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DF: Welcome to, “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” the official Navy SEAL podcast.
DF: Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School, otherwise known as NSW Prep., occurs in Great Lakes, Illinois over two months. There is one goal of NSW Prep.: to improve SEAL and SWCC candidates’ mental and physical readiness to prepare them for the challenges of BUD/S and BCS. Cordy Pearson, who you’ll hear from today, is the Program Manager for NSW Prep. and speaks about expectations for this major milestone in the process.
DF: Cordy, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. Obviously, you have a really unique perspective. We’re hoping that we can transfer that to as many people as possible that want to find out more about what you do here. If you want to start a little bit about your career and how kind of what led you here. We can start there, or if you just want to jump right into what you do right now, we can do that.
CP: Came in right out of high school. I was a state champion boxer before that, not much pool work or swim work, came straight into the Navy. September 11th happened when I was in first phase, changed the course of how things I thought (DF: Right) were going to happen, and I ended up doing two platoons with SEAL Team One. I was a lead breacher and lead vehicle driver for both those deployments, ended up getting out I was looking to start my own business, got a call to come up here. This place had just started, then they offered me a lead instructor position, then over the course of four years, worked myself into the program manager position, I’ve been the program manager for six years.
DF: In an overarching way, what is the Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School, and what is its kind of mission and goals?
CP: The mission of the NSW Preparatory School is to train, mentor and coach perspective NSW SEAL and SWCC candidates and NSW-centric specific core physical and mental skills.
DF: Unpack that a little bit. What does that kind of mean in say real world terms, on a day-to-day basis for you? What types of things do you try to do?
CP: We try to prepare the students as best we can for the rigors that they’re going to face out at BUD/S (DF: Okay) and BCS. We basically want to help them get through the next major crucible, which would be Hell Week or The Tour. That’s how we gauge our success. We do that by running, swimming, strength and conditioning. We have professional staff that does that, and we help them with their mental toughness, their military bearing. We also talk to them about ethos, core values, and some nutrition and injury prevention as well.
DF: Is everyone that’s working at Prep here Navy staff?
CP: So, we have a mix of Navy and civilian staff here. Civilian staff consists of coaches, so they’re subject matter experts in running, swimming, strength, conditioning, they have educations in kinesiology, exercise science. We have two former SEALs that are working in tandem with those coaches to help deliver the NSW message and the way the students should be acting (DF: Right, part of that ethos you spoke about)…and those evolutions, explaining to them why we do some of the things that we do.
DF: Okay, so how does this tie into the boot camp piece that they’re all going through at the same time? Is this after, is this before, is this during? For the layman, can you kind of paint that picture for us a little bit?
CP: So, yes, for how this is structured, going from boot camp, all enlisted people come from boot camp, and anybody who’s from the fleet would come here, (DF: Okay) so we get all enlisted candidates for SEAL and SWCC (DF: Okay) …And that’s right before they get shipped out to San Diego.
DF: Okay, so the selection process is made, and then they’re transferred to you?
CP: Our goal from that is to take them from boot camp or from the fleet and help prepare them in an 8-week process and get them out to BUD/S as physically prepared, mentally prepared and injury free as possible. One thing that we try to help with is with their skills as far as running, swimming, strength and conditioning, exercise science, kinesiology, and try to help them as much as possible.
DF: What can recruits expect to experience whenever they’re turned over to you and your team so to speak?
CP: First off, they’ll be expected to take a PST. They’ll be expected to pass that PST. At that point they should be able to pass a PST even on their worst day so that there’s no question. The PST basically assesses trainability, so if an individual falls short of the standards, which are posted on SEALSWCC.com in a PDF format, (DF: Right) which candidates can go ahead read, follow to the T because that’s exactly how we’ll administer the test when they’re here. They’ll be an indoc week process, and over the course of the next six weeks there will be a ramp up training with the running and the swimming and also the physical conditioning piece; we’ll be in the gym; we’ll be on the beach doing sand bag PTs. They’ll be out doing team-building exercises, rope climbs, things of that nature, and then towards the end, we’ll taper things off, get them ready, test them out on the exit test. So, there are two tests that happen here. One’s the initial PST, and the other is the Exit Standard test.
DF: How is this exit PST different than the ones previous?
