Air Force Academy offers muscle confusion for the mind

Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson (U.S. Air Force photo)

Lt. Gen. Michelle D. Johnson (U.S. Air Force photo)

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Many readers have heard about disruptive innovation -- a change that creates an entirely new way of doing business. Exponential energy, driverless vehicles and wearable technology are all examples. Indeed, it seems I cannot meet five people without most of them wearing some form of technology. Even my command chief master sergeant, a combat veteran with 30-plus years in service, has his wrist monitor tracking his every move and how restful he is at sleep. He claims he's actually not sleeping all that well because he is stressed about not getting a good night's sleep. In any event, these disruptive innovations create a "new normal" and change our behavior.

Similarly, we're trying something at the Air Force Academy that, like disruptive innovation, is designed to change behavior. However, this innovation is more akin to a term I learned while flipping through TV channels early one morning on the fitness machine. There was a 30-minute advertisement describing how to lose weight and gain fitness through muscle confusion. At first, hearing muscle confusion, I was reminded of our most recent women's basketball reunion -- 30 years are not kind to the jump shot. Nevertheless, to the Internet I went and sure enough, muscle confusion has 2.5 million websites -- there is apparently a raging debate on whether it works.

Muscle confusion supposedly counteracts our body's remarkable ability to adapt. As we adapt, our fitness plateaus. Hence, by introducing variety to our workout, we keep the body guessing, ergo our fitness adapts and grows. Although I did not immediately adopt muscle confusion into my workout, this idea reminded me of innovations we're developing at the Academy. Among the most promising are exchanges and cadet intermission programs.

We have always offered a variety of challenging experiences to help our cadets learn and mature. Among these experiences are semester exchanges with other U.S. service and foreign academies (i.e., West Point, Annapolis and France's Ecole de l'air). However, this past semester we expanded our exchange program and sent three cadets to public universities: the University of South Florida, the University of Texas-San Antonio, and Arizona State University. The cadets are reporting back that this fantastic experience has been muscle confusion for their mind. It is easy to wear your uniform, complete your homework and lead fellow cadets when everyone is required to be just like you. However at these universities, like many exceptional institutions around the country, these cadets may be the only members in their class serving in the military. They are now coping not just with larger classes and more freedom, but they're having to defend their choices, lead in class when no one knows (or cares) about your rank, and serve as ambassadors for military service. These experiences, like muscle confusion, are preventing the plateauing of their development -- a phenomenon we see in some cadets as they adapt to the Academy experience.

This trial experience is also guiding our approach to a year-long cadet intermission program. This program, modeled off of the recently implemented Air Force intermission program and similar to programs encouraged at other elite institutions, allows juniors to organize a year away from the academy to seek other opportunities and challenges. We simply provide initial approval and advice/guidance throughout the year. Similar to the exchange program, spending a year volunteering in a developing nation, or learning a language while teaching English, or attending college to take classes we don't offer -- all at your own expense -- provides the muscle confusion needed to break through to excellence from a plateau of good enough.

Of course, many of our cadets won't need these programs -- taking 140-plus semesters hours, playing sports, marching to class, flying gliders, etc. provides enough "confusion" to ensure continued improvement. Most cadets were exceptional when we recruited them, and they continue to excel throughout their cadet career.

However, to graduate great Air Force officers ready to lead in a complex and ever-changing world, we must find new ways to break through developmental plateaus, allow cadets to challenge themselves and create opportunities for muscle confusion for the mind.