Using sport psychology strategies to reduce stress in the military1 Opinion
Military personnel face extreme levels of stress that impact not only their performance but also their readiness and personal relationships (Mastroianni, Mabry, Benedek, & Ursano, 2008). Prominent stressors include sleep deprivation, physical fatigue, prolonged separation from family and friends, and the ongoing threat of injury or death. Up to 70% of US soldiers are exposed to traumatic incidents in Iraq and Afghanistan and these exposures are disproportionately high compared with the physical injuries of combat (Tanielian & Jaycox, 2008). Levels of stress are progressively increasing as soldiers are required to prevent and stop this psychological and physiologically conflict that is repeatedly occurring.
In recent years the Army have begun to look at an intervention that goes from ‘treatment-centric’ to one that primarily looks at prevention, designed to increase psychological strength and positive performance in soldiers before being deployed (Mastroianni, Mabry, Benedek, & Ursano, 2008). The ‘Comprehensive Soldier Fitness’ (CSF; Casey, 2008) program is one of the first of its kind and takes a holistic approach to developing psychological resilience within five dimensions; physical, social, emotional, spiritual and family. Limitations of the program have been identified however, and potentially the most important one to mention is that the CSF has not been investigated in randomized controlled trials. Sport psychology theory is based on evidence-based research and the importance of this is essential for validity and reliability of interventions. Furthermore, the CSF program has principally been adapted from the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP) where interventions were focused on non-military populations (Eidelson, Pilisuk & Soldz, 2011).
Using effective sport psychology strategies and applying it to a military domain should therefore look to place a greater importance on utilising reactive and proactive coping strategies with less emphasis on enhancing psychological resilience. Furthermore, macro-level coping (Krohne, 1993) should be introduced to offer alternative strategies for individuals. Additionally, due to the suggested facilitative influence social support has on sporting performance (Rees, Ingledew & Hardy, 1999; Rees & Hardy, 2004), a family and friend’s education workshop and a military community partnerships programme should be introduced in an attempt to ultimately reduce stress levels of those serving. Using the CSF as a basis, the offered interventions will transition effective evidence based sport psychology knowledge applied within sport to the military.
The goal of the CSF is to ultimately decrease the amount of soldiers that develop stress pathologies from experiences in combat (Cornum, Matthews & Seligman, 2011). The long-term approach has four sections; assessment, universal resilience training, individualized training and lastly trained master resilience trainers (MRTs). The initial psychological assessment utilises a Global Assessment Tool (GAT) which is employed in conjunction with physiological measures when personnel’s are first recruited. Reassessment is completed when necessary throughout the entirety of their careers. Using the CSF as a basis, the following provides alternative strategies to decrease soldier stress.
In addition to the questionnaire approach of the CSF program, the 48-item Mental Toughness Questionnaire (MTQ48; Clough, Earle & Sewell, 2002, p. 33) should be applied. Subcomponents include, challenge, commitment, interpersonal confidence, confidence in own abilities, emotional control, and life control. Literature suggests those with high levels of mental toughness are probable to perceive stressful events as challenging and when experiencing a stressful situation they are more emotionally stable (Horsburgh, Schermer, Veselka & Vernon, 2009). Dependent on the psychological strengths recognised from the GAT and MTQ48, individualized training will encompass different aspects of resilience and mental toughness so soldiers can improve personal weaknesses. Following an evidence-based approach, workshops conducted should be repeatedly monitored so obvious improvements can be made (Cornum, Matthews & Seligman, 2011).
In addition to the universal resilience training aspect of the CSF programme, proposed interventions should educate personnel on macro-level coping, otherwise referred to as cognitive avoidance (Krohne, 1993, p. 4), rather than focusing on improving resilience. Averting attention away from stress-related information will reduce feelings of distress and avoidance of acknowledging possible negative consequences of an encounter. During workshops, task leaders will attempt to recreate a stressful situation, via video footage or role play, and individuals will effectively practice ways to direct attention and psychologically remove themselves from the situation. Leaders will be asked to give a variety of examples as a way to encourage practice for all.
Sporting performance has been debilitated due to the stress-buffering capabilities social support has on performance (Rees & Hardy, 2004). With this in mind, it would be appropriate to engage military personnel’s social network and invite those to workshops across the country, external of the CSF programme. They will be held at regular intervals during the year to educate family and friends of the stressful influence they may be transferring. Performers often turn to social support and with literature supporting reduced stress when positive social support is existent (Ntoumanis & Biddle, 1998), it would be important to illustrate this relationship and encourage self-awareness of how support could be presented effectively. Finally, in line with this, another intervention proposal would be to set up a military community partnership programme. This involves ‘buddying up’ with local families or friends with those involved in the military, regardless of position or role. Being able to vent and release negative emotion will subsequently result in an increased ability to present positive support.
To conclude, potential sport psychology interventions applicable to the Armed Forces should be tailored to specific needs, specifically utilising reactive and proactive approaches (Fletcher, Hanton & Wagstaff, 2012) and macro-level coping suggested by Krohne (1993). Further influential factors identified included social support and mental toughness; results indicated increased experience of peak performance with positive social support (Rees, Ingledew & Hardy, 1999; Rees & Hardy, 2004) and decreased stress levels with greater mental toughness respectively (Horsburgh, Schermer, Veselka & Vernon, 2009). Despite the positive findings, transference of this knowledge has not been utilised by the military. Therefore the proposed intervention offers additional strategies and measurements alongside the CSF programme to enhance the beneficial effects and ultimately decrease the amount of military personnel that develop stress pathologies from their working experiences.
Cornum, R., Matthews, M. D., & Seligman, M. E. (2011). Comprehensive Soldier Fitness: Building resilience in a challenging institutional context.American Psychologist, 66(1), 4-9.
Clough, P., Earle, K., & Sewell, D. (2002). Mental toughness: The concept and its measurement. Solutions in sport psychology, 32-43..
Krohne, H. W. (1993). Attention and avoidance. Two central strategies in coping with aversiveness. Attention and avoidance, 3-15.
Mastroianni, G. R., Mabry, T. R., Benedek, D. M., & Ursano, R. J. (2008). The stresses of modern war. Biobehavioral resilience to stress, 43-56.
Rees, T., & Hardy, L. (2004). Matching social support with stressors: Effects on factors underlying performance in tennis. Psychology of Sport and Exercise,5(3), 319-337.
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Tags:Coping EffectivenessMental ToughnessMilitaryPsychology of SportSocial SupportSport PsychologySports PsychologyStress
About Katie Nichols
Having completed my BSc in Sport and Exercise Science at The University of Portsmouth, I continued my studies completing an MSc in Sport Psychology. Presently, I am working for Lane4, a management consultancy company, employing sport and organisational psychology to enhance individual and business growth