The only easy day was yesterday. (Intro)
I’m Daniel Fletcher, and today I’m speaking with a retired Navy SEAL Force Master Chief about the mental aspects of Naval Special Warfare. Let’s get started…
DF: We’ve carved out a little time to talk mental toughness with a decorated Navy SEAL, ...We all know that physical exertion is a big part of the training process, but we hear a lot about the mental aspects of the challenges, whether it’s in training or after graduation, even through deployments, whether it’s separation from family or just facing general adversities, stressors, all this kind of stuff...if you could tell us, from your perspective, after having a career as a SEAL, what aspects of the, we’ll call it a job, in your mind required the most mental toughness.
M: Absolutely, Daniel. Thank you for the time here, and I’m very interested in setting our future generation of SOF operators up for success, so I’m glad to be here today talking to you. I would say anecdotally, any SOF selection course is roughly 80% mental, 20% physical. In fact, I just came from talking to 20 students that DOR’d today, and nine out of ten students that dis-enroll from this program are for lack of mental fortitude. So, what we’re attempting to do today is to take things that most of our operators have utilized unwittingly their entire careers and present these mental tools as a process up front to our students coming in the pipeline now so that they can start to cultivate these mental skills early on in their training in the hopes that they will be more mentally resilient than we were and stick around and do 30 years in SOF with their families intact, living purposeful, meaningful lives and able to handle, readily handle stress and crisis.
DF: So, where do you think that kind of starts? Is this something you think, ideally, starts before recruitment process How do you see this process starting from a blank slate if you had the opportunity to kind of sculpt a 13-year-old to come into NSW kind of program? Where do you think that kind of starts in, in early adulthood or late childhood?
M: Absolutely, Daniel, fantastic question. So, I would say in reference to developing mental toughness in adversity in your life, the key is to constantly challenge yourself, do things that you’re uncomfortable doing every day. It could be something as simple as taking a cold shower in the morning, where you’re subjecting yourself to being uncomfortable and getting comfortable being uncomfortable. And the more adversity you face prior to showing up for the pipeline, the stronger your mental toughness baseline will be.
DF: What are the ways you think that young people can kind of start incorporate some mental training into their lifestyle?
M: Yeah, sports is a big part of it definitely. You know, when you’re out there playing football in the summertime, and you’re doing double sessions where you’re working out all morning and over lunch, you’re so sore you can’t even move, and you have a whole afternoon session, that’s probably the closest experience I could equate that, that could crossover to BUD/S, is working yourself to that degree and at a minimum. You know, I know our wrestlers and our football players and water polo players have a higher probability of success in the training because they, they’ve had some upstream stress inoculation from playing competitive sports
DF: I’ve heard mentioned a few times endurance athletes tend to do very well, and I think that does kind of tie into the mental aspects involved, and you kind of see that a lot with professional endurance athletes...they develop a lot of mental fortitude through their life, and they’re able to push themselves, what do you think about the idea of pursuing endurance sports specifically for mental fortitude?
M: No, absolutely, Daniel, and ironically enough, I think it’s, it has less to do with motivation and more to do with willpower and determination and discipline, I think the challenge is accelerating the discipline of a young man that doesn’t have a whole lot of time on Earth,
DF: Do you have any, ideas on how that process can be accelerated for a civilian?
M: I think, I think the best thing that a young man can do is constantly stay uncomfortable, stretch the limitations of what you think is possible, do things that you think that you can’t succeed at. As an example, go out and run a half marathon with no preparation and pull that out on nothing but sheer will and determination, and your conditioned confidence will grow with each new challenge that you conquer, especially with things that you didn’t think were possible of doing…If that makes sense.
DF: Right, right…Yeah, no, that does make sense, kind of, my sister actually, her specialty is mental performance training in high level athletes, and so I hear a lot of similarities between the kind of high performing NSW candidates and career people and some of the things I’ve heard her echo. What are some of the specific tools or techniques that, that you’ve developed or that you recommend people try to do to kind of increase their mental fortitude?
