Olympic athletes and soldiers in the Army share a greater connection than simply representing the United States’ interests abroad. Much greater, it turns out. While both groups don uniforms for the U.S.A. and deploy throughout the world, until recently, only one received preemptive psychological training to offset the mental adversity and fatigue common to engagements with global impacts: Olympic athletes.
Both groups experience stressful situations on an unparalleled level: moments in which split-second decisions and actions define years of training and entire careers or, in the case of soldiers, when lives and even governments hang in the balance. Physical and mental dexterity becomes taxed when athletes and soldiers must shift gears from quietly waiting for an anticipated event to begin, dealing with self-doubt and fears while trying to remain calm and focus on the impending task, to the adrenaline-fueled physical attainment of those personal and professional goals.
When Gen. Peter Schoomaker accepted the position as the 35th Chief of Staff of the United States Army in August 2003, he became intrigued with the idea of providing soldiers with similar psychological training as Olympians. Schoomaker, the Army’s first Special-Forces trained Chief of Staff, who played football for the University of Wyoming, sought to explore the idea of preemptively providing soldiers with the tools to deal with the stress of overseas deployment and combat. the hope was that soldiers would perform better, both mentally and physically, and that the training would provide an inoculation against the stress and anxiety soldiers routinely endure, as well as the resulting fallout of emotions after an intense mission or deployment.
To incorporate sports psychology into Army training, however, research into the idea’s application, process and effectiveness was needed. Enter Jon Hammermeister, PhD, Eastern Washington University professor since 1999 in the Department of Physical Education, Health and Recreation.
Hammermeister’s background in education, coaching and psychology, specifically psychosocial aspects of sport, exercise and health, was the ideal candidate to help overlay the premise of providing soldiers the mental tools and exercises so common in sports, and readily acknowledged as beneficial for athletes, yet eschewed in favor of physical performance during basic training in the military.
“The Army likes to think of soldiers as ‘tactical athletes,’” said Hammermeister. “They’ve spent 200 years telling soldiers to be competent, confident and in control of their emotions, but they’ve never really taught them to do that.”
To teach soldiers those skills, in fact to determine if the theory was even relevant, Hammermeister and researchers from the Army Center for Enhancement Performance at West Point conducted a series of studies. The first phase was an initial foray into into qualifying whether or not psychological fitness related to better performance in the field. The second phase involved the use of true experimental designs in the attempt to determine if mental fitness was a trainable concept among soldiers.