Military personnel operating in complex and stressful environments must draw on their mental and physical capacities to achieve peak performance. 

The same goes for elite athletes facing intense pressure to surpass their competitors.

Physical fitness is understood, measurable and easy to improve. However, to be mentally fit to perform at the highest level is not so clear.

Defence Science and Technology researcher Eugene Aidman has been working to better define the concept of cognitive fitness, and has introduced a research framework to guide the study of high-performance cognition.

His work is supporting the development of training techniques that have the potential to optimise the mental preparedness of soldiers and Olympic athletes. 

Dr Aidman, who has a background in sport psychology and neuroscience, said the high-performance mindset was characterised by the ability to remain calm, focused and flexible in the face of adversity.

“Stress-management skills help people stay calm, attentional-control skills enable focus, and mental agility gives flexibility to adapt to change,” Dr Aidman said.

“These mental capacities could be promising subjects for study by cognitive fitness researchers.”

Researchers want to find out which cognitive attributes are most important in determining performance in these unpredictable high-pressure environments.

Once determined, they want to discover the extent to which each can be enhanced through deliberate practise, and how best to go about achieving improvement.

Dr Aidman said his proposed cognitive fitness framework could be used to organise all aspects of mental training.

While some cognitive attributes might respond well to training, others may be hard to change. 

We are producing evidence that will inform decisions about investment in future selection, training and operational support solutions.

For armed forces, these inflexible mental capacities would need to be selected by implementing testing processes to identify individuals that already possess the sought-after capacities.

Attributes with a fluid nature that change throughout the day, such as alertness, also need to be considered. 

“We’ve done quite a bit of work with sleep-deprived soldiers, which made us acutely aware of how detrimental those fluctuating capacities can become if we don’t respect them,” Dr Aidman said. 

The framework can be used to inform three distinct types of application: enhancing training programs for attributes that are relatively flexible; improving selection processes for attributes that are relatively inflexible; and developing decision aids and fatigue counter-measures that enable people to perform as well as possible given challenging operational conditions.

Dr Aidman said some attributes might only be improved marginally with training. But when it came to performance at the highest level, even a gain of five per cent or less might be considered worthwhile pursuing.

“Having those prospects quantified with rigorous scientific evidence is the essence of what we are doing,” Dr Aidman said.  

“We are producing evidence that will inform decisions about investment in future selection, training and operational support solutions."

The next step is a study being led by Monash University that is developing an international expert consensus on the dimensions of cognitive fitness using what is known as the Delphi method. 

This work will strengthen the foundations of future cognitive fitness research efforts with the aim of enabling military personnel, Olympic athletes and others facing complex and stressful situations to perform at their peak.