By Dr. James Bender, DCoE clinical psychologist
“Winning is 90% mental, the other half is physical.”
— Yogi Berra
Dr. James Bender is a former Army psychologist who deployed to Iraq as the brigade psychologist for the 1st Cavalry Division 4th Brigade Combat Team out of Fort Hood, Texas. During his deployment, he traveled through Southern Iraq, from Basra to Baghdad. He writes a monthly post for the DCoE Blog on psychological health concerns related to deployment and being in the military.
When most people hear the words “psychologist,” “mental health” or “shrink,” they think “mental illness.” After all, why should you talk to those guys unless you have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression? It’s unfortunate that some people think that way, because in addition to helping with serious conditions like PTSD and depression, behavioral health specialists can offer much more. A big part of psychology concerns itself with improving physical performance.
All service members are called upon to perform physically throughout their careers. Everyone has to pass a physical training (PT) test, infantry soldiers need to shoot and run, Navy rescue divers need to perform physically in harsh environments, security forces troops have to stay sharp while protecting flight lines and perimeters, and the list goes on. When I was in Iraq, I told my soldiers to think of themselves as athletes because they are.
Anyone who’s endured endless PT knows that the military is very good at training your body to perform, but that’s only part of the solution. A huge part of your physical performance depends on your mindset, and that’s where behavioral science comes in. During the next few months, I’ll spend some time blogging about the mental aspects of human performance. Hopefully, you’ll learn some things that will improve your execution on the job.
Getting Worked Up
We’ll start by talking about arousal, or how keyed up, excited or motivated you get while executing an action. This has to do with being alert, both physically and mentally. Weightlifters and football players will often psych themselves up before an event and almost work themselves into frenzies, while a concert violinist may breathe deeply or meditate to calm down and lower their level of arousal before a performance. A lot of things happen when you’re at a high level of arousal or “really psyched.”
Generally, we want to be very keyed up, with adrenaline flowing, when we’re trying to perform a simple task that doesn’t require much thought or complex action. Running and doing pushups and sit-ups are activities where you want a high level of arousal. While in this state, you tend to feel pain and fatigue less and blood and oxygen are carried to your major muscles quickly. On the other hand, when you’re performing an action that requires concentration and fine motor skills, like shooting or land navigation, you want less arousal. Being too keyed up will actually decrease performance because the parts of your brain responsible for concentration, visual-spatial skills and creative thinking become less active, essentially shutting down.
How Do You Perform Best?
Another point to consider is your personality type. Extroverts or thrill-seeking people generally perform better when they’re more aroused while introverts tend to perform better when they’re calmer, or less aroused. So, it’s important to find your optimal level of arousal based on the task at hand and your personality type.
Things get interesting when you have to switch from high-intensity activities to low-intensity activities very quickly. Snipers are good at this. During training, they sprint and then drop to the ground and fire rounds into a target. They perform an activity (running) where a high level of arousal is needed and then suddenly transition to an activity (shooting) where a lower level of arousal is needed. Being in good physical condition lets them sprint without needing too much arousal, and breathing deeply before shooting lets them lower their heart rate and calm down, allowing them to shoot accurately.
Thanks for reading and please post any comments or questions you may have.
Join Doc Bender for a live chat on Twitter to ask questions about the mental aspects of human performance from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (EDT) Sept. 18. Follow DCoE at twitter.com/dcoepage.