ARLINGTON, Va. (Jan. 4, 2016) --Steady hands. Confidence. Selflessness. Composure.
These are some of the qualities that enable the firing party to perform at its best, said Soldiers, who are assigned to Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment, better known as the Old Guard.
The Old Guard recently received targeted training to help them sustain attention, manage energy and maintain control when it matters most - while supporting funeral ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery here.
Ashley Jenkins, a master resilience trainer-performance expert and sport and performance psychology consultant from the local Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness, or CSF2, Training Center, worked closely with the Old Guard's firing party, which has the sacred duty of rendering final honors to military veterans through a three-volley salute.
Before providing training, Jenkins spent time observing the Soldiers during practice and spoke with them to better understand their desired outcomes. As a result, she and her colleagues at the local CSF2 Training Center devised a training plan specific to the firing party.
"These Infantry Soldiers are under constant evaluation to ensure burial ceremonies are performed to standard as they honor the fallen Soldier and his or her Family," Jenkins said. "So I tailored the training to best meet their needs."
Spc. Bryce Keller, a member of the firing party, said precision and accuracy are critical to his job but emphasizes that the seven people who make up the firing party must "be in sync and stay focused," and immediately recognized the benefits of the mental skills training he received from Jenkins.
"Ashley is teaching us how to stay focused and relaxed while we're firing, not letting our own mess-ups get to us and bring our performance down," said Keller, who received training from Jenkins, Dec. 14-18.
The Soldiers also said being physically fit and having qualities such as good arm strength are important, but emphasized that mental toughness is key to success in this job.
"The mental portion is 80 percent compared to what physical standards we have. We have to stay in shape and make sure we can move the rifle with precision, but being able to stay focused is much more needed than having the ability to hold a rifle," Keller said.
One of the skills Jenkins explained to the Soldiers was energy management, which helps to restore energy to thrive under pressure.
"The firing party expressed the use of breathing in several facets of their performance; however, many of the Soldiers realized they were not breathing effectively," Jenkins said. "I taught them deliberate breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing, to help manage stress and to gain ceremonial composure. We then immediately applied the skill during firing party practice, giving the Soldiers an opportunity to see how breathing affects their performance."
Jenkins also taught skills and techniques to help the Soldiers achieve and maintain focus. Focus is key to the firing party, who must perform a certain sequence and execute that sequence with fluidity every time, which can be challenging for these Soldiers who support sometimes up to four or five funerals per day.
"You don't know the Family but you see the emotions on their face," said Pfc. Austin Boyd, who has been with the firing party since March and has supported approximately 150 funeral ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. "It gives you a really big feeling of pride and you know your role is really important and that you're on such a big stage representing the Army. Breathing and being able to control your mental state in these situations is so important."
Jenkins taught the Soldiers how to make their thinking more effective and be more aware of how those thoughts influence their performance.
"I explained how the Soldiers can structure their thoughts to be purposeful and productive, giving them a starting point to shift their thinking to produce the performance outcomes they strive to reach," Jenkins said.
The training offered by Jenkins, and at each of CSF2's 25 training centers, is based in sport and performance psychology and helps Soldiers realize how they can enhance their performance from a psychological standpoint. All of the Army's master resilience trainer-performance experts have either a master's or doctorate in sport or performance psychology or related fields, and are able to tailor training based on a unit's needs.
To the Old Guard, performance is everything. They train three to four hours a day preparing for their next rotation to support funerals, and they go through a validation process to test their ceremony composure.
Boyd said that mental skills training is definitely important. "Most of the [techniques] we talk about, we do subconsciously. But [this training] makes you think about it so you can take control."
Jenkins recognizes these Soldiers are hands-on learners and has enjoyed seeing how the skills apply to them. "I think it is important once you have received education, it is necessary to gain practice," Jenkins said. "It was rewarding to see the squad leaders reinforcing the skills and techniques during training, and I'm glad I'm able to help these Soldiers be better at what they do."