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NZDF’s unique approach to getting the best out of personnel sparks overseas interest

The New Zealand Defence Force’s (NZDF) unique approach to ensuring personnel are combat ready is gaining international attention for its effectiveness – with a little help from a former South African soldier and human performance scientist.

17 June, 2024

The NZDF Joint Support Group Human Performance Cell (HPC) is run from Trentham Military Camp and uses an evidence-based approach to optimise soldier readiness.

The team of human performance scientists creates specific training programmes to improve physical performance needed in military roles – such as strength, power and speed in challenging environments, and also how to prevent and reduce injuries and deal with stress in extreme situations.

The HPC, led by Major (Dr) Jacques Rousseau, is receiving substantial interest and requests from international partners who are keen to learn more about the NZDF’s embedded approach to human performance research and development.

“They are interested in the way we implement human performance initiatives and programmes with the aim of maximising the amount of personnel ready for deployment at any given time,” Major Rousseau said.

“The key difference is HPC’s applied and embedded approach within units, raising awareness of what is needed to be combat ready.”

Major Rousseau, who lives near Porirua, said having a uniformed HPC was unique to the NZDF and was the envy of military partners observing HPC projects.

“It is important for us to understand all the factors which have a bearing on military human performance, whether it’s the gear soldiers wear and carry, how we prevent and manage injuries, or the impact of a lack of food and sleep on a soldiers physical, cognitive and physiological performance."

“Once we understand the impact of these factors on human performance, we can develop evidence-based programmes to improve soldier resilience and decision-making abilities under pressure.” 

The HPC can provide physical training instructors with evidence to support the development and implementation of physical conditioning programmes with the aim of reducing injuries and having a “train smarter” approach.

It also carries out biomechanical assessments to develop injury prevention strategies and provides education and guidance on nutrition and hydration.

This includes meal planning, hydration strategies, and the use of nutritional supplements to support soldiers during field exercises and military operations/deployments.

Major Rousseau began his military career as an infantry soldier in the South African Army in 1984 and served during the Angolan War.

 His career highlights included a six-year posting working alongside the South African Special Forces as their human performance specialist, and receiving a commendation for service from then-President Nelson Mandela for work on the transition of the South African Defence Force to a Post-Apartheid Defence Force. 

 He migrated to New Zealand in 1999 and took up a lecturing position with Massy University, where he developed and managed the Diploma in Exercise Science. He also completed a Master's degree in Sport and Exercise, and founded, implemented and managed the Massey University (Wellington) Clinical Exercise Programme. 

In 2011, he was recruited by the NZDF to look at developing a human performance programme within the New Zealand Army, and was offered the opportunity to return to uniform - which he happily accepted.

He’s since completed a doctorate on the effects of chronic boot wear on lower limbs, which led to the introduction of the “garrison shoe” – more comfortable footwear than regulation boots which had caused a high number of lower limb injuries. 

Other studies under his belt include the positive impacts of strength training for females in uniform, how t-shirt material’s moisture wicking properties affect physical training, and load carriage and shoulder injuries.   

Major Rousseau said his role was about supporting service men and women to be the best they can be whether at home or on deployment.   

“They are the backbone of our Defence Force. My work encompasses physical training as well as the impact of equipment on the body, maintaining performance in extreme environments and during sustained operations.

“It’s about keeping our people healthy and resilient, both physically and cognitively throughout their military careers.  It is about being looked after and valued by the organisation. They deserve the best support possible.”