Military Application of Performance-Enhancement Psychology

Article excerpt

Nathaniel Zinsser, Ph.D.; Colonel Larry D. Perkins, U.S. Army, Retired; Major Pierre D. Gervais, U.S. Army; and Major Gregory A. Burbelo, U.S. Army

THE U.S. Military Academy's (USMA) Center for Enhanced Performance has developed a program to improve performance in military training. Many of the program's elements, particularly teambuilding, have implications for the 21st-century Army.

Performance enhancement is the deliberate cultivation of an effective perspective on achievement and the systematic use of effective cognitive skills. A soldier can maximize performance by mastering thinking habits and emotional and physical states. These training methods, derived from applied sport psychology used in training professional and Olympic athletes, are also applicable in other human-performance contexts.

Using the mind's power to find a competitive edge has become an indispensable element in training modern athletes. Army Transformation is similar in many respects to changes in sport, but no physical facility or group of trainers existed to train the mental science of warfighting-until now.

The USMA Performance Enhancement Center (PEC), a state-of-the-art facility for training in applied sport psychology, was established in 1989 to educate and train West Point cadets in performance-enhancement techniques to foster their full development as leaders of character. In 1992, the Academy's Reading and Study Skills Program joined PEC to form the Center for Enhanced Performance (CEP).

CEP offers cadets a unique "student success course," which combines instruction in applied sport psychology topics such as goal setting, cognitive control, and stress management with study skills such as textbook marking, test preparation, and note taking. CEP also offers performance-enhancement training in the areas of academic, athletic, and leadership performance. Each year over 300 cadets voluntarily participate in this training, seeking the mental edge for success in competitive sports; in military applications such as marksmanship, combat diving, and parachuting; and in academic excellence.

CEP, the only center in the Army dedicated to training the mental-toughness aspect of performance, follows an educational rather than a clinical model with performance improvement as the major goal of all education and training. In cases where performance problems manifest themselves as clinical issues, referral to qualified counseling services is initiated.

Enhanced-Performance Elements

The USMA Performance Enhancement Program integrates five key elements of applied psychology into a systematic approach to empower individuals and organizations, including-

* Cognitive foundations. Understanding the psychology of high performance (what athletes describe as being in the zone) and knowing how the mind works allows performers to gain confidence and operate in the most effective manner. Skills include controlling self-talk, restructuring ineffective beliefs, and cultivating a powerful self-image.

* Goal setting. Goal setting is the process of identifying the underlying rationale for work/participation and long-term performance objectives, then creating action plans for goal attainment.

* Attention control. Attention control includes selectively attending to important cues, shifting one's field of awareness, and developing simple standard operating procedures and routines that streamline the execution of repetitive tasks to attain optimum focus and concentration.

* Stress management. Understanding how stress operates in the human system and mastering techniques of recovery and energy management is an antidote to burnout and fatigue.

* Imagery and visualization. The process of seeing, feeling, and experiencing desired outcomes and taking actions to attain them builds confidence and a readiness to move forward.

These competencies improve individual and team performance by empowering individuals to-

* Create effective thinking habits and perform with confidence. …