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Sport and Exercise, Work and occupational

The Commandos, mental mutiny and mindset

Does imagery enhance resilience and soldier success on the All-Arms Commando Course? Jonathan Rhodes and his team have been finding out.

22 June 2021

For the first time in Billy's fledgling career as a soldier, he had a choice. To become a commando, or not. Billy knew that at any moment he could 'VW' – voluntarily withdraw, just leave. He wouldn't be the first. A lad he'd become mates with in phase two of initial training had already found the Tarzan course in 13 minutes with full equipment too much of a stretch. Now Billy was cold, wet, and still only half way into the 30-mile Dartmoor march. 

'Most guys my age are probably at home on their PlayStation', he thought. But quickly he replaced that mental image with another: a green beret. The colour, the texture of the material, the weight, even the smell. Billy added more layers, to form a picture of the passion, the perseverance required, the fantasy of completing the training at Lympstone with the Royal Marines, 15 weeks on. He pushed on.

Sticking with the challenge

As psychologists we are interested in lasting behaviour change. As a team based at the University of Plymouth in the School of Psychology, we have researched in fields such as cravings, desires, memory, health, mindset, grit, sport. We have developed an approach named Functional Imagery Training (FIT) which uses goal-centered imagery to enhance motivation and increase commitment to goals. So, when we were approached by 29 Regiment of the British Army to support soldiers develop resilience for the All-Arms Commando Course (AACC), we worked with the command staff to develop a bespoke programme. 

These are new soldiers. Some are teenagers, but the majority are in their twenties. If a soldier has an injury they may drop back to the next training programme, or if they do not meet the benchmark/standards due to, for example, physical fitness or navigation skills, they can defer to the next training cohort whilst they master the skill. However, if they VW, they're out – that's it! Those who VW very rarely come back. Our aim, as psychologists is to work on culture, resilience and mindset, so soldiers stick with the challenge. It's a bit like the bleep test at school – when the first person drops out, a group of others drop out too, because they weren't first. We try to push the first VW for as long as possible by connecting everyone on day one of the training course. 

We meet the soldiers at the beginning of a four-week course called Pre-Commando Physical Training (PCPT). We deliver a one-hour workshop that engages the group in discussions about their shared goals, mindset about challenge, and then teach individuals how to use imagery. The thinking is, if you are connected to others, you are more likely to support one another in times of real internal adversity, which we call 'mental mutiny' – the point when you debate jumping ship. Mindset is important to discuss because it is linked to challenge and goal pursuit – if you think you can't, then you won't invest effort. 

We teach soldiers how to activate imagery through cues (such as when taking a sip of water) and then ask individuals to experience course completion by elaborating on success, then work backwards through how they intend to overcome obstacles, and then onto what they can do now to implement a positive behaviour. FIT, like most imagery approaches relies on the soldier being the experimenter, as they learn, refine and master imagery in times of calm, and in times of need.

The detail and meaning of the image are important. As specialists in imagery training, we extend the depth of what is known as multisensory elaboration. We check in and deliver booster imagery sessions in 'the field' (on the moors!) two weeks into PCPT to support learning and answer questions, and again we see the soldiers the week before they complete the next phase of training, the All-Arms Commando Course run by the Royal Marines which lasts for an additional 11 weeks. 

Does it work?

How this works varies from person to person. For some, they use imagery several times each day and have refined their approach/style so they can activate their mental skill in times of mental mutiny, such as when climbing 20-foot ropes or on a nine-mile speed march. For others, just connecting through the group tasks is of benefit, and some struggle to use imagery in depth. 

Compared to 2018 and the 2019 data which had, roughly, a 20 per cent success rate for soldiers, success in 2020-21 is currently over 40 per cent. Encouraging, but we are always working on ways to refine what we do and integrate a wider range of interdisciplinary specialists within the field of human performance. 

On civvy street

What does this mean for you, if you're not a soldier and have no plans to hike across Dartmoor in driving winds, carrying a heavy pack? It's true that these are people used to pushing themselves. I did some work with Olympic swimmers and they maxed out the Grit scale (passion and perseverance) – but they always thought that they could be more gritty! Likewise, the soldiers scored highly for resilience, grit and self-efficacy when we measure them on day one. At the end, although all the scores increase, resilience increases the most. 

