Tactical Athlete Mental Fitness: Actionable Methods and Long-Term Strategies to Never Ring the Bell

By Tammy Kovaluk, MTI Contributor

Grit, resilience, hardiness, and mental fitness are a few commonly used words to describe mental fitness for the tactical athlete (9). These commonly used terms can all be the difference makers in achieving success or not, for both enduring the intense physical training and in handling job requirements. 

In this article, we will explore the benefits of mental fitness, along with some strategies to both improve and maintain mental fitness for the long term. There are no hacks or short cuts for instant mental fitness. Rather, based on research and some anecdotal examples, we look at some long-term strategies to never ring the bell. 

Tactical Athlete and Mental Fitness: The X Factor

Mental fitness is often referred to as “the x factor.” There are numerous videos and articles on the web discussing this “x factor,” from academic researchers to self-proclaimed gurus, to Ted talks relating grit to success. For the tactical athlete, mental fitness – the “x factor”- can be the difference maker in making it. Or failing.  

Mental fitness promotes excellence and tenacity in tactical training, including physical performance (9). 

In the Hammermeister study investigating mental fitness on the Army Physical Fitness Test, soldiers from a Stryker brigade who demonstrated strong psychological skills significantly outperformed soldiers with weaker psychological skills (9). A study by Kelly et al, revealed that grit and hardiness were success predictors in West Point cadets (9). The Salvatore study showed that hardiness predicted first year performance at the USMA, suggesting that hardiness assessment and training may be valuable in improving performance and retention in military training environments (5).

“Grit,” defined by Angela Duckworth, is the ability to persevere for long term goals through obstacles, difficulty, or even failure. “Hardiness,” first introduced by Suzanne Kobassa in 1979, is the ability to endure difficult conditions as well as a positive capacity to cope with stress and catastrophe. Grit and hardiness have been shown to be important predictors of success in military officer candidates, with grit especially predicting superior physical performance (4).

Besides physical performance, mental fitness is key to maximize tactical performance in stressful situations (9). 

A study by Spierer et al. investigating stress on human physiology in the tactical environment showed that scenario-induced stress resulted in elevated heart rates and decreased parasympathetic status (the ability for the body to relax), regardless of experience (9). Both experienced US Army Rangers and BUDS trainees during stressful conditions, suffered reduced vigilance, memory, and logical reasoning, as well as an increased reaction time (9). Research shows being mentally and physically fit, more than experience, are key in handling stressful situations within the tactical field. The better your fitness, not only physically but also mentally, the better your ability of executing a plan of action, decision making, and coping during stressful situations (9). 

Police officers less mentally fit have shown cognitive deficiencies including tunneled attention and degraded memory. After undergoing mental training sessions using imagery performance techniques, officers demonstrated superior shot accuracy, lower heart rates, and lower subjective distress compared to the control group (who did not receive mental training), when challenged in high-stress scenarios (9). 

In his book, “Mind Pump: The Psycology of Bodybuilding,” author Tom Kubistant wrote, “what is the missing key? It is not a new machine, nutritional supplement, or even a training technique. It is the mind.” (9). Mental fitness has been extensively studied amongst endurance athletes, demonstrating resilience to endurance exhaustion (1). It has been proposed as the ultimate determinant of endurance performance (1). 

This applies to tactical athletes, as much of the training and punishment is based on the ability to endure and complete tasks under stressful circumstances. BUD/s Hell Week – Are the cadre looking for the fittest? Or are they looking those who will endure and withstand, vs. those who will mentally quit and ring the bell?

Can mental fitness be developed?

Assisted by a retired naval flight officer and tactical strength and conditioning facilitator (TSAC-F), I offered additional conditioning to some NROTC SPECWAR hopefuls we nicknamed “Baby SEALS.” We dished out sand running, calisthenics rope climbs, obstacle courses, and sandbag workouts to emulate the physiological stresses of selection. I especially recall one candidate, “Baby SEAL 1,” who presented as confident and even arrogant, with the highest PST maxes. Baby SEAL 1 was also the first to quit the workout. 

Another candidate, “Baby SEAL 2,” on the other hand, presented a different mindset, showing up as the quieter dark horse with a “never f….ing quit” attitude. He was often not the first out the gate, but consistently the strongest at the finish, while also encouraging his fellow candidates. After they moved onto selection, he was the only one of this group to succeed. 

This is just an example of many that being the most physically fit or the most athletic, are not the most important factors. In fact, they may not even be the determining factors. It is the mind. “Baby SEAL 2” knew this and worked just as hard on his mental fitness as he did everything else. 

Is mental fitness something you are just born with? Is it environment? It’s not clear. Some of my favorite tactical athletes came from a supportive background, yet some were successful despite little support or even opposition. (eg David Goggins). 

