A recent area of research of mine is in the psychological concept of “hardiness.”
Hardiness, put simply, is the ability to withstand and perform well under stress.
The concept was initially defined in the late seventies when a guy named Kobasa began studying the psychological profiles of men working as executives for AT&T during a financial crisis in which many of them were losing their jobs.
Kobasa found that certain men portrayed specific characteristics which, over the course of the five-year study, kept them emotionally happier, physically healthier and at a higher level of job performance.
Since then, this concept has been refined and tested in many “high reliability occupations:” Those in which demands are high and failure can be catastrophic. The military is, of course, full of such jobs and the Special Operations Communities have been studied intensively.
The biological markers of stress-resistant individuals have been identified earlier by men like Yale’s Dr. C. A. Morgan, the man behind the Special Forces study I mention in the first paragraph of Combat Psychology and Sports Performance.
In 2008, Dr. Paul Bartone published a study showing that psychological hardiness can be used to predict success in U.S. Army Special Forces candidates.
Now, not only are the biological markers measurable, there are fairly reliable psychological measures which can be used to assess ones potential for performance under stress.
Interestingly, one recent study suggests that the individuals most likely to fail under pressure are those who, in the absence of pressure, have the highest capacity for success (Beilock and Carr, 2005). This may seem counter intuitive, but consider where the breaking point lies in performance under stress: Within the mind.
In U.S. Navy Special Operations Force Selection, we frequently noticed that the “gazelles,” guys who could physically coast through anything and often came to BUD/S or SWCC school with illustrious athletic backgrounds, often quit predictably and early.
These men who had been gifted athletes their entire lives had always felt things come easily for them physically. The thing is though, that in that sort of training, everyone is driven to their physical breaking point. The ones who had never developed any sort of familiarity with suffering and struggle were often mentally unprepared and incapable of continuing.
Beilock and Carr’s study showed that the same thing can happen in many other high reliability occupations. Those who demonstrate the most potential without stress can be the first to break when extreme stress is introduced.
Dr. Eric Potterat, a psychologist working at the Naval Special Warfare Center working with students going through BUD/S, has commented on the subject of the mental aspects of performance and has been working in concert with a university in Southern California and the Olympic training center to develop further research into the psychology of performance under stress.
Dr. Potterat said, “Physically, there’s very little difference between athletes who win Olympic gold and the rest of the field. It’s like the SEAL candidates we see here. Terrific hardware. Situps, pushups, running, swimming — off the charts, superhuman. But over at the Olympic center, the sports psychologists found that the difference between a medal and no medal is determined by an athlete’s mental ability. The elite athletes, the Tiger Woodses, the Kobe Bryants, the Michael Jordans — this is what separates them from the competition. Knowing how to use information.”
None of this is very useful information unless you know what to do about it and how to use it to your benefit. It’s a very broad and intensive subject, but where I would recommend starting is at the foundation of the “hardy-resilient” personality itself.
Hardiness is broken down into three separate characteristics: Commitment, control and challenge.
Susan Ouellette, in the Encyclopedia of Occupational Health and Safety, defines these three traits well.
“The characteristic of hardiness is based in an existential theory of personality and is defined as a person’s basic stance towards his or her place in the world that simultaneously expresses commitment, control and readiness to respond to challenge (Kobasa 1979; Kobasa, Maddi and Kahn 1982).
Commitment is the tendency to involve oneself in, rather than experience alienation from, whatever one is doing or encounters in life. Committed persons have a generalized sense of purpose that allows them to identify with and find meaningful the persons, events and things of their environment.
Control is the tendency to think, feel and act as if one is influential, rather than helpless, in the face of the varied contingencies of life. Persons with control do not naively expect to determine all events and outcomes but rather perceive themselves as being able to make a difference in the world through their exercise of imagination, knowledge, skill and choice.
Challenge is the tendency to believe that change rather than stability is normal in life and that changes are interesting incentives to growth rather than threats to security. So far from being reckless adventurers, persons with challenge are rather individuals with an openness to new experiences and a tolerance of ambiguity that enables them to be flexible in the face of change.”
In sum, the greater your levels of commitment, control and challenge when faced with a stressful situation, the greater your chances of performing well and doing so without impact on your mental and physical health.
The catch here, is that a high level of self awareness must be involved in order to assess these characteristics within yourself. This is called “metaknowledge” and is the ability to think about the way in which you are thinking.
The next time you are faced with a high pressure, stressful situation, read through that list of the three hardiness factors and ask yourself to what degree you feel commitment, control and challenge. If you’re coming up low in any of those categories, what can you do about it to develop this within