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Always do the right thing. ...& Yes, There is ALWAYS a right & wrong way to act & react. If you are having trouble figuring out which course of action to take, you're either ignoring the innate feeling inside of you that is a direct link to your morals, values, and/or your faith; or you hear it and need to learn just trust it. If you don't fall into either category you'll never be an elite performer until you do. PERIOD. In order to be elite, you're going to confront situations where you have to push yourself until YOU have nothing left in YOU. At that point you have to have Something bigger than yourself to draw strength from or you'll quit, you'll fail, or worst yet you'll never even try.

 If you follow this blog, you know I've talked a lot about having your own set of RULES that you never break no matter what. Your rules can take many shapes and may vary somewhat depending on your particular job, event, or circumstance. However, one thing that doesn't change is that your RULES must be linked, unmistakably to your core beliefs, values, and/or faith. Your adherence to those rules MUST NOT WAIVER.  Lets look at an example from my world: one rule your might have is that "If I see a human rights violation I'm going to do something to stop it". Okay, sounds easy right?  Well, it is to some extent, but it can get tricky. The real benefit of having these set RULES in place is that it frees your brain from the question "Should I do something?" (that question has already been answered when you set your RULES) and allows it to go directly to "What should I do?"  So if you see a guy roughing up (physically or emotionally) his girlfriend outside a bar, you already know you're going to interdict, too easy, that's your RULE; your brain is now free to consider the 1st, 2nd, & even 3rd order effects of your possible responses and then initiate action. I could go on at length about how incorporating these rules into your training until they become automatic and move out of your pre-frontal cortex can free it up to be in the moment thus allowing you greater mindfulness, situation awareness, and mental agility, but I want look at another example. Lets use an endurance event or even the train up for that event. 

So lets use my favorite RULE, "I never quit".  As I've said before, these 3 little words got me through the 2012 Spartan Death Race in 60 hours 22 minutes with no real issues. It was my only rule. Now, as I've also said, I had a lot of sub-rules that helped me to not break that main rule, but you can read about that in my other posts. But I will recount just one of many shining examples of how following that rule allowed me to finish, while I watched another crumble & quit right in front of me for no other reason than just ran out of him self. I'm not even sure what hour this took place but it was sometime Saturday night I think...maybe around hour 36ish...Anyways, as a "penalty" for some minor infraction of the rules, a group of us had to go sit in the duck pond for 90 minutes. Now, for those of you who don't know, the DR takes place in Vermont. Although it was June, it was 2 or 3 am and the water was very cold. So anyways, after about 45 minutes of pain (despite my intense use of imagery and amateur Tumo Meditation) the volunteer watching us told us we could get out of the water. I was relieved, but not nearly as much as the guy next to me who was really miserable and complaining the whole time we were in the water (which breaks another one of my sub-rules: never complain or vocalize your misery, it's like a cancer and once you give it  power in the form of words, you let it in and it eats away at you until your done). So we get out and it's even colder outside, but as we're trying to get dressed again, the volunteer's radio cracked to life with the race director telling her to put us back in, we were only half done. At that point, I dutifully started to get undressed & get back in the water (there was never a question of IF I should get back in, my RULE had answered that for me already). However, the guy who was next to me said he couldn't do it and was going to quit. I attempted (albeit, half-heartedly) to dissuade him from quitting but he was done.  So as he quit, I braced myself for the shock of the cold water and I jumped right back in. I was shocked by the water alright, but not in the way I'd thought. If you've ever gone swimming at night, you've probably guessed what shocked me. It wasn't that the water was so cold, but that it felt so warm. Not to make light of the quitter, but I literally laughed out loud. The only thing he had to do was not quit. That was it. If he had only got back in the water, he would have made the same amazing discovery as me. But he didn't. He quit. He quit not because what he WAS DOING was so horrible, but because the thought of what he was ABOUT TO DO was. My RULES kept me from having to even wrestle with that decision.  Would yours?

 I saw a lot of shit this week that prompted this post. .. But that's all I'll say about that.

 
 
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Col John Boyd’s OODA Loop is a decision-making cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. A warfighter that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent, can interrupt the enemy’s decision cycle (OODA loop) and gain dominance. Boyd emphasized that "the loop" is actually a set of interacting loops that are to be kept in continuous operation during combat. These observations are the raw information on which decisions and actions are based. We should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries--or, better yet, get inside [the] adversary's Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action time cycle or loop.

                                                (1) Observe. Assess the enemy’s actions and intentions. What is the enemy doing at this time, what is he planning to do? All decisions are based on observations of the evolving situation compared to the situation being addressed. Take the unfolding circumstances and any outside information and apply that information to your mission. These observations are the raw information from the battlefield on which decisions and actions are based. By observing the enemy and predicting his next course of action Warfighter can attempt to disrupt the enemy’s OODA loop before it starts.

                                                2. Orient. Take the information from the observe step and compare to known information to establish orientation. The Warfighter must comprehend his position and ability in relation to the enemy. All considerations need to be taken into account while orientation is being conducted.  The cultural traditions, genetic heritage, previous experiences, or any new intelligence on the area of operation should be processed while orienting yourself.

                                                3. Decide. After all of the information from observation and orientation has been processed a decision needs to be made. If new information unfolds that warrants a new decision the OODA loop starts at whatever step is necessary to adapt to the new situation. The Warfighter must now create a new course of action in relation to the threat and his position relative to the threat. This may be a simple decision such as shoot at the threat’s head, or much more complicated, such as planning troop positions and air-support requirements.

                                                4. Act. Obviously the act step in the OODA loop is the point at which a Warfighter puts his plan into action. The goal is to act before the enemy. After the action step the whole process begins again.

Your enemy must also execute his own OODA Loop in response to the actions of the Soldier or the Soldier’s team. Denying the ability of the enemy to move through his OODA Loop will make the enemy much easier to defeat. An enemy that cannot see friendly forces cannot observe them or orient on them. If the pressure of the engagement forces the enemy to stay in one position, their decisions will be much more limited than if they are free to move at will. Without a new decision, the enemy will simply stay stuck in their last decision, which will be irrelevant to the superior force, as they will be able to move through their OODA Loop and destroy the enemy with sound decisions and actions. With all other factors being equal, the victor in an engagement will be the one that can most rapidly cycle through the OODA Loop.

