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Short Read

Optimising Human Performance

Over the past two decades, enhancing human performance capabilities for those operating in extremis contexts (i.e., Armed Forces, Emergency Services, and First Responders) has gained considerable traction in policy-making and scientific circles. To operationalise this concept, the term Human Performance Optimisation (HPO) first emerged within the US Department of Defence (DoD) in 2006 as a conceptual framework to develop the performance capabilities of the military’s most important asset – its people.1 Military tasks, by their very nature, place unique and intense physiological, psychological, and cognitive demands upon all Warfighters. In addition, the contemporary operational environment is arguably more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) than ever before2. Indeed, the return of peer-on-peer conflict and the emergence of unconventional, asymmetric, and hybrid threats, combined with the scale and speed of technological change, has, and will, continue to make conflict a challenging and ever-evolving affair contested not only in the land, air, and maritime environments but also in the electromagnetic, cyber and space domains.3However, it is essential to note that while the character of conflict may change, its fundamental nature remains the same: it is a human endeavour that is adversarial, dynamic, complex, and lethal.4

Given this reality, it is vital that every Warfighter, irrespective of gender, age, rank, or trade, is prepared for the demands of the contemporary operational environment. The importance of developing human performance capabilities for such demands was succinctly put by US Army Colonel (ret.) John Collins who stated that “Humans are more important than hardware, and their quality is more important than their quantities”. This point was again highlighted more recently by the British Army Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Saunders, who stated that “We need ‘warfighters’ – whether they are cyber specialists, drone pilots or infantry soldiers – to be stronger, faster, more intelligent and more resilient.”  To achieve this laudable objective, the Armed Forces must develop appropriate training strategies to enable military personnel to perform to their full potential. Indeed, lessons learned over the past two decades have been internalised, resulting in a considerable improvement in the training, competence, motivation, and overall combat effectiveness of the Warfighter.5HPO represents part of this evolution and has been defined in the literature as the process of applying knowledge, skills, and emerging technologies to improve and preserve the capabilities of military personnel to execute essential tasks”. Fundamentally, HPO aims to leverage evidence-based information and best practices to make the Warfighter as resilient, capable, agile, and lethal as possible.6 In addition, due to a reduced size and budget, the Armed Forces cannot afford large numbers of non-deployable personnel. Therefore, a secondary aim of HPO is to improve individual career longevity and reduce injury rates.

It is Nothing New

Preparing the Warfighter for success on the battlefield is nothing new. Indeed, numerous historical examples of military leadership emphasise the same ideas promoted within this article. However, our collective understanding of the optimal approach to achieve this aim has improved considerably, driven by developments in applied sports science, physiology, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience. To conceptualise HPO, the Warfighter should be viewed as a human platform. This approach allows for the routine monitoring, analysis, and development of critical human performance capabilities no different from traditional military platforms (i.e., weapon systems, vehicles, or ISTAR assets). However, to adopt such an approach, it is essential to define critical aspects of human performance. This typically is done using the Biopsychosocial model whereby human performance capabilities are split into three distinct areas – physical, psychological, and social.7 However, it can be argued that this model represents an oversimplification and that HPO should be viewed through the critical domains of human performance – physiological readiness, psychological resilience, cognitive capability, sleep, and nutrition (Figure 1).8

This approach identifies and evaluates valid and reliable human performance metrics and enables the establishment of intervention and research priorities.

Figure 1 – The Biopsychosocial Model Of Human Performance Optimisation (HPO)

Enhancement or degradation in each of the domains above can be linked directly to the operational performance capabilities of the Warfighter. However, HPO should be viewed as an aggregate outcome influenced by performance in each domain. For example, if performance in each domain could be enhanced by 1 – 2%, this may result in an aggregated performance enhancement of 5 – 10%, which may lead to improvements in the overall health, well-being, and operational capability of the Warfighter. Another critical point to note is that if the capabilities of the human platform can be optimised up to the limit of one’s biological capabilities; technology can then be fully utilised to augment and enhance performance beyond the limit of biological potential (i.e., human-machine teaming).9

