Dr Nathan Smith Studies How Teams And Athletes Perform In Extreme Environments But The Lessons Apply To Us All

In extreme environments, under stress, you don’t have the energy to pretend, which makes them a great natural laboratory for Dr Nathan Smith. He has built an entire course, with The Shackleton Company, on preparing for extreme challenges and knows the psychological traits and strategies that help you to achieve big goals and succeed as a team, whether you’re marching across the ice, or working on a new sales pitch…

1. Set Micro Goals
It’s easy to feel daunted by the task ahead at the start of a massive project, so take a leaf out of the explorer’s handbook and set micro goals. ‘We have done work with polar expeditions where even at the start of a task, where they are going to be on the ice for three months, on a daily basis, literally all they are doing is moving the writing on the logos on one ski past the same writing on the other one, for eight hours a day. That’s all they are focussing on for the first 30 days, because the whole task is just too big to even contemplate,’ says Smith.

‘If you just do it in 30-minute blocks, it will start to tick away and you will feel that you can do something about it. You can say you achieved that micro goal, and it’s a way of making you feel successful.’

‘Experience is king – do progressively more challenging activities and a bit of adversity is good’

2. Experience Adversity
Smith has worked with polar and desert explorers, and says that the best way to become mentally prepared for big challenges is to experience other ones. ‘Experience is king – we talk about progressively more challenging activities and having a bit of adversity is good because you start to test yourself and push your limits. Failure isn’t the only way to learn but it does teach you certain things, within limits. It’s one way to build resilience because it helps to facilitate that perception of control later down the line.’

3. Learn Coping Strategies
Whether you’re facing a howling Antarctic blizzard, or a hostile board meeting, there’s a lot that just isn’t within your control. ‘Typically extreme settings are uncertain. When you are in Antarctica you are not in control because there are lots of things that can change – the weather, the terrain. But there are emotion-focussed strategies to use – things you can say to yourself or things you can do with your body that help you to retain that personal sense of agency. Things like using positive mental imagery, and having mottos.’

4. Realise Bravery Isn’t A Lack Of Fear
You might see someone running into a burning building as brave, heroic even, but to a firefighter it’s just the day job. ‘Bravery is pretty context specific, so you can be brave in one situation but not in another, and a lot of it’s perception based,’ says Smith. ‘You must say to someone, oh you were really brave. But they might reply: “Well, I wasn’t. I was actually really scared but I just did what I had to do.” It’s always about appraisal of risk and the perception of control.’

So, you build up coping mechanisms to think, and act clearly in stressful situations – of course you need to experience similar situations in order to not panic. ‘If you didn’t have fear there’s probably something wrong – it’s a useful thing. But if you perceive yourself to be in control then you will tend to respond in a better way than if things are uncontrollable.’

5. Get Immersed In The Task
People who go on expeditions into extreme environments don’t just have to be good in a crisis. Skiing along while towing a sled for hundreds of miles is kind of repetitive, after all.
‘In the deserts and wild places there’s just not enough stimulation to keep you interested – wildlife or smells or anything like that, and the route is arrow straight. There’s a personality trait called absorption that’s linked to being able to get into that flow state,’ says Smith

‘Getting immersed in the task is one way to get carried away with it. Most people have experienced flow, whether at school in a class you really enjoy when the time just goes, or a marathon where you’ve done four miles before you even realise – in those environments it’s: “I’ve done six or seven hours already today and it’s disappeared.”’

6. Use The New Right Stuff
Tom Wolfe’s famous book The Right Stuff looked at astronauts of the 1950s and 60s. They were ex-fighter jocks and were unsurprisingly dogmatic, and personal achievement-focussed – now the science is showing that today, when it comes to high performing teams, The Right Stuff is completely different.

‘There are a cluster of traits including positive expressivity, similar to agreeableness, and positive instrumentality, which is the ability to set goals and work hard towards achieving those overarching goals, as a team, while staying motivated towards them. Then there’s low verbal aggressiveness, so you’re not easily going to get angry and start calling people certain things or get too aggressive about your own situation, because that results in tension.’

7. Focus On The People
You might think that studying adventurers in extreme places would show that most of their emotional issues come from facing apparently epic challenges, like climbing a mountain. Not so, says Smith. ‘The biggest thing in terms of stresses is people. It’s surrounding them with other people in that stressful environment, that cause people to have the emotional wobbles – feeling like their teammate isn’t pulling their weight, or feeling like a skivvy because the leader has told them to do something they don’t want to. So, paying attention to your team dynamics will pay dividends, even when focussing on the overall goal.

8. Beware The Cluster Effect
Just as in day to day life, it’s not a single issue that’s going to derail an expedition. ‘If you have an injury that’s not severe, like blisters, or a piece of equipment breaks, individually these are not real issues – it’s when you get a cluster of them. It’s called the cluster effect – if you add those things together it becomes torturous and damaging to health.’ So don’t expect to be able to just randomly firefight when issues pile up in day to day life. ‘Pick the biggest one and sort that out first.’

‘The space agencies are really worried about ‘groupthink’ on long-term missions to Mars’

9. Rock The Boat
According to Smith, one of the things that the space agencies are really worried about on potential long-term missions to Mars is the problem of groupthink. During training you try to create highly cohesive teams because it’s linked to better performance. ‘The problem with that is that you can get to this point where the team is so cohesive that no one wants to question the status quo – everyone has settled into the way it works, and it works, so why rock the boat. And that results in poorer performance – there are a lot of disaster scenarios, where everyone is agreeing with each other due to groupthink where actually you really need someone to say: “No.”’

10. Work On Bouncing Back
Smith ran a study where he sent four adventurers on a 49-day trek through the Empty Quarter, the world’s biggest sand desert and asked them to keep a detailed diary of their emotional responses, and found that overall the most important thing was the ability to bounce back. ‘They wrote about how stressful the day was, as well as fatigue, boredom, or team problems and then we looked at the coping mechanisms like goal setting, problem solving, immersion in the task, re-appraisal of the situation, trying to see it in a more positive light, and using humour.’

‘We found that generally people have quite a good time, but there are daily fluctuations, which are perfectly normal. You might have a bad day, but then it rebounds and you have a good day. Resilience is that ability to bounce back and keep bouncing back on a day to day basis. In the dictionary resilience is a physics term about elasticity – it’s being able to return to form, and that’s what it is psychologically.’ So, if you’re having a bad day, focus on being able to play a blinder tomorrow!

WHAT NEXT? Listen to Dr Nathan Smith’s Great Traits Project podcast on the psychology of extreme environments.

Dr Nathan Smith’s course ‘In Extremis: Introduction to Psychology In Extreme Environments, in association with modern pioneers @TheShackletonCo is now available.

Follow the writer @mattfitnessray