I love the OODA Loop….I always think about my enemy having an OODA Loop he has to go through too, and our job is to go through our's faster, more efficiently, and with more focus and force,  thereby making them get stuck in theirs so they can’t go to the next step b/c we’re taking that option away….here’s the example I love as a typical “running and gunning” assault….

In this case the enemy is on the defensive so they’ve created a suitable response plan to repel your assault. First, they fire artillery and mortars at the attacking force, then the individual soldier directly fires rifles and RPG’s at the attackers, then once in grenade range, they hurl those bad boys at the force while still engaging with their primary weapon, then they fall back to an alternate position and continue to engage. They intend to do all this in a nice orderly fashion.  Our job is to interrupt that little plan. First we drop cluster bombs and huge artillery shells that cause huge craters virtually redesigning the landscape in a matter of seconds. Then we drop white phosphorous rounds that burn everything it comes in contact with (including their battle buddies that didn’t choose their cover very well), to prevent the enemy from observing our approach. The landscape doesn’t look the same as it did when they went into their firing positions, they can’t see very well due to all the fire and smoke, they can’t really see their attackers, yet are still taking effective fire and heavy casualties…

Now imagine this at the individual level where it really gets fun…So imagine you’re an individual enemy insurgent having survived the initial attack above. You hear the sounds of the explosions and small arms fire getting closer and closer. As you poke your eyes around the corner for a look, the concrete explodes in your eyes where the bullets strike the wall, narrowly missing your head. The last glimpse you saw as you fall backward a step and try to shake it off was that of several dark shadowy shapes closing in on you. You learned your lesson about sticking your head out around corners, so you regain your composure and prepare to angle your AK-47 around the corner and give them a burst of automatic fire to give those attackers something to think about. “Yeah”, you think to yourself, “I’m doing good.” Just then, you notice a small green object clanking past the corner about three feet from you. Your eyes focus on it and you realize that little green deadly egg is a fragmentation grenade just in time to see it explode. You feel the steel pushing through parts of your body and you fall backward from the blast. You try to stand, but for some reason, your upper leg seems to push past your lower leg and touches the ground. You try to take a breath and you realize that it is like trying to breathe through a sopping wet rag. Then you realize the reason for this is that most of your lungs are sticking to the wall behind you. As you gurgle for air and your vision dims, the last picture your mind snaps is that of an American flash suppressor spitting fire in your face. Too late for you…someone has moved through the Loop faster and more efficiently than you.

Of course this is a combat example but the OODA Loop applies to everything we do. Think about someone in sales...the faster she goes through her OODA Loop the more sales she'll likely make (Especially if she progresses through the Loop faster than her client addressing any potential roadblocks to her sale before they even arise). Think about the football quarterback, the MMA fighter, the marathon runner....


 
 
  In order to use the mind in the most effective manner possible, we must first understand how the mind influences performance.  Simply stated, thoughts directly affect feelings and ultimately actions.   More specifically, performance starts with the way we think.  This then affects our nervous system and physiology.  Because emotions are actually biochemical events, our emotions are directly affected by our thinking as well.  These changes to our feelings and physiology then produces a performance that, more often than not, is directly related to the initial thoughts we were having.  In other words, we get more of what we think about, and we do, in fact, become what we think about most.

Thoughts: The Prefrontal Cortex, also known as the “thinking brain,” is the manager of executive functions.  These include “memory, judgment, planning, sequencing of activity, abstract reasoning…impulse control, personality, reactivity to the surroundings and mood.”  This area is what allows humans to solve math problems, develop abstract concepts, and ponder our own existence.  It is also the area that military leaders use to balance risks in combat, develop courses of action, and create strategies to effectively lead units. 

When the limbic system is heavily engaged, as it is during the high-threat stress of combat, it will quite literally steal fuel from the prefrontal cortex, thus handicapping a Soldier’s ability to combat the situation with cognition.  The relationship is such that “the degree of activation of the limbic system is the degree of deactivation of the prefrontal cortex.”   Brain research has also shown that there are many more neural connections that flow from the amygdale directly to the prefrontal cortex than vice versa.  Therefore, it is easy for our emotions to guide or suppress our rational thoughts. 

Emotions: Combat is full of stressful moments that will test our emotional resolve.  They can occur during initial contact with the enemy, or when rushing to secure enemy terrain, or when reacting to an unexpected event.  Soldiers will experience intense sensory input in the form of debilitating explosions, grotesque scenes, and threatening enemy movements.  As it attempts to keep pace with the exciting environment, the limbic system will perform as it was designed to and starve the Soldier’s ability to maintain a clear mental framework.  Coupled with the typically exhausting physical exertion of combat, he is at risk to suffer degraded cognitive processing, inaccurate decision-making, and reduced insight generation.

As combat will readily reveal, the body and mind will undergo rapid changes when reacting to stress.  Heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing will all increase; digestion will slow and nausea may occur; speech may falter; and auditory and visual cues may diminish.  All of these effects are natural, as the body emotionally reacts to the fight.  However, optimal combat (or high-stress) performance requires the Soldier to control the effect of emotional energy and remain calm in the face of danger.  While moderate levels of heightened stress improve functions like motor skills, stress can easily impair performance in cognitive areas, where today’s military typically operate.

Physiology: The limbic system is evolutionarily older than the prefrontal cortex, primitively old, in fact.  It developed to survive the ancient, two-dimensional battlefield of predator versus prey that our forbearers faced.  It has the “chemical authority” to initiate rapid responses to threats and is good at doing so.  The amygdale ignites; adrenaline flows to the blood; the pulse races; the eyes zoom in and rapidly scan for a threatening movement.  The body halts the unnecessary digestion process and tenses the major muscle groups in preparation for a clash.  Then the brain, teeming with blood vessels, redirects the available supply of oxygen and glucose-rich blood to the limbic and motor areas that you will need to react quickly in the impending fight.  At this point, the mind is in its most basic survival mode with no spare energy to devote to geometry or to philosophical dilemmas or to any extraneous thought.  This biological decision to focus resources towards limbic areas during dangerous situations is what keeps us alive when a cerebral problem-solving approach would be fatally slow.

