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Making good Soldiers great

Comprehensive Soldier Fitness specialists aim to boost performance of field artillerymen

Published: 12:55PM August 30th, 2012
Making good Soldiers great

Sgt. Christopher M. Gaylord

Kelly Jones (background, left) and Valerie Alston (background, right), CSF-PREP specialists, observe as Sgt. 1st Class Mark Reid gives pointers to Soldiers in A Battery, 1-377 FA.

When Staff Sgt. Nicholas Boyce walked into a class meant to improve his unit’s physical performance through mental skill sets, he came armed with the perception one might expect from a combat-experienced Soldier and field artilleryman.

What could any class on mental skills teach him about firing some of the Army’s biggest guns?

“I thought it was going to be another one of those ‘get in touch with your feelings’ classes,” Boyce said of the time specialists from the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness-Performance and Resilience Enhancement Program on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, have spent working with his battery over the past month.

But Boyce was in for a surprise.

“They changed my mind about it within the first hour of the class,” he said.

CSF-PREP’s mission is twofold: helping Soldiers perform with greater ease and less stress, and enabling them to prevail in the face of adversity. The program focuses on making Soldiers and their Families stronger and more resilient in all that they do.

Where performance is concerned, the program introduces methods suited for effectively promoting teamwork, managing physical energy, relaxing one’s mind and body, realistically setting and achieving goals, using visual imagery to mentally rehearse tasks and directing attention at times when functioning at one’s best is paramount.

“People tend to always focus on the physical domain,” said Valerie Alston, a performance enhancement specialist with the program, as she watched cannon crew members with Battery A, 1st Battalion, 377th Field Artillery Regiment set up their M-777 Lightweight Howitzer in the field Aug. 22.

“We try to help people realize that the mental side is just as important as the physical,” she said. “It’s mental push-ups.”

Alston and fellow specialist Kelly Jones spent a couple of days late last month introducing the artillerymen to techniques like deep breathing to ward off stress and filtering out life stressors that are beyond their control – practices highly uncommon to Soldiers who send 155mm rounds powering downrange.

The pair then encouraged the group to practice some of the techniques as often as they could and helped Soldiers to design individual plans that would detail how they can use mental systems to boost their performance of specific tasks as Howitzer crewmembers.

Most recently, Alston and Jones travelled to the field with the battery Aug. 22 and 23 to see how artillery Soldiers do what they do best and to determine how to use the mental skills the program teaches to improve their ability to occupy an area, set up their howitzers, establish aiming guides and prepare the big guns for use.

“They’re the experts in what they do, and so we try to make sure we’re able to ask them the right questions to get to the right answer that makes sense to them on how they can improve,” Alston said.

Alston and Jones picked the brains of the battery’s leadership to understand how its firing sections should operate when at their best – their guns should be ready in three minutes.

Between now and when the unit travels to Yakima Training Center in Central Washington state in September, the two will guide the unit and its leadership by suggesting how they can use CSF-PREP skills to operate more efficiently.

Skills like establishing routines and choosing cue words the Soldiers can recite to themselves either verbally or in their heads to keep them focused and remind them what to do next.

“We try to simplify it as much as possible that your attention needs to be in the right place, your thinking needs to be in the right place and your energy needs to be in the right place,” Alston said. “If you can get those things where you need them to be, that’s a win.”

Alston said nearly all Soldiers she works with already use most of the methods she emphasizes, citing the shouting of commands back and forth during crew drills as one example of cue words and signaling that an action needs to happen immediately before anything can follow.

“A lot of this is inherent in them, so a lot of times for us, what we’re doing is helping them identify and recognize that ‘that thing you say – that’s a cue, and that’s why that works,’ ” she said. “Once they start seeing it in action, they go ‘oh, yeah, that does work. Oh, yeah, OK, I do that.’ ”

Typically, she said, it doesn’t take long for even the most critical skeptics – doubters, like Boyce – to realize the skills work.

And for Boyce, who’s well versed in the repertoire of common artillery tasks, it only took a series of deep breaths for convincing.

“Not only does it help get some of your energy back; it also seems like it helps clear your mind, because you’re more concentrated on the actual breathing,” Boyce said. “When you get done, it seems like you’re a little less stressed than you were.”

Since the exercise, in which Soldiers use computers to monitor and control their breathing patterns and test their calm while completing an array of physical and mental tasks, Boyce has used the technique on his own time to take a step back from life.

“If you actually do it, and you actually utilize it, it does work,” he said between drills, sitting on a small, foldable chair, with his Soldiers in view. “It boils down to the simple fact that if you’re worried about stuff outside of your job, you’re not going to be focused on your job.”

“There’s no, like, ‘here you go; here’s a mental skills dose,’ ” Jones said.

“That’s not how it works. It has to become a lifestyle,” she added of the teachings that were originally developed for use with professional athletes and Olympians.

But even out on the training grounds of JBLM, where some of the Army’s toughest and most gritty Soldiers prepare themselves for combat, techniques like deep breathing and using cue words to create routines are finding their way.

“When they take the skills, and they use them, and they apply them, they almost always see benefit,” Alston said.

“For these guys, performance is, quite literally, life or death,” she said. “If they don’t do well, it could cost lives.”