performance coaching

6 elements to cultivate resilience in high performance environment

High performance environment as a new norm in the world?

Resilience training is to prepare for unknown future events that are highly stressful and uncomfortable and is mostly common in high performance environments. So it is easy to take it lightly because how can we actually prepare for something unknown? This was my question as a lecturer of psychology in Estonian Military Academy in 2020.

As a coach working on an individual level, things are a bit easier. Every individual faces an enormous amount of challenges daily. Getting married, getting a loan, roommate leaving his dishes in the sink, losing a loved one, experiencing value-changing events, getting a job, losing a job. And I am not even touching communication, self-actualization issues. It is a reality that many of the people still lack basic needs for safety due to ever changing world with Western enslaving economic systems and not being able to structure and control it.

My resilience training aka intervention first got its shape thanks to COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. I rearranged my lecture in a way that helped students gain more control, re-focus and deal with their daily challenges and at the same time (without conscious effort) learn psychological skills, cohesion and compassion. My job was to create a judgement free environment for them to express themselves and build awareness on what they might need in crisis to thrive, to continue doing schoolwork and also help their families at the same time.
When the first pandemic wave passed, I designed the course to be more extensive and more like an intervention. 4 weeks, set lectures, topics and analysis, random peer-coaches, etc. You can read about the intervention from this book.
What I would like to share with you are the principles and mindset: the HOW I went about integrating resilience in the course and behaviors of the cadets and later on with leaders, athletes and crisis workers. I consider the template of principles created most valuable. I have created other courses, interventions and workshops and strategies based on these elements. For example a group of company executives who started a two month course right before Ukrainian crisis hit. So I might say I have battle tested this template and tested out in different settings how to build a high performance environment as a coach.

6 elements for resilience training in high performance environment

1. Total Force Fitness /Wheel of skills

Total Force Fitness (TFF) – TFF is a science based model of fields a military person needs to develop or consider in his/her life to be effective and hole during and after the service. In civilian life and career management similar models are used, referring to family, spiritual, health and other sectors in life that contribute to person’s wholistic well-being. Military indoctrination leaves little room for other parts of persons life. I used this model to convince that a person is holistic, that although we are in a military environment, our performance is affected by our private life, our values, our health. So for the challenge, it was allowed to make your mental skills training around shooting training but you could also base it around confidence in expressing your needs with your girlfriend. And some did that. I think holistic view and education is very important to give soldiers confidence that they can also succeed in civilian life. Then they are more willing to give all in in military profession. We can see it sports world, where more and more athletes are planning their civilian life already while in competition mode and that gives safety and confidence.

Cultivating resilience in high performance environment: 6 elements

2. Individual differences

Individual differences-many presentation in this conference talk about hiring and how the needs of the new generation are different. To make matters worse, we all are different within our own generation. Whoever we are, we serve the next generation and as educators, leaders, psychologists we serve our students, clients, goals. Awareness and acceptance of individual differences are a key. Once you know who you are, you can also choose who you want to be and I mean character wise. If your friends tell you you are a douchebag and they don’t want to work with you, but you love your friends and want to be with them, you have to change something. It is vital to give a message that there is a way to change your behavior. We all know that we need different types of people to succeed. The intervention allowed personal reflection as well as exposed them to other people’s reflection in a non-judgement setting. Which leads me to ..

3. Coaching

Coaching – coaching is an open discussion and awareness building in a judgement free environment where coachee has or is supported in taking control and responsibility for their life and tools to enhance performance. If you have 70 people in the course, you cannot coach them individually. Using targeted communication you can create an environment, where people feel like it is about them. So one thing was tapping in their own previous experiences and helping them connect previous successes or failures with skills needed for future challenges. Another important factor I repeatedly communicated was the fact that there is no right or wrong way of doing things and the only thing I expect is for them to be aware and write down what were their thought processes doing this challenge. Also, there was a compulsory element to have 3 one on one coachings with a peer. No in-depth teaching of coaching-skills was given, but there was a structure and main questions they should ask from the coachee, most important instruction was not to give advice.

4. Stress inoculation

Stress inoculation – The intervention challenge was set up as future proofing oneself while you are at your best. We all know that no matter your experience in different kind of stresses, when you take a cold plunge, your body wants to shut down. The more experiences you have, the less likely it is that you will shut down in a crisis unknown to you. But we all have a breaking point and traumas and they have a tendency to show up on the battle ground. Stress inoculation term allows bringing psychological preparation be integrated in soldiers life. Same goes to athletes, CEOs and crisis workers. An interesting find was that through coaching, there was heightened compassion and understanding that your challenges are not the same to all. Cadets felt more compassionate and less ready to give advice and stigmatise others as they realized that their peers have a different stress experience, different levels of stress tolerance and what stresses them out. I found a similar result in management training where a leader noticed that after the training he managed his own emotions better and did not react to employees stress with agressiveness as he used to. So yes, growth mindset tools were incorporated in educational part and cadets were encouraged to find an element in their life that they have postponed or what is uncomfortable enough.