Research shows that like physical fitness, mental fitness is trainable. And like physical fitness, it needs to be trained to be maintained. 

Actionable Methods to Improve Mental Fitness

In the military, pilot trainees showed increased self-confidence, with lower anxiety and worry, and improved flight performance after psychological skills training which included goal setting, imagery, and self-talk (9). The pilots also had lower heart rates and enhanced performance in high stress scenario simulations (9). A lower heart rate alone could be key in lasting over “ringing the bell,” as you are saving precious energy during intensive physical training for example, and will help you think clearer and react faster when faced with extremely stressful situations on the job. 

Imagery and positive self-talk are a couple of methods extensively studied in research with an undeniable positive effect. Humor and short-term thinking have been personally used and are examples used effectively, especially by many successful tactical and endurance athletes.

Imagery

Imagery is essentially creating a successful image and outcome in your mind prior to the actual event. Self imagery has been proven to result in improved performance by athletes across multiple sports (7). Imagining a tactic or technique may increase self-confidence (8). You can use imagery to mentally practice a skill (ie shooting), to control your emotions, or imagine yourself being successful and feeling the pride of accomplishment (8). You can also use imagery as preparation for specific s**t hits the fan scenarios or navigating a tactical problem, for example. During a military special forces selection when you will likely have moments of despair, imagery can help raise your self-confidence, intrinsic motivation, and mental resilience (8).  

Positive Self-Talk

Often, positive self-talk and imagery can be trained together. Positive self-talk, along with mental imagery, has shown excellent positive results amongst athletes, with the thoughts resulting in an increased self-confidence and efficacy. In the Blanchfield study, for example, this showed enhanced endurance and a significant reduction in perceived exertion amongst trained cyclists, as well as positive results in strength training, such as deadlift 1RM, improved vertical jump, and dynamic balance (1, 9).

Positive self-talk doesn’t mean looking at yourself in the mirror and stating how awesome you are, nor any fluffy magical trick. It takes work. It can mean talking to yourself sternly, with tough love. I’ll personally swear at myself in midst of a difficult situation – not to beat myself up but to make me toughen up. We are all different, with different phrases to make an impact. Find what works for you.

Humor

Laugh at yourself, at the the situation. Because sometimes we can’t control things, but we can control our outlook. It is another reason I swear at myself: besides tough love, it makes me laugh. 

At the early stages of the “36-hr Ultimate Suck” race, for example, I found myself in a bind. The Ultimate Suck is a military-inspired race featuring rucking, running, miliary tasks, weightlifting, chopping wood, and whatever else he wants to throw at you. It starts on a Friday evening, ending Sunday morning with no sleep allowed.

Starting out ahead, thought I was going to win my first year. But instead, quickly found myself lost, severely cut up from bush wacking through thorny trees, cold and wet in middle of a nasty green-scum pond, and my damn shoe stuck deep in a sinking mud pit that stole it that I could not retrieve no matter how hard I pulled. After a moment of feeling like quitting, I told myself “Don’t’ be a little b**ch!” To get up and keep moving forward (with much more swearing involved). That made me laugh and reset my mind to continue moving on.

My trainee turned mentor (“Baby SEAL 2”) was excellent at finding humor during selection: Whether it was being a “sugar cookie,” getting burpee punishment, or even passing out in the water during “drownproofing.” Try and find humor in whatever your situation, it can truly help you reset.

Short Term Thinking: “Task to Task”

Again, trainee turned mentor had great advice that he practiced before selection: Task to task, evolution to evolution. Don’t think about how many hours you have left in hell-week for example, but just making it to the next task or getting to your next meal.

Ultra-endurance athletes can be good at this, compartmentalizing a challenge that seems endless, especially during low moments when you want to just quit and end the suffering. During a 100 or 200 mile race, for example, your mind would likely crumble if you thought of how many miles there are left. But short term goals helps the mind cope and you end up chipping away at the larger goal. Work on short term thinking. Task to task.

More importantly than a race, short term thinking can literally save your life. In “Touching the Void,” Joe Simpson fell 200 ft into a crevase. On the brink of death with a broken leg, he defied the odds by crawling and hopping five miles back to base camp. He didn’t focus on the distance he had to crawl – that would seem impossible – but instead focused on just making it to the next boulder. 

Music

Music has been studied and used to establish an effective mindset, sustain motivation, resist mental fatigue, and even enhance physical and athletic performance (3).  There is a response to the rhythmical music component (2). Studies during exercise have shown decreased heart rate, blood pressure, lactate, and RPE during music versus non music sustained exercise at 70% VO2 max (2). 

