Building a bulletproof mind

special operator training
This article is going to focus on the psychological training process we use to prepare people for SOF (special operations force) selections. This framework develops baseline skills that are later refined in the selection and training environment.

The process below is designed to prepare an individual for a selections course. However, it’s also relevant to active-duty operators.

The qualities developed through this process – and to some degree inherent to any SOF operator – are like any other skill: if they are not used consistently, with deliberate practice, they will degrade over time.

The highly specialized psycho-physiological qualities necessary to perform in an operational setting can also lead to burnout if baseline skills aren’t revisited from time to time.

Special operators are assessed and selected based (partially) on their resilience – their ability to withstand and perform well under extreme acute and prolonged stress.

However, just as body armor only increases one’s ability to survive a firefight, the high resilience for which operators are selected doesn’t make them permanently invincible.

The intense demands of SOF operational cycles can take a toll as years and decades go by. Back-to-back deployments, night ops, limited access to good food, constantly changing time zones, nonstop training, dead friends and divorces all wear away at an operator’s baseline.

Sleep quality worsens, joints stiffen, muscles ache, recovery suffers and peak output declines. Autonomic variability declines, taking with it the ability to adapt.

For this reason, many of these strategies are also relevant to active-duty SOF operators, particularly if they can work some deliberate “maintenance” into their stateside training schedules. By re-establishing their baseline resilience, they can help withstand the deleterious effects of operational life.

SIT Model for special operators

As described in part one of this article series, stress inoculation training (SIT) is the process of familiarization with mental, physical and emotional responses under stress and then training the capacity to perform well under increasing levels of stress.

This model has been used for a long time in selections and training processes to develop unconscious competence in a variety of skills necessary in a special operations environment.

SIT is made up of three stages:
Stage One – Conceptual education – understand what will happen in stressful environments and what can be done about it – learn strategies for dealing with natural responses.

Stage Two – Skills acquisition and consolidation – deliberate skill practice using “phased training” which pursues mastery of constituent skill components before the addition of increased complexity and stress.

Stage Three – Application and follow-through – Refine well-trained, automated skills in increasingly realistic environments, under conditions as close to “real-world” as possible.

Psychological skill training must be applied in a fashion similar to our physical training protocols. New skills are initially learned in a controlled setting with enough challenge to facilitate effortful learning, but not so much as to prevent generally positive training outcomes.

As time goes on, complexity and challenge should progressively increase as skills improve. As with motor skills like weapons handling, this model trains psychological skills to become automatic and subconscious so that they can be relied upon under greater and greater levels of emotional, cognitive, and physical stress.

Jonathan Pope

Specificity

Like any good physical training program, we initially focus on building foundational skills that transfer to a variety of domains. As time goes on, we build specialized capacities on this foundation to adequately prepare an individual for selections or operational environment.

The model below is for the development of these fundamental capacities.

Remember: specificity is king – if you don’t account for as many realistic variables as possible in your training environment, the transfer to a selections or training process will be weak.

The process below is specific enough to work well as a component of SOF prep training or as ongoing maintenance work for an active operator, but it’s not the tip of the spear. The actual training and selections process that operators go through is what truly develops the very specific skills necessary to perform in an operational environment. This just helps augment that foundation.

Assessment: continuum of stress

Before we get into the application of psychological development, I want to cover one of our favorite assessments to use with trainees.

Using the graphs below, we have special operator trainees rank how they deal with stress in three different domains:

  • Emotional
  • Cognitive
  • Physical

We ask them to rank how well they deal with each domain in three different lengths or intensities:

  • Hurt – The ability to handle short-term pain or discomfort; pushing yourself to the edge of your ability in an all-out effort.
  • Intermediate – The ability to deal with moderate stress for moderate durations.
  • Suffer – The ability to grind. Day after day, week after week, month after month.

Continuum of stress
Trainees rank themselves on each continuum and send me specific examples of each answer.

Skills tend to be domain-dependent. For example: a person who can crush themselves in a single training session but struggles to stick to a long term plan may also do very well under constant moderate cognitive stress but break down quickly in a single intense emotional trial. Everyone has a unique signature.

Evaluation using this continuum is more subjective than objective, but it still serves an important purpose. Self-evaluation elicits information on long-held, implicit beliefs and thought patterns. As you’ll see below, this is critical data for developing psychological resiliency.

Application: feedback loops

Output vs experience

Many coaches and athletes focus on outputs instead of the qualitative experience. As Joel explained in a recent article, this will not achieve the results you are looking for. In SOF preparation training, the outcome is largely irrelevant if the qualitative experience is not accounted for.