M: Absolutely, we’ve been doing these things all along. Our folks never would be at this stature of their lives now operating the teams nonstop for the last 16 years and sustained combat. We’re trying to take these tools now, and they’re all based in a foundational principle of never letting a negative thought complete itself in your head The concept is foundational in everything that we teach, and I had a young officer lieutenant in charge of SQT that follows the same line of thinking that we’re instructing, and he’s like, “Well, that sounds great. The concept sounds fantastic. How do you operationalize that concept?” And I said, “Sir, it’s nothing more than this. When you wake up every morning, and the negative thoughts start to flood your head about the day’s coming events, first thing I do, I roll over, and I look at my beautiful wife, and I crush out those negative thoughts, first thought about my family, grateful for the family that has stayed with me through 33 years in this community. Next thing I do is I lean down the hallway, and I look at the bay, the 40-foot sailboat sitting out back on the pier. That replaces another negative thought, and I start to think about all the things my sons have accomplished, and they’re happy, healthy and strong in their lives and all the things that I’m grateful for. So, the premise, the point to the, the foundational concept of never letting a negative thought complete itself in your head is if you go through this gratitude routine every morning and appreciate that everything you’re here for, for the student, you’re out here in sunny Coronado getting paid to train on the beach. People pay thousands of dollars for adversity. You’re getting it for free at the expense of the Navy, and enjoy your time out here, enjoy the evolutions. Use these evolutions to cultivate and grow your mental skills. So, that’s the foundational concept. The actual skills, what we found in the research is that you need three core skills in order to develop your mental toughness program. One, the messenger of the skills has to be trusted by the students. They have to trust that the messenger’s not going to put them in harm’s way. They can’t be in fear mode when you’re trying to instruct them on mental skills. They have to be receptive to inculcate them in the right way.
Two, you need to give them skills, and the actual skills that we teach here are called the Big Four. The Big Four are goal setting, which is nothing more than segmentation. Visualization, which is nothing more than mental rehearsal. Self-talk, which is internal dialog, mind control, controlling your response to the unknown. And arousal control, which is a stress technique that we term as pause, breathe, think, act. You’re pausing to allow your danger receptors that go to the primitive part of your brain to end up in your frontal cortex where all the reasoning and logic and training and experience resides so that you’re making a decision based on your training and not on a fear response. You’re breathing to get good oxygenated blood to your head so that you can make an intelligent decision. Then you’re thinking, and then you’re acting. So, we program the students to pause, breathe, think, act. We program them in class, we challenge them. They program themselves every night before they go to bed. So, this arousal control technique becomes inherent, and it’s embedded in their autonomic immune system, just like all the other things we do in this community where we have an emergency response to a situation. We want them ingrained so when that stressor hits, we’re not thinking about it. It’s happening automatically.
DF: You mentioned a couple key areas there, starting with goal setting. Can you do a little bit of a deep dive on each one of those and give us a little bit more detail on some of those individual areas?
M: Absolutely, Daniel. So, goal setting is nothing more than segmentation, and what I mean by that is breaking down colossal tasks into small, manageable bits where you remain in control. You’re tapping into that frontal cortex that we referred to earlier, the reasoning experience part of your brain, and you’re never letting the situation get beyond your control because you’re breaking that situation down into small, manageable chunks, like eating an elephant one bite at a time, and the way this applies to training and to the battlefield is you can very easily overwhelm your circuits when you think of the entirety of an operation, where you get recalled to work, and then you have to fly halfway around the world, in most cases, 12 hours. Then you have to skydive into your platform where you roll into a 24 to 48-hour planning cycle, and that’s all just to get to the area to conduct the operation, and then there’s getting into the area to conduct the op, the actions on the objective, and then you’re reversing that whole process. When you think of that operation in its entirety, you can very quickly get overwhelmed. What we’re trying to teach the young men today is to break down each phase of that operation into small, manageable segments so that your entire focus, you’re in the moment for that specific mission set, and you’re doing well in that phase because you’re giving it your full concentration and thought, and you’re not getting overwhelmed by thinking the whole thing in its entirety. Very, very powerful technique, and each one of these techniques has different threads that spin off into other things. Every successful elite military organization, the elite sporting world, the Fortune 500, they’re all goal orientated people that constantly are setting up goals and knocking them down and creating new goals, so this is a, a good mindset to have in SOF, is to be goal oriented in everything you do.
