Army Embraces Psychology, Zen Traditions To Train Paratroopers

Jul 7, 2016

With biofeedback, breath control, and other mindfulness techniques, an Army unit hopes to help turn its paratroopers into more effective fighters.


A battalion of paratroopers at Ft. Bragg  is embracing mindfulness techniques that might seem more appropriate in a yoga studio or psychology lab, or even on the sidelines of an NFL game. And what scientists are learning from those 800 soldiers in the 82nd Airborne Division might change the future of the Army.

Military leaders have developed a new framework for how they want to train soldiers. The approach, which the Army calls the "Human Dimension," focuses on things such as cognitive techniques, biomechanics and nutrition, all aimed at improving physical and mental performance.

"What we are building right now inherently is an agile and adaptive leader," said the battalion's commander, Lt. Col. Phil Kiniery. "By getting a paratrooper to fully focus and be able to zone in on what he's supposed to do, with everything going on around him, he now can now make clear decisions."

In other words, paratroopers are being trained to tune out distractions and focus not just on what to think, but the best way to think.

The Army hopes the Human Dimension will create soldiers who can be trained faster and adapt more quickly to the increasing complexity of war. It wants them to be ready - and psychologically flexible enough - to handle the complexities of modern warfare. At any moment, they could be called upon to wage a traditional war against another nation. Or perhaps their mission might be battling counterinsurgencies in large cities, where they would have to fight among a dense population of innocent civilians.

Kiniery, who has a master's degree in adult education, said he decided to approach training differently after meeting a sports psychologist and hearing about techniques used in that field.

As it turned out, he found at Ft. Bragg exactly the right kind of people to help him: the "performance experts" - specially trained psychologists - in a program called Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness or CSF2. At bases around the country, they train soldiers for better performance, and they help soldiers and family members become more psychologically resilient to cope with the challenges of military life.

Kiniery asked the performance experts to work more closely than normal with his soldiers.

That's how two of them, Meghan Halbrook and Fiona Purcell, came to be at a machine gun practice range recently.

Under the watchful eyes of their sergeants, the soldiers were trying to qualify with the Army's 7.62 mm medium gun. The psychologists watched and tried to pick up on their body language, detect any performance issues, and talk with the men between rounds to help them perform better.

"We focus on many different skills in relation to managing and maintaining energy, maintaining effective thoughts, and being able to focus on the right thing in the right time," said Halbrook. "We have ways in which to get an individual to think effectively in a stressful environment."

Halbrook and the other performance experts used biofeedback monitors and various mindfulness techniques to help the soldiers master the weapon.

20-year-old PFC Alex Jungles from Illinois said he sometimes tries the methods when he shoots.

"I tried a couple of the techniques they taught us like belly breathing, Jungles said. "You're able to have a nice, light trigger squeeze. so you're more accurate."

Scientists go behind the scenes with paratroopers

Kiniery's unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, also has been working separately with scientists at the Army Natick Research, Development, and Engineering Center in Massachusetts.

The collaboration attempts to provide soldiers cutting-edge training, while helping scientists figure out how they might expand the Human Dimension approach to other units. For seven months, scientists have been visiting Ft. Bragg regularly, doing things like studying the paratroopers' practice jumps, watching them gear up, and recording videos of each soldier's jump preparations inside a C-17 transport aircraft.

"When you did studies in the past, you didn't get to know the soldiers personally," said Retired Army combat veteran Rick Haddad, who works for the Natick research center and helps run the collaboration. "You didn't get to see all the things behind the scenes that there were happening that could be the atmospherics or part of the environment that was actually having effect on the soldier cognitively, physically, and socially."

The scientists are looking into not just cognition directly, but a broad spectrum of things that affect mental and physical performance, like the biomechanics of carrying heavy packs.

They even suggested a change in snack procedures after they noticed soldiers had to go hours without eating, in part because of a regulation that prohibited snacks once they had their gear on. The Army changed the regulation and developed a prototype "paratrooper bar" - a modified version of an off-the-shelf energy bar.

A Zen tradition from the Samurai

Haddad said the Ft. Bragg unit is the first to build the Human Dimension approach into its normal operations. Some of the techniques, though, like breathing and visualization, have been used for years by Special Operations units.

They've also been a key part of part of traditions like Zen Buddhism for centuries.

For some, the idea of training soldiers with techniques that are often associated with serenity and non-violence may be jarring. But there's historical precedent.

"Mindfulness was a practice that many of the Samurai warriors were attracted to," said Michael Gervais, a Hermosa Beach, Cal. sports psychologist.

"The Zen traditions were helping them to become more aware of their thoughts, aware of their actions, aware of their emotions, aware of their physiological state, so that they could course correct swiftly and accurately to meet the demands of the environment," he said.

Gervais, who works with the NFL's Seattle Seahawks, the U.S. Women's Olympic indoor volleyball squad, and other high-profile teams, says there also are a lot of parallels between cutting-edge sports psychology and what the military is trying to do. In fact, three Ft. Bragg psychologists have been hired away by professional sports teams.

One tenet of mindfulness that's being embraced by both sports coaches and Army commanders is the understanding that being humiliated for a mistake can undermine performance.

"What we really need in those moments when we make a mistake is course correction, not discipline and shame," Gervais said. "And when we value the human being and what they do, rather than get frustrated with the mistakes that we make, it becomes an incredible accelerant to performance."

That means the stereotypic military scene of an angry sergeant chewing out a young private could become less common.

Kiniery says his sergeants and corporals have begun to think about why a junior soldier might be failing and focus on fixing that cause, rather than yelling and forcing him or her to endlessly repeat the task.

"Instead of saying, 'You did that wrong,' they're actually catching it before it happens just by their facial expressions," he said. "They grab him and say, 'Hey, just take a deep breath. You know what you're doing.'"