Imagine this conversation between a professional runner and their athletic trainer:
Athletic trainer: “you may get a broken ankle towards the end of a race but as a professional, you’ll be expected to finish.”
Athlete: “well, if it’s at the end I suppose…”
Athletic trainer: “Right. You’re tough. So the way we’ll prepare for that kind of significant potential injury is every time you do a training run we’re going to give you a slight hairline fracture or sprain.”
Athlete: “um… I don’t think…”
Athletic trainer: “No, it’s essential. That’s the only way you’ll know what the pain could feel like if it happens in a race. How else will you know you can push through it?”
Ridiculous, right? Of course, it is! In reality, athletes train hard without being subjected to unnecessary and irrelevant injury. Then after each race-pace run, the trainer gets them on a massage table, rubs their aches and knots out, and ensures they get proper fuel and rest before their next hard run. This train/recover/repeat method is much more realistic and productive for the long-term resiliency of the runner, as well as increasing the likelihood they will perform well and remain injury-free on race day.
The job of military and first responders is like a more intense version of a race, every day. Further, with the ‘train as you fight’ approach, they essentially follow the race-pace method every time they are provided with realistic training. Trainees are subjected to repeated opportunities for the fight-or-flight response, engaging their adrenal ‘gas pedal’ which sends a distress signal, signaling the body to produce a tremendous physiological response to get through the activity1.
Keep in mind, there is no inherent problem with engaging in this type of training, and it is quite effective. Realistic simulation training enables the ability of all types of performers to deal with the stresses of reality, and this nervous system activation is essential, as discussed in part 1 of this blog series. That nervous system engagement can linger though, as discussed in part 2. The missing piece in most paramilitary environments, therefore, is training to engage the body’s ‘brake pedal’ after speeding to the finish line. Most trainees stay in that adrenal zone, swap their training weapon for their duty weapon, and go back out on shift without having closed the loop and settling nerves which have been put on high alert. No massage table, no rest between runs.
The purpose of this blog is not to justify the use of massage tables in every MILO training room (although…I’m in full support and our first responders certainly deserve it), nor is it to dispute the need to train all out in full race-pace representational fidelity. ‘Train as you fight’ is a valuable component to preparing for an ill-defined and unrelenting operational environment. The point, however, is that an athletic trainer would take steps to aid the athlete to recover after training or an injury before their next run or race.
This is where we need to include resiliency… as a mandatory recovery component at the conclusion of training.
The need to engage the parasympathetic nervous system as a way to end training has been practiced for generations, in a variety of settings. Practitioners of yoga, for example, know the importance of finishing a session with savasana (a.k.a. corpse pose), and research has proven the medical need for that kind of recovery period on calming the sympathetic nervous system2. There is an emerging focus on mindfulness training in police agencies3 as well as in the military as a safety tool for incident prevention. The USAF clinical psychologist encourages spirituality and mindfulness to create a resilient Defender4 and Harvard recommends relaxation, Tai Chi, and social support for people dealing with chronic stress1. While these are all positive indicators that the field is receptive to methods intended to reduce physiological stress, either in training or in the performance of the job itself, merely encouraging this behavior has not provided the necessary resiliency results. This is probably because an unburdened moment of Zen in the training room is not realistic in an operational environment, nor is it at all likely to be practiced.
There is no doubt of the importance of training at ‘race-pace’ intensity, nor of the effectiveness of such training. The need is widely accepted, and there are a variety of manners in which we can recover to reduce the physical and psychological impact of these immersive environments. So, why has nothing stuck?
The answer may be in the suggestive nature of past attempts. Some demographics may be more likely to perform non-mandatory training regardless of the requirement5 yet the need to get full participation among military and law enforcement is more likely to require a compliance approach. Paramilitary units are well-accustomed to mandatory training; therefore the seriousness of resiliency efforts should be approached with the same requirement.
Yael Swerdlow, CEO of Maestro Games SPC, explains, “McMindfulness doesn’t work, technology does. Integrate cutting-edge technology and incorporate it with existing training like the MILO Range to make it a comprehensive training platform.” Yael has used her first responder experience as a photojournalist to build an immersive and scientifically-backed gaming tool targeted at resilience. “In crisis events, it can be deadly to be in the moment or in touch with your feelings or emotions— you won’t be able to function, and could endanger your life and the lives of others. In order for a resilience effort to be successful with first responders who are already short on time and resources, the solution has to be quick, engaging and provided as part of their existing training so that no one has to admit they are on edge. Suggesting anything else is just lip service.”
While the nature of immersive training is harmless, leaving the training loop open and maintaining a physiological state of high alert may result in lingering effects that can impact the body in ways similar to PTSD and moral trauma. Therefore the final question remains: what is the best way to reset the parasympathetic nervous system quickly, efficiently, and with the least resistance? The way for leaders to care for our military and first responders is to mandate training methods that close the loop.
Dr. Joy VerPlanck earned her Doctorate in Educational Technology at Central Michigan University and serves as the Military Programs Manager at MILO Range Training Systems. She previously served in the US Army as a Military Police officer.
Yael Swerdlow is the CEO and Founder of Maestro Games, SPC, co-founder of the Women’s Empowerment Foundation, and a Consultant for the University of Southern California’s award-winning Game Pipe Lab. Yael was a freelance photojournalist based in Los Angeles for over twenty years, shooting for United Press International, the Associated Press, and the Los Angeles Times, where she was a part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning teams for the Los Angeles Riots in 1992 and the Northridge Earthquake of 1994.
1 Harvard Health Publishing, (2018). Understanding the stress response. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
2 Santaella, D., Lorenzi-Filho, G., Rodrigues, M., Tinucci, T., Malinauskas, A. P., Mion-Júnior, D., Montano, N., & Forjaz, C. (2014). Yoga Relaxation (savasana) decreases cardiac sympathovagal balance in hypertensive patients. MedicalExpress, 1(5), 233-238. https://doi.org/10.5935/MedicalExpress.2014.05.04
3 Goerling, R. (2014). Officer safety corner: The role of mindfulness training in policing a democratic society. The Police Chief.
4 Hartz, T. (2019). Tenets of Defender Performance Optimization. Security Forces Magazine, (28)2.
5 Renaud, S., Lakhdari, M., & Morin, L. (2004). The determinants of participation in non-mandatory training. Relations industrielles/Industrial relations, 59(4), 724-743.