Special Forces soldiers undergo a selection procedure which eliminates mentally weak soldiers from further participation while their later training is aimed at bolstering the mental fitness and durability of the candidates who have successfully passed the selection.
Boot camps and selection courses are designed to wipe out the mentally weak candidates, not the physically inept soldiers. Everybody can obtain physical fitness through training, therefore most military boot camps, as tough and physically demanding they are, don’t focus primarily on the physical.
All of the running and obstacle courses serve a different purpose: They tire the soldier out. Exhaustion and the constant pressure not to fail the many physical fitness requirements exert psychological pressure on the candidates. Add to this sleep deprivation, lack of food, a constant insecurity if you made it and what’s going on, nightly alarms and a lot of screaming: The army tries to find your breaking point.
Some military organizations go even further. The French Foreign Legion regards it as their mission to first completely break the recruit and then build him up according to the Legion’s own requirements.
From the moment the candidate didn’t break and made it through the selection course, the military starts using a completely different approach. Now everything is done to further build up and bolster the soldier’s mental strength.
And like in boot camp and selection courses, the military chooses an indirect approach. None of their methods aims directly at improving the soldier’s mental strength, but all of them combined will exactly achieve this goal.
Group spirit: Every Special Forces member knows that they are part of a very small elite. This thought bolsters their ego: Believing in yourself is the basis for mental strength.
Trust: Constant training and deployments with your unit let you form bonds. In Special Forces units nobody “pulls rank.” What’s in your head, who you are and your abilities are more important than your pay grade. When you know that you can trust the guys around you and your commanding officers as well, it’s less likely that you’ll freak out in combat.
Training: Learning and acquiring all sorts of special skills strengthens the soldier’s confidence in his own capabilities. Soldiers who have confidence in their abilities are more resilient and are less likely to panic.
Peer pressure: For a professional soldier there is nothing worse than to be deemed “mentally not resilient” by his comrades or leaders. If you lose your nerves in a combat situation you better request a transfer to another unit. This attitude is a part of life in every Special Forces unit around the world.
Even if you don’t feel cool at all in a combat situation, you will have to fake it. Then your buddies think you are the man, which will also make them more calm (Trust), while at the same time their approval will bolster your ego (Group spirit).
End result: Everybody is cool and levelheaded and continues the mission.
Some people say that combat experience also contributes to improve mental strength, but this is only partially true. I’ve been in combat with guys who lost their calm during a fight and became a burden to us. Usually, we would give them another chance to prove their combat worth as it was their first time. The next time we came under fire, none of them showed any improvement.
Combat experience won’t give you mental strength if you haven’t had it the first time. On the other hand, if you are already a resilient person, a new combat situation might make you even tougher—up to a certain point.
There is a breaking point for every combat soldier and too much pressure, regardless if applied in training or experienced on the battlefield, might destroy all confidence and leave a mental wreck behind. Therefore, military leaders have to be very careful when it comes to assessing the mental strength of their soldiers.
In training that means that sometimes you have to “row back” when it becomes obvious that the candidates are mentally on the edge, while in combat it means to closely monitor the mental “reserves” of your unit and relieve troops before any harm is done.
Answer from Roland Bartetzko, former German Army paratrooper, Croatian Defense Council, Kosovo Liberation Army. The answer was originally published on Quora.