Emotion is an instinctive response aimed at self-preservation. It involves numerous bodily changes that are preparations for action. During a fear reaction, the amygdala, in concert with numerous other structures in the brain and body, help to trigger a staggeringly complex sequence of events, all aimed at producing a behavior to promote survival. When the reaction begins neural networks are activated, and numerous chemical compounds are released and moved around in the brain and body. The most well known among them is the so-called adrenaline rush. Adrenaline is a trade name for epinephrine…but it is norepinephrine that is largely responsible for the jolt you feel in the heart when startled.  Cortisol (a steroid), which is released from the adrenal cortex, also amps up fear among other effects. The net result of all the chemicals that come streaming through your system once the amygdala has detected danger is that the heart rate rises, breathing speeds up, more sugar is dumped into the metabolic system and the distribution of oxygen and nutrients shifts so that you have the strength to run or fight. The knot in your stomach results from the redistribution (as well as from contractions of the smooth muscle in the stomach) in which the flow of blood to the digestive system is reduced so that it can be used elsewhere to meet the emergency. The blood changes its chemistry so that it can coagulate more rapidly and muscle tone alters. All of this happens to put you in a state of high readiness.



 
 
 In 1985, while making the very difficult descent after summiting the 21000 foot  Siula Grand Mountain in the Peruvian Andes, Two British mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates ran into a catastrophe when Simpson suffered a broken leg; basically a death sentence above 19000 feet on the completely uninhabited, snow-covered mountain in Peru. Simpson had to do something to stop his mind from descending towards death. He knew he had screwed up big time. Then something clicked in him. He stayed silent. He knew “if he said a word he would panic, he could feel himself on the edge of it. He took cognitive control. He had successfully put his thinking brain in balance with his emotional brain so that the two could help him to function. Yates rappelled down to Simpson and examined him. He gave him some pain medicine. Neither spoke. As Simpson put it, “In an instant an uncross able gap had come between us.” They were both working on shifting decisions out of the amygdala and into the neocortex. In such a dire emergency, the amygdala would urge instant action without thought. It has the chemical authority to do that, too. So it took energy, balance, and concentration to shift control to the executive functions of the neocortex. Time was of the essence. They had run out of water and fuel. They had to get down fast of they would both die. There approach was orderly, bold yet cautions, inventive; in a moment it would also become playful as well. Simpson was learning what it meant to be playful in such circumstances: “A pattern of movements developed after my initial wobbly hops and I meticulously repeated the pattern. Each pattern made up of one step across the slope and I began to feel detached from everything around me. I thought of nothing but the pattern.” His struggles had become a dance, and the dance freed him from the terror of what he had to do. “ I knew I was done for,” Simpson wrote later, “It would make difference in the long run, but I kept going because of the pattern”. “ I had forgotten my partner was even there, I lost track of time, I had even almost forgotten why I was even doing the pattern for a while.” Then Simpson went over the edge again, and this time Yates had no choice but to cut the rope, almost certainly killing his friend. Simpson fell for a long time, and much to his surprise woke up very much alive. On the almost impossible climb out of the crevasse, Simpson returned to his old friend, the patterns and rhythms of the dance. He’d place his ice tools, plant his good foot, then pull hard while hopping upward to plant the foot a bit higher up. “Bend, hop, rest; bend, hop, rest…” He found that once more concentrating on the pattern helped him ignore the pain. At the same time that he took the greatest risk, he was also safe-guarding himself. “I resisted the urge to look up or down. I knew I was making desperately slow progress and I didn’t want to be reminded of it by seeing the sunbeam still far above me.” This poses an interesting question: How can you know something and still keep from reminding yourself of it? Indeed, when Simpson said he “knew”, he means that his hippocampus contained a short-term memory pattern about his situation. But the visual perception of how far he had to go would be sent straight down through the thalamus to the amygdala to be screened, and that it was he wished to avoid, because it might trigger a whole new set of emotions that he didn’t need right now. He could bump what was in his working memory out by concentrating on something else: his pattern. It was a wise choice. Keep the perceptual input to a minimum right now. Don’t feed the amygdala any scary raw data.

We can learn a lot from Joe Simpson we can use to get us through those tough runs & rucks. I personally have adopted Dean Karnazes mantra of "Smooth, Long, Strong". Basically ever time my left foot hits the ground I say "Smooth", then "Long", then "Strong", I say nothing the next time my left foot hits the ground, then start all over again. This mantra works for me for about 17 miles, then I have to change it up. Recently, at the Spartan Death Race, I simply went with "Pick It Up, Put It Down", obviously just instructing my body what I should be doing with my feet.  Even if your skeptical, I encourage you to try it out. Say the mantra out loud or too your self. I have found this to be one of the most effective interventions that I can give a Soldier on the spot during a ruck march and it works almost immediately by not only getting their mind off what ever misery that they are experiencing, but also helps to get their breathing, heart rate, and brain waves in rhythm.

 
 
Under extreme and stressful conditions, humans don’t rise to the occasion, they sink to their training. Extreme environments are characterized as those situations which place a high demand on the physiological, affective, cognitive, and/or social processing resources of the individual. Extreme environments strongly perturb the body and mind, which in turn initiate complex cognitive and affective response strategies. Different types of extreme environments may share some aspects but can also have unique demand characteristics. For example, exposure to the cold and isolated environment of an Antarctic expedition may result in extreme social and sensory deprivation, whereas exposure to military combat operations may entail extreme sensory overload. It is clear that there are many different types of extreme environments or situations, but it is less clear that an individual’s cognitive and affective responses are as varied as the different types of extreme environments. From a systems neuroscience perspective, optimal performance under extreme conditions can be conceptualized as goal-oriented task completion during a high demand context. This conceptualization highlights the importance of stress-related neural processing, of cognitive control, and of learning for the adaptation to extreme environments. There is little doubt that rigorous physical trailing has the capacity to strengthen and build an individual’s cognitive and affective response to stressful conditions and extreme environments; however, research suggests that it needs to include building mental as well as physical strength as its primary goals.