Operationalising HPO

Given its obvious importance, HPO should be considered a specific military capability distinct, but closely linked, to the medical services.  As such, a higher-level doctrine is required to provide guidance, coherence, and consistency in the development, delivery, monitoring, and evaluation of HPO strategies. Without such guidance the success of any HPO intervention is likely to be limited and it is imperative that commonly agreed and understood principles and procedures be developed and codified. However, such a doctrine must not be overly prescriptive and should merely act as a framework to guide best practice. In terms of operationalising HPO, policy makers and the Chain of Command (CoC) need to drive the development of a high-performance culture, ensure effective HPO education, and implement focused HPO strategies at the individual, team, and institutional levels. The importance of adopting a high-performance culture regarding HPO cannot be understated. Culture refers to a basic pattern of assumptions, norms, behaviours, and values learned by members of a group or organization as to the proper way to think and behave and includes a general sense of “how things work” and “how we do things” in the group or organization.10

Therefore, adopting a high-performance culture around HPO represents the foundation for a vision wherein the Armed Forces seek to optimise the physiological readiness, psychological resilience, and cognitive dominance of every Warfighter.

It is important to note that HPO represents a broad topic that is too complex to be dealt with adequately by a single discipline or profession. Therefore, an interdisciplinary approach is required to provide a more comprehensive perspective. This involves the creation of interdisciplinary teams (IDTs) of physiologists, sports psychologists, cognitive psychologists, nutritionists, and sleep scientists who can be embedded at either a unit or brigade level to provide HPO education and training. While similar to the concept of performance support in sport, it must be remembered that the end-state objective and contextual requirements of the Warfighter are markedly different from those of the professional athlete. The Warfighter needs to be able to fight and win in a high-stress, high-stakes environment where the consequence of failure can result in death or catastrophic loss. As such, it is vital that such IDTs also include suitably qualified and experienced military Physical Training Instructors (PTIs), officers, SNCOs, and medical branch personnel who can help provide contextual understanding and guidance on the application HPO interventions. Such IDTs would then aim to enhance the delivery of physical training, use evidence-led psychological skills training, apply focused training interventions to develop lower-order and higher-order cognitive capabilities, and help dial in the adoption of good nutritional practices and healthy sleep behaviours. Furthermore, embedding IDTs would allow the tailoring of bespoke HPO packages dependent upon a specific unit role. For example, an infantry battalion may focus more on developing physical readiness and psychological resilience, whereas an intelligence unit may need more focus on the development of  cognitive capabilities.

Conclusion

Examples of HPO initiatives currently being rolled out at scale include the US Special Operations Command (USSCOM), Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) program, and the broader US Army Holistic Health and Fitness (HF2) soldier readiness system.11

Initial evidence suggests that both POTFF and H2F are successful.12 However, the implementation of both programs is not without issue, and they continue to adapt and evolve as they move toward full operational capability.  Undoubtedly, HPO has the potential to act as a critical force multiplier, enhancing the health, well-being, and operational capabilities of the Armed Force’s most important asset – its people. Implementing a holistic HPO program would not be without its challenges (i.e., culture, finances, and resourcing). However, establishing HPO as a distinct military capability would allow the Armed Forces to fully leverage knowledge, skills, and emerging technology to improve and preserve the physiological, psychological, and cognitive abilities of the Warfighter to ensure dominance on the battlefield of today and tomorrow. To fight, win, and then come home healthy to lead an active, meaningful, and fulfilled life.

Image: Jonpaul Nevin
Jonpaul Nevin

Jonpaul Nevin, BSc (Hons), MSc, ASCC, CSCS, FHEA

Jonpaul is a senior lecturer in strength and conditioning and program director of the Tactical Athlete Performance Centre (TAPC) at Buckinghamshire New University (BNU) with 23 years of experience in coaching, teaching, project management, research, and consultancy. Following 15 years in the British Army, which included service in the Corps of Royal Engineers and Royal Army Physical Training Corps (RAPTC), Jonpaul moved into Paralympic sport and coached successful athletes at Commonwealth, European, World, and Paralympic levels of competition. Jonpaul is an Accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach (ASCC) with the United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Association (UKSCA) and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). He has a keen interest in Tactical Strength and Conditioning and Human Performance Optimisation for those who work in extremis contexts and is currently working towards a PhD via Published Works.