Resilience, though, is a buzzword beyond the elite. In education, sport and business, resilience is seen as a positive adaptation due to setbacks, adversity and challenge. Resilience training should be holistic, integrating goals, passion, mindset, and – importantly – experiential exposure. While most resilience training programmes focus on challenge and mindset, rarely do they incrementally enhance stress or periodically introduce obstacles and adversity in a productive format that aims to build resilience which lasts beyond the intervention. A large proportion of resilience training focused on enhancing performance simply isn't good enough. While there is a depth of research that explores mental health, there is a limited amount that examines performance, and that's where our story comes in. 

Soldiers, like many in sport and business, have a learning-based growth mindset. Specifically, the soldiers we work with start with the belief that they can change and adapt, but they have a mental and physical ceiling, or wall, which they cannot get over. That's what results in voluntary withdrawal – quitting, to you and me. The aim for the military command staff is to support learning by introducing physical obstacles and then provide conditioning, navigational skills etc, to best prepare the soldiers for the AACC. For us as psychologists, our aim is to support people to use mental skills in a structured way so that obstacles, including 'walls', can be hurdled with relative ease. 

When we initially introduce mental skills, soldiers inform us that they already use imagery and goal setting and it's not overly effective. At the end of our work with the soldiers, they (almost) all see the benefits of integrating a systematic approach to using imagery as it functionally enhances performance. Naturally, everyone's views on mental skills and how they are applied differ, but we believe all have something to gain from examining the meaning and motivation for completing any arduous activity, connecting with individuals through support networks, and using imagery in a structured way. 

Too much of a good thing?

The Commando training is tough and the physical benchmarks consistent with those set back in 1942 when the course was developed. Whilst voluntary withdrawal has decreased since 2020, injuries have a high frequency of occurring as soldiers complete regular weighted exercises wearing rucksacks, long runs, and a great deal of extra physical conditioning. It's during these times when being too resilient can be detrimental – nearly all those who pass AACC report carrying injuries. On the one hand being resilient and tolerating discomfort is necessary, but on the other hand injuries that are not treated often exacerbate to a serious problem.

Finding this balance through self-awareness and sharing vulnerabilities, such as injuries with colleagues, is essential to enhance relatedness and enhance a resilient culture. This is why we deliver our intervention through group tasks and do our best to connect individuals from day one. By building individual resilience, we aim to fortify psychological strength by merging challenging events with the application of FIT. 

For most, FIT goes beyond being just a tool, and becomes a habit. The soldiers learn to control unwanted thoughts by focusing on specific goals. How might you do this too? 

Overcoming challenges in three steps

1. Explore the purpose and meaning behind your goal. This is the starting point which will get you through difficult times. For the soldiers, they discussed their 'why', which developed a deep connection between the group and verbally confirmed their motivation. Individuals were able to activate the meaning when adversity struck. For you, get to know your 'why' too, by sharing your passion with colleagues and family. There's some bad press about verbalising goals, but we have found it to be a good starting place when others have similar goals as it sparks relatedness and a sense of belonging. 

2. Elaborate and allow yourself to get carried away with the detail. Once you have your goal, and have explored your 'why', the next step is to train imagery. Multisensory elaboration is the X-Factor to achieving goals. Researching Olympic swimmers, they reported excellent imagery ability and could 'play out' training sets and competitions, focusing on the smell of chlorine, temperature when in the water, the change in sound as the dive in, the wall as they push out of a turn, their heartbeat, muscle fatigue building up, emotion of achievement at the end. Spend some time each day, maybe just a minute, elaborating on your long-term goal and playing out the scene in multisensory detail. If you have challenges on the horizon, focus on the challenge and play out a successful outcome. If negativity pops in, that's fine: play it out, then rewind and divert attention back to your positive outcome. To master imagery, it takes time, so be patient.

3. Make it a habit. Link your imagery practice with a cue. In our research we ask participants to activate imagery when they put the kettle on to make a cup of tea. During the time it takes a kettle to boil, play out your long-term goal ensuring it has multisensory detail. Then work backwards through your challenges over the next couple of weeks. Then today, what challenges will happen today and what are you looking forward to – again taking your time to elaborate on the meaning. Finally, take the last few seconds to think about your strengths, and how to implement a positive first step straightaway… then exit imagery mode and enjoy your drink. 

Dr Jonathan Rhodes

Associate Lecturer

Chartered Psychologist (CPsychol)

University of Plymouth

Photo: "That's me and Despina Djama sat on the obstacle course wall!"

Editor's note: Originally published online 22 June 2021