You can’t always have music. Thus, I believe getting too reliant on music can potentially be detrimental. But you can train with it and have it in your head to draw on. A personal example:

My first encounter with a sport psychologist was as a newer runner. Defying the odds, I had just made the collegiate cross country run team in my late 20s, after only been running a couple of years in my entire life. I hated running. It always hurt. The time trial to make the team was complete misery, something I never wanted to do again. Luckily, we were granted a session with a sport psychologist graduate student. When explaining my feelings to her, she helped me to switch the negative mindset by incorporating some of the above-mentioned strategies. I love Rocky movies, so images of the Rocky 4 training montage and the music came to mind. Every time my mind went to: “This sucks. I can’t keep this pace and want to quit,” during hard practice runs, I switched to visions of the Rocky 4 training montage, with the training music in my head. It sounds weird but the rhythm of the instrumental training music matched the rhythm of my run cadence. It switched my mindset from negative to positive, and helped me to relax, maintaining my pace despite suffering.

Being physically fit matters

Ever hear the term brain-body connection? Tactical strength and conditioning programs have been described as efficient platforms for simultaneous training and integration of both physical and mental toughness (9). Strength and conditioning is excellent for repetitive practice and improvement of both physical and mental skills, to “demonstrate the synergistic effect of mental and physical training in a tangible way” (9). For me, during a warmup it helps to set my mind straight, especially on those days it is exceptionally tough to get started. Sometimes I put in a favorite speech or song until it becomes mentally engrained. “Darkness” by Jocko Willink was a speech I often listened to during my warmup for the 12 and 24hr burpee Guinnesss World Record attempts, for example, along with imagining myself going through hell and, coming out the other side successfully.

Just sitting in a room in comfort, playing video games or looking at social media, will not cut it. You need to practice mental fitness during uncomfortable training and/or racing periods, “training like you play.” That trainee turned mentor also had advice: “Keep yourself busy and focused on a lot of things. Training your mind to work in a busy stressful environment” (10). 

Use it or lose it

As with physical fitness, mental fitness needs to be practiced consistently. If you stop running, you start to lose speed and stamina. If you stop lifting weights, you lose strength. If you stop training your mind, you will get mentally weaker. 

A famous quote by David Goggins: “The worst thing that can happen to a man is to become civilized.” Avoiding becoming civilized means to continue challenging yourself. When you accomplish one goal, find another. Embrace the discomfort, continue the repetitions, continue your practicing mental resilience.

Something borrowed from Jocko Willink (“Discipline Equals Freedom”) has stuck with me. Envision what it will feel like when you’re done. The satisfaction, how good it will feel. In contrast, envision what is will feel like if you quit. If you give into the moment of weakness, when you are feeling like crap, opting for that moment of comfort instead. The feeling of defeat; of wondering if you could have succeeded but instead, let yourself down. 

Find what works for you. Be disciplined and consistent. And never ring the bell. 

Tammy is a professional strength and conditioning coach currently coaching in Arizona as well as an accomplish endurance, obstacle race and fitness athlete. 

************
Want to be a paid, MTI contributor? Email rob@mtntactical.com a current resume and three topic ideas.

References

  1. Blanchfield, A., Moree, H., Staino, H., and Marcora, C. Talking yourself out of exhaustion: The effect of self-talk on endurance performance. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, 46(5): 998-1007, 2013.
  2. Currell K, Jeukendrup AE. Validity, reliability and sensitivity of measures of sporting performance. Sports Medicine, 38(4): 297-316, 2008. 
  3. Haluk, Koc; Turchian, Curtseit. The effects of music on athletic performance. The Free Library (January, 1),2009.  https://www.thefreelibrary.com/The effects of music on athletic performance.-a0278403797 (accessed October 14 2022)
  4. Kelly, D., Matthews, M., and Bartone, P. (2014) Grit and Hardiness as Predictors of Performance Among West Point Cadets, Military Psychology, 26:4, 327-342
  5. Maddi, S., Matthews, M., Kelly, D., Villarreal, B., and White, M. The role of hardiness and grit in predicting performance and retention in USMA Cadets. Military Psychology, 24(1): 19-28, 2012.
  6. Meyer, V. Sport Psychology for the Soldier Athlete: A Paradigm Shift , Military Medicine, 183(7-8): e270–e277, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1093/milmed/usx087
  7. Richter, J., Gilbert, J., Baldis, M. Maximizing strength training performance using mental imagery. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 34(5): 65-60, 2012. 
  8. Sari, Ihsan. An investigation of imagery, intrinsic motivation, self-efficacy and performance in athletes. Anthropologist, 20(3): 675-688, 2015.
  9. Sell, K., Christiansen, T., and Asken, M. Integrating mental and physical strength and conditioning for the tactical athlete: What the research says. TSAC Report, 40(1): 24-28, 2016.
  10. Sweet, J. (2020, March). Send Me (2). (Audio podcast episode). https://open.spotify.com/episode/0D9paFWAuI1KzqwxKf1Mpp

Leave a Reply