CPJ Spotlight: Operational Psychologists Coach Special-Operations Forces

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Operational Psychologists Coach Special-Operations Forces
Psychologists help train the most elite military members to help maximize mission success

Synopsis: Some of the most elite members of the American military are those in the special-operation forces (SOF), including Navy SEALS, Army Green Berets, and Air Force Air Commandos. These SOF members must have an impressive skill set ranging from reconnaissance and weapons expertise to diplomacy and comfort with cultural diversity. The grueling assessment and training of these soldiers and support staff is not only physically taxing but also mentally and emotionally challenging, highlighting the importance of the decades-long work operational psychologists (OP) have done to assist in the selection and training of these top-performing military personnel.

For example, since 1988 OPs have created assessment tools to help select the soldiers most likely to succeed in these demanding SOF roles. That work is comprised of determining what skills are desired, accurately measuring an individual candidate’s potential, and then continuously and rigorously studying outcomes to ensure that these psychological predictions are beneficial. The cost of selecting and training SOF personnel can reach several million dollars per service member; thus, to the extent OPs can optimize this process, American taxpayers benefit.

Psychologists are on-site during SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) training to monitor the natural resilience of trainees and help advance those soldiers to the next stage of special forces consideration. OPs coach these soldiers on a variety of topics including how to regulate their autonomic arousal and cognitively reframe stressful events. If any of these SOF soldiers show signs of significant social or emotional strain or mental health difficulties OPs are trained to recognize this and refer the service member to behavioral health professionals for clinical services.

How SOF Use Psychological Coaching: OPs teach stress inoculation and helpful self-talk to counter the understandable anxiety SOF candidates can experience in training situations like “drown-proofing,” where they must swim underwater for long periods with hands cuffed behind their backs and only brief reprieves of breathing above water allowed. In SERE training, OPs coach candidates on a variety of topics such as breathing techniques, goal-setting, and resiliency so that they can succeed in the simulated conditions of interrogation and intimidation by hostile forces.

Because SOF members often collaborate with foreign military and government officials, OPs instruct them on interpersonal effectiveness and cultural diversity. For example, SOF members may learn that sharing small details of their lives with foreign allies and refraining from culturally inappropriate behavior will likely increase trust and the chances for mission success. If anxiety, emotional strain, or even off-putting demeanors go unchecked in these situations, SOF members can put their lives and the success of the greater mission in jeopardy, doing damage to American interests across the globe. In myriad ways, OPs help SOF personnel perform at peak levels.

Source: Carroll H. Greene III, operational psychologist at the U.S. Marine Raider Training Center at Fort Lejeune, recently wrote an article on coaching elite special-operations forces in the American military published in Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. This issue focuses on coaching elite performers in a wide range of occupational settings – athletics, performing arts, business, military, and medicine. CPJ is a publication of the Society of Consulting Psychology (SCP), a division of the American Psychological Association. SCP represents over 1,000 psychologists who translate psychological science into practical methods for consulting with individuals, groups and organizations to catalyze growth and change.

Media Contact: Warren Djerf, for SCP; warren@brookcomm.net or (952) 920-3908


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