KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, New Mexico --
The 58th Special Operations Wing has continued on its path of innovative training to maximize human performance. The ongoing Performance Skills Workshop includes blocks on everything from financial management to work-rest cycles, healthy eating, yoga and mindfulness.
The monthly workshop is a battery of instruction offered to students so they can be the “best version of themselves,” according to Lt. Col. Jannell MacAulay, the wing’s director of human performance and leadership.
“This is a way for us as a service and especially for the group of young people that join the military to learn these methods, habits and skillsets from day one,” said MacAulay, a pilot who also holds a PhD with work in the field of Strategic Health and Human Performance. "It’s about teaching Airmen advanced techniques for self-care. I like to use the analogy of putting on your oxygen mask (during an in-flight emergency) and taking care of yourself better so that ultimately, you can perform at the highest levels when you are out there doing your jobs, whether that be in a combat environment or at home training.”
MacAulay explained that the blocks of training, while relatively new to the Air Force, are founded on evidence-based practices and research showing the benefits of a focus on human performance. This means an emphasis on the rest-and-recovery period, and healthy habits to ensure that success goes beyond technical proficiency as an Airman. Workshop students are in the special operations and combat rescue pipelines, including operations, maintenance and operations support.
“Many times, when we find students struggling, it’s not because of their inability to master the technical expertise and aspects of their job, it’s all the other things that life throws on them. It’s the stress, the anxiety, airsickness, maybe it’s the way they are eating,” she said. “We want to get them on the right track and teach them the right way to do it from the beginning. We are an organization that touches just about every Major Command, and we want to make sure we are sending them Airmen at the top of their game in both body and mind.”
Tools to improve sleep, relaxation and the work-rest cycle are applied to help Airmen trying to thrive in a society and work environment that thrives on stress. This is where mindfulness, meditation and yoga come in.
“With technology and artificial light and working 24-7, we’ve created a world where there aren’t intervals anymore that differentiate work and rest – we have blurred the lines, and this is a purposeful way to teach deliberate relaxation from the beginning,” MacAulay said. “And to enhance their understanding about the recovery period.”
In addition to the blurred lines between work and rest, Airmen enter an environment where they are expected to push themselves beyond healthy or effective levels of performance, MacAulay explained.
“Sleep is vital to our resiliency and vital to our performance,” she said. “But we live in a society that glorifies competitive stress. The busier we are, the faster we go, the more that equates to value. So this emphasis on sleep and the need for rest serves as a counter to how a lot of these young people are growing up in our culture today. If you slow down it’s almost seen as a weakness. We are trying to teach them from day one that there is value in the ability to slow down.”
The curriculum is also based on tools to address the collective difficulties experienced by veteran special operators and combat rescue Airmen.
“In the 58th SOW, we see both ends of the life cycle of the Airman--the new students that come in, and also our instructor cadre who’ve been out their hacking the mission for ten or fifteen years, and they are coming back to the schoolhouse and they are broken. They want to pay back and help give back to the new students that are starting on their journey and teach them the right way to do it from the beginning,” she said.
One of those returning Airmen is 58th Training Squadron Command Lt. Col Kevin Lee. He said he wished a similar program had been available for him early in his career, and advocates this training for all students and all Airmen.
“This is the program I wish I could give to every member of the Air Force,” Lee said. “Because these are the foundational things that are going to make them a better Airmen and a better person.”
Eight courses with more than 134 students have taken place so far, and feedback has been very positive, especially on the non-traditional techniques like yoga and mindfulness, according to MacAulay. She added that Performance Skills Workshops for leaders and supervisors are also being conducted quarterly to ensure the cultural innovation takes hold throughout the force. And it is a revolution, not unlike the way people adapted physical fitness as a performance enhancement in generations past. She noted that aerobics were pioneered by an Air Force flight surgeon trying to increase Airmen performance.
“We as a culture and an Air Force and a military have embraced the idea that physical exercise is good for us, not only in terms of body mass and keeping fit, but for our minds as well,” she said. “We are now at this cutting edge of looking at how we are going to adapt to the world around us where technology dependence means we are constantly connected. Physical exercise was designed as an antidote to the world that developed where we were sitting behind desks all day, 50 to 60 years ago. We are now on the precipice of a similar revolution with this idea of mental exercise, and of slowing down a little bit and it being beneficial to our performance. We need to disengage and exercise our brains because we are so connected with technology today and suffering from information overload.
“As an air force, we need to build the most effective warfighters, and I believe this is one of the best ways to counteract where our society is going with stress and technology,” MacAulay said.
For more information about the Performance Skills Workshop, call 853-7084 or 853-7085.