Soldiers use biometric feedback to improve performance, conserve energy

By Melody Everly, Fort Drum Garrison Public AffairsFebruary 4, 2016

Biometics help improve Soldier performance
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – From left Pfc. Jesse Yanes and Spc. Alika Espiritu-Foster practice an exercise during the Level II Combatives course on Tuesday. Combatives Facility staff teamed up with staff members from Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Training Center to t... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Biometics help improve Soldier performance
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Biometics help improve Soldier performance
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Feb. 4, 2016) -- When the word resilience is mentioned, we often think of the ability of Soldiers and Family Members to cope with the challenges that are part of the military lifestyle, such as permanent-change-of-station moves, deployments and separations due to training and field exercises.

Fort Drum's Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Training Center, in collaboration with the Combatives Facility, is working to teach Soldiers a different kind of resilience -- the ability to focus, problem-solve and recover energy by better understanding their physical, emotional and physiological states.

Using a special biofeedback device called the emWave, Soldiers are learning to read the cues their bodies are sending and to respond in a way that improves their performance and ability to accomplish the mission in a safe and effective manner.

The emWave device is a tool that monitors different patterns of heart rhythms and their effect on the body. These heart patterns send signals to the brain -- influencing everything from emotional state to cognitive functions, such as attention, perception and problem-solving abilities.

Katrina McTeague, lead master resilience trainer performance expert at Fort Drum's CSF2 Training Center, said the device can be an important teaching tool for Soldiers.

"They need to know their bodies," McTeague said. "We work hard on training up that physical portion, but they also need to think 'how do you mentally, physically and physiologically recognize what is going on in your body?' That way, when they are in a stressful situation, they can step away and slow themselves down."

Using a clip that attaches to an individual's ear, the emWave sends heart rhythm information to a tablet that displays levels of coherence -- an optimal state in which the heart, mind and emotions are operating in a balanced manner. Coherence levels start at red (low), work up to blue (medium) and finally to green (high). As coherence rises, so do cognitive function, energy conservation and problem-solving abilities.

McTeague and Amber Brooks, another master resilience trainer performance expert, recently worked with a group of Soldiers going through the Level II Combatives course, teaching them to use the emWave to optimize their learning experience.

"Yesterday, we did a workshop on the emWave," Brooks said. "The Soldiers were sitting down and using deliberate breathing techniques to help them get to maximum coherence."

Brooks and McTeague showed the Soldiers how to determine their baseline coherency, monitor their breathing and focus on where their thoughts were in order to conserve energy in preparation for a stressful tactical exercise the Soldiers performed Friday.

Staff Sgt. Anthony Martinez, lead trainer for the Combatives Facility, briefed the Soldiers on their mission -- to secure a high-value target while subduing an aggressor who is attempting to defend that target. Working in teams of two, the Soldiers would need to accomplish this exercise, communicating effectively and using the skills they had practiced the previous day on the emWave.

Martinez said he and his cadre understand the importance of ensuring that Soldiers have the physical skills they need to successfully accomplish their mission. He said they also realize the importance of being in the right state of mind when going into a tactical situation.

"It's important that they are mentally prepared for anything they come up against," he said. "They are learning to use the buddy system to properly handle detainees and how to tactically engage someone."

Martinez said problem-solving and energy conservation are also essential, and he said the emWave device teaches Soldiers to focus on these aspects of their training.

"Learning to maintain that energy and stay calm in any situation is always important," he said. "In a deployed situation, it's essential. You don't want to be the one to run out of energy before your enemy does."

After completing the drill, each of the teams returned to a back room, where they were hooked up to the emWave device.

As the Soldiers recovered, they watched a video of their first attempt. Brooks and McTeague stood by, asking questions as they noticed changes in individual Soldiers' heart rhythms and coherence levels.

"Since this is a real-time tool, we can pay attention to their thought process," Brooks said. "When we see spikes, we can ask them 'what were you thinking about?'"

McTeague reminded the Soldiers to use their recovery time to their advantage.

"You need to focus on that deliberate breathing right away," she said. "It is hard -- when you're at this intensity level -- to be able to control your physical, mental and physiological state. It takes practice."

Jeff Nelden, Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Training Center manager, said that this practiced focus can help Soldiers to remain calm in stressful, often dangerous situations.

"You have to clear your mind and get ready for that next challenge," he said. "On a mission, you might clear one room and have to go right into another. You have to learn to recover when you can. You can't always go in at that peak, amped-up state, or you're going to tire out very quickly."

Nelden added that using the emWave with Soldiers training for a sniper competition team last year, he and his staff realized that while some Soldiers function optimally in a calm mental state, this is not the case for every individual.

"One would assume that a sniper would want to remain calm," he said. "What we realized is that some people actually function optimally when they are at a higher intensity level. Some partners realized that their teammate needed to remain calm and they would help them focus on their breathing and remaining at that calm state. Others needed to help get their partner amped up to shoot better."

Pfc. Jesse Yanes said that as he watched the video, he was recalling the exercise in his mind and thinking of ways to improve his technique in the next round. His coherence levels lowered when he reviewed difficult portions of the exercise and climbed at times when he felt he was his performance was better.

"The software helped me a lot," he said. "It showed me what I was thinking about at each of the different levels. I paid attention to where my thoughts were when I was in the green, and that showed me what kind of things I need to focus on."

Yanes said he knows this will benefit him in the future, especially during deployments.

"In a real situation, your heart rate is going to be up -- you're going to be scared," he said. "I think that remembering all of this -- keeping your mind in the right place and remembering that you've trained for this situation -- will really help."

After each team had completed round one of their exercise, they gathered to discuss their observations.

McTeague asked Soldiers how successful they were at employing the techniques they had practiced while using the emWave. Most teams admitted that it was difficult to remember the tools they had learned when encountering a high-stress situation.

"We talked about reminding yourself to breathe," she said. "There are moments when it's so chaotic that you're not really focused on that deliberate breathing that can help you to conserve energy. Be aware of the opportunities you do have -- those moments when you can catch your breath and think 'OK, what do I need to do next?'"

Tuesday morning, reflecting upon the first exercise that had taken place Friday, Sgt. Zackary Newkirk said he felt that he and his classmates were learning to use skills they had developed with the emWave to a greater degree each day. He said that he found the biofeedback training to be beneficial and he thought that it would be even more helpful to Soldiers who had not deployed before.

"I've been there before, and I know how important it is to get my mind in the right place," he said. "They are learning -- in training -- when to amp it up and when to slow down, and they are learning to trust the people around them and to trust themselves."

Sgt. Carlos Perdomo, a noncommissioned officer with the Combatives Facility, said that he has watched each team throughout the course and he believes that the performance skills the students have learned from using the emWave have contributed to their rapid progress.

"It's amazing to see the progress from week to week," he said. "They are really focusing on what they can improve and on their mindset."

Perdomo also said that he feels that the Soldiers are becoming better problem solvers and are maintaining focus on their battle buddies much more effectively.

"That's vital," he said. "The military is mission-oriented, but -- in essence -- your No. 1 mission is to keep your battle buddies safe so that you can accomplish your mission together and come home safely. That's what I hope every student takes away from this."

Related Links: Health

10th Mountain Division and Fort Drum

Fort Drum on Facebook