CP: Well, it’s, it’s basically a lot larger, and it’s at the end of the pipeline here. Once they have successfully passed, and they only get one shot at it, they’ll be able to progress on to San Diego.
DF: Is that something that you think that recruits should try to be concerned with before they even get to basic training here?
CP: I don’t feel like they need to really focus on that as much, I think that they should, anybody that’s listening to this probably needs to focus on their PST scores and make sure that those (DF: Right) are in line and to become as physically prepared as possible, (DF: Right) but also bear in mind that they don’t need to over-train.
DF: Are you getting the EOD and the kind of other part of NSW coming through here, or is this just all SEAL/SWCC candidates?
CP: It’s all SEAL/SWCC candidates.
DF: Okay, how long between graduating from boot camp and then getting to BUD/S are they in this phase where they’re kind of ramping up if that’s an appropriate word?
CP: So, we don’t ramp them up immediately because we understand that in boot camp they will lose some shape, and most candidates will understand that as well. Once they get here, we’ll take their PST scores, and we’ll basically try to put them into certain run groups (DF: Okay) if we need to, (DF: Right) so slower runners may be in a different group than some of the faster runners. And we do is we try to train the students as best as possible given their weaknesses, so they can talk to any of the coaches. They can pick their brains; that’s what they’re there for. Coaches are more of a positive motivation vice the (DF: Right, right) negative motivation that they see out in San Diego a lot of times, so it’ll help them basically find whatever they’re deficient, identify it, try to fix it. Midway through the training here, we do what we call Mock Exit Test (DF: okay) so it’s the exact same 1,000-meter swim, pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups and then 4-mile run. The only difference is it’s not a final test. (DF: Right, right) It helps the individual identify if they are deficient in that, that they have the next four weeks to go ahead and try to work on where they are. (DF: Right, right, to kind of get a baseline of where they’re at.) Correct.
DF: So, can you go back over the exit details in terms of distance times and such one more time if we haven’t already?
CP: The exit test is at the very end of the training pipeline here. And it will assess whether or not the individual will be able to go out to San Diego or not if they pass it, upon successful completion of it. The SEAL standards are a 1,000-meter swim with fins, and that’s combat sidestroke only, and that has to be under 20 minutes. The pushups have to be 70 in two minutes. The sit-ups would be 60 in two minutes. The pull-ups are ten. The run is four miles with pants, tennis shoes, and that’s in 31 minutes or less. For the SWCC standard, on the exit, it would be a 1,000-meter swim as well with fins, combat sidestroke only, 22 minutes and 30 seconds is standard for that. The pushups are for two minutes, and they have to get 60, sit-ups, 60 for two minutes, pull-ups, seven. The run is three miles, and they have to do that in under 24 minutes.
DF: Do you and your staff see people failing to be able to hit these numbers this much into the, into the pipeline?
CP: We’ve had multiple classes where everyone has passed the exit standard, and we’ve had everyone pass the PST as well although there have been classes where some do not pass it, and unfortunately, they don’t identify as trainable (DF: Right) at that point, and …
DF: Are those more ailment issues, or is this kind of a point where people are flushed out initially in terms of fitness?
CP: As far as ailments are concerned, it should not be a concern because everybody needs to go into it healthy. We try to ensure that everyone is healthy, (DF: Right) barring them hiding some type of an injury, which we dissuade because they’re not doing themselves a favor by going out to San Diego. (DF: Yeah, or you guys.) Or them, mostly themselves because it’s kind of a detriment to them to be hurt and sent out there when we do have medical staff here that are trained and willing and help with the rehabilitation process here.
DF: There is a strong focus on conditioning, what are some other of your secondary or other main objectives with this aspect or this portion of the pipeline?
CP: Well, as far as other objectives, there will be some academic training, so we try to let them know as much as possible what their body’s going to be going through, (DF: Okay) whether training with these individuals, so injury prevention, nutrition, we give them classes in that, some mental toughness, and that’s designed by our psychiatrist ,psychologist at the center. We work on the core values and the ethos because their integrity is paramount. We do stress that quite a bit here, (DF: Right) so we try to send them out there prepared in that aspect as well.
DF: What else is expected of the candidates from you guys?
