In the realm of professional sports, the integration of psychological skills alongside physical training is widely acknowledged for enhancing human performance, as supported by various studies. This positive impact extends beyond sports, with mental skill training (MST) interventions finding relevance in high-stress professions like first responders and emergency medicine practitioners Notably, there is a gap in research regarding the application of allied MST techniques in the military, necessitating a context-specific approach for various military subgroups . Addressing this gap, the study explores the potential application of MST in the unique environment of sniper training, distinct from sport-related shooting or SWAT teams, emphasizing the unpredictability and individual decision-making volume inherent in military marksmanship. This distinction is crucial for understanding the challenges faced by snipers, especially in contrast to existing literature focused on similar contexts. The decision-making trade-offs, influenced by factors like stealth versus engagement, underscore the complexity of military applications compared to controlled sports environments. The study aims to shed light on the specific challenges and psychological considerations relevant to sniper training, contributing valuable insights to the field of human performance psychology.
The Norwegian Army sniper course, spanning seven weeks, focuses on comprehensive training in sniper tactics and techniques. Candidates undergo rigorous instruction in shooting from various weapon platforms, alongside essential skills such as navigation, stalking, and observation, incorporating both analog and technological methods for environmental measurements. The course demands a deep understanding of internal and external ballistics, requiring candidates to apply advanced theory practically, often under pressure and within dynamic timeframes. Proficiency in delivering precise long-distance shots, identifying moving targets, and utilizing improvised shooting positions in diverse environments is crucial. The course’s intensity is underscored by 135 tests, including shooting, stalking, observation, distance judging, navigation, memory, and practical external ballistics. The demanding nature of the program, with 12+ hour days and daily assessments, positions it as one of the most challenging in the Norwegian Armed Forces and the pathway to becoming an operational sniper. Motivated by these extreme challenges, the study explores the potential application of a performance psychology intervention tailored to this unique military context. The evaluation considers outcome scores, participant reactions, and perceptions of providers, with a 1-year follow-up to assess the practical utility of the conveyed knowledge in the field.
The research conducted in the Norwegian Armed Forces received ethical approval from the University committee, and local permission was obtained. Prior to joining the sniper course, candidates undergo a mandatory 3-week introductory program designed for conscript-level marksmen. The advanced education, an all-arms course for professional soldiers and non-commissioned officers, ensures a solid foundation in fieldcraft and small unit tactics. Since 2016, the number of sniper candidates on the course has ranged from 10 to 14 participants, with all 14 candidates in the 2020 course volunteering. Purposive maximum variation sampling was employed to reflect the diversity of units across the Norwegian military personnel. Eight participants, coded Foxtrot, Golf, India, Lima, Mike, Sierra, Victor, and Zulu, were selected for in-depth interviews. The participants, aged 20–26 (average 23.7) with service ranging from 2 to 7 years (average 5.5 years), included three respondents with combat deployment experience. In addition to sniper candidates, four instructors, subordinate to the course leader and performing military roles assigned by their senior commander, voluntarily participated in the study, providing valuable insights. Confidentiality assurances were given, and all participants were provided with an information sheet and an informed consent protocol. The four instructors, coded blue, red, gray, and gold, were aged 30–35 (average 33.5).
The research employed an exploratory case study methodology to offer a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of a real-world phenomenon within a specialized context. This approach aimed to extract relevant information from various sources, utilizing separate yet interdependent data collection methods. Data analysis involved explorative reflexive thematic analysis, enhancing the richness of the findings. Outcome scores from current and past courses were obtained from the Norwegian Armed Forces (NAF), and member reflections were utilized to enhance trustworthiness. A 1-year follow-up was conducted to explore the perceived effects and retention of the mental skill training (MST) curriculum. The study sought to comprehend the participants’ learning experiences and assess the effectiveness of these experiences during deployments or career transitions. Following the completion of the follow-up with the snipers, the final study, including the snipers’ follow-up, was presented to the instructors via email. Instructors were invited to share their opinions on the study, reflecting on whether it resonated with their experiences, and to ask questions or provide comments. The feedback was gathered through individually arranged telephone calls, allowing instructors to express their opinions on the presented questions. The study also introduced a bespoke MST intervention designed for the military context, addressing a gap in research on relevant aspects of MST for the military, particularly elite units and Special Operations Forces (SOF). The intervention was based on pre-existing grounds, presenting an overarching philosophical approach to MST in this special context.