OPTIMAL PERFORMANCE EXPLAINED FROM A NEUROSCIENCE POINT OF VIEW

Research suggests that there are two cognitive processes which can be examined experimentally and that are critical for top-down control and learning and may be critical for optimal performance. These two cognitive processes are: (1) feedback of an adverse outcome, which is necessary for adjusting behavioral strategies in decision-making; and (2) top-down modulation of ascending sensorimotor information to predict future states, which is an important evolutionary advantage associated with the development of complex cortical circuitry. The top-down modulatory ability is fundamentally related to the cognitive appraisal notion introduced above and to learning associations between stimuli and future pleasant or aversive outcomes. For example, the rate of reward learning depends on the discrepancy between the actual occurrence of reward and the predicted occurrence of reward, the so-called ‘reward prediction error’ (Schultz, Dayan, & Montague, 1997). Below we briefly review aspects of stress, the key neural substrates in performing under stressful conditions, and the proposed role of two brain areas that may contribute to optimal performance in extreme conditions. Neuroscientists have developed a preliminary model of optimal performance in extreme environments (Paulus et al, in press) that starts with the observation that these environments exert profound interoceptive effects. Interoception is (a) sensing the physiological condition of the body (Craig, 2002), (b) representing the internal state (Craig, 2009) within the context of ongoing activities, and (c) initiating motivated action to homeostatically regulate the internal state (Craig, 2007). Interoception includes a range of sensations such as pain (LaMotte, Thalhammer, Torebjork, & Robinson, 1982), temperature (Craig & Bushnell, 1994), itch (Schmelz, Schmidt, Bickel, Handwerker, & Torebjork, 1997), tickle (Lahuerta, Bowsher, Campbell, & Lipton, 1990), sensual touch (Vallbo, Olausson, Wessberg, & Kakuda, 1995; Olausson et al., 2002), muscle tension (Light & Perl, 2003), air hunger (Banzett et al., 2000), stomach pH (Feinle, 1998), and intestinal tension (Robinson et al., 2005), which together provide an integrated sense of the body’s physiological condition (Craig, 2002). These sensations travel via small-diameter primary afferent fibers, which eventually reach the anterior insular cortex for integration (Craig, 2003b). The interoceptive system provides this information to (1) systems that monitor value and salience (orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala); (2) are important for evaluating reward (ventral striatum/extended amygdala); and (3) are critical for cognitive control processes (anterior cingulate). Moreover, the more anterior the representation of the interoceptive state within the insular cortex the more “textured”, multimodal, and complex the information that is being processed due to the diverse cortical afferents to the mid and anterior insula. Scientists have hypothesized that the anterior insula not only receives interoceptive information but is also able to generate a predictive model (Paulus & Stein, 2006), which provides the individual with a signal of how the body will feel, similar to the “as if” loop in the Damasio somatic marker model (Damasio, 1994).

SO HOW DO OPTIMAL PERFORMERS USE THEIR BRAINS?

The interoceptive information is thus “contextualized”, i.e. brought in relation to other ongoing affective, cognitive, or experiential processes, in relation to the homeostatic state of the individual, and is used to initiate new or modify ongoing actions aimed at maintaining the individual’s homeostatic state. In this fashion interoceptive stimuli can generate an urge to act. Thus individuals who are optimal performers: (1) have developed a well “contextualized” internal body state that is associated with an appropriate level to act. In contrast, sub-optimal performers either receive interoceptive information that is too strong or too weak to adequately plan or execute appropriate actions. As a consequence, there is a mismatch between the experienced body state and the necessary action to maintain homeostasis. Therefore, a neural systems model of optimal performance in extreme environments includes brain structures that are able to process cognitive conflict and perturbation of the homeostatic balance, i.e. the anterior cingulated and insular cortex. Thus, ultimately, engagement of these brain structures is likely to be predictive of performance and may also be used as an indicator of efficacy of an intervention.

Resilience refers to (1) the ability to cope effectively with stress and adversity and (2) the positive growth following homeostatic disruption (Richardson, 2002) and is an important psychological construct to examine how individuals respond to challenging situations and stay mentally and physically healthy in the process (Tugade, Fredrickson, & Barrett, 2004c). The ability to regulate and generate positive emotions plays an important role in the development of coping strategies when confronted with a negative event (Bonanno, 2004b). In particular, resilient individuals often generate positive emotions in order to rebound from stressful encounters (Tugade, Fredrickson, & Barrett, 2004b). Nevertheless, the experimental assessment of resilience is challenging and requires novel behavioral and neural systems techniques (Charney, 2006). Despite the increasingly common and not all together correct use of the term within the military today, resilience is a complex and possibly multidimensional construct (Luthar, Cicchetti, &Becker, 2000). It includes trait variables such as temperament and personality as well as cognitive functions such as problem-solving that may work together for an individual to adequately cope with traumatic events (Campbell-Sills, Cohan, & Stein, 2006b). Here, we focus on resilience in terms of a process through which individuals successfully cope with (and bounce back from) stress (e.g., after being fired from a job, an individual adopts a proactive style improving his job hunting and work performance), rather than a simple recovery from insult (e.g., job loss causes a period of initial depressive mood followed by a return to affective baseline without attempting to modify habitual coping mechanisms to prevent its reoccurrence). The use of mental toughness training in conjunction with military physical training is based on research that aimed to show that resilience, which is a critical characteristic to perform optimally in extreme environments, has significant effects on brain structures that are thought to be important for optimal performance.

As elaborated above, neuroscientists hypothesize that limbic and paralimbic structures play an important role in helping individuals adjust to extreme conditions. Thus, the activation in amygdala and insular cortex are critically modulated by the level of resilience. In particular, if the anterior insular plays an important role in helping to predict perturbations in the internal body state, one could hypothesize that greater activation in this structure is associated with better resilience. Moreover, if one assumes that the amygdala is important in assessing salience in general and the potential of an aversive impact in particular, one could also hypothesize that greater resilience is associated with relatively less activation in the amygdala during stressful events. The involvement of the insular cortex supports our general notion that this brain structure may be critically involved in assessing ongoing internal body states as they relate to challenges in the outside world. Activation of insular cortex has been reported in a number of processes including pain (Tracey et al., 2000), interoceptive (Critchley, Wiens, Rotshtein, Ohman, & Dolan, 2004), emotion related (Phan, Wager, Taylor, & Liberzon, 2002), cognitive (Huettel, Misiurek, Jurkowski, & McCarthy, 2004), and social processes (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003). In reward-related processes the insular cortex is important for subjective feeling states and interoceptive awareness (Craig, 2002; Critchley et al., 2004) and has been identified as taking part in inhibitory processing with the middle and inferior frontal gyri, frontal limbic areas, and the inferior parietal lobe (Garavan, Ross, & Stein, 1999).