CP: As far as what’s expected is 100% every day. They need to be here to perform. I would expect that any candidates that feel any pain or are injured that they identify that here so that we can help them. They need to understand that this isn’t to be gamed or something that you should be reading up on the Internet to try to see how you can get an angle. It’s more about being very open and honest mostly with yourself when it comes to training and put forth max effort when needed and to also pick the coaches’ brains and to pick up where they’re deficient.
DF: What type of assessments are you guys doing, is this kind of something that’s kind of ad hoc in terms of why you’re watching these guys work out, or how does that work?
CP: So, as far as assessments are concerned, we track every score physically that they’re doing so that we can kind of get a better idea physically of what the candidate’s capable of doing. We’ll do 3K time trials and do the tactical athlete test, it’s another battery of tests that we actually have to administer here, but we try to track their progress in almost everything from running, swimming and strength and conditioning and then put that together in a package. (DF: So, it’s constant.) Correct.
DF: That’s interesting, you have put it out there, “Do your best,” but it doesn’t seem like they do one thing wrong, and they’re out in terms of performance…
CP: Absolutely not, not here. We’re not an attrition centric phase of the training. We’re here to try to mitigate that, (DF: build them up) to build them up and send them out there. Guys are physically as in shape as anybody that should be in their first platoon, but really it does boil down to the mental capacity once they get out to San Diego, and that’s the hardest part.
DF: The hardest part of this for them is mental, is that what you’re saying?
CP: The hardest part I think with all of this training is mental. Physically, it’s arduous, but it’s something that everybody should be capable of doing. If I were able to take a SEAL’s brain and put it in any one of these young men’s body once they leave here, they’d be a Navy SEAL.
DF: You mentioned earlier about people kind of like trying to out-game the system, with the amount of information that’s available online and stuff in the media.
CP: I’d say that you would have to probably watch out for some of the books and the websites that are out there. I know that there’s a lot of information and misinformation that can be passed when it comes to this. There’s a lot of attention towards it. I would say that if you’re at SEALSWCC.com, that’s the main source that commands official word on how we conduct training, and it has all that information in there. So, I’m not saying that any of these, I don’t know all these websites or all these books, (DF: Right, right, right) whether they’re good or bad or indifferent. I can’t attest to them, but I can tell any prospective candidate that if they’re probably listening to this, they’re on the right track. They need to listen to their mentors and listen to their coordinators and maybe just don’t get too far into the weeds with things. You don’t have to take cold showers for a year to prepare for (DF: Right) cold ocean.
DF: Right, right. In light of that, is there any additional training or exposure to any apparatus or anything like that you think is worthwhile for this part of the process cause it seems like you’re exposing them to some new things than what they’ve been accustomed to in trying to gain a certain PST score.
CP: Right, I think that a lot of candidates focus on their PST scores and their physical capabilities, but some of the things that they forget about are water comfortability, being comfortable in the water. A lot of times at swim time or being a good swimmer doesn’t translate or correlate with water comfortability, the two toughest things that we actually have to do or what students find the hardest here are sand bag PTs and treading water with bricks, which can be mitigated by possibly joining a water polo or recreationally diving as safely as possible with all the safety constraints, you know, in place, not doing anything under the water, learning how to do an eggbeater kick, learning how to tread water, sand bag PTs, those are longer, and they seem to be a little bit more arduous on the students when they carrying them, and it gets a little hot. (DF: Yeah, right) So it’s kind of a mental toughness piece with both of those.
But getting the fins on their feet to help with their ankle flexibility prior to them coming in, even though the PST doesn’t swim with fins, they’re going to be having to swim with fins in BUD/S and BCS predominantly, and a lot of the students end up with ankle pain, (DF: Right, right) and some of the pain that they will experience are, it’s normal. It’s just part of the process of building the strength and trying to build a better candidate. Some individuals don’t understand that pain, and it’s okay if they need to see somebody in our medical department about it, which I do try to get them to do so we can rule it out if it is (DF: Right, right) something they can work through. And if they can work through it, you have athletic trainer on staff trying to get them back out into the evolutions and back into the training, help them understand it better. But prior to that, if they do any sand bag PT or any type of workouts with that or maybe even just snorkeling or things that are safe (DF: Right) that they can do that helps kind of build that water comfortability so the (DF: Right) first time that they’re in a situation (DF: It’s not brand new)…it’s not completely brand new or something that they are wide-eyed about (DF: Yeah, right. Yeah, right) and get scared because if they start off scared, it’s harder for us to train that in the short amount of time that we have with them.