The designed mental skill training (MST) intervention aligns with the concept of adaptive skill, considering it as the essential ingredient for expertise development. The goal for each sniper candidate (SC) was to acquire relevant MST knowledge and develop a deep understanding of why specific performance-enhancing techniques are employed. The intervention aimed to provide performance options rather than solutions, encouraging SCs to discover and interpret MST techniques individually. This overt approach, well-received by participants, allowed them to learn, apply, evaluate, and refine MSTs according to their needs. Individualization was emphasized through the “test, tweak, repeat” philosophy, preserving the functional complexities of the curriculum.
Within the intervention, SCs were categorized on the expertise spectrum as pre-elite, departing from a competency-based model to draw upon talent development knowledge from the field of sports. Acknowledging the non-linear and challenging nature of expertise development, the approach aimed to equip SCs with expertise rather than mere competence. Dialogical learning served as the starting point, facilitating the implementation of professional judgment and decision-making.
The MST training approach emphasized context relevance, acknowledging that effective use of mental skills requires application in scenarios where the skill is needed. Classroom lectures covered a range of subjects, including an introduction to performance psychology, goal setting, stress management, and the MST curriculum. The education component included cognitive therapy’s ABC model, focusing on behavior and encouraging SCs to replicate behaviors associated with peak performance. The experiential learning approach incorporated stress understanding, coping mechanisms, and the repetition and expansion of MST techniques.
The MST intervention involved approximately 18 hours of classroom lectures, complemented by the first author’s presence in practical sessions, where he made himself available for MST-related questions without providing specific solutions. The aim was to foster a learning experience, refraining from offering advice or solutions and encouraging self-efficacy. The intervention sought to replicate the split-second decision-making requirements of combat, emphasizing the development of SCs’ decision-making processes for operational capability.
The exploratory case study, along with interviews, was conducted by the first author from August to September 2020. The interviews, ranging from 30 to 60 minutes for instructors and 45 to 70 minutes for sniper candidates (SCs), were held in an informal and private setting, allowing for structured yet flexible discussions. The semi-structured interview questions for SCs were developed based on the first author’s military experience and informal discussions with experienced snipers, refined through a pilot study. SC interviews (n=8) occurred at the end of the 7-week course and involved three phases. The first phase involved asking each sniper to pictorially represent their course experiences on a graph, including salient positive and negative moments. The second phase focused on training before the course, specifically on whether MST featured in their preparation and how. The third phase delved into each candidate’s perceptions of the course, performance development, and the use of MST material. Flexible interview formats allowed thoughts and meanings to emerge naturally during the discourse. Exemplar questions for SCs included inquiries about their experiences with mental skills training, the effectiveness of methods, the impact on performance under pressure, and valuable insights gained.
Instructors (n=4) participated in interviews conducted on three occasions in a focus group format. The topics centered on performance under pressure, cognition and behavior in high-pressure situations, and the utilization of mental skills in training and operational settings. The repetitive nature of questions allowed for in-depth exploration, and the informal group setting facilitated open discussions and reflections on each instructor’s experiences. Exemplar questions for instructors included inquiries about observations of those performing well under pressure, contrasts with candidates struggling under pressure, recent observations of shooting or performing under pressure, and indications of candidates or snipers employing mental skills during pressure situations.
All interviews were transcribed verbatim in Norwegian, followed by a reflexive thematic analysis. After actively generating final themes, the translation process into English began, ensuring the core meaning was accurately conveyed. This facilitated a critical review of the content by other authors, offering constructive criticism on the identified themes.
The first author, with extensive military experience and currently pursuing a PhD in applied performance psychology, played multiple roles in this investigation. As a former sniper, instructor, and Non-Commissioned Officer, his dual role as a practitioner and researcher could introduce potential biases. The study’s commitment to analyzing and presenting data according to participants’ intentions was acknowledged, recognizing the potential tension arising from the first author’s dual role.
Steps were taken to ensure methodological rigor and trustworthiness, including member reflections allowing respondents to comment on analysis or interview transcripts. Long-term follow-up and a thorough analysis of outcome scores, participant reactions, and provider perceptions were conducted. The six phases of qualitative data analysis were flexibly and systematically applied, involving careful listening, transcription, noting salient details, and iterative coding. Codes were grouped into clusters, and themes were generated, considering both explicit and latent meanings against the respondents’ intended meanings.
