Cover: Enhancing Performance Under Stress

Enhancing Performance Under Stress

Stress Inoculation Training for Battlefield Airmen

Published Jul 23, 2014

by Sean Robson, Thomas Manacapilli


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Research Questions

  1. Is the Air Force doing everything it can to prepare battlefield airmen to perform successfully under stressful conditions?
  2. Can stress inoculation training be an effective strategy for enhancing performance under stress?
  3. What strategies does the Air Force currently use to ensure that airmen are capable of performing well under stress?

USAF pararescue and combat controllers routinely recover downed or injured military personnel and direct military aircraft in hostile or denied regions. Consequently, to be effective in these careers requires the ability to cope with severe stress. The USAF uses many strategies to ensure that battlefield airmen perform well under stress but one strategy, termed stress inoculation training (SIT), has not been fully incorporated as a training element. Current Air Force strategies include screening out individuals unable to tolerate stress during initial selection and in training, exposing candidates to a variety of stressors during training, and providing airmen with education and support, both predeployment and postdeployment. Although some of these strategies are consistent with SIT principles, additional training should focus on the cognitive and behavioral skills (e.g., goal-setting, energy/arousal control) to help airmen perform effectively under stress. The authors conducted an extensive literature review to better understand modern stress theories, and they interviewed Air Force instructors from the Air Education and Training Command and formed small focus groups with combat controllers and pararescuemen. The goal of the focus groups was to identify what preparation, if any, battlefield airmen had to optimize their performance under stress. The authors also reviewed key official training documents, training plans, and instruction plans.

Key Findings

Individuals Can Be Trained to Minimize the Adverse Effects of Stress on Performance

  • Through appropriate exposure to stressors and training on ways to deal with stress, individuals can develop the skills necessary to handle varying levels of stress in the future.
  • Education, skill training, and exposure to relevant stressors are important components for preparing individuals to perform well under stress.

The Air Force Does Not Consistently Provide Its Airmen with Formal Training to Develop Needed Cognitive and Behavioral Skills

  • Training instructors provide techniques to airmen ad hoc, and psychologists supporting airmen's training offer only limited performance enhancement training to cope with stress.
  • Efforts to provide formal education and cognitive and behavioral skills training have been sporadic.


  • Develop curricula for stress inoculation training with an emphasis on core skills that facilitate performance enhancement.
  • Identify opportunities to integrate common stressors from downrange experiences.
  • Ensure that applicable skills are mastered before exposure to stressful conditions.
  • Provide a water training facility for pararescue and combat controller training.
  • Continue to provide sufficient opportunities to practice new coping skills under "real" performance conditions.
  • Consider supporting stress inoculation training with virtual reality technology.
  • Continue efforts to identify valid screening tools to predict success in stressful conditions.
  • Develop measures to support the evaluation of screening tools and stress inoculation training.
  • Provide information to increase awareness of support services for mental health.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was sponsored by the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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