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Master Resilience Trainers Help Soldiers Compete at Warrior Games

July 11, 2017 | BY Shannon Collins

As soldiers competed for gold, silver and bronze medals July 1-8 in Chicago at the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games, they had a support staff of coaches who helped them mentally prepare for the challenge.

Brett Sandwick, a resilience training performance expert, works with the Army wheelchair basketball team at the 2017 Dept. of Defense Warrior Games at the United Center in Chicago, July 7, 2017. DoD photo by EJ Hersom
Brett Sandwick, a resilience training performance expert, works with the Army wheelchair basketball team at the 2017 Dept. of Defense Warrior Games at the United Center in Chicago, July 7, 2017. DoD photo by EJ Hersom
Brett Sandwick, a resilience training performance expert, works with the Army wheelchair basketball team at the 2017 Dept. of Defense Warrior Games at the United Center in Chicago, July 7, 2017. DoD photo by EJ Hersom
Warriors Compete in 2017 DoD Warrior Games
Brett Sandwick, a resilience training performance expert, works with the Army wheelchair basketball team at the 2017 Dept. of Defense Warrior Games at the United Center in Chicago, July 7, 2017. DoD photo by EJ Hersom
Photo By: EJ Hersom
VIRIN: 170707-D-DB155-071

Master resilience trainers and performance experts from across the U.S. and headquartered at the Army Resilience Directorate in Crystal City, Virginia, coached wounded, ill and injured soldiers in shooting, archery, cycling, track and field, swimming, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball. Throughout the week, each sport had a coach who taught skills such as real-time resilience, goal-setting, imagery, attention control, energy management and other skills that could improve performance, said Ashley Rencher, an Army master resilience trainer and performance coach for archery.

“Our resiliency program is specifically tailored to help people bounce back from adversity, [and] bounce back from those challenges in life that can sometimes get you down,” she said. “We want to make sure these athletes and these individuals are strong here, in their home lives and at work so that whatever adversity they come across, they have tools in order to utilize to make them better at what they’re doing.”

“We have our have our head coach, we have our former Olympian, we have our mechanics coach and we have our mental skills coach so we take care of the mind, the body and the bike,” said Eric Turnbaugh, an Army master resilience trainer and performance coach for cycling.

Any active, reserve, guard, veteran, Department of Army civilian or family member can utilize the master resilience trainer and performance expert program. They are at 25 training centers at Army installations across the U.S.

“Walter Reed [National Military Hospital] serves as a contact point for a lot of veterans who can reach out and find where the nearest one is and find out where our services are available,” Turnbaugh said. “We can also do remote too such as phone calls; it’s what I did with a few of the athletes who weren’t near a training site.”

Sport Application

Turnbaugh said his job at the Warrior Games was “to make sure the athletes have the necessary tools to perform at the optimal level. It’s been inspirational.”

For cycling, the athletes had limited practice and some of them had traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder with memory issues, so they practiced mental mapping or course memorization, he said. “Not knowing the course is a big limitation, so the best thing if we can’t get physical practice is mental practice. So, I took a video of the course and sent it out to the athletes,” Turnbaugh said. “We got maps out to the athletes, suggested a Google street view and had them go out and watch it over and over again and see where their expectations would be for certain difficulties, certain rates of exertion, environments, all the feedback they might receive so they could prepare as much as possible, build up their confidence so they could be physically and mentally ready.”

Turnbaugh said the athletes also had to use mental imagery during the Army trials at Fort Bliss, Texas, when they faced 40-mile per hour winds with sand and rocks in their face. He said blocking out the environment by going somewhere else in your mind can help you perform at a higher level.

Army Col. Michael Malone, who has PTSD, has been using master resilience trainers and performance experts since taking part in the Army regionals last November. He said it has improved both his archery and cycling performances.

“Crowds are tough, especially in archery,” he said. “You’re very close to people. You’ve got to work on trying to create your own little mental bubble so you can exclude the others around you, especially having someone right behind you can be super challenging.

“I’ve increased my archery ability quite a bit and in cycling, I did very well today so now, I’m on to visualizing and thinking through preparation for the swimming event so I’ll do mental rehearsal for that over the next couple of days,” Malone continued. “it’s all about trying to develop that game plan, trying to visualize how you’re going to compete in the competition and then going out and doing it how you see it in your head. This has definitely helped.”

Malone said the program becomes another tool for your kit bag. “The cycling coach talks to you about the mechanics of cycling; the archery coach talks to you about the mechanics of archery,” he said. “Your physical performance is a significant part of how you perform, but your mental agility and your ability to think through how you’re going to do it and see yourself doing it right over and over again brings that physical skill up to its peak performance.”

Real-World Application

Malone and the two coaches said the skills can be carried over from athletics to the real world. “It translates into how you go about preparing for an important interview or an important meeting or taking a test,” he said. “You can use those same tools and techniques to start looking at how you can apply them to other areas of your life.”

“We have about 70,000 thoughts a day. We want to be in control of a good bit of those thoughts rather than just constantly having random thoughts within our head or at least be able to adapt and be flexible and change some of our incoming thoughts to something that’s going to be more productive and efficient over time for our goals,” Turnbaugh said. One way to do that is to build up a vocabulary of mental cues and empowering statements for self-talk to help with life situations such as when people are giving briefings, talking to their spouses, performing as athletes and going on job interviews.

“This program has made a big difference,” Malone said. “Having it on a regular basis, not just at regionals or at the Army trials, … has helped me tremendously. When you get programs like this out into the community, you can see long-term benefits.”