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Toughness: Reconciling The Military And Sport

I recently returned from the 2018 Physical Preparation Summit where Steve Magness was the keynote speaker. Steve spoke about conditioning for track and field and team sports, “toughness”, and the relationship between intuition, data, and objectivity. He seamlessly navigated between the micro and macro much like he does in Science of Running and Peak Performance.  

His toughness talk really resonated with me because it reconciled many of the practices I encountered in the military with psychological preparation for sport. Developing “toughness” has become a multi-million dollar enterprise and a series of hashtags and platitudes paying homage to things like “grinding”, sleep deprivation (he/she who awakens the earliest is the toughest), crawling through mud, and training offensive lineman like middle distance runners. In sport, coaches and executives sometimes misguidedly implement practices from the military, particularly the special operations community, in an effort to develop athletes’ toughness. As articulated here and here, sport practitioners frequently confuse military selection and talent identification with technical and tactical training. Using Steve’s toughness model as a guide, military and sport practices can be harmonized without mysticism and theatrics.

The construct of “toughness” is often unaccompanied by any definition. We think we just know it when we see it. Steve defines toughness as “the ability to have the space and self-control to choose the right decision under high levels of stress and fatigue” or “having a calm conversation with the right mental framework”. While Steve’s is not the only definition of toughness, his provides a useful platform for discussion and is preferable to using the term in the abstract and assuming that everybody knows what it means.

For Steve, choosing the right decision under duress is contingent upon controlling one’s attention. The ability to control one’s attention is focus. Without focus, emotion hijacks decision making and hinders execution. Lack of focus allows one to succumb to chaos. When working with track athletes, Steve begins by helping to make them aware of where their attention gets diverted during difficult situations. Without this awareness, attention cannot be controlled. Once awareness has been achieved, Steve gets his athletes to productively channel, not suppress, their internal conversations. “It’s not the thought, it’s the emotion we attach to it”, he says. Attempting to suppress certain thoughts just promotes fixating on said thoughts in an emotionally displeasing manner, the worst case of which is panic.

Through its emphasis on standard operating procedures and checklists, the military also recognizes the importance of focus and attention during chaotic situations. While in the military, I countlessly rehearsed emergency procedures for things like parachute and weapons malfunctions, unexpected encounters with enemy forces, SCUBA regulator failures, and aircraft egress. We learned to control our attention by repeatedly exposing ourselves to various environmental triggers in training. We developed pattern recognition in a controlled setting. Pattern recognition helped to cultivate an awareness of the most critical problems. In chaotic situations, multiple problems compete for our attention. Not all of them are worthy of our attention right away, however. Selecting the proper emergency procedure is contingent upon an awareness of the actual problem or emotional triage. The emergency procedure or checklist then becomes the subject of one’s focus. These procedures provide productive and actionable steps one can take to navigate the seemingly chaotic environment. Without focus, the alternatives are freezing or aimlessly flailing away.

Predetermined emergency procedures minimize degrees of freedom- in other words they reduce choice- so that under stress, the operator can follow the checklist and take actionable steps to rectify the problem without having to create the steps in real time. While not every parachute malfunction, as an example, is exactly the same most of them are similar enough that patterns emerge from which a checklist can be generated. The same procedure often corrects for a number of different parachute malfunctions. Checklists mitigate the potential for human error under stress by decreasing complexity. While decreasing complexity may be desirable in an emergency, it is not necessarily desirable when more time is available, as occurs in various creative endeavors. While checklists, patterns, and reduced degrees of freedom don’t completely eliminate the need for intuition, they help manage what might otherwise be an overwhelming amount of incoming information. In acutely stressful situations, a timely decent solution is preferable to a delayed, theoretically superior solution. In the military and in fields like aviation and medicine, checklists and emergency procedures help to productively channel one’s focus.

Toughness epitomized- winning the medal heat in the Olympics with flooded goggles…

The anticipation of unpredictability and uncertainty can compromise focus because so many “what ifs” compete for one’s attention. This is why Steve incorporates unpredictability and uncertainty into his track and field programming. On occasion, he won’t tell athletes the workout they’ll be doing to force them to focus on one repeat at a time.  Sometimes his runners aren’t permitted to wear a watch or notified about their splits so they have to pace themselves by feel (increase awareness, shift focus to pacing). He’ll also periodically select a particular runner to “surge” during a workout, unbeknownst to the other runners, to simulate racing and decrease the staleness of a practice. Forbidding runners to use the inner few lanes of the track is another way to manipulate the training environment to cultivate poise in competition. The military utilizes similar practices in training such as altering deadlines in the midst of mission planning, deliberately providing misleading intelligence prior to an exercise, and introducing casualties into scenarios at “inconvenient” times. It’s impossible to prepare for every “what if” but variation in training helps develop the ability to make connections and formulate habits that can be helpful in multiple situations.

These types of practices also help people learn to deal with failure as success is not always a given when routines are challenged. Fear of failure is one of the greatest obstacles to developing Steve’s concept of toughness. Therefore, athletes should not be sheltered from failure in training. It’s a fine line, however, as athletes can “learn to fail” when this type of training is disproportionately emphasized and the scenarios are too challenging or unrealistic. The other extreme, completely predictable, sterile training, doesn’t prepare athletes to be adaptable under stress or to drown out cognitive noise. In fact, psychological profiles of military special operators demonstrate that this population is particularly good at coping with failure. To be fair, while this population is highly trainable, it is also selected for particular psychological attributes.  Despite the uncertain relative contribution of nature and nurture to performance outcomes, learning to deal with failure is somewhat trainable.

Unfortunately, there’s no coaching algorithm to develop toughness. As with any other quality, coaches must rely upon a blend of intuition and objective information. It is probably fair to say that sport and the military aren’t solving unique problems though. Consequently, similar preparatory and mental skills practices have emerged in both disciplines. Toughness has little to do with crawling through mud and much more do to with being prepared for a dynamic competitive environment.

Trained or untrained…