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Performance psychology, mental health and the military

In recent years I have seen a lot written about the application of sport psychology to the military, whether than be the army, navy or air forces, across numerous different countries. Indeed, there has been increasing amounts written about the embedding of mental skills training techniques to enhance the performance of military personnel. Whilst I do not doubt that these tools might be useful, I am concerned that sport psychologists are going into military domains and applying a sporting model of performance to a non-sporting setting.

The military services perform under pressure a lot of the time, and it is easy to see parallels with elite sport, both at an individual and a team level, but it is not sport. Military personnel do share some characteristics with athletes and sports team players, but they are not the same. Yes, lessons can be learnt and transferred between these performance domains, as with between other performance domains, but the psychological needs of any domain of performance need to be understood as a separate domain to then deliver the best psychological support.

That is not to say that individuals with a background applying psychology in sport can’t be really effective working in the military, but they are not then by definition working as sport psychologists, they are practitioners applying psychological knowledge, skills and expertise to improve performance with military populations. This mindset shift is important, as in order to do this effectively the psychologist first needs to understand the psychological challenges impacting upon military personnel. Interestingly, in my experience working with the military these are not mostly to do with issues around confidence, attentional focus, or goal setting, but are more broadly to do with mental health and wellbeing. Often the biggest limiting factor in performance for many military personnel is not their performance-focused job, but rather the balance between that job and the rest of their life, in turn, this suggests that the biggest wins in relation to improving performance could well be outside of the scope of what a sport psychologist might normally do, and more to do with mental health and wellbeing.

It is interesting that a review of elite sport in the UK outlined failures around facilitating positive mental health and creating mentally healthy environments. Off the back of which a new ‘UK Sport Mental Health Strategy’ was launched. A move that offered sport psychologists the opportunity to redefine their position within the high-performance sport world and to prioritise the mental health of all in that environment. Maybe it is these lessons and this learning that sport psychologists should be taking over to the military rather that mental skills training per se.

The military is already well stocked with psychologists. Depending upon the particular environment there are military psychologists, occupational psychologists, clinical psychologists and counselling psychologists. However, while they are there, often there is a stigma to seeking help and as a result many personnel suffer in silence, just like in sport. This then might be the opportunity for sport and performance psychologists to have an impact. A ‘performance-focused’ psychologist can help to increase awareness of the importance of good mental health and wellbeing in influencing performance, as a part of a wider performance psychology package. Through performance focused discussions the sport and performance psychologist can help to support personnel wellbeing and then crucially act as a link to other mental health and wellbeing services. Helping to shine. A spotlight on the support available, all through a less threatening performance-focused lens.

Performance psychology has a lot to contribute to the military, but it might be that the most impactful way we can do this is to focus on mental health and wellbeing.

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