APRIL 26, 2019 – More than 90 percent of those who attempt to become an Army diver fail in the first 14 days of training.
The hopefuls are often overcome, physically and mentally, by rigorous drills meant to winnow down recruits to the elite few.
The journey to become an Army diver begins (and often ends) at the Phase I course of the U.S. Army Engineer Dive School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. In fiscal year 2018, only six enlisted Soldiers attained the 12D (Engineer Diver) military occupational specialty. Although nine graduated Phase I of their Advanced Individual Training, or AIT, only the six went on to graduate from Phases II and III held at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center in Panama City Beach, Florida.
Sgt. 1st Class Eric T. Bailey, non-commissioned officer in charge and master diver for the 12D Phase I course, said a lot of the recruits arrive for training ill-prepared for what awaits them. The recruits have to pass a Diver Physical Fitness Test that, besides curl-ups and pushups, includes a timed 500-yard swim using the breast or side stroke, six pull-ups and a 1.5 mile run in 12 minutes and 30 seconds or less. They also need to pass the Class I Advanced Survival Swimmer Test. The ASST has five events including an underwater breath hold in which the trainees, in their full uniform, descend to the bottom of a 14-foot pool and swim the entire width of the pool on a single breath, touching the first and last of seven lane lines, before ascending. And that’s just Day 1.
Throughout Phase I, students have to do increasingly arduous breath-holding drills, including “ditch and dons” which involve ditching their gear at the bottom of the pool then donning it again, making sure to clear their mask and snorkel. Bailey said the hardest part of the drill is for students to remain calm enough to don their gear even as their body urges them to breathe.
“They give up on themselves mentally, before they physically can’t do any more,” said Bailey.
As a result of the insanely high attrition rates, Bailey set out to find a way to “make Soldiers better, faster.” And he thinks he has found it in the Fort Leonard Wood Ready and Resilient Performance Center or R2PC.
The R2PC is staffed with master resilience trainers-performance experts, or MRT-PEs, who are not only trained to increase Soldier’s mental resilience but also have degrees in sports and performance psychology which they use to enhance Soldier’s physical performance.
Dr. Kelly Dantin and Deanna Morrison, the performance experts on contract at the Fort Leonard Wood R2PC, observed the diver training and talked to the cadre and graduates of Phase I to get their input and develop a customized block of instruction for the 12D trainees. They found that if the students were physically prepared for the Phase I course, their next biggest challenge to graduating was their mindset. So they set about instilling in the students the mentality that quitting was “off the table” and simply not an option, Dantin said.
The performance experts started working with the 12D trainees in October. The week prior to the students starting Phase I, Dantin and Morrison gave them training on techniques such as deliberate (or tactical) breathing, labeling (which includes the act of reframing a situation as a challenge instead of a threat) and Activating Events, Thoughts, and Consequences , or ATC.
ATC is a model that conveys that it’s thinking that determines what people do and how they feel, not the events that happen.”
Students who fail from the Phase I course do so because they feel overwhelmed by the physical demands and don’t believe they can continue to perform over the entire course, Bailey said. To address this mental obstacle, the R2 performance experts teach the students a technique called segmenting. They teach them to break down the course into small chunks, and instead of thinking about the entirety of the course, just to think about making it until lunch. And then making it until dinner. And then making it until bedtime.
“Evolution by evolution, lap by lap, you can segment anything, breaking it up into bite-sized pieces,” that are manageable, Bailey said.
“We teach them how to perform better under pressure,” using both mental resilience and sports psychology, Morrison said.
In the four months since they started the R2 training, the course has achieved what previously took an entire year: graduating nine students out of Phase I. Bailey said that if the numbers bear out, he is looking at doubling the graduation rate in FY2019 from the previous year.
Bailey said he knows that the R2 training is working and has been a contributing factor with helping to reduce the attrition rates.
“Every time that we have done a debrief with a Soldier that graduated, they said that training helped,” Bailey said. The students even start talking about the specific techniques, repeating what they learned from the R2 training. That success led to Bailey asking the MRT-PEs to continue to give the block of instruction in all future Phase I courses.
“Because of the R2 performance training we are sending to Florida Soldiers that are better prepared, not only physically, tactically and technically, but also mentally,” Bailey said.
By Antonieta Rico, SR2 Strategic Communications