Helping the best to get better: SF operators

Let me take you to a lesser known part of my work. I never fulfilled my duty in the Army, for the simple reason that I tore my Achilles tendon as an athlete. No one in my family has strong ties with the military anyway, it was one of these fields of life that was virtually unknown for me. But a long time ago, one of my students in my courses thought that my ideas about physical training and mental stress were interesting for his profession as well and he invited me to come to an army base to take a look. I did not know at that time that this was the base of our best units in Holland.

This unit, at that time called the BBE (Special Support Unit) has been operating in many parts in the world, more recently in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali, often in cooperation with other Western SF units in Taskforces. This unit is the SF unit of the famous Royal Marine Corps, that was founded in 1665 and has seen a lot of action. Now it is called MARSOF, Maritime Special Operations, combined with the Unit Interventions Marines.

working with SP operators
working with SP operators

One of their world famous operations is the ending a train hijack in 1977 at De Punt, where 9 terrorists stopped a train and stayed there for almost three weeks with 54 hostages. They did this in combination of taking 105 children and 5 teachers as hostages at a primary school in Bovensmilde. The action ended with 52 hostages in the train saved and 6 terrorists got killed, In the school the children and their teachers were free and the 4 hostagetakers were arrested, and no casualties at the side of the unit.

Video about this operation:

I started studying their selection, their procedures, their training and their preparation, asking many dumb questions, but it did not take long to get the picture about their way of operating and thinking behavior, their capacities and limitations.
In one of my public articles was called: Elite sports square (Topsport in het kwadraat), because there are many similarities (and many important differences too!)between their life and the life of an elite athlete.

First of all they are very physical-oriented people, many of the are keen athletes and outdoors fans.

Research on recovery

But unlike athletes, they have to be in shape all year round, their beeper might go off any moment of the day and the night. Even more interesting: there is no room for second place! Fast, irreversible and often lethal decisions have to be taken in an uncertain and chaotic environment and stressful and unpredictable circumstances. And we only read about the when things went wrong, they seldom, leave alone individually, get credited for their actions. These professionals are great to work with, also in experimental setups. And let me tell you they enjoy that too, because it is applicable to their daily functioning.

Testing stress levels
Testing stress levels
Testing reaction- and decision making time
Testing reaction- and decision making time

These operators are also very interested in training for endurance and strength, and in motor learning, since they are comparable to decathletes, having to practice many different skills and drills, like climbing, shooting, swimming, parachuting, diving, etc. which means there is little time to become really good in everything. That is why in every team they have specialists like for explosives, communication or combat medics.

Three returning main problems are:
1. how to select the right people for the job, based on which demands
2. what is the exact role of physical fitness and physical fitness testing and
3. how to prepare and to train from the situation you cannot prepare for (unless you are willing to accept a lot of attrition),since not many situations will prepare you adequately for combat!

These are questions with complex answers on multiple levels, I am not going to give you my opinion here. But you can imagine that selection starts with a good analysis of the mental and physical demands of the job and this changes over time. There is no need for turning them into bodybuilders, weightlifters or triathletes. We can even question the strong focus on physical demands, since only in exceptional cases an extraordinary physical demand will be demanded. The regular routine is waiting, preparing and organizing, training their skills, carrying and trying to recovery physically, cognitively and emotionally. Long marches through the desert are things from the past, the helicopter has taken the place of horses, camels or marches. Pulling a trigger is not very physically demanding and speed and power generation are more important than raw strength. Of course, not underestimating the combination of all of these in raw combat.

It is not difficult to understand that the main performance organ of the SF operator is also the brain, just like in elite athletes, with quick reaction and decision making, good motor skills fine and gross under stress, fast switching from boredom to full engagement, fatigue-resistant (lack of sleep, stress), good adaptability to adverse circumstances, fast recovery from mental and physical stress, etc. So the mental elements are just as important as the physical ones, but are often seen as natural “by-products” of hard physical training, and not something that should be trained specifically.

Needless to say I really enjoy working with these guys, because they are very motivated to get better in what they do and also I appreciate their willingness to put their life on the line for us when it comes to that.
One of the main issues is the problem of injuries caused by:
1 combination of practice with their teams and training themselves for sports so
2 lack of time for recovery, chronic fatigue, also through traveling and lack of sleep
3 carrying heavy loads, like vests, shields, ammo, guns, tools all day long sometimes
4 Crossfit, often based on “willpower” and being “tough’ at the expense of proper lifting technique
Increasing awareness and education are the main solutions to most of these problems.
I am happy to be able to give a small contribution to these professionals, since they deserve to become as good as they want to being more efficient in their operation and limiting mental and physical damage in the short-and in the long term.
One day I will tell some more technical backgrounds about working with the best in their field, since I learned a lot by listening, observing, filming and testing.

Testing the brain in shooting 1
Testing the brain in shooting 1
Testing the brain in shooting 2
Testing the brain in shooting 2

“The Nation that draws too great a distance between its soldiers and its scholars will have its children taught by cowards and its fighting done by fools. ” Thucydides

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