DF: What other parts of the prep school would you think are valuable for people to know a little bit more about?
CP: I think that one of the things that they need to understand is prior to coming to boot camp is some of the studies that we’ve seen, this generation has 10% less bone density than prior generations, (DF: wow) which we see a lot of lower leg stress injuries, stress reactions, a lot of stress changes and stress fractures, all which will set a candidate back or eliminate them from the program, which would be a disservice to the candidate if they’re not preparing correctly from the beginning, if they’re not doing things like obviously running (DF: Right, right, right) and getting out, they’re on variable terrain and the right shoes at the right pace and not over-training or doing too much, so it’s kind of striking that fine balance between that. Also, vitamin D supplementation, we have a study that we’re conducting now to see if some of the supplementation for vitamin D will actually help the students with some of the stress fractures, or stress changes, help mitigate some of that, some of that risk. You get vitamin D from the sun, (DF: Yeah, right) you get vitamin D from milk, it does a body good, it’ll strengthen your bones, I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing or what, or people are just drinking less milk.
DF: I think it’s a lot more video games and less running around.
CP: Yeah, get the controls out of your hands, and go outside and play, and that’s one of the things like how somebody can prepare for prep is have fun with it. You don’t have to go take the cold shower and stress out about what you’re about to do. You should be very focused. You should be very professional in the way you want to train that’s why I say go ahead and snorkel or join a water polo team.
DF: Is there certain things that people should try and take advantage of while they’re here that you see people maybe not doing or that you think people should kind of double down on while they’re here?
CP: I think that what a candidate should take advantage of while they’re here is the coaching. The coaches are here for them. They’re open, you’re able to talk to them. I think that they should do their homework prior to coming here. Obviously, they’re doing that if they’re listening to this podcast right now, but to try to get as comfortable and to understand where they’re going and to focus on this time as kind of it’s a development time. It’s a time for them to grow. We’re not trying to attrite them here…It’s not part of the game.
DF: Yeah, I can see that’s…Yeah, people coming in thinking that they’re going to be grilled, and it’s really an opportunity for them to learn.
CP: Right, and a lot of candidates come to us, and they think that we’re playing games with them (DF: Right, right), or we’re…when we’ll actually try to tell them something that we want them to listen to, but they’re, “Oh, well, I think this is a game.” (DF: Yeah, right right, they’re on guard, yeah) Or they’ve read something somewhere, they’ve gotten it passed down from other candidates (DF: Yeah, from yesteryear or whatever) or somebody that didn’t make it through, so there’s a lot of misinformation out there. And to kind of stick to the ethos, which they can read as a civilian and start to memorize and kind of make that a part of their life (DF: Right, right, right) prior to even coming in (DF: Right) and help build that integrity and that good person cause that’s what, we’re looking for good people that are also in shape and can do the job to mental capacity, (DF: Right) so striking a fine balance before that. But you can do that by having fun, getting out there, (DF: Yeah, right) and going outside and playing and running, swimming, strength and conditioning. Get the fins on. That way you’re not shocked by the fins when you get here. Do a run analysis so you know what type of run shoe that you should be running in prior to that. They have professionals, and they have different resources that are out there that are safe, (DF: Right, right) especially this website, that they can reference, and it’ll give them a good declination for them to follow (DF: Yeah, yeah), a good direction.
DF: So, short of not being able to hit your numbers, what other kind of reasons do you see people dropping out of prep or being asked to leave?
CP: So, we have a 12% attrition rate basically, so 12% of the candidates that we get here won’t make it onto San Diego for one reason or the other. Less of half of that are because they drop, or they, they quit, so we don’t really see much quitting up here, which is a good thing.
DF: Yeah, yeah, it means you guys are doing your jobs (CP: Correct, correct) and the people before you are.
CP: I think that those individuals that do quit, some haven’t even started. Some didn’t understand as well (DF: What they were getting into, yeah) what they were getting into but kind of that mental realization that this isn’t for them, but it’s few and far between.