Image; Dr Martin Jones
Martin Jones

Martin I. Jones BSc PCGHE MSc PhD CPsychol CSci AFBPsS SFHEA

Martin is a sport and exercise psychologist with over 20 years of experience supporting high performers in sports, business, and the military. Martin has postgraduate degrees in Sport and Exercise Psychology from Loughborough University and Sleep Medicine from Oxford University and has published over 50 peer-reviewed publications and book chapters on human performance topics. Following a career in higher education, Martin moved to DSTL and worked as a Principal Psychologist, Principal Advisor for Human Performance and Human Augmentation, and the UK lead to the NATO Human Factors and Medicine Science and Technology panel. Martin now runs OpHP LTD, a human performance consultancy that advises several esteemed defence and security organisations. In collaboration with Jonpaul Nevin and the Wavell Room, Martin has created the Optimising Human Performance Podcast to help share evidence-based human performance optimisation practice.

Footnotes

  1. Deuster, PA., O’Conner, F., & Martindale, V. (2007). Human performance optimization: An evolving charge to the Department of Defense. Military Medicine 172: 1133 – 1137. DOI: 7205/milmed.172.11.1133Deuster, , & O’Conner F. (2015). Human performance optimization: Culture change and paradigm shift. Journal of  Strength and Conditioning  Research 29: S52 – S56. DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001118
  2. Stiehm JH. (2002)/ The U.S. Army War College: Military Education in Democracy. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
  3. Billing, DC., Fordy, GR., & Friedl, KE., et al., (2021). The implications of emerging technology on military human performance research priorities. Journal of Science and Medicine in  Sport 24: 947-953. DOI: 1016/j.jsams.2020.10.007
  4. Storr J. (2009) The Human Face of War. London, UK: Bloomsbury.
  5. King A. (2012). The Combat Soldier: Infantry Tactics and Cohesion in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  6. Caravalho J. (2015). Improving soldier health and performance by moving army medicine toward a system for health. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29: S4 – S9. DOI: 1519/JSC.0000000000001107
  7. Human Performance Optimization: The Science and Ethics of Enhancing Human Capabilities. Matthews MD, Schnyer DM, eds. Oxford, UK: Oxford Press, 2019.
  8. Nindl, BC., Jaffin, DP., Dretsch, MN., et al., (2015).  Human performance optimization metrics: Consensus findings, gaps, and recommendations for future research. Journal of  Strength and  Conditioning Research 29: S221 – S245. DOI: 1519/JSC.0000000000001114
  9. Ministry of Defence (MOD). (2021) Human Augmentation – The Dawn of a New Paradigm, A Strategic Implications Project. Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC). Shrivenham, UK.
  10. Horner, DD., Pannell. LP., Yates, DW., & Lopez, R. (2022). Creating a high-performance culture for organizations in dangerous situations. In: Leadership in Dangerous Situations (2Nd Ed). Sweeney PJ, Matthews MD, Lester, PB, Hannah, ST, & Reed, BJ. (eds). Annapolis, Maryland: Navel Institute Press, 325 – 353.
  11. SOCOM (2021). About POTFF. Available at: https://www.socom.mil/POTFF/Pages/About-POTFF.aspx (Accessed: 15 April 2024. Headquarters, Department of the Army (2021). Holistic Health and Fitness. FM 7-22. Washington, DC.
  12. United States Government Accountability Office. (2021). Special Operations Forces: Additional Actions Needed to Manage the Preservation of the Force and Family Program Effectively. Report to the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, GAO-22-104486.Centre of Army Lessons Learned, Department of the Army. (2023) Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F) Handbook, Fort Leavenworth, KA.

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