MTI’s Research Project on Fear Inoculation Training

by Rob Shaul and Lindsay Mann


A macro-level challenge MTI has explored for some time is working shorten the distance between being a “rookie” and being mountain/battlefield situationally aware.

Currently, in most cases, rookies make a series of dumb mistakes, learn from them, and if they survive, after many experiences or years, finally attain situational awareness. Our goal is to compress this learning curve, reduce injuries, save lives, and along the way perhaps create a new approach to fear inoculation training.

When we say “fear” we mean fear of injury or death.

Fear primarily comes in the form of fear from falling for our mountain athletes.

Fear for our tactical athletes is more varied, but for the purposes of our work, comes in the form of fear experienced during combat – either with an enemy, criminal or fire.

Already we’ve studied the physiological demands of ice climbing and the role that fear plays. From there we have done two mini-studies trying to answer the question: Can we Measure Fear in Rock Climbing?

In early September we’ve planned some initial research into combat-induces fear using a SWAT team and force on force training.

The goal of this work is to identify an easily measurable, physiological indicator of fear. Such an indicator would help us evaluate the effectiveness of different fear inoculation training methodologies.

To be clear, our ultimate goal isn’t discovering a physiological indicator of fear, but rather to assess and hopefully improve fear inoculation training.

The athletes we work with must be able to perform effectively when exposed to dangerous situations and environments.

In addition to our own research, we’ve begun a close review on fear/stress inoculation research and training methodologies already completed or developed. We’re searching far and wide and beyond our narrow athlete communities for research, ideas, and training approaches.

We’re still at the infant stage of this project. Even so, we’ve developed some initial ideas about the components and progressions for fear inoculation training.

Here’s what we’re thinking at this early stage:

Step 1

Review and discuss mountain/tactical case studies where accidents have happened because people have been unable to perform under stress. Use case study analyses to accelerate rookie real life experience.

Step 2

Train psychological tools such as visualization, positive self-talk and breathing exercises. Many of these tools have been tested and used successfully both in high-level competitive sports and tactical situations.

Step 3

Develop and teach mental tools/strategies to assist mountain and tactical athletes’ ability to organize thoughts and prioritize actions in stressful situations. Examples include military checklists and the “situational awareness tool” developed during June’s MTI Scrum.

Step 4

Apply the 80/20 Rule to skills instruction. The 80/20 rule states that you need 20% of the skills to perform 80% of the tasks. Instead of teaching rookies everything at once they may need to handle every situation, identify the 20% of skills which will handle 80% of the situations they’ll face in the field. Master those 20% skills forward and backward, and practice those skills under stress.

Step 5

Introduction of mission-specific stress training early and often in the training process (much earlier than it is currently done). Examples include fall training for climbers and force on force training for military and LE.


We Many Questions Moving Forward….

  • Is fear inoculation “mode specific?” Does having good fear inoculation in one setting transfer to another setting? For example, could you take a free solo specialist, Alex Honnold, and put him in a combat situation and would the still be able to remain calm?
  • What if we can’t identify an easy to measure the indicator of fear? Is there a measure beyond drill performance we can use to evaluate fear inoculation training?
  • Is easy to train fear inoculation, like water confidence training, transferable to other situations such as climbing or combat?


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