Future ship commanders and executive officers are getting new tools to prepare for the rigors of leadership at sea as part of a new series of courses to boost their own mental and physical skills and tactical performance of their ships’ crews.
That’s the intent of a new series of workshops in the leadership courses at Surface Warfare Officers School for prospective commanding officers, prospective executive officers and those going to major commands, Capt. Scott Smith, director of the school’s Command at Sea Training department in Newport, R.I., told USNI News.
“The military and the Navy are investing significant time and resources into these areas, the surface Navy in particular,” Smith said. “We’re investing in lethality in our ships, so we also want to invest in the lethality in our people – and that requires the toughness and the resilience” needed to navigate the stresses that SWOs face while at sea.
Students in the SWOS courses get combat leadership training throughout each course’s curriculum, and they receive instruction in the physical and emotional demands of combat operations, Smith said. That’s included regular study and discussions of historical decision-making and high-stress scenarios, often with senior combat leaders, and they learn practical techniques in performance psychology, nutrition, recovery, sleep and stress mitigation. So he looked for ways to help the future leaders find ways to make their ship crews lethal and strong, the same performance they expect from their ships.
“The surface Navy has gone to such great efforts to ensure that our ships, when they leave, they leave no redundancy on the pier. Well, this is the human performance equivalent of that,” he said, “the surface Navy leadership investing in the individuals to ensure that they have as much information and the techniques that we can give them to perform at their best.”
“That performance, it always degrades over time, much like the ship does overtime when deployed,” he added. “Just like we fix our ships, we’re able to recharge the batteries through the study of combat conditions, and part of that is performance psychology and nutrition and sleep.”
The workshops are provided under a contract with O2X, a “human performance training” firm co-founded by three former Navy SEALs and which works with 250 specialists with a wide range of expertise, including combat conditioning, nutrition, sleep science, performance psychology and yoga.
“Our curriculum covers sleep, nutrition, conditioning, resilience and management of stress,” said Adam La Reau , a former Navy SEAL and co-founder of the Scituate, Massachusetts-based O2X. The approach is to fuse them all together, with instruction on the science and practical application in a customized curriculum, and “make them easy for everybody to use.”
“What it comes down to is… resilience, readiness and retention of the force,” La Reau said. “A lot of the feedback is, I wish I had had this as a commissioned officer, as an ensign, to get this training up front and to be able to take care of yourself.”
“We put a ton of money and effort and maintenance into our ships,” he added. “We need to do the same to ourselves, because that is the most critical asset that we have, especially in the defense of our country.”
While the Navy has provided expertise and resources, including nutrition specialists and others, to guide instruction at SWO School at times, Smith said, for leadership classes, “I needed some consistency, and that’s what this gave.”
By linking up with O2X, he said, “I’m able to do predictable scheduling.”
SWO School is in the first year of a two-year contract with O2X “to provide a standardized curriculum regarding human performance training,” said Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a SURFOR spokeswoman. “This training was already part of the SWO’s curriculum for Command at Sea training program but this allows us to provide the most current science on a predictable and repeatable schedule.”
The O2X-led workshops – prospective XOs get a three-day module, while for COs it is a one full day module – provide students with focused instruction and practical application, with the goal of creating a continuum of learning they carry through their entire career, officials said.
The O2X modules will remain in the PCO and PXO curricula into the next fiscal year, Smith said, “but the next segment that we’re looking at is department heads.”
Three classes so far have completed the training. Many are “asking how do we take this and make this available to the sailors,” he said. A popular subject among students in the first three courses is performance nutrition “and how does that fit in with Navy 28-day meal plan, how can you incorporate healthy choices, how do we have a healthy lifestyle aboard a ship,” he added.
Students in each course go through several individual assessments, including physical, mobility, sleep and stress. “As time goes on and they come back, we’ll be able to go and revisit that baseline, and see, alright, over the course of an XO tour, now that you’re coming back for your CO course, what’s happened in the last 18-ish months to your body to your sleep schedule, to your stress level, et cetera,” Smith said. “We don’t know what that’s going to show, but we have some assumptions.”
The benefits of human performance training that’s gear to senior leaders and mid-level officers can have good, secondary effects, namely on ships’ crews, La Reau said, “because people emulate what their commanders are doing.”
“The senior officer and the senior enlisted – I think the culture of that vessel or that ship – has a lot to do with… what the commander’s priorities are, and if he’s taking care of himself and putting an effort on health and wellness,” he said. “ A lot of it is self-care. It is understanding that it’s going to be very difficult to be the best leader that you can be if you’re not taking care of yourself.” A lack of self-care, he said, can negatively affect one’s attention and focus, cognitive functioning, energy level, sleep quality and even how they interact with others, he noted.
Health and wellness are especially important when operating at sea and in the shipboard environment, where both commanders and crews must be able to perform well while under pressure, or perhaps overtaxed, tired and stressed. Reminders of worst-case scenarios came to light in the separate, fatal 2017 collisions involving the destroyers USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) and USS John S. McCain (DDG-56).
“When you’re underway at night and you have multiple vessels crossing and you are in an area where you need to pay attention who knows – maybe there’s high piracy, maybe there’s a huge potential for a collision. There could be various range of experiences on the bridge wing,” said LaRue, a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy graduate who served on vessels and Military Sealift Command ships before he became a Navy SEAL. “To be able to have those skill sets, to be able to teach those skill sets down to the lowest level, is super important on performance.”
Senior leaders can provide “good examples for our crew,” he added.
It’s important that the Navy focuses on bolstering crews’ physical health as much as their overall wellness, to include their mental and emotional performance, including how they manage stress. At SWO School, students training in bridge simulators must tackle a variety of challenges. ““It requires poise, it requires a lot of discipline and skill but also composure,” said La Reau.
Too often, “what we leave off is the neck-up stuff,” he said, and “that leads sometimes to poor decisions, lower levels of performance or even just the retention side of just complete burnout. It does tie sometimes into leadership, the health of our force, the ability to just to maximize the capability of the vessel.”
“People focus on physical health, but the mental health side of it is critically important,” he said. For high-stress environments, “tools to clear the mind and reset are super critical… They’re going to hit adversity, so understanding how they’re going to overcome adversity over time, that’s a big part.”
Part of the company’s approach is the focus on making improvements at” 1% increments,” La Reau said, “so we’re not looking for the big sweeping change. How can you make those gradual, incremental improvements that can lead to big changes over time.” Along with their customized Readiness Assessment report and tailored recommendations, students can use a mobile app and online help “so they can reach back to us…and make them as ready as we can,” he said.