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The Myth of Mental Toughness Training: Part II

Part I discussed misapplication of physical efforts associated with military selection courses to team sport athletes and raised questions about what constitutes mental toughness and the degree to which it can be taught.  Focusing less on esoteric constructs like mental toughness and more on preparation is a practical strategy for high performers.  In sport, athletes whose execution remains steadfast despite changes in the internal or external environment are generally considered to be mentally tough.  The distinction between mental toughness and disciplined execution becomes academic when teams take collective measures to maximize preparation.  Rather than fixating on abstract qualities allegedly developed during grueling workouts, civilian organizations would be better served implementing the following training and preparatory tenets of the special operations community:

  1. Accountability to one’s teammates.
    Virtually every selection and training scenario in the special operations community is designed to reinforce teamwork.  Individuals who intentionally or unintentionally highlight themselves above the team generally do not fare very well.  During selection, the entire team is often punished for an individual’s mistake.  It might not be fair but people quickly learn that their mistakes adversely impact the entire group.  Sometimes the individual who made the mistake is forced to stand off to the side to count repetitions while his teammates suffer through various means of physical discomfort.  After any training event, team equipment is reconstituted before people shower, eat, or change out of their dirty uniforms.  While these exact practices aren’t always practical in team sport settings, especially in light of the disproportionate salaries awarded to star players, the ways in which leaders can fortify collective accountability is limited to their imagination.  James Kerr’s Legacy is a great resource here.
  2. Planning for a variety of contingencies.
    Organizations that operate in a dynamic environment must anticipate the “what ifs” not just plan for desired outcomes.  The military calls these “what ifs” COAs or courses of action.  While it is not always possible to rehearse for every possible contingency, at a minimum, the most likely points of failure must be addressed during the planning process.  Worst-case scenarios are less likely to confound us when we acknowledge their existence.
  3. Systematic training progressions and adherence to standards.
    Recently, Craig Weller’s guest blog post discussed the importance of moving from the cognitive to the autonomous phase of learning to optimize stress inoculation.  Physical and psychological stress inhibits higher-level thinking.  Moreover, in pressure situations there is typically not sufficient time to consciously think through constructive behaviors.  Like Maverick said in Top Gun in reference to air-to-air combat, “You don’t have time to think up there.  If you think, you’re dead.”  Don’t expect a skill that requires a great deal of cognitive effort and hesitation in training to rectify itself under duress.  Technical execution under pressure requires an autonomous level of proficiency that is primed gradually and systematically.  Certain standards must be attained throughout the process before the environment can be manipulated to increase stress or level of difficulty.  Adherence to these standards ensures competence and safety and more importantly, builds trust.  Team members perform better under pressure when they know there aren’t any weak links in the chain.
  4. Emphasis on procedure.
    Under stress, dwelling on one’s perilous fate isn’t as productive as employing problem-solving behaviors.  These behaviors are essentially emergency procedures.  Guns can jam during firefights.  Main parachutes malfunction.  Scuba systems cease to deliver air.  The procedures for all these contingencies are rehearsed until they are autonomously learned.  Applicable emergency procedures are briefed before every mission or training evolution.  Under stress, these procedures allow people to assume a degree of control, not merely dwell on external constraints.  Every time we fly in an airplane, the pilot refers to a checklist during takeoff and landing regardless of how many sorties he/she has flown.  The point of checklists is not to turn people into robots but to mitigate the potential for human error when our biology can work against us.
  5. Leaders need to be hands off.
    While counterintuitive, leaders, where possible, need to distance themselves as much as possible from hands on interventions.  During a firefight, the team leader is more likely to ensure that his mates are in the proper place than he is to fire his weapon.  Similarly, the physician overseeing a cardiac arrest case in the emergency room shouldn’t be the one starting IVs, working the defibrillator, or inserting breathing tubes into the patient.  Leaders need to maximize situational awareness so they can hear the entire orchestra and not just one instrument.  Playing an instrument demands a degree of myopia that can detract from collective clarity.  Essentially, the leader is the “forebrain” of the team, which works better when somebody else is firing the gun or playing the game.
  6. Embrace diversity of thought on a micro and macro level.
    Excellence demands humility.  Within the team, all members should be able to contribute to debrief sessions and after action reviews regardless of rank.  When something appears unsafe or deviates from an emergency procedure, anybody can step in at any time.  On a macro level, soliciting input from people outside the organization helps to ensure diversity of thought and protects against groupthink.  In any complex system, there is a variable sweet spot that maximizes resiliency and adaptability to stress.  Rigidity is the absence of variability while chaos is the overabundance of variability.  Ideas are subject to the same evolutionary laws as biology.  Specialization works well for a very particular set of environmental constraints.  Viewing complex problems through a specialized lens can produce overly reductionist solutions when the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  When integrative thinking is taken to its extreme, however, everything matters to the point that nothing does; there are zero boundaries.  Diversity of thought in an organization with a clearly defined mission helps strike an appropriate balance between specialization and integration.

Mental toughness is typically synonymous with qualities like tenacity and grit.  Tenacity and grit do not compensate for insufficient preparation at the individual or organization level.  The people or teams that are prone to failure in pressure situations may not lack passion, determination, or a hunger to succeed.  In some instances, they may care so much that it interferes with execution during critical moments.  Many athletes excel because they don’t equate their entire sense of self worth with their wins and losses.  Moreover, “the most shocking thing about grit is how little we know, how little science knows, about building it” says the author of a book on the subject.  Therefore, while there may be other justifications for grueling workouts that appear grossly dissimilar to one’s sport, the development of mental toughness or grit is likely not one of them.

Mental toughness or lack thereof can be an unproductive label or value judgment.  Rather than seeking to breed mental toughness, teams would be better served adopting process-driven behaviors that maximize preparation.  Our culture’s infatuation with mental toughness and celebration of hard work satisfy our emotional desire to assume control.  The more we care and the harder we work, the better we’ll be, we tell ourselves.  That kind of enthusiasm can be detrimental to success when effort for effort’s sake is valued above quality of the process.  Our fixation with toughness, therefore, should not come at the expense of attaining a level of preparation commensurate with the stressful conditions we encounter in sport and in life.