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UC studies how to help soldiers perform at their best

Amanda Jones

12 September: University of Canberra researchers will advise the Australian Army on how to best prepare soldiers for frontline combat as part of a project aimed at enhancing the performance of Australia’s military personnel.

The University is one of seven Australian tertiary institutions selected to be part of the newly-formed Human Performance Research network (HPRnet), bringing together performance experts from around the country to help improve soldiers’ performance, both physically and mentally.

Working with scientists from the Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group, experts from the University’s Research Institute for Sport and Exercise will aim to understand how soldiers perform under pressure and how their decision-making skills can be improved.

Assistant Professor in Sports Psychology and project leader Dr Richard Keegan said the University’s involvement was focused primarily on cognitive performance aspects.

“Soldiers are often pushed to make life-and-death decisions under enormous stress and huge uncertainty while managing physical challenges, such as hunger, thirst, sleep–deprivation and fatigue,” Dr Keegan said.

“We want soldiers to enter the field at peak cognitive capacity so they make good decisions and come back alive.

“In training, we want to be able to optimise soldiers’ adaptation to their training workload in the short time they get to train or recover.”

Dr Keegan said one way of assisting them with adaptation was to fit soldiers with wearable devices that monitor exertions and salivary cortisol, which indicates the levels of stress hormones in saliva.

Physiology, psychology and cognitive sciences will be considered during the University’s research. Dr Keegan hopes the interdisciplinary approach will enable the group to predict when soldiers have recovered from an activity and when they are ready for the next challenge, whether that is driving a vehicle in the field, clearing building and streets of enemy fighters or remotely controlling a drone.

The researchers will also develop and test interventions and strategies for supporting, enhancing and recovering soldiers’ cognitive performance.

“By the end of the project, we hope to provide evidence to inform training, preparation, recovery, best practice, and a deeper understanding of how best to maintain cognitive performance which can be applied both within and outside military settings,” Dr Keegan said.