What do Horn Playing and Training to be a Navy SEAL have in Common?

While watching a bit of the History Channel the other day I caught a few minutes of an interesting program titled The Brain. When I tuned in, the show was in the middle of a segment on the Navy’s SEAL training program.  In brief, the Navy had found that it wasn’t necessarily the incredible physical requirements of the program which caused many of the trainees to fail, but rather the intense mental strain of one particular test.  In this test the trainees were required to remain underwater for twenty minutes, while breathing through scuba gear.  During the test instructors would at random times tie their air hoses, remove their masks, and otherwise wreak havoc on them.  The difficulty for the trainees was overcoming their panic and remaining calm enough to sort out the problem.  The high failure rate in this test prompted the Navy to consult with psychologists for ways to increase the mental toughness of their SEAL recruits, which would hopefully increase the pass rate on this test.  The four areas the Navy focused on for mental toughness training were 1) Goal Setting, 2) Mental Rehearsal, 3) Self Talk, and 4) Arousal Control.  Looking at this blog post by Bakari Akil II, Ph.D. on Psychology Today’s website, Dr. Akil provides some more specific information on how these SEALs in training applied these four tactics, and ultimately improved their passage rate significantly.

With goal setting the recruits were taught to set goals in extremely short chunks. For instance, one former Navy Seal discussed how he set goals such as making it to lunch, then dinner. With mental rehearsal they were taught to visualize themselves succeeding in their activities and going through the motions. As far as self talk is concerned, the experts in The Brain documentary made the claim that we say 300 to 1000 words to ourselves a minute. By instructing the recruits to speak positively to themselves they could learn how to “override fears” resulting from the amygdala, a primal part of the brain that helps us deal with anxiety. And finally, with arousal control the recruits were taught how to breathe to help mitigate the crippling emotions and fears that some of their tasks encouraged.

This very simple four step process increased their passing rates from 25 percent to 33 percent, which is excellent in a rigorous program as theirs. It demonstrates that achieving success doesn’t always have to be a complex process. A few minor additions and tweaks may be all that is needed.

Obviously we don’t need to spend too much time discussing how these tactics can be applied to performing artists.  We sometimes encounter these same feelings of stress and negative self-talk in our own careers. Even though the actual scenarios for musicians are vastly different from those of Navy SEALS in training, our responses to mental and emotional strain certainly feel the same.  And besides, if it works for Navy SEALs (and it does), it might just be beneficial for horn players!  If you are interested in finding out more about mental toughness training, check out the numerous books, articles, and websites out there. Chances are you will find some great tips and strategies to apply to your own discipline.

I’ll be taking the next few days off from blogging for the Thanksgiving Holiday, and I wish everyone safe travels and an enjoyable time with their families, friends, etc.

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