WHY HOW USE A NEUSROSCIENCE APPROACH TO A BUILDING MENTAL TOUGHNESS & RESILIENCE THROUGH A MILITARY PHYSICAL TRAINING PROGRAM?

The neuroscience approach to understanding optimal performance in extreme environments has several advantages over traditional descriptive approaches. First, once the roles of specific neural substrates were identified, they could be targeted for interventions. Second, studies of specific neural substrates involved in performance in extreme environments could be used to determine what cognitive and affective processes are important for modulating optimal performance. Third, quantitative assessment of the contribution of different neural systems to performance in extreme environments could be used as indicators of training status or preparedness. The observation that the insular cortex and amygdala are modulated by levels of resilience were a first step in bringing neuroscience approaches to a better understanding of what makes individuals perform differently when exposed to extreme environments. The application of this systems neuroscience approach helps to extend findings from specific studies with individuals exposed to extreme environments to develop a more general theory. As a consequence, one can begin to develop a rational approach to develop strategies to improve performance in these environments.

SO HOW DO WE USE CSF-PREP DURING MILITARY PHYSICAL TRAINING TO INCREASE MENTAL TOUGHNESS & RESILIENCY?

Resilient individuals are able to generate positive emotions to help them cope with extreme situations (Tugade, Fredrickson, & Barrett, 2004a). According to Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory, positive emotions facilitate enduring personal resources and broaden one’s momentary thought of action repertoire (Fredrickson, 2004). That is, positive emotions broaden one's awareness and encourage novel, varied, and exploratory thoughts and actions which, in turn, build skills and resources. For example, experiencing a pleasant interaction with a person you asked for directions turns, over time, into a supportive friendship. Furthermore, positive emotions help resilient individuals to achieve effective coping (Werner & Smith, 1992) serving to moderate stress reactivity and mediate stress recovery (Ong, Bergeman, Bisconti, & Wallace, 2006). Neuroscientists suggest that individuals that score high on self-reported resilience may be more likely to engage the insular cortex when processing salient information and are able to generate a body prediction error that enables them to adjust more quickly to different external demand characteristics. In turn, a more adapt adjustment is thought to result in a more positive view of the world, and that this capacity helps maintain their homeostasis. This positive bias during emotion perception may provide the effective thinking strategies that resilient individuals use to interpret the world and achieve effective ways to bounce back from adversity (Bonanno, 2004a) and maintain wellness.

 
 
 Myth: You know how much stress your body can take.
•Mythbuster: Craig Weller •

During Special Operations selection training, you're subjected to a brutal series of physical and mental tests. Depending on the program and the time of year, between 60 and 90 percent of candidates won't finish. Fun stuff. •But it taught me something important: Pain does not stop the body. There's nothing that hurts so badly that you can't keep going just a little longer. •Extreme and continuous stress teaches you to break daily life down into short, measurable goals. You make it to breakfast, and then you focus on making it to lunch. Sometimes your mind refuses to project beyond the immediate future: running one more step, swimming one more stroke, grinding out just one more push-up. •Everybody hits bottom at some point. You get to a place where you'd do anything to make the pain stop. If your mind breaks first and you stop running, or wave for a support boat on a swim, or raise your hand during a beat-down to say that you're done, you're officially "weeded out." You've quit. You're part of the majority, but you still feel like a loser. •Fortunately, there's a loophole: If your body breaks first, they won't hold it against you. Every guy in my squad had the same perverse thought at some point: "If I can just push myself hard enough to black out, I'll crash in the sand, take a nap, and wait for the medics to revive me. I'll get a nice little break, and then rejoin the pack." •So we ran harder. We pushed. But we hardly ever got those naps. •  •I remember being on a run, soaking wet and covered with sand. We'd just gotten back to our feet after calisthenics in the surf and a series of sprints up and down a sand dune. Then the instructors took off sprinting again. •I didn't think I could make it any farther, but I knew I could never live with myself if I stopped running. So I put my head down and sprinted as hard as I could through the soft sand. Pain surged through my body, and the only conscious thought I can remember was that the air I was gasping into my lungs had turned to fire. •I focused my eyes on the heels of the instructor. The pain was getting worse, but I kept going. I could hear another member of my class behind me, struggling to keep up with the pack while puking between strides. •Guys who went through the training with me had similar experiences. They'd hit bottom one day, and think they could finally reach their breaking point if only they pushed a little bit harder. But it never worked. The agony would only increase. But so would their capacity to keep going. Pain, in other words, never actually broke our bodies. •  •Which isn't to say we weren't incapacitated from time to time by hypothermia, hypoxic blackout, hypoglycemic shock, or some other things you find in the dictionary a few pages past "hell." But passing out was acceptable. Quitting wasn't. •I'm a civilian now, running a facility and training people. Every now and then, I hear someone say, "I can't." •Frankly, that's bull****. Next time you're tempted to say you "can't," remember that what you're really saying is, "I don't want to." •
__________________
 •Champions are built brick by painful brick and that can take a lifetime. Sometimes it can happen without anyone even bothering to notice. Take heart. The mountains you climb can't always be seen by an audience... Still, you must not stop climbing. •For, in all their sophomoric hubris, whatever actions men take, or do not take, the mountain remains. • 
•To effect change in any place, at any time, one need only stand up and occupy a space. •Fight Harder, Dig Deeper, Last Longer •  • 
•Max out!
 •S/F
 
 
So, so far the majority of our conversations among my Spartan Death Race Team (www.youmaydie.com) have been about gear and physical prep, that's of course important, but just as (if not more than) important is a conversation about the mental aspect. Upon registration, we all wrote essays to the race director as to why we wanted do the DR, and that was valuable, but not enough. It is vital to our mental prepartion to take a pencil and paper and write about our "mission". If there's one thing I know about this kind of stuff, whether it's in an event like the Death Race, during the first 3 days of RAP week at Ranger School or the mass exodus opportunity right before the Start of HELL WEEK at BUD/S; it's that most people quit when when they finally have some time to think and let the fear or doubt creep in...i.e. it's not during the 3-mile hike back up the mountain through the 42 degree river for the 3rd time b/c u spilled some water out of your bucket, or on mile 10.5 of the 15.5 mile FM, or enduring SURF TORTURE during hour 103 of 132 of HELL WEEK;  but while you're standing there, at rest, not physically doing anything yet and just thinking about the misery about to come when the fear/doubt overwhelms....so it's very important to have a firm grasp of the "why" or your individual mission. Gavin de  Becker wrote in "The Gift of Fear" that if you afraid of something, that's good because it hasn't actually happened yet. Think about it, when a new rrecruit is standing on the edge of a 40-foot repel tower, he's not afraid of being that high off the ground anymore, he's afraid of falling. If he were to fall off the tower, well then he's certainly not fearful of falling anymore, he's more concerned with landing....you get the idea, right? So when we think about it like that, why is just a thought enough to make us quit and what can we do about it. It is at these time that you have to have some "rules" in place that you can go to immediatley to replace those cancerous thoughts of fear and doubt. SO here's just a few suggestions of some "rules" that have been helpful in the past

