing an urban environment. The MRTs taped photos of different men, women and children on the walls of some of the containers, and scattered trip wires and objects that could be traps or improvised explosive devices throughout the area. Using the memory and situational awareness techniques they had been taught, the soldiers inspected the village in teams and then reported back to the starting point, where they were given cards with all the faces printed on them and told to write the number of the container next to the corresponding face that was taped to it. They were then given a map of the area and told to put marks everywhere they saw a possible improvised explosive device.
The MRTs sent each team through twice, switching up the objects and photos in between, to see if situational awareness and memory recall improved by repeated use of the techniques. Each team showed a significant improvement on the second pass through the course.
Beth Athanas, an MRT that was grading the tests, explained 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. When they start seeing there’s value in what we teach, it really starts clicking.”
“It’s really valuable to have the experts out here in our environment,” said Lt. Col. Eric Strong, Tiger Squadron commander. “They see exactly what we’re doing and then give us ways to be better soldiers. The intent is to say, ok, I’m under physical stress but can I focus mentally? Or, if I’m under mental stress can I focus physically? These are techniques that have been proven to help manage stress and focus on the mission.”
Tyler Masters, another MRT in the field that day, pointed out that one example of how well the CSF2 program works can be found on the trophy shelf of the Fort Hood Combatives Team.
“We were mental coaches for the fighters representing the team, which has won [The U.S. Army Combatives Championship] three years in a row, so they really buy into our stuff,” he explained. “Each fighter got weekly training with us, on just the mental side, for three months leading up to the all-Army tournament.”
The 1st Squadron troopers that had been through the course were also discovering the program’s benefits.
“I definitely feel any soldier can use what they’ve taught us,” said Spc. Anthony Boyakin, a rifleman with 1st Sqdn., 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.”
Sgt. Zachary Daugherty, a team leader for 1st Sqdn., agreed, “I think it works. They train us to breathe in and out and only concentrate on things that matter. It’s good for soldiers to actually think, because some of them don’t fully understand situational awareness. It’s even helped some of my soldiers control their breathing and not gas themselves while running, and they lost time on their [two-mile] run.”
Williams expounded on the links between professional sports and the military profession, “One of the skills that we go over is, how do you prime yourself for a mission? What do you do specifically to get your body and mind ready for what’s about to go down? Just as an athlete would have a warm up routine to get themselves ready, we teach soldiers to focus in specific ways to feel the way they want to feel and manage their energy effectively. We call that priming.”
“It’s not a simple rules game that we get into,” said Swisher. “Our missions are far more complex. A basketball game has a very finite number of rules, whereas a soldier has to endure with far less training than a professional athlete and the set of rules is much greater.”
To Swisher, the benefits of the CSF2 program are indisputable.
“I have absolutely seen a difference in my soldiers in how they focus on both the broad and narrow,” he said. “I think the psychology aspect of this military profession is huge, and soldiers should be evaluated on the mental level as much as we are on the physical level. This is about improving our profession. Tiger Squadron is going to continue to grow from this and I know it will enhance our ability.”
This work, 3rd Cavalry Regiment troops learn performance enhancement tools for resiliency, by SSG Ken Scar, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.