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  • Emelye

Navy Sport, Fit for Life

The relationship of Sport and Fitness in developing increased mental and physiological resilience, mental and physiological capacity and optimising overall personal wellbeing.

My hands are chalky… but clammy and hot, my heart is pounding but my breathing is slow, the arena is deafening yet I can’t hear a thing… my tummy is in tangles and my mouth is so dry. My pupils dilate, I feel every hair on my body stand up on end as I wait, motionless, for the ‘3…2…1…BEEP!’ As soon as it rings, it is GO TIME! My mind empties and I’m in full tunnel vision. I lean into and trust in my work already done, for training is like depositing money in the ‘fitness bank’, and on comp day I put in my card, enter my pin and I cash the hell out.

Even with the most epic or proficient of writing skills, it is hard to properly explain the feeling you get; standing on the starting mat at a competition. It feels GOOD. Weird good. The kind of good that shouldn’t feel good. Like electricity! Excitement AND nerves… and anticipation.

But it hasn't always been that way.

It used to utterly crush me.

I would be a nervous wreck, more concerned about what other people were doing around me, rather than remaining calm and focused, staying in my ‘own lane’ and being able to lean into and have confidence in my work, in my training, in the commitment I have made to the process of being the best that I can be.

This is mental resilience, or mental toughness as it more colloquially referred to; it’s those cool tranquillity ‘vibes’ that you continue to have, even in stressful and demanding situations.

The Navy is not renowned for its easy breezy work requirements… military life is a ‘way of life’, and one like no other. It is challenging, it is consuming and residencies can be transient and unsettling, yet you are required to maintain excellence at all times.

Pretty tough going if you ask me.

Mental toughness is the ability to challenge and defeat your own disparaging and limiting thoughts. You bounce back faster, seeing adversity as an opportunity for professional or personal growth and development. It is the commitment you make to your training, work, nutrition, recovery, sleep, self-care etc… when distractions are abundant. It is the skills to recognise your fluctuating emotional states and respond, not react. It is the ability to remain collected and not become distracted by external factors. It is the knowledge in that failure is not bad, but that through failure we learn; it is the exact thing that makes us ‘be better’.

“When we fail, we fail forwards.”[1]

Mental resilience helps us to be more prepared when meeting the demands of our personal and professional life too, through thorough and consistent daily/weekly/even monthly processes, we can lean into and have confidence in the preparation of our work, and deliver effectively on this.

When someone describes themselves as being ‘mentally tough’, when they pushed through a workout, a game or a training session, denying their body’s cries to “STOP PLEASE!” as the lactic acid burns inside them and they are able to feel that physical struggle and keep going anyway… what they really mean is they are ‘physically tough’ or have a tolerance to discomfort and pain. Helpful when you’re trying to help push a broken-down Wildcat up the landing platform of an aircraft carrier… and it’s wet and slippery underfoot; you need those quads of steel!

Physical toughness is arguably easier to develop than mental toughness, not least because we can usually see, so clearly, the results of our work… our muscles become bigger, our body fat reduces and most of the time, we walk a little taller.

But we can’t see inside our head…

Mental toughness is that split second however when you approach your pre-perceived upper limit of capacity and then… you keep going anyway. Ignoring the threat of failure for that chance to get better.

And you DO get better… and when you do, you recognise that connection between the two, that is mind and body.

It is only through my experiences in physical fitness training and sport that I have been able to realise I can ‘train my brain’ and make myself more mentally tough – seeing first-hand how my body could defy physical limitations, and importantly understanding the “mind-body connection as the core in succeeding in attaining personal goals.”[2]

Your mind is 3lbs of muscle that, just like your biceps or glutes, can be trained and developed into becoming stronger and more resilient.

Mental toughness is akin to physical toughness in that enduring physical stress; lifting, throwing, jumping or rep after rep on a barbell builds callouses on the hands and feet… enduring adversity, ‘failure’ and overcoming difficulties builds hypothetical callouses on the mind! We develop a sense of confidence through the knowledge we have ‘been there before’, which is exactly why drills are a foundation of all Military training and continue to be so throughout one’s career.

Visualise a situation, simulate a situation; visualise a game, simulate a game. Repetition repetition repetition, and the discipline and physical fitness to cope with this.

But dedicated mindset development aside, just participation in fitness itself has the most phenomenal effect of our ability to unlock mental ‘gains’. I could get really geeky on this, so I’ll try and keep it short… but even down to a cellular level fitness makes our brains better!

Through increased blood flow to the brain as a result of physical exercise, we trigger biochemical changes that spur this cool spongey process called neuroplasticity. If you’re confused, what this means is that exercise literally means we increase the brain's production and overall volume of gray matter (actual neurons) and white matter (connections between those neurons).

With the brain in this state of hypoplasticity we are able to retain MORE information immediately after a short burst of intensive exercise, compared to if we had just had a flat white and a cheeky scroll through Facebook.

Maybe knock out a few burpees and read that again, you know… capitalise on that cool new fact.

