New Blog From Professor Stewart Cotterill

Professor Stewart Cotterill is Head of the School of Rehabilitation, Sport and Psychology at AECC University College. In this blog he looks at the application of sport psychology techniques in the Royal Navy.

Applying sport and performance psychology in the military

In recent months I have been working for the Royal Navy supporting the education and development of service personnel, specifically relating to psychological performance. In this time, I have been, advising on the further development and implementation of a focused training programme within the Royal Navy, part of which has been focused upon further enhancing psychological performance for specific groups of service personnel.

There has been increasing use of sport and performance psychology tools and techniques in military settings to aid the performance under pressure of military personnel. Many military services across the world now embed the development and teaching of core psychological / mental skills to facilitate enhanced levels of performance and to give service personal tools to cope with the stresses and challenges they encounter in their work roles. While the specific focus of these programmes changes from country to country and service to service there does appear to be a core set of psychological tools that are embedded in these enhancement programmes including: goal setting, self-talk, relaxation techniques, imagery (visualisation), focusing strategies and emotional control strategies.

The focus on enhancing performance under pressure is something that has been a key focus of attention in sporting domains for a long time, and in the late 1980s in the USA the military services started to explore the application of these performance techniques to improve the performance under pressure of military personnel. Over the last 30 years programmes that have sought to enhance mental performance in the military have diversified but many are still built around the development of these core mental skills.

Emotional control and being able to reduce physiological arousal (e.g., calm your heart down) has been seen as a crucial aspect of performance in many performance domains. Being too ‘worked up’ can impact upon decision-making, increase the engagement in risky behaviours, reduce the ability to focus, and reduce task performance accuracy. Therefore, the teaching of strategies that can return personnel to a more ‘normal’ state are a crucial tool in the military personnel’s tool kit. One really effective technique in this regard is controlling your breathing. This technique seems really simple but there is strong scientific evidence to support its effectiveness in calming the body and the mind, which is one of the reasons controlled breathing is a core aspect of most meditative and mindfulness techniques.

While the application of sport psychology techniques in the military has been seen as a success, in recent years there has been increasing recognition of the fact that while some aspects of military performance do compare well with sport ultimately the two domains are quite different. This has led to the emergence of more specific performance psychology support that is focused on the demands placed on military personnel rather than applying a sport-performance model in a military setting. There are great opportunities for performance-focused sport psychologists to work in the military, but they need to understand the military context and the real performance demands placed on military personnel to then develop the most appropriate mental skills for performance.

Navy boats out on a crisp blue sea

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