Military mental toughness symposium


Military organisations worldwide are noting the crucial role behavioural sciences research has to play in enabling improved understanding of human factors at play during conflicts. Against this background the Military Psychological Institute (MPI), in partnership with South African Special Forces and the CSIR, hosted an African Military Psychology Symposium on Mental Toughness.

Combat scenarios on the African continent have become increasingly brutal and intense. Special Forces operators find themselves more frequently engaged in highly intense and life threatening battles. Such operations place tremendous stress on individuals – not only physically, but also mentally. In the Special Forces scenario, great emphasis is placed on training that enables recruits to continue their mental functioning even though they are physically depleted. The concept of mental toughness is an important focus area of research in South Africa as well with the added challenge of contextualising findings within the culturally diverse African context.

The symposium, held at the CSIR late last year, was attended by researchers, academics, practitioners, soldiers and military leaders from across Africa.

Symposium coordinator, Adelai van Heerden, project leader of Special Forces behaviour science projects and also project leader of the military behavioural sciences capability at the CSIR, said the event was the result of increasing emphasis on the importance of the human factor area of research within military contexts.

She explained: “In a 2008 study published in the International Journal of Selection and Assessment, graduates of Special Forces programmes were found to have superior ‘psychological hardiness’ to non-graduates. Special Forces operators are expected to perform at their peak under any conditions; it could mean the difference between a successful mission and an unsuccessful one that could cost military organisations dearly in terms of the loss of life”.
“The training of specialist military operators takes time and investment. By testing applicants in terms of both physical and mental capability, we are able to predict success in selection courses as well as for leadership positions such as officer potential assessments to match the required psychological profiles.”

Van Heerden also said that in recent studies, psychological hardiness proved to be an important individual characteristic associated with stress tolerance and successful performance in highly demanding occupations. The concept of mental toughness is an important focus area of research, with the added challenge of contextualising our findings within the culturally diverse African context.

The keynote was presented by human assessment expert, Dr. Sidney Irvine, Emeritus Professor from the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom. He established the Human Assessment Laboratory and developed various international recruitment batteries for the UK, USA and Belgium Militaries. His topic was military Mental Toughness: A Psychological Safari.

Culture and context also form part of the conceptual make-up of psychological processing. Van Heerden explained: “We have been focusing on the African soldier and the African context. Our continent is multi-cultural – which means our concepts of ‘achievement’, ‘happiness’, ‘motivation’, ‘success’, ‘leadership’ and ‘determination’ can differ significantly between various cultural groups. We are trying to identify and define the constructs that support every individual’s capacity for mental toughness. We are revisiting what makes the quintessential African warrior”.

Presentation topics at the seminar covered the manifestation of mental toughness in Special Forces operations as well as airborne soldiers, deployment scenarios, cognition and the influence of culture on mental toughness from an African Warrior perspective. Presenters included university staff as well as military psychologists.

The final session of the day was a panel discussion by all participants on mental toughness requirements for African Special Forces operators. The final session was chaired by the Senior Staff Officer: Training of the South African Special Forces and focused on elaborating on the symposium presentations and discussions.