If that wasn't mad enough, because exercise encourages blood flow to the brain, meaning increased transportation of more oxygen, nutrients and fuel etc it also means increased production of brain brilliant chemicals and this handy little protein called BDNF. Brain-Derived Neurotrophic factor is like a delicious protein shake for these hungry little neurons and connections. You have billions of of them, and BDNF keeps them thriving. Releasing BDNF, flips the switch on a series of genes that create brand-new brain cells and pathways as well as strengthening the neurons you already have, which significantly boosts your cognitive abilities.[3] High levels of BDNF rapidly rewire your brain, helping you learn faster, remember better, and age slower.

Brucey bonus.

Navy Sport then, and its pledge to encourage participation in the activities and adventures provided, is absolutely fundamental to an individual’s development, productivity, job satisfaction and an all rounded healthy, happy military life. You cannot force morale and it cannot be faked. It is cultivated through a solid and intrinsic sense of collective well-being, supported by a holistic management approach. It is like your partner telling you to go on a night out with the girls for some fancy cocktails, but adding how they’ll be so alone and sad all evening without you… it makes you feel rubbish. You cannot enjoy and benefit from fitness fully, if there is reluctance for you to do so from your peers or superiors; we’ve got to all be in it together. Just like the captain of the Rugby team, leaders should lead by example.

Navy Sport are passionate about increasing the variety of activities available but most importantly making sure staff DO have the time to participate. It is all well and good offering every potential sport and opportunity under the sun, but if it is inaccessible due to work overload… it is also utterly pointless. It should not be a battle to guarantee 3 hours of in work exercise to our military family.

We need to unapologetically shout from the rooftops of the innumerable benefits of engaging personnel in physical development. It is hard though for someone who is presently uninformed of the reasons why kicking a ball about is going to help them or their subordinates successfully rewire the control centre for a Sea Viper Missile on board a Type 45.

If the personal and collective performance benefits aren’t already enough of a kick up the butt as to how important it is to have physically active team, we can look at a purely binary (and pretty cool) statistic… The physical development opportunities Navy Sport offer are what 89% of prospective joiners give as a reason to join! It is a huge selling point and whilst it might not be the sole purpose of the military, we are human first. Physical Development opportunities are also one of the top reasons Navy personnel give for sticking with us too. It is an absolute no brainer to build on this.

But getting a bit geeky again (oh boy, I love Science…)

There is of course the single most obvious pro, that is just being healthier! I am talking lower risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type-2 diabetes, heart attack, stroke and obesity. It increases the production of endorphins like dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin.[4] These little neurotransmitters we all know and love that help us feel better and improve our state of mind, making the stresses of work easier to handle. Physical fitness also strengthens the immune system, so the chances are, there will be fewer sick days being taken and an overall healthier bunch of seafaring folks.

Taken from the CrossFit Journal

Physical development sharpens the senses, it improves our co-ordination and accuracy, it refines our ability to balance and increases our agility… pretty vital skills to have in the military no? There are 10 official components of fitness, the remaining 6 being; speed, strength, power, cardiovascular endurance, stamina and flexibility. It is unequivocally clear how these would benefit all Navy personnel, in all areas of expertise (I know I would want my team to have a lot of stamina on Action Station days!)

But sports like; rugby, football, swimming, running etc… might feel a bit daunting or inaccessible to (say) ‘John’[5] the HR support writer who never felt confident enough to participate in sports, for fear of letting the team down and his historically dodgy knee.

If Navy Sports primary aim of providing accessible and attractive activities for ALL personnel to participate in, regardless of experience or ability, Functional Fitness is near perfect for this purpose; it is for anyone.

Similar, to popular group fitness programs like CrossFit, it prepares the body for real-life movements and activities, but in a more individualised way. “It trains your muscles to work together and prepares them for daily tasks by simulating common movements you might do at home, at work, or in sports.”[6] Movements such as squatting, reaching, pushing, pulling, twisting and lifting develop our body to be more capable of doing real-life activities in real-life positions, not just training isolated positions on a fixed cable machine.

We need to be able to demonstrate this in our communications however - reflecting a far more diverse representation of our full Naval personnel (not just the super stacked 30 something PTI, with a weakness for bench press). People like to see themselves being represented, like I said before... it has to be for anyone and everyone.

In functional fitness, movements are fully scalable; can’t do a pull up? We use a toe assist pull up. Can’t do a sit up? I’ll sit you on the edge of a box and we can bring our knees into our chest instead.

There is always a solution. PTI Joel Kirby and more specifically LPT Mel Haslam nailed it with their at home fitness content they created during 2020 lockdown restrictions; offering regressions for movements meaning everyone has access to a mind, body and mood boosting workout. Even the most basic version of these workouts can be super challenging… but nothing our world class family of servicemen and women are incapable of. But then again is it a fair comparison; I mean “There’s fit, and then there’s Navy Fit.”

References: [1] Quote from Emma Hackett of Limitless Coaching [2] Quote taken from Psycho-Cybernetics - a self-help book written by Maxwell Maltz in 1960. [3] According to the American Council on Exercise – who kind of, really, know their stuff. [4] Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that sends messages to the body to stimulate mood and emotion, according to Harvard Health.

[5] John is an entirely fictitious character I made up for your entertainment, but he is a decent bloke; he loves a glass of port, his two dogs Glen and Coco and watching programs like Country File. [6] Quote taken from an article by the Mayo Clinic.

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