1)Quitting is NOT an option.
Pain is temporary but quitting lasts forever. There will be times, particularly late at night when you will be totally depleted both physically and mentally and in a highly vulnerable state where it will be tough to stay on course, the hot shower and meal will sound very enticing. Never, ever make a decision to fold up your tent at night, EVER! Force yourself to continue on until sunrise, once the sun comes up chances are you will not even remember why you felt so bad at 03:00.  At this stage of exhaustion an outcome focus, rather than process focus, may be important.  Keep your original goal/objective in the forefront of your mind, instead of dwelling on the obstacles associated with your current situation.

2)It’s OK to suffer, accept your fate and do not express the negative. During extreme endurance activities everyone is going to feel awful. Under no circumstances should you ever vocalize these feelings to others. Rather, if someone asks you how you are doing say “great”. If you talk about how bad you are feeling to others, you will now have created a very powerful negative thought/image that your mind will latch onto and you will have a very tough time staying in game.

3) There will be an end and you will not die. Understand that no matter how bad things are going out there, no matter what it is, it will come to an end. It is so important that you never lose sight of this and just keep putting one foot in front of the other, before you know it, it will be over.

4) Train Hard and have confidence/believe that you will succeed. Confidence comes from proper preparation, training, dedication, hard work and desire. Knowing that you have put in the time to prepare allows you to be confident and rely upon the fact that all of your training and hard work will empower you to finish your goal. Preparation is the key to success!  I carry a laminated card in my wallet, my car and have it taped on the ceiling over my bed that says "I train hard and do what you won't do today, so I can do what you can't do tomorrow". I look at that everytime I don't feel like training. 

5) Adapt to any situation, improvise and be flexible. During extreme endurance events nothing ever goes as you had planned, be very flexible and be ready to react and adapt to whatever gets thrown your way out there. Expect the unexpected and never dwell on the negative. Gen Hal Moore always says "three strikes and you're not out. There's always something you can do to influence a situation in your behalk, and then another, and another."  If that's one of the rules you already have in place, you won't waste valuable time worrying or feeling sorry for yourself. You'll just immediatly start looking for a new solution.

6) Be Mindful & Keep yourself in the present, never think too far ahead. I like to call this concept Baby Steps and it is a very powerful tool. Instead of focusing on long term goal/objective of the event you break up the event into smaller pieces with short intermediate goals and keep your focus on the present/here and now. Examples of Baby Steps would be approaching it at one mile at a time, one evolution at a time, making it to the next meal or the next sunrise. If you think too far ahead the enormity of what you are facing can be overwhelming and demoralizing and make it very hard to stay in the game when things start unraveling.

7)Pre-Hab & Be kind to yourself.  You need to learn how best to assist your body in recovering during periods of rest. This is an extremely important concept and you should spend time trying to figure out what works best for you. This encompasses the full spectrum of recovery techniques ranging from yoga, stretching, meditation, ice baths to nutrition. Anything you can do to help your body recover will pay huge dividends as the hours, days and weeks start adding up.

8)Loose all preconceived notions of what you think you are capable of and what you think is impossible.Two of my favorite quotes are “some of the most remarkable human achievements were accomplished by people too dumb to know they were impossible” and “It always seem impossible until someone does it”. The point is that you are capable of so much more than you ever dreamed, don’t limit your possibilities by what you may perceive to be impossible. Find examples of this concept in action in your own life. Write down the times you've done more than you ever thought you could and focus on them daily

9) How are you going to act?  This is a very important concept one which I rely upon all the time. Mark Devine talks about this in his camps and I've adopted his technique. I envision that I am being filmed and whatever my actions are, I will be forced to watch that film over and over again for the rest of my life. The point is, do you want to watch yourself spinning off and quitting or would you prefer to watch yourself gutting it out to the finish? This may sound silly, but it is NOT. If you quit it will last forever and you will constantly relive that moment as you watch your film over and over again. 

10) Transference. This is a powerful concept that absolutely works. No matter how bad you are feeling during an event if you transfer your thoughts and concern towards helping someone else who is struggling, in the act of trying to help that person your mind will become totally focused upon how best you can help that person and you will not think/dwell upon about how bad you are feeling. Trust me this concept is a very powerful tool that absolutely works. Once your mind is fully engaged upon an objective it is as if you enter a zone where you are so focused on the objective that your mind ignores your own physical condition. This concept may sound weird, but think about it, have you ever been engaged in a great conversation with someone only to realize that an hour just flew by and now you are late?

11) Beware of False Finish Lines. Imagine that you are climbing a very difficult mountain and you are pushing hard up a ridge line towards the summit. After many hours of difficult climbing you reach what you believed to be the summit only to realize that the true summit was out of sight, hidden behind the false summit and you are now facing many more hours of difficult climbing before you tag the true summit. When you realize your perceived summit was a false summit you are confronted by an epic mental beat down, if you are in a vulnerable state of mind this can take you right out of the game. When using the previously discussed topic of Baby Steps choose your summits wisely, this is very, very important, use words and phrases that have defined true summits, such as “I will make it to sunrise” or “I will make it to Friday”. There are no false summits associated with these well defined intermediate goals. 

12) Smile, Laugh, & Make Jokes. Humor is one of the most valuable tools you have in your kit. Use it! Laugh at the ridiculousness of what you're doing, imagine how silly you must look, think of funny movie lines, tell jokes, Eric Greitens talks about a fellow BUD/S candidates that would always joke about when he was going to quit. He'd say things in the morning like "I'm going to quit today after dinner. I'd quit sooner but it's taco night in the chow hall, and I love taco's so I have to wait until after dinner." He used humor to aknowledge the diesire to quit buy not really give it any power. It's a brilliant strategy (for some, not for all).

