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The Myth of Mental Toughness Training: Part I

This statement is not in itself controversial but as I am limited to 140 characters on Twitter, it warrants further explanation.  To begin, this tweet was not a criticism of the strength and conditioning programs depicted in the video.  As I was adamant about in a previous post, it is unfair to judge programs based on Internet snapshots, especially when said programs don’t get to control the narrative.  The suggested narrative here is that “extreme” training gives elite collegiate football programs an edge over their competitors by cultivating mental toughness.  The popular media rarely covers the less sensational, more established training that likely comprises the bulk of these universities’ performance programs.  As is generally the case in most fields, the things that really work aren’t always conducive to driving web traffic.

Moreover, the decision to implement “mental toughness” workouts can be mandated outside of the performance staff, often by sport coaches or front office personnel.  Even if these types of workouts serve as nothing more than a brief distraction from the monotony of weight training and running, journalistic pieces like this one are not without consequences.  When impressionable parents and youth sport coaches see that (insert BCS program of choice) trains like a military special operations unit, they often demand the same thing for their 8th grade son/daughter.  It doesn’t matter that said programs might only do this kind of “training” once every few years or when the camera crews are on campus.

To be fair, these types of experiences, if implemented responsibly and infrequently, will not compromise football specific adaptations or put robust 18-22 year old men at risk for injury.  Nevertheless,  “extreme” workouts should not be classified as training nor do they develop mental toughness.  That they can be fun and novel may be sufficient reason to implement them periodically.  Effectively though, they serve the same purpose as any other team-based competitive activity.  “Extreme” workouts in team sports are often influenced by practices that occur during military selection courses.  The difference between selection and training cannot be overstated.

In military selection courses, physical stress is a means to an end.  Safely simulating combat in a controlled environment is challenging.  Prolonged exertion is an imperfect, albeit an effective and inexpensive method of identifying candidates who possess the physical and psychological aptitude to continue on with operationally specific training whose consequences are much more severe.  Even the military cannot objectively determine whether its selection methods develop mental resiliency or merely identify those who already possess it.  Regardless, the end result is that the people who remain standing at the end of these courses are typically able to withstand the ensuing technical and tactical training.  For military special operators, the real training begins after selection.  Selection courses help ensure that the government doesn’t invest taxpayer time and money into candidates who are likely to panic when asked to scuba dive at night, freefall parachute out of an airplane, maneuver on a hostile enemy, or medically treat a teammate with a blast wound.  Presumably, Division I football players are selected before they arrive on campus.  Consequently, military selection methods would seem to have little training application to athletes who have been specifically selected to play football.

One common rebuttal to this supposition is that “extreme” workouts are valuable for non-physical reasons; they develop mental toughness.  Even the military has no way of tangibly demonstrating that their selection courses develop mental toughness.  Mental toughness (assuming it can be operationally defined) and stress inoculation are context specific.  Novel experiences, like enduring a simulated boot camp, might provide variety and fun but preparedness demands repeated exposure to specific stressors regardless of one’s ability to withstand physical hardship.  In this respect, military missions should be viewed through the same lens as other performances, not as something distinct and mystical.

Military members, especially those from the special operations community, are masters of preparation.  Preparation breeds confidence and the ability to deliver under pressure.  The average special operator is sufficiently prepared, via deliberate practice, to deal with situations that would completely overwhelm most team sport athletes and other performers.  The reverse is also true.  The typical special operator is completely unprepared to play in the NFL or assume the lead role in a Broadway show despite the “mental toughness” ostensibly acquired during his selection process.  In all probability, the special operator would be more physiologically stressed onstage at Radio City or in the UFC octagon than he’d be on the ramp of a C-130 before a night freefall parachute jump or on a real-world mission.

Military training is about much more than muddy obstacle courses, sleep deprivation, and fatiguing workouts.  In part II, we’ll discuss specific stress inoculation methods the military uses to maximize preparedness.  It is preparedness, and not abstract qualities like mental toughness, that athletes are really after.