Investigating the qualities required to be successful in operational forces military selection

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A career in the military, particularly in operational forces, is often depicted as adventurous and exciting. Nonetheless, due to the physically and psychologically demanding nature of the job, selection processes are generally highly rigorous, to ensure that successful applicants are well-equipped to cope within the particular military context. Professor Marié de Beer, psychology researcher at M&M Initiatives, and Adelai van Heerden, an HR specialist, carried out a study on a group of candidates applying for the operational forces unit of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), which explored the qualities required for success in the selection.

Careers in the military are more physically and psychologically demanding than most civilian professions, as they generally involve exposure to several stressors and challenges, including physical exhaustion, climatic changes, and prolonged absence from home. Serving in the military can also entail exposure to dangerous, psychologically-straining, and life-threatening situations, particularly for those in operational units, such as the operational forces. Better understanding the qualities necessary to thrive in military contexts is of utmost importance, as this could help to manage and improve wellbeing in the military.

Learning potential, career preference, and coping resources
Past research has found general coping resources, such as hardiness, resilience, and grit, to be particularly important within military contexts. To further investigate the importance of these and other traits in military selection processes, the two collaborators carried out a study on 251 candidates applying for the operational force military section of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). Out of these 251 applicants, 75 made it to the selection week, and only 26 of these were successful in the final selection.

The research was conducted on 251 candidates applying for the operational force military section of the South African National Defence Force.

Using computerised assessments, standardised questionnaires and open-ended questions, de Beer and van Heerden collected data on the sense of meaning, learning potential, career-related interest, and psychological coping skills of candidates who participated in a selection process. They then analysed this data, comparing the profiles of successful and unsuccessful candidates.

A sense of purpose and meaning is essential to endure the hardships posed by military environments.

Their findings revealed that successful applicants had higher scores in meaningfulness and learning potential, as well as lower interest in law and medicine as career options, than unsuccessful candidates. In this context, meaningfulness refers to successful candidates being able to interpret the stressors and demands placed upon them as meaningful. The learning potential results indicate that successful candidates were able to use learning opportunities to improve their performance. Finally, the lower interest in law and medicine as career options observed in successful applicants might reflect their lower interest in professions other than the military.

Key qualities for a demanding career path
The study on SANDF applicants provides interesting insight into the qualities required for success in the operational forces selection process. Overall, the findings suggest that psychological coping, learning potential, and career-related preferences information could be used to refine the selection of operational force military candidates.

This research highlights the importance of meaning and purpose in pursuing a military career.

This research also highlights the importance of a sense of purpose and meaning in pursuing a military career and the need for applicants to be adequately prepared to endure the hardships posed by military environments. In future, the work of Prof Marié de Beer and Adelai van Heerden could contribute to the development and application of strategies that foster greater wellbeing within military contexts.

In light of your research findings, what would you say are the most important qualities to successfully pursue a career in the military?

From the research findings it seems that candidates who are better able to view hardships and stressors as meaningful show better resilience and are better able to cope with and eventually attain success in the very demanding selection process. Furthermore, a strong interest in and a passion for a career in the military to the exclusion of other possible career options was also conducive to success in the selection process. Lastly, an ability to use learning opportunities to improve performance was also shown to be beneficial.


  • De Beer, M. & Van Heerden, A. (2017). The Psychological Coping, Learning Potential and Career Preferences Profiles of Operational Forces Military Candidates. Journal of Psychology in Africa, 27(1), 33-40.
  • De Beer, M. & Van Heerden, A. (2014). Exploring the role of motivational and coping resources in a Special Forces selection process. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 40(1), 1165.
Research Objectives
Professor de Beer and Adelai van Heerden’s work looks at the qualities required for success in operational forces selection.

Chris Serfontein of the Special Operations Defence Evaluations and Research Institute (SODERI) and Technology for Special Operations Division of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) facilitated logistical and practical arrangements for the assessments. Special acknowledgement and appreciation also goes to the Operational Forces of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) for providing access to the sample used in this study and to the candidates who participated.

Marié de Beer (PhD) is a registered Research Psychologist with a focus on psychological test development and validation research.

Adelai van Heerden is an HR Specialist, Principal Project Manager in the Behavioural Science Capability at the Technology for Special Operations Group of the CSIR DPSS (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research: Defence Peace Safety and Security Division).

Professor Marié de Beer
M & M Initiatives
26A Nicolson Street
Bailey’s Muckleneuk
Pretoria, 0181
South Africa

T: +27 (0) 82 781 4288

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