When the going gets tough: a story of trust, support and resilience from the RAF

Plane flying in formation

I proudly spent 10 years in the RAF as a Sergeant in the Human Performance Branch. My role as Adventure Development Coach was to create high-pressure situations in order to help train soldiers’ emotional response to stress. The aim for me and my team was to create safe experiences that soldiers could overcome, so they would be able to apply the learning they took from each task out in the field if they ever needed too.

When you’ve been delivering these experiential activities in challenging environments for up to 36 weeks of the year, it’s easy to forget that for the soldiers you are leading, these tasks might be some of the most challenging exercises they have ever experienced. In my time of leading these tasks, I definitely noticed some key factors which made it possible to succeed in these scenarios, such as trust, support and resilience. One particular situation showcased all of these factors, and it still resonates with me today, many years later.

Using resilience to push you forward

The task was called “blackout” and it’s one we often used with teams. The soldiers had to navigate their way in a pitch black, musky cave through a 30-metre tunnel that squeezes to the size of a basketball hoop at one point before opening up into a chamber. At the back of the chamber was a ladder and a code word. Once they located the ladder, they were able to light their one and only match to reveal the code. The whole task was carried out in complete darkness with no guidance and a light was only turned on when the task was complete. This environment is extreme, and it requires high levels of resilience from these soldiers, to balance your mental and physical state in order to make it through. What happened next was definitely unexpected!

Supporting your team

During this instance, there was one person in the group of six that was petrified of tight spaces, which was only made worse by complete darkness. I was there, tucked into a hole in the chamber as the task began, only to intervene when their safety was at risk. I suddenly heard an individual’s full pressured response just halfway through the tunnel, “DAN TURN THE LIGHT ON AND GET ME OUT NOW!” As I was considering whether I should step in, I immediately heard another member of the team begin to try and calm them down. Providing support to another teammate when they are in such a volatile situation is extremely difficult and takes both patience and understanding. Often, they can’t be reasoned with, so the next few minutes were crucial.

Trusting those around you

Once they were calmer, the other team member started to ask them questions, “what is it that is making you want to stop?”, “what can we do to support you?” to which the individual gave some specific responses “just slow down and please stay in reaching distance”. The team did just that and after a gruelling 50 minutes in the pitch black, they found the ladder and lit their one and only match to reveal the code, job done! This took a huge amount of trust from the panicked individual to put all control, decisions and fate in the hands of a fellow teammate. This allowed them both to work together to ensure they were able to stay calm and make it through in such extreme circumstances.

In the debrief the individual said that they never thought they’d be able to do the task and was hugely thankful for the support. That evening we reflected on the impact of what happened and what the individual felt was now possible. We discussed how your mindset can govern your behaviour, and that it is these golden moments of teamwork that help people realise that with the right support, they can achieve whatever they set their mind to. In fact, they might even be able to surpass what they previously thought was impossible.

This experience has stayed with me for many years, and I often think about it when I or one of my teammates are facing a particularly challenging situation. Rather than becoming stressed, think about what you might need from your teammates, or what you can do for them. Trust each other, support one another and ensure you and the team are fully prepared for what’s to come, to push through these difficult scenarios. This will give you the best chance of revealing the code at the end of the ladder!