It was 10 PM, pitch black and I was in the middle of the woods in North Carolina. My job was simple. I had to erect a 30 foot antennae that would be used to gather radio transmissions so our artillery platoon could conduct fire missions. I had been dropped off from a Humvee along with another soldier in another platoon. We were all alone. He had the same mission but had to set up his antennae about 100 yards from mine.
It was one of many such missions my unit conducted as ‘practice' in the Army. In the snow, in the rain, in the summer heat we practiced the science of artillery. At least half of the year, every year, we spent in the woods in 3 to 7 day chunks. I thought my stint as a Cannon Fire Direction Specialist (13-E) would be indoors in a command center like the one in the 1980s classic, War Games, starring Matthew Broderick. At least that is what my recruiter told me.
I was mere yards from the gun line, had to dig foxholes, pull guard duty, man the M-60 and listen to the artillery rounds fired up close and 'personal' throughout the day and night. Luckily, I never had to go to war. I served during a relative time of peace (1993-95).
So,- why did we spend so much time living in the woods, firing live rounds and going through the motions? Why were two twenty year olds trusted to set up communications for 2 platoons (100 men) and to guide them into their new base in the woods for the next few days?
Well, we had to do this under as realistic conditions as possible so if we were called to war we would be able to perform our jobs with confidence and without thinking about it. Many of my fellow soldiers had served in the first Iraq War and they continuously relayed how serious warfare was and how we needed to be prepared. Our training reflected that mentality. But the ‘practice makes perfect' approach isn't always enough.
Which brings me to the Navy Seals. I will admit that training to become a combat soldier is tough. But becoming an elite soldier such as a Navy Seal or Ranger is tougher. These guys are not only regular soldiers, they also go through further training to become masters of terrain and conditions and to handle situations in hostile territories as a small group or on their own. Their training has to be super intense in order to have soldiers who can actually carry out their missions.
Hence, they had an extremely low passing rate for trainees. According to The Brain, a show featured on The History Channel, out of 140 recruits (average/each cycle) only 36 would make it. However, they noticed that they were losing good recruits, not because they couldn't phsyically hack it, but because they had a mental block. It was in one key area; the water. The Navy Seals have a drill in a pool where recruits have to remain under water for 20 minutes. They are equipped with oxygen tanks for air. All they have to do is stay under water without coming up. Seems simple enough.
Well there's a catch. The recruits are constantly harassed by their instructors who rip off their masks, tie their (air) lines in knots and conduct other general forms of harrassment. The recruit's job is to not panic; wait until the attack is over; calmly fix the problem while remaining under water and then wait for the next attack. At the end of the 20 minutes the recruit will be required to kiss the floor of the pool and then will be brought up by the drill instructor.
But the opposite often happens. Soldiers do panic and even with four chances to pass (at different times in the program) many never make it. So the Navy Seals turned to psychology. Using a four step process they increased the passage rates in their program. What did they do? They emphasized what psychologists and communication academics have been advocating for years:
Goal Setting - Mental Rehearsal - Self Talk - Arousal Control
With goal setting the recruits were taught to set goals in extremely short chunks. For instance, one former Navy Seal discussed how he set goals such as making it to lunch, then dinner. With mental rehearsal they were taught to visualize themselves succeeding in their activities and going through the motions. As far as self talk is concerned, the experts in The Brain documentary made the claim that we say 300 to 1000 words to ourselves a minute. By instructing the recruits to speak positively to themselves they could learn how to "override fears" resulting from the amygdala, a primal part of the brain that helps us deal with anxiety. And finally, with arousal control the recruits were taught how to breathe to help mitigate the crippling emotions and fears that some of their tasks encouraged.
This very simple four step process increased their passing rates from 25 percent to 33 percent, which is excellent in a rigorous program as theirs. It demonstrates that achieving success doesn't always have to be a complex process. A few minor additions and tweaks may be all that is needed.