Anyways, the Spartan Death Race takes place over the weekend of June 15-17th (and maybe some of the 18th), so I'll keep you all informed about our prep and progress and then AAR (after action review) the whole party!
 
 
 
In the Drill Sergeant School, the Candidates recite both the Soldier’s Creed and the Drill Sergeant Creed before they start most of their classes; so I hear it several times a day, every day and it always fires me up! So that got me thinking about what the Soldier’s Creed meant to me, and although, as I mentioned, I’m not a Soldier, I’m a Marine, I still felt I needed to define my Training Philosophy as that’s a critical first step towards elite performance in anything we undertake (more on that in the posts to come).  So here’s what I came up with:

What the Soldier’s Creed Means to Me

By Dr. Dave Ricciuti

                To me, The Soldier’s Creed is the backbone of a life spent defending my Nation.  It is through living this Creed in daily life that I ask my Almighty Father, whose command is over all and whose love never fails, to keep me true to my best self.  It is through the Soldier’s Creed that I remain vigilant, guarding against dishonesty in purpose and deed so that I may live my life and I can face my fellow Soldiers, my loved ones, and my Lord without shame or fear.

                It is through living the Soldier’s Creed in my everyday life that I gain the strength to ask my Almighty Father not for rest or quiet, not for wealth or success, nor even for health and love. It is through living the Soldier’s Creed that I am able to ask the Lord for that which no-one wants.  It is through living the Soldier’s Creed that I find the courage to ask for insecurity and strife, for distress and discomfort, for pain and for loss.  It is through living the Soldier’s Creed in my daily life that my Lord grants me the Grace to ask for these things that no-one wants, so that no-one else shall have them to bear.

                It is in the Soldier’s Creed where I find the will to do the work of a Soldier and gives me the courage to be proficient in my daily performance.  It is through living the Soldier’s Creed each and every day that keeps me loyal and faithful to my superiors and to the duties my Country and my Army have entrusted to me. It is through living the Soldier’s Creed in my daily life that I am inspired to wear my uniform with dignity, and to remind me of the traditions which I must uphold.

                It is the Soldier’s Creed through which I find that if I am inclined to doubt, steadies my faith. If I find myself afraid, gives me strength, and if I find myself alone, gives me courage.  It is through the Soldier’s Creed that I learn that courage is honor in action.  

                It is through the Soldier’s Creed that I learn that courage is moral strength and find the will to heed my inner voice of conscience, the will to do what is right regardless of the conduct of others.  It is through living the Soldier’s Creed in my daily life that I gain mental discipline and I’m  able to adhere to a higher standard.  To me, living the Soldier’s Creed in my daily life means having the willingness to take a stand for what is right in spite of adverse consequences.  This courage, forged in the fires of adversity throughout the history of the Army, has sustained Soldiers like me during the chaos, perils, and hardships of combat. It is through living the Soldier’s Creed in my daily life that proves again and again, that a Warrior’s not just a Warrior but a Soldier that’s built to accomplish any mission.

 
 
Lifting the Fog of War

Dr. Dave Ricciuti

It is of immense importance that the soldier, high or low, whatever rank he has, should not have to encounter in War those things which, when seen for the first time, set him in astonishment and perplexity; if he has only met with them one single time before, even by that he is half acquainted with them.                                                                                                           -Carl von Clausewitz (1)

Introduction
War has a way of highlighting man’s weaknesses—both physical and mental. Combat reveals the limits of human ability that once crossed; often result in significant losses in individual and unit performance.  The emotions and experiences of combat differ wildly among individuals.  For some, combat heightens their senses and sharpens their reflexes; but for many, an increase in the intensity and frequency of combat exposure can cause a corresponding increase in fear and stress.  Numerous effects have been noted, seen, and experientially and experimentally proven to occur during times of high stress/combat.  All of these potential effects of high stress environments and the engagement of the adrenal stress response in the body have only one goal: survival. 

Lifting the Fog of War
From a purely physical perspective, the ambush moment initiates a lightning-fast, whole body response that is coordinated by a small portion of the brain known as the amygdala.  The output from the amygdala into the brainstem areas that are in control of our reflexes creates massive coordinated muscular contractions, postural shifts, changes in eye focus and pupil dilation, etc. in response to a threat.  The fear and desperation created by a sudden attack causes first the “flinch or freeze” response which is then followed by the well-known “flight or fight” response.  What is vital to understand is that all of these responses which are built into the “fight or flight” system of the body are only a part of the story. In fact, this response is in fact a secondary response of the body to an immediate threat and occurs after the incredibly fast response of the amygdala. For developing a training methodology that most efficiently enhances real-world survival, understanding this distinction is vital: amygdalic reaction, first – fight or flight response, second.  The amygdala connects directly into the brainstem of the body where all of our instinctual responses and reflexive responses to danger are stored. This is a beautifully designed protective mechanism of the body that does not require conscious thought.   In fact, modern researchers believe that many of the amygdalic responses to danger do not involve the cerebrum, the cognitive/thinking portion of the brain at all. The reflexes bypass our learned behaviors.  By thetime the cortex has figured out the situation, the amygdala has already started to defend against possible dangers.The information received by the amygdala from the thalamus is unfiltered and biased toward action. In contrast, the cortex's job is to prevent an inappropriate response rather than an appropriate one.

