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Military Human Performance Part 3 of 5: The Rub

What is keeping my unit from achieving total fitness? What are the best strategies for implementing it? Why can't I just continue on with business as usual with tried and true annual training classes?

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If you're a military leader who has been reading my past two posts on Military Human Performance to include physical, mental, and spiritual fitness as well as social fitness, you're probably thinking, "I get it." You’re probably thinking, I understand in principle this concept of “total fitness” also known as total force fitness as others call it. Deep down like any military professional worth their stripes, rockers, or shiny stuff, you care about your unit’s ability to accomplish the mission. You recognize the importance of teaching basic hard skills like first aid, calling in a 9 line, not going “unk” on the rifle range, keeping military specialty skills sharp, etc. You understand the need to accomplish mission essential tasks during exercises and real world operations, maintain medical readiness, make sure pay is locked on, and ensuring your team stays in good physical shape to accomplish the mission, not get injured, pass their annual physical tests, and of course look good in uniform. Check. You also understand the value of being able to suck up adversity. You certainly want and expect your team to manage their personal lives, but to be honest, maybe you are all about big boy and big girl rules. You're fine parroting the party line about about blatantly obvious negative behaviors like drinking and driving , sexual harassment/assault, hazing, getting in trouble with the law, etc. Maybe you're thinking, if my people are handling their business, aren’t a liberty risk, aren’t causing problems, and they haven’t broken squelch on the Force Preservation Council roster, then we’re good right?

Now, regarding this whole total fitness concept, you might also be thinking, "I kind of get the importance of emotional and spiritual wellness, but to be honest, that is too touchy feely for me and probably most of the rest of the men and women around me except a few are even inclined to care about these areas." Why should you even care? Maybe you don’t really understand how to articulate this area and to be honest, you're not sure even if your chaplain or unit psychologist can articulate it in a way that resonates with everyday military professionals…everyday warriors in the trenches. If your people need some spiritual fitness then maybe you feel as if you've accomplished the mission by telling them to make an appointment with the chaps or a counselor on base, head to a weekend religious service at the local base chapel, get out and walk their dog, or get outside into the outdoors or something.

Another issue you might have been thinking is that you see the value in setting up classes with experts on base for a PME say on finances, relationship skills, mindfulness meditation, etc. but to be honest, most of the content is not all that engaging and even if it is, it might be a bit weird. Furthermore, most of the speakers don’t have the relatability to connect with everyday military professionals other than being experts in their fields with the buy in only going so far. Furthermore, you would love to see your heavy hitters teach this stuff, but the truth is, it is hard to put together a class on these type of issues unless they have personal experience or passion in any of these areas. That is generally the exception and not the rule.

Wait a minute. Maybe your next issue with taking total fitness seriously is that you might be thinking, well, don't we already have all this annual training like death by PowerPoint classes, computer-based modules like Uncle Sam’s OPSEC and other high-speed classes on suicide, sexual assault/harrassment, hazing, and substance abuse prevention? Shouldn’t you just send more of my people to these courses and ensure they all sign the roster? With these issues in mind, you might be tempted to find a quick solution and just emphasize more the plethora of various training programs that chaplains and specialists to include some NCO/SNCOs/officers get tagged to lead as collateral duties.

So here's my response in terms of six major obstacles to how total fitness is currently implemented in most military units that would negate following the logic listed above.

1) Most classes that are not directly related to warfighting teach skills for individuals on how to react/respond to crisis/trauma either for themselves or their friends vs. proactively prepare men and women to teach them the right mindset and skills to cope with the issues left of “boom”. In other words, let’s take the issue of military and veteran suicide for example. Wouldn’t it be better to train and develop the right mindset, behaviors, and fortitude necessary for individuals to forego suicide in the first place? Don’t get me wrong, I think it is crucial to train individuals on how to help their friends, but let’s start way before “boom” happens. It would be better to understand factors leading to suicide in the first place and develop your unit in such a manner to mitigate those factors before a suicidal ideation even occurs.

2) Most military life skills training is taught as a one-off training event either as an annual refresher or special weekend. This is kind of like thinking that you can get out and train for your Physical Fitness Test once or twice a year. Unless you are genetically gifted somehow, that plan isn’t going to work too well for you I would imagine.

3) There generally is not a follow through of trainers to continue to pass on their knowledge inside their work sections/units at the lowest level. Thus the education, experience, and training gets bottled up with only a handful of people.

4) The focus is on stopping behavior vs. changing thinking in the first place that leads to negative behaviors. In other words, there is a need to change the root thinking or issues that led to the fruit behaviors or environment in the first place.

5) Most classes related to total fitness today are generally taught by “outsiders” to the everyday military professional/warfighter in a typical military culture. By that I mean chaplains, psychologists, morale welfare government civilians, or another military professional with knowledge on the subject area but no day-to-day connection with the target audience such as one of their peers or senior leaders directly in their chain of command.

6) Most classes are taught lecture style where this is no feedback or interaction from the students where they are forced to critically think about difficult situations in a military setting or life in general. The tendency for a student in a class like this is to disengage mentally and emotionally unless the content is particularly interesting.

Ok, so in response to my above points, you probably recognize and have heard the drum beat about the importance of “kneecap to kneecap” discussions, mentoring and counseling, getting to know people, etc. I’m 100% in agreement with you on that. In practice though this typically looks like an initial performance counseling and a final performance counseling. After that, mentoring and coaching by other leaders is hit or miss from my personal experience with a lot of lip service but no actual action on it.

Martial Arts Programs and regularly scheduled PMEs like Corporal’s Course, etc. have existing ethics curriculum and tactical decision games as well so in principle this is a good step in the write direction. However, generally, the content is written out in a word document outline and the expectation is that anybody, whether they have public speaking and good communication skills or not, can teach this content given enough time to prepare for the class unless they obtain PowerPoint slides from somebody else.

The problem with these two approaches are: a) you are reliant on small unit leaders to have knowledge in an area of life they may or may not have had experience in; b) these leaders might have bad experiences and have cynical viewpoints which can perpetuate toxic thinking in your unit; and c) it is hard to standardize teaching from one personality to the next where one motivator will capture the attention of his/her audience while another will only do enough to get by and “check the box”.

Now that the basic obstacles to achieving total fitness in military units based on current training methodologies have been laid out, I'll outline in my next post the real heartburn of what prevents units from effectively carrying out a successful program for the long term that makes a real difference. Until then, if you haven't gotten access to the free mini-video course Be a Boss on the Battlefield and in Life, please register now!

Fit for the Fight and Life,


Chris Reardon

Major, USMC

Founder/Director of Freedom Fitness America