DF: Yeah, we’ve heard that in talking that the why portion of the motivation for, for following through and wanting to become a NSW candidate or active NSW is one of the most important parts because it’s a foundation for whenever you’re tired, when the chips are down so to speak that that’s got to be there, or else you’re going to want to go home.
CP: Exactly. (DF: Yeah) You need to be focused on what you’re about to do, so if you have certain things or extracurricular things that are pulling an individual’s mind away from the task at hand, which is this is the number one thing that you should be focusing on, is making it through training, and everything that you do, even when you make that decision as a civilian prior to coming in, should help lend to that.
DF: So, I think that, based on talking to you and the research I’ve done, it’s important for people to come into this part with an open mind and understand that they’re getting help at this stage and to kind of continue to absorb from the people that are around in terms of professionalism and knowledge, obviously continued hands-on training with technique and such, but this is not really a time to, try to be a tough guy. This is a time for you to have personal development or physical development, the whole kind of, the whole piece.
CP: True, but there will be some toughness pieces in this. Just the training alone, on its own, it’s tough, (DF: Right, right) especially when you get to week six, you’re doing interval runs, you’re treading water, you’re in much better shape, but it gets arduous, so there has to be some type of mental toughness when it comes to that. So, there will be kind of a tough love feeling here. (DF: Right, right, right) We’re not here to, to coddle you (DF: Yeah) we’re here to coach you. You’re here to make the standards and to perform for yourself and for others, and if you’re injured, (DF: Right) it’s your job to let us know that you’re injured so we can help you take care of that, get you healed, get you back on that pipeline we’re here for the same goal. We want to help you get through. The easier part is to help than to have somebody quit, and that’s at BUD/S if (DF: Yeah, right), somebody’s going through that mental stress, but the reason we need that and the reason we do have to have a little bit of stress up here is because we can’t throw grenades at you like it’s time of war and see how you’re going to react. You have to be stressed a little bit, help make those decisions. We’ll talk about what was done or how they did it, and they need to understand that there’s consequences for making the wrong decisions as well and to try to kind of teach them before they go on to make any other mistakes and to kind of give them that NSW centric (DF: Mindset, yeah, right)…mindset to help them succeed and to help our community with, like you were saying, a foundation that they can build on (DF: Right).
And it is all building blocks, so I mean folding your T-shirts may not translate to being overseas on a real world mission. It doesn’t translate in the beginning, (DF: Not directly, right) but you have to prove that you’re capable of folding your T-shirts and capable of having shined boots, capable of doing these regular military things before we can trust you with a weapon that you’re now going to have to clean, and it’s going to have to be maintained that will possibly have to fire to save somebody, a teammate, a hostage, whatever, but that starts in the beginning, so it’s all crawl, walk, run. We’re in the crawl stage here, (DF: Okay) so we try to kind of set the candidates’ declination as best as we can here to help them succeed not only in first phase but future, and that goes with nutrition as well. They’re stronger, they eat better, they are just a better candidate than we would have had prior to this coming through. And a lot of the guys don’t even make it and go on to the Navy, take these key building blocks and help improve it, possibly come back around for a successful try, or they go out to the Navy, and they do great things there and help build a better sailor, and that’s really what we’re here for.
And anybody joining the military should understand that they’re here to serve their country first and foremost, so that’s your building block, (DF: Right, right) and, well, what makes you want to serve your country, and what makes you want to be that type of person, that great American. Is it driven by yourself, your own personal needs, or is it driven by you’re capable, you’re willing, you’re motivated, and you want to try to, to be that tip of the spear, that person one day, and you have the discipline to go ahead and train for it and train correctly for it and to have the focus in such a long pipeline (DF: Yeah, that’s true), to stick with it even though it’s cold, wet, tired, and those things will happen, and the reason they have to happen is because when you get out there, and you’re at war, or you’re operating, you’re going to be in the worst situations, and BUD/S will look like a piece of cake (DF: Yeah, right) compared to that, so that’s why we have to train like that.
DF: Well, thank you so much for sitting down with us. Your knowledge is really valuable to the people that are trying to come through this process. I think it’s important to hear from as many people like you as possible, so we appreciate you taking the time. Thank you so much.
CP: Great, thank you for having me.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWCC.com and join us again for the next NSW Podcast