Reflective practice special forces style

Reflective Practice Special Forces Style

When we think about Special Forces operators we think of the best. We think of physical specimens who are mentally resilient, robust and adaptable. Well, you would be right in every single one of these. But they have a quite unique operational environment which I haven’t really come across in many other performance fields, not least sport.

I have been fortunate enough to work with Olympic medal winners, professional rugby players, championship-winning racing drivers, pro boxers and Special Forces operators. During my time with the Special Forces, I came to realise that the level of skill required in so many different and varied domains is incredibly intense.

Whilst an athlete needs to be competent in a range of different skills, most of these are confined to their actual sport for example scrummaging, mauling, lineouts, phase play, broken play in rugby or physical qualities in football such as change of direction/multi-directional movement, sprinting, jumping and tackling. The skills of a Special Forces operator are more diverse.

These skills include but are not limited too

  • Navigation
  • Marksmanship (with multiple weapons)
  • Tactical movement
  • Tactical first aid (this is extreme combat life preservation essentially)
  • Patrolling
  • Freefall
  • Hand to hand combat
  • Fast roping
  • Breaching

These are just some of the fundamentals covered in basic training. Physical training isn’t mentioned here but that it is incredibly close to professional athlete strength and conditioning. Imagine they come in early, do their S&C then head out to train on any of the above skills. Repeat until they deploy. Rest a short while then repeat in line with the mission set.

The purpose of this article is not to compare sport with being an elite soldier, this is not a sensible or useful comparison but there are some great gems which I have taken from my time with the Special Forces which have become really well applied in elite sport.

The goal is to present a simplistic but highly applicable method of reflection post-training, competition or activity which I straight up stole from Special Forces operators. These guys have a lot of intense training to do, they plan meticulously, execute and then de-brief everything, then go again. Time is always against them as there is so much to get through. So they use short, sharp and intelligent reflection to ensure they are drilling home the good habits/execution and improving on the development areas.


The focus of this article is on the reviewing part of this 3-part process. If you are interested in how the Special Forces execute their planning phase you can check out this article and this article for some good context. Reflective practice is steeped in literature, especially in the performance sport world (see below for a whole bunch of great articles). Essentially it helps improve performance through two key areas:

  1. Identifying what went well and understanding how to maintain this
  2. Identifying what did not go so well and what strategies can be put in place to fix these

When you ask someone, who is performance driven they will 9/10 give you a lot of things they want to improve but sometimes struggle to identify what went well. What happens here is that they essentially fail to reinforce what went well, which doesn’t complete the feedback loop and results in that execution breaking down again in the future.

I have never known a high performing environment that is so focused on identifying and fixing what did not go well as the Special Forces operators. They were so focused on correct execution and performing ‘to standard’ that they would occasionally fail to identify what went well and how they were going to reinforce that. The result of course was a breakdown in the execution of the task, and the development areas within a task of skill moving around like a revolving door.

3 Up 3 Down

When I said I took this concept from the Special Forces and applied it to my training group and my subsequent elite athletes, I genuinely mean I stole it! I was fortunate enough to attend a NATO Special Forces Head Quarters (NSHQ) ‘Mental Performance and Resilience’ course and I took this concept from their sports Psychologist Dr Kate Colvin. She had identified the lack of positive reinforcement was holding a group back from nailing down training exercises, so she told them to limit the work ons to the most impactful and ensure there are some positives from each drill.

Hence 3 up 3 down was born.

3 Up

This is the most often overlooked phase and where the positive affirmation/reinforcement of the execution is defined. It forces you to identify what went well and to identify how you will continue to do that. It can be the whole performance, a specific part of a skill or even a part of the planning process.

3 Down

This is the easy bit. The hard part is often limiting the work ons to only 3, and also identifying what the 3 most important bits of constructive feedback are.

This reflective practice approach is fantastic for in the moment reflection, if you have back-to-back sessions or small windows of time to review you can nail the most significant things to keep doing and to alter.

Weekly Check-Ins

3 up 3 down is more of a micro-level approach to reflection, whereas a weekly check-in is where you can summarise the week. Keeping with the process of limiting negative reflection to the most impactful, a system that works well with performance-minded individuals is:

  • Big Wins
  • Small Wins
  • Work Ons
  • Actions for the next 7 days.

The wins sections help you to reflect back over the week and consider what was a significant positive outcome and what were smaller positive outcomes that still need a tip of the cap or reinforcing. This process is all about promoting positive reflection (references available below discussing the impact of this on long term performance enhancement and skill acquisition).

The work ons and the actions for the next 7 days are two sections that are closely linked. The actions are written based on things that need to be improved and focus on taking control of development areas by creating specific tasks, strategies or approaches.

Macro Check-Ins

These reflections relate to broader or longer-range improvement areas which take time and effort such as:

  • Improving change of direction speed
  • Improving presentation skills
  • Developing better game-specific tactical awareness
  • Improving concentration in training
  • Improving dietary consistency

The goal is to check in on these longer-range goals to see how you are getting along, the ideal scenario is to set meso and micro-level goals which all lead into the macro goal.

Critical reflection on many levels is fundamental to improving performance outcomes and long-term skill development. But there is often a knowledge to application gap which prevents the carry-over of expertise, research or general feedback from being effective. This simple 3 up 3 down model is a fantastic way to bridge that gap.

If it’s good enough for the best there is, then it could be worth a shot.

Thank you for reading, plenty more freebies on the website for you.

Talk soon.

The Practitioner Wellness Guy

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