5. Resilience

Resilience – terminology was important to show how it fits in ones life, from what is stress to what is thriving. It was more to give a different kind of language to talk in. We talked about positive psychology and performance rather than mental health or illnesses to enforce prevention and proactiveness. I believe that the way we talk about things highly affects how willingly people will ask for help, for example. For high performance teams, it is easier to start off as asking “help” to “better performc” rather then ask help for “feeling depressed”. In no way it was to pump up performance when people are depressed, it was a gateway normalize mental health struggles while being high performers.

6. Psychological skills

Psychological skills – although the challenge was about setting a goal that was out of their comfort zone by using self-talk, mood meter toolkit for self awareness, emotional regulation or breathing exercises this element of the intervention was the shortest. See some of my own favorite techniques for stress management. Students were given a short overview of basic techniques and reading references. More importantly they were encouraged to bring in their own tools to be used and shared with a group. This was to build their own resourcefulness and to show that tools are available whenever they need them. And that their peers already use them. You don’t need a highly trained specialist for building your resilience.

Surprising outcomes of the resilience training in high performance environment

I have focused on analysing the basis of the intervention rather than the intervention itself. What I have found out that these 6 elements used by a leader, any individual in a team or a coach both in team and individual setting can be a powerful tool to enhance feeling of control and constructive reaction to stressful periods in life. Few additional notes on „results“ .

(Peer-)coaching is relevant

-To my delight, peer-coaching was one of the most positively mentioned aspect of the challenge in the feedback. But I have to remind you that it was compulsory because if it is not, usually it is not used even though you know it works. To integrate it in your organisation, leaders should be coached themselves and have coaching leadership style, also employees and recruits should have more practice on that skill. Some research claims that exterior coach is more beneficial then peer-coaching. Though I agree, it is better to have some coaching than none at all. Building a culture, a habit and lowering the barriers to coaching is vital.

Setting up for self-motivation

-Second important thing was self-motivation which is something you expect from high performer in a high risk environment where there are so many unknown factors and where clear communication is never actually possible. And for them to reflect how self motivation helps with performance might get some bells ringing for other learning aspects. An example was about a person who realized that when he actually gets out and runs, he will achieve his time-goal faster then he believed. Self motivation is oftentimes a side product of a safe environment and coaching leadership style. You might ask yourself why your employees are not self motivated or when you yourself do not feel motivated – what is the core reason for it?

Awareness is under-estimated

All the skills in the world are useless when we are not aware of the need to use them or dont have the environment that supports it. I would like to say that we need to first build awareness of why resilience is important and build awareness of ones own triggers, experiences where they can both see their weak and their strong points. Its not about more educational resilience programmes but integrating these attitudes to the culture. That might mean more mental health tips posters next to posters of guns. Providing compassion instead of saying that you should just suck it up because you are from the military. When you communicate, that focus is on mental strength and behave accordingly, things change. Focus changes.

What companies and teams can learn from this in their HR planning, individual performance enhancement and leadership systems?

Next gen and recruitment is a hot topic in military, IT or any sector looking at the future. It is my humble suggestion to take hiring and retaining people in the military or in any other sector with a coaching mentality: not assuming everyone wants to join military and stay there and face challenges on the battle field as we see it. Perhaps we as an employer should rethink how we live out our values like „we consider personnel the most important part of the organisation“ and then investing in more guns, technology or buildings instead of people and creating jobs that are actually relevant, not bullshit or dead end jobs (see books by David Graeber). Gen Z is a great in BS detection. And that’s a question of resilience of current leadership in any field.

Psychology is a hard skill

Elite level performers are growth oriented and see psychological skills as hard skills, they want more control over their own work as well as more challenges. As organisations – do we really provide that? It is my experience that when this resilience slash performance environment template and mentality is used on leadership level, high performance comes with more ease.

Thank you and I am happy to answer your questions. I am keen cooperate in using this template to integrate in resilience in all sorts of settings. Contact me for coaching.

Presented 1st during International Military Testing Association’s conference in Holland, October 2023.

Full research article in Positive Psychology in the Military

About the Author


Performance coach, blogger and activist.

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