For example, if you finish a workout with good numbers but do so using negative self-talk while cheating on intensity or ignoring movement quality, you’re ingraining negative qualities that will ultimately lead to failure in a more stressful environment. If it happens in training, it will happen in selection or in an operational environment, but to a larger degree.

In SOF preparation training, the outcome is largely irrelevant if the qualitative experience is not accounted for.

tweet this

Stress amplifies and exposes latent behaviors that can become vulnerabilities.

Self-herding

Self-herding is when we refer to our past actions for subconscious guidance in decision-making. It can manifest in either general or specific ways.

Specific herding occurs when you reference a past decision when repeating a near-identical scenario, such as reacting the same way every time you fail in a training session.

General herding is when you use past behavior as a reference for a wider range of circumstances, such as “I am always able to keep going during workouts, so I must be great at handling volume; there is no reason I can’t keep going through calisthenic beat-down sessions in special operator selection.”

Self-herding can manifest in a positive way or in a negative way depending on the tendencies you’ve ingrained. It’s the basis of many of the latent behaviors that are exposed by stress and fatigue, such as the tendency to quit a rep or two early in a tough set or to talk yourself out of pushing through a hard conditioning sprint.

The more you’ve repeated a thought process in your head and associated it with an activity or stimulus, the more hard-wired it becomes.

As Joel explained in his recent mental toughness article, in order to change the way your brain functions, you need to train these thought processes to become subconscious and automatic. To do that, you must identify specific thought processes and beliefs, modify them, and then slowly train them through the SIT process.

Self-herding is more about understanding the fundamental beliefs you have about yourself and your abilities and how they influence subconscious decision-making. Self-talk is a related but different concept.

Self talk

Self-talk is the internal dialogue that you have with yourself.

You can change your beliefs with self-talk, and you can change self-talk through modifying your internal beliefs. This feedback loop can accelerate positive or negative outcomes depending on how these systems have been trained.

By training these traits in conjunction with each other and utilizing specific drills, under very specific stressors,  you can develop positive feedback loops and become a much more robust and resilient human being.

The last step: open-ended events

All learning is context- and domain-dependent, so a mental skill developed without taking into account a specific stressor can become useless in an operational environment.

For example, most SOF trainees tend to use fixed-length training sessions as part of their training process. I can’t understate how big of a problem this is.

The body isn’t just a simple machine with an engine and a fuel supply.

Instead, body and mind work together in a complex system of feedback loops and predictions to determine fatigue and estimate how much output your body can safely handle while still getting its regular jobs done.

The body isn’t just a simple machine with an engine and a fuel supply.

tweet this

This regulation is known as the “central governor model”.

A big part of how this mechanism works is by using past experience to subconsciously estimate how hard and how long you can exert yourself in new events. The way you felt the last time you did an 8-mile ruck plays a big role in how your brain rations out energy and fatigue the next time you’re on the trail.

Unfortunately, selection courses and operational environments do not conform to the preconceived distances or durations you’ve accounted for in your brain.

If you always train for fixed distances, durations, reps, or any other metric, your brain will only learn how to handle situations in which you know the total workload.

When you’re confronted with a seemingly never-ending run, ruck, or beat-down/smoke session with no fixed length, you’ll struggle to keep going and sustain your output because your brain will be accustomed to finite efforts and known stopping points.

As the central governor theory states, fatigue is largely an emotion created by the brain to protect the body. This trait is highly trainable.

So, how do we train it?

Special Operator Training 2
By utilizing strategic, open-ended training sessions.

For example, we might train this ability in rucking by having the trainee pick a point far in the distance and holding a fixed pace until they’ve reached it so that “rucking for ten miles” becomes “rucking until it’s over.”

We also train specific work capacity in movements like push-ups, pull-ups or carries by utilizing workout strategies like “as many sets as you can with perfect technique over the course of the day,” or by not disclosing the number of total sets they’re doing until the end of the workout.

There are many ways to develop the ability to handle open-ended tasks. As long as quality movement and mental and emotional control is maintained (addressing the methods above), you will progressively increase your baseline for open-ended activity.

By practicing open-ended physical activity, you can get your body accustomed to a near-limitless level of output and gradually improve your baseline for what that output is.

Wrap up

The truth is, psychological performance is a massive topic, one that we can’t possibly cover in-depth in a single article. The subjects outlined here only skim the surface. However, I hope this has given you a glance into how interrelated every aspect of performance is and how important it is to have a strategic process for developing the psychological element.

In the next article we will go over a few specific drills that we use to implement the strategies outlined in this article.