Naturally, the sniper course maintains statistics on shooting results and pass rates from previous courses, with notable changes over the years in terms of classification, evolving training manuals, equipment enhancements, and varying instructor pedagogical approaches. Comparisons between different years pose challenges due to these evolving factors. However, the 2020 sniper course marked the first inclusion of Mental Skills Training (MST). Despite the changing course dynamics, the demands for passing remained consistent, requiring a 70% pass rate on fieldcraft and an 80% pass on the shooting component, consisting of 135 tests, with 70 being shooting-based. Noteworthy is the fact that in 2020, all sniper candidates (SCs) passed the course for the first time, showcasing a significant achievement. Examining shooting scores over the years 2016–2020, with MST integrated in 2020, reveals relatively stable performance, ranging from 77% to 86%, with an average pass rate of 83%. In contrast, from 2008 to 2018, prior to MST integration, the overall mean pass rate (combining shooting and fieldcraft scores) was notably lower at m = 43.2%, indicating a higher incidence of course withdrawal or failure. Notably, in the intervention year of 2020, with active MST participation, no course fails were recorded, suggesting a positive impact coinciding with the introduction of MST.
The member reflections and the 1-year follow-up offer valuable insights into the sustained application of mental skills training (MST) among sniper graduates. Of the original eight respondents, five participated in the follow-up, sharing perspectives on MST’s effectiveness in real-world scenarios. A deployed sniper recounted using breathing techniques during a rocket attack, showcasing MST’s practical impact in managing adrenaline and maintaining focus. Other snipers emphasized the active use of breathing techniques and unconscious integration of visualization into their training routines. Self-talk emerged as a confidence builder in various life situations. Respondents believed in MST’s significant contribution to improved course results, attributing enhanced shooting scores to the mental tools provided. Instructors echoed the positive impact of integrating performance psychology, emphasizing its value in both the course and long-term sniper performance in operational settings. Their appreciation for the focus on the learning process and alignment with their own mindsets, along with a deployed sniper’s real-life application of skills, reinforced confidence in MST’s effectiveness. The 1-year follow-up underscores MST’s ongoing relevance and practical application, garnering positive feedback from graduates and instructors and supporting the idea that integrating performance psychology into military training enhances overall performance and contributes to talent development.
The discussion revolves around the positive outcomes of the intervention, evaluating data from quantitative results, interviews with sniper candidates (SCs), instructor interviews, and a follow-up. The 2020 course, incorporating mental skills training (MST), achieved a 100% pass rate, with stable shooting results over the years. The importance of fieldcraft, involving cognitive and metacognitive aspects, poses challenges beyond shooting skills. The impact of MST on SCs’ performance under pressure is evident, emphasizing cognitive control crucial for sniper decision-making. Individual differences in MST application highlight adaptability and the development of personal performance plans. The lack of a control group is acknowledged, and the study relies on self-report data, yet triangulation with other sources enhances validity. The use of specific MST methods, such as imagery and diaphragmatic breathing, is emphasized, acknowledging the context-specific nature of these interventions. The study suggests a positive relationship between MST, individual development, and improved self-efficacy among sniper graduates, highlighting the need for further research in this unique context, considering the challenges and relationships involved in sniper training.
In recognizing the challenges of testing interventions in real-world settings, particularly where elite soldiers and operators are expected to perform in demanding conditions, the authors argue for the importance of conducting context and culturally specific case study research on specialized populations. The investigation establishes a correlation between the implementation of a mental skills training (MST) curriculum and subjective improvements in snipers’ performance, emphasizing the need for tailored approaches in performance psychology. Examining data from nearly identical courses until 2020 suggests that integrating a performance psychology package with MST may enhance overall performance, a consensus reinforced by instructor observations. The SCs’ descriptions reveal insights into the development of “tactical wisdom” and individualized strategies for performance and decision-making. The study underscores the significance of the philosophy and delivery methods of MST, emphasizing the role of context-specific and comprehensive interventions in yielding positive results for performance development. The introduction of MST for sniper candidates demonstrates a positive impact on various performance markers associated with the course, as confirmed by the follow-up indicating the retention and application of skills in combat situations. While outcome scores offer positive indications in the 2020 intervention, the authors acknowledge the need for further quantitative performance and psychometric data, including a control group, to refine the understanding of the optimal intervention model. Despite this, the research suggests a concept that can be implemented and developed for improved training and education in elite military contexts.