Transformation to Maneuver Fitness

transformation to Maneuver Fitness

Transformation from attrition warfare to maneuver warfare requires a transformation in fitness training as well. Away from one size fits nobody and the lowest common denominator of mass conscription to a customizable program of readiness optimization and cognitive enhancement. Physical fitness is so much more than just physical. It is the platform for total human performance. This is why Scott Sonnon and I wrote our chapter on Fitness for Mission Command.

transformationI entered the Army in 1987 at the height of what would become the closing years of the Cold War. I was taught to fight using Air Land Battle Doctrine by senior leaders who fought in the jungles of Vietnam and suffered under an attrition warfare model of search and destroy to rack up the body count. Large scale war against an enemy with vastly superior numbers and a closer proximity to the battlefield felt imminent. We expected to fight outnumbered and isolated in the defense and then to strike rapidly and deep into enemy territory. But the Cold War quickly faded into history. My experiences as a senior captain were not matching the early experiences of verbal orders, map overlays sketched from the commander’s hatch, and rapid attacks coordinated over the radio. Battalion and brigade planning bogged down into the production of enormous written operations orders and bandwidth choking slide decks. Terrain model rehearsals dragged on for several hours as officers struggled to avoid an embarrassing display of their ignorance of that 84 page operations order. We were misusing the planning process. Our trust in the military decision making process eroded. The priority of work shifted to just producing the “product” in order to end the pain. All hail the product! Directed courses of action became the norm in order to save time. Buzzwords and cliches proliferated to feign expertise. I knew there was a better way. We needed to be better. We used to be better, or so I thought.

Naturalistic DECISION making

I found the writings of then Major Don Vandergriff, who said our our officer personnel system and methods of training were inadequate and in need of significant transformation. I learned of Tactical Decision Games in Armor Magazine (May-June 1997) which led me to the research and writings of Gary Klein about Recognition Primed Decision Making. Klein’s books “Sources of Power” and “Streetlights and Shadows” inspired my pursuit of human performance enhancement. We would only have better units or better processes if we first developed better people, and by better people I mean better decision makers. Experts in their craft who possess a deep enough understanding of “how stuff works” in order to make sense of new experiences, who possess such a depth of experience in decision making that they imagine the second and third order effects of their actions. I put Klein’s research to work wherever I could to develop myself and my subordinates through deliberate practice into better decision makers. But there was more transformation to come.

neuroplasticity: TRANSFORMATION of the Brain

As the Long War ground on, more research about the effects of stress on physical and cognitive performance made Klein’s work on decision making more pertinent than ever. In 2010 I discovered the stress recovery and human performance work of Scott Sonnon. Recognition primed decision making, skill mastery, stress recovery and mitigation, and enhanced cognitive performance are dependent on the physical structures and biochemistry of the brain. I saw in his martial arts training books “Body Flow” and  “3 Dimensional Performance Pyramid” the parallels of training training soldiers to shoot, move, and communicate.  The intellectual journey continued with books such as “Spark” by Dr. John Ratey, “Willpower” by William Baumeister, “Talent Code” by Daniel Doyle, “The Power of When” by Michael Breus described that the neuroplasticity of the brain can be influenced by exercise, movement, deliberate practice, and meal and workout timing for optimal levels of performance and the negative effects of stress exposure can be mitigated or even reversed. The positive effects of neuroplasticity from exercise can also be seen in improving adaptability of individuals and teams (see “Adaptive Teams” by Gary Klein).

Transformation from traditional “fitness” training to operational readiness over one year.

My own transformation began in late 2010 when I volunteered for deployment to Afghanistan as an infantry advisor to the Afghan National Army. I was 42 year old major, overweight and frequently injured with mediocre Army fitness scores. Ten years of high operations tempo, rear detachment duty for an infantry unit with heavy casualties, and raising a family had induced chronic stress, periods of depression, over-training, injuries, and too much alcoholic self-medication. I found Scott Sonnon’s work on my way to Afghanistan. After a year in Afghanistan under Scott’s remote guidance I came home far better than when I left. Leaner, fitter, less injured, and far more resilient. Consistent high performance day over day, 16 hours a day, for a year was transformative. I had known then that the base of military training and development was physical training. But not just any type of physical training. Physical training specifically programmed for recovery, sustainment, skill development, and sophisticated motor control. Using the body to build a better brain, in order to make better decisions. This is how you develop a culture of mission command. The transformation of one brain at a time. For a look at an example training program check out the article by Daniel and Scott, “Test Your Tactical Fitness with the Q“.

Order the Mission Command anthology on Amazon now.

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