Three Ways to Learn Tactical Training Skills Under Duress

Chief damage controllman gets in a workout.
Chief Damage Controlman Marcus White, from San Antonio, lifts weights in the gym aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Spruance (DDG 111). (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan D. McLearnon/U.S. Navy)

One of the toughest parts of tactical training for the military, special ops, police, fire or EMT is learning the new concepts that are critical to the job. For many military recruits, training may be the first time they have held a gun, walked in the woods with a map and compass, SCUBA dived, held explosives or any number of other skills taught at the beginning level of their career.

The first days of military training may not be the most conducive to learning new skills since much of the day is spent enduring challenging physical events and receiving near-constant negative feedback from loud instructors yelling in your face. The amount of recovery time after these stressors is also limited by timed chow-hall meals and a set sleep and wakeup time.

How do people who join the military learn and retain the critical skills required to perform their job proficiently once the training is completed?

Be Physically Prepared.

You must build a more resilient body to handle tough physical events without pain or fear of failure or injury, all while meeting and exceeding the standards without a gut check-level effort as you learn new skills. You must be able to learn quickly and "through a firehose," a common saying used to describe the massive amount of information one must consume, put to practice and master in a short time during military-based schooling.

Be Used to Learning New Skills.

These do not need to be academically based skills. You can choose more hobby-based activities that are athletic, mechanical, musical or environmental, such as hunting, fishing or camping.

Learning throughout life can be stressful. Exams, project deadlines, social struggles, Mother Nature and life in general can create challenges, but the human brain is a remarkably resilient organ when exposed to duress.

A study on learning published in the Nature Portfolio Journal says: "Stress cannot only affect how much information we learn and remember, but stress also flips the balance between the systems dominating learning and memory, which has considerable consequences for the nature and flexibility of memories and the goal-directedness of behavior."

As students, athletes and youth, we have all been required to learn new skills and retain information under stress. These experiences enable us to do so in the future at increasingly higher levels of difficulty as we age and mature physically, mentally and emotionally.

Learn to Push Through Pain and Fear.

Teaching hundreds of people to do tasks, such as jumping out of airplanes, is accomplished through a steady state of physical development and activity, an all-business instructor force and training subjects to deal mentally, emotionally and physically with the stressor of a natural fear.

Having a high level of fitness can help students and candidates in the tactical professions be in a better state of mind, versus being exhausted, in pain and literally too physically stressed to learn. But the "high" of conquering that fear also completes the stress cycle and helps you naturally metabolize the stress hormones created through anxiety, physical duress and life-or-death fears.

Here are some quick ways to complete the body's stress response system at the end of the day or even during stressful events.

1. Breathe

Controlled breathing with deep inhales and full exhales can help us reduce our heart rate but also relax nearly instantly. When dealing with stress or anxiety, learn how to breathe properly. Consider box breathing where you inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds and hold for four seconds. There are many methods for relaxed breathing, but try box breathing to get started.

2. Laugh or Cry with Each Other

Depending on the situation, laughter and even crying can be just what the doctor ordered for dealing with the stresses of the day. Most of the time, you will find humor from the day and laugh at each other's mistakes and successes to finalize the day for the better.

3. Make Time for a Workout

If you are wound tight at the end of the day, it is doubtful you need a butt-kicking, high-intensity workout. Burning the candle at both ends will just add to your overall stress. Instead, try steady-state cardio with some light resistance training. Focus on deep breathing throughout to help your mind and body naturally deal with the stressors of the day.

4. Relax and Focus on Your Creative Side

Writing, drawing, playing music or listening to music and singing quietly to yourself can be a way to work off some of the high-stress moments of the day. One of my platoon mates had this nailed. At the end of the day, he would draw cartoons of the day's events, post it in the common area and we would all get together and laugh at whatever absurdity he recorded. By the end of deployment, there were enough drawings to make a deployment book for everyone to enjoy with a much different mindset more than 20 years later.

Finally, learn and relearn. One thing the military has done well is the constant relearning of the basics in a much less stressful situation after basic training or spec-ops selection training. By relearning skills initially mastered while you were a student or candidate, your training becomes a reaction to stress, versus a stress increaser, and the "training takes over" as you get the job done when in potential life-or-death situations.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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