If personnel in the future conflicts are to deal with the asymmetric extreme of modern warfare, while maintaining a capacity for more conventional conflict, then training needs to ensure that they perceive or believe that they are well prepared and able to cope in a range of situations. If the body will react without the benefit of our conscious brain where we store all of our typical tactics, techniques and training, the traditional approach of over-learning to engender instinctive reactions does not result in optimal combat performance.  The cognitive dissonance and amygdalic reactions that are virtually guaranteed in a real world fight wreak havoc on the typical trained, fine motor responses taught in most current combat training and there is evidence to suggest that skills learned will quickly degrade under extreme and prolonged stress

Training Implications.
We know that the amygdala contains, instinctive and intuitive fears, but also that it can learn.  Combat affects soldiers violently, and they must be conditioned to deal with their fear.  If training can condition a warrior to kill, then training can condition him to cope with fear. The key is not desensitization, but sensitization. Soldiers need to know how their minds and bodies will react to fear and develop a combative mindset that mitigates the psychological and physiological effects of fear. Experiential learning is critical in sensitizing soldiers to the bedlam of combat.  Numerous experiments have shown that while it is virtually impossible without radical brain surgery to completely eliminate the instinctive amygdalic response to danger, it is possible, through training, to modify the flinch response. The amygdalic receives INPUT from every sensory system of the body. Thus the amygdala can create responses to danger signals represented in the visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile or gustatory systems. In other words, the amygdala can instantly respond to any sensory input into the body that indicates danger, regardless of the source. A training alternative is to provide realistically stimulated environments that can increase personnel self-efficacy or confidence to deal with the unexpected. Promising work in the aviation human factors domain shows that the performance of aircrews in high-risk and high-stress conditions can be improved by enhancing a range of basic communication, interpersonal and situational awareness skills.  Research also suggests that this form of stimulation does not need to be high fidelity or overtly realistic—it just needs to expose personnel to the unexpected in a situation where they are able to demonstrate they can cope. Training that balances fundamental military skills while encouraging innovation at the team and individual levels, would assist not only with asymmetric operations, but also contribute to recently identified complex warfighting requirements for versatility and agility.  

Conclusion
The pay-off for lifting the fog of war would certainly be huge:  Preparing warriors to operate effectively in such an environment will only be achieved through realistic training that embraces conditions of chaos, uncertainty, and ambiguity, and employs a realistic, free-thinking opposing force, with real-world capabilities and strategies.  Tactically speaking, research has proven that as the number of available options increases, so does reaction time. In other words, having one available alternative, in a situation that requires the fastest possible reaction time, is the best situation available – as long as the available option is capable of meeting the threat.  Future war will remain characterized by friction, ambiguity and chaos, and will be more complex, diverse, and lethal than ever before. Speed, precision, lethality, and range of weapon systems have combined to compress events in time so that warfighters must make decisions faster and therefore have less time to process and evaluate the situations as they unfold around them.



Australian Army Richards B. A., Hodson, A., Wright, R., Churchill, R.  and Major Blain, J. (2003). Future conflict and its implications for personnel in the Australian Defence Force.

Murphy, PJ, Cotton, AJ, Collyer, R S & Levey, M, 2003, ‘Psychological support to Australian Defence Force operations: a decade of transformation’ in Kearney, G E, Creamer, M, Marshall, R & Goyne, A (Eds), Military Stress and Performance – The Australian Defence Force Experience, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Peters, R, 1999, Fighting for the Future, Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvannia.

von Clausewitz, C, 1982, On War, Penguin Books, London.

Wilson, C, Braithwaite, H & Murphy, P, 2003, ‘Psychological Preparation for the Battlefi eld’, in Kearney, G E, Creamer, M, Marshall, R & Goyne, A (Eds), Military Stress and Performance – The Australian Defence Force Experience, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Wilson, I, 1998, ‘Mental Maps of the Future: An Intuitive Logics Approach to Scenarios’, in Fahey, L and Randall, R, 1998 (Eds), Learning from the Future: Competitive Foresight Scenarios, John Wiley & Sons, New York.



 
 
So I guess I'll start by posting some older articles that I've written a while back. This isn't tactical in nature. I was asked to write a column for a friends local magazine. The target audience was the furthest thing from tactical, so take it for what its worth!

So here's the first in a series on Change and why it is so damn hard!

Hope you enjoy!
The distant rumbling snaps me out of some pretty deep thoughts and I am suddenly seized with a feeling of familiar dread that I have become so accustomed to lately. It’s almost 9 am on a Tuesday morning and that can only mean one thing: It’s recycling day and once again, I have been derelict in my duty as the designated “Recyclable Waste Transportation Officer” for our particular residence (a position I am always quick to point out that I neither campaigned for nor particularly desired, but is mine nonetheless). For reasons I have yet to discover, this is the one aspect of my domestic transformation with which I continue to struggle.  Experience has taught me that based on the volume of the truck and the colloquy of the neighborhood dogs, if I go now, I can still make it with at least a good minute to spare. So naturally, with all that time extra time to spare, my thoughts drift back to my previous contemplations (or what my lovely Bride-to-Be would call procrastinations) on the topic of change, or more importantly, lasting change.

Most men and women go through their lives using no more than a fraction—usually a rather small fraction—of the potentialities within them.  The reservoir of unused human talent and energy is vast, and learning to tap that reservoir more effectively is one of the exciting tasks ahead for any of us. More often than not, we find that real change occurs not through addition, but subtraction. Simply put, lasting change isn’t just about the introduction of new information, but it must involve an actual transformation of how we interpret that information. We have to transform the way we think, the way we feel, and most importantly, the way we behave. The bottom line is that there in so real trick to achieving a lasting change, it really is quite simple once you understand the mechanics behind it all and realize that it can’t come through sheer force of will. Epiphanies, resolutions, & promises of change alone aren’t enough, lasting change can only be achieved through re-training the way we think in order to increase the repertoire of available thoughts.  We have to realize we’re going to feel uncomfortable because lasting change requires a different kind of effort; an effort of application, trying new things, experimenting with new behaviors, asking new (and often difficult) questions about ourselves and our lives. The key is to learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable, because as recent research has shown, the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile, and that is when real growth occurs. (The dogs next door are starting to bark; I really need to get downstairs now if I’m ever going to make it.)

So what does that look like in practice? When seeking to make a lasting change, we must not only understand the process and anatomy of change, but we must also search within ourselves for the ineffective thoughts that keep us from realizing our true potential, the emotional barriers that prevent us from enjoying the successes we achieve, and of course the self-defeating behaviors that undermine our attempts at lasting change and sabotage our chances to be truly happy. Once we become aware of our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions we can began the methodical work of transforming ourselves so that we can uncover our true potential and realize lasting change. In next month’s issue of Northeast Neighbor, we’ll spend some time discussing the process and anatomy of change and why we need to quite literally transform the structures of our brain if we really want to keep the changes we a trying to make. Now, you’ll have to excuse me, I’m pretty sure I just saw the recycling truck drive by my house once again. Oh well, I’ll get him next week.