DF: And then a couple other of those that you talked about, visualization and self-talk, I know those are huge keys if you could talk about how those come into play in maybe specific areas.
M: So, visualization, ironically enough, we do a student class teach back, where the student leadership themselves have to teach these techniques back to the class, and it’s an officer-enlisted pairs that come out and give these class teach backs. Well, the officer had his master’s degree, he’s from South Africa, had his master’s degree in psychology, and he went seven layers deep into visualization and how the elite sporting realm utilizes this technique. And then his enlisted counterpart, as luck would have it, was an Olympic Gold Medalist and swam with Michael Phelps. He took visualization to another level, and he basically validated for us the techniques we’re teaching. But visualization we use in everything we do in SOF. Once again, I mentioned there’s different threads to each one of these techniques. Visualization is building a mock-up of a target so that you can walk through that objective. I’ve been on sensitive operations where we’ve built mock ups out of Conex boxes that replicated a ship or a target objective, and you run through that objective over and over again until you’ve mastered that compound. Sand tables, we manipulate models to replicate the battlefield. Visualization is used in all of our emergency reaction procedures, whether it’s diving, whether it’s jumping. We have malfunction procedures where you have to perform while under duress and be able to do a certain sequence of lifesaving events. So, visualization, whether you want to learn it or not, is a daily part of everything you do in SOF. We’re just trying to present this as a process so young men can start to cultivate these techniques early in their careers.
M: Self-talk is nothing more than that internal narrator. I think a good example I can give to the battlefield, there was a situation overseas where we were going into a very hazardous area, and we had 65 structures to clear. I’ll always remember this particular objective because I was out there with Pat Tillman, an American hero to me. And for those of you who don’t know Pat Tillman, he was an accomplished NFL football player that gave up all the fame and glory to come in and serve his country, and he later died on the battlefield. But embedded with Pat Tillman, we had to clear these 65 structures, and there were cluster munitions all around the ground, where if you took a wrong step, you could end up with a casualty, so you had to keep your wits about you. And I had a little narrator, a little shooting buddy in my head, and I wanted to give objective number 65 the same due diligence as I gave objective number 1. So, I would go through a little mental jog in my mind upon entering every structure. I would go through that little mental arithmetic with every objective once again so that the last objective got the same due diligence as the first.
DF: Maybe if you could highlight certain aspects of these kind of Big Four that would be most beneficial to focus on as someone going through the training process trying to enter NSW.
M: Absolutely, Daniel. We try to talk about real-life examples. We try to talk about training examples and then battlefield examples to paint the complete scope of how these techniques can be utilized. Each one of these techniques has multiple threads. Self-talk can be used as daily mantras to gather strength when you’re performing a physical task or a challenging task. Some of my own personal internal mantras are, “Warrior mode, strength attraction, surprise speed, violence of action.” I have others, “I am the captain of my ship and master of my fate.” I learned one from one of our students here last week, who took a Marcus Aurelius comment, quote on mental toughness and pared it down to, “The closer I am to calm mind, the closer I am to strength,” and you can repeat these mantras in times of duress or when you need a boost or a mental charge to get you over that or through that difficult challenge
DF: I think it’s really helpful to hear from someone who is training active operators or involved in the community and that this is a key point. This is not just a, a trick. Mike, if you could just give us a real-life example of how this kind of stuff can be applied to a candidate or potential recruit.
M: Absolutely, Daniel. Well, specifically speaking to the goal-setting, I think for a young man interested in this program, before he even sets a goal, he has to understand why he’s pursuing this line of work. That’s another common theme I find with the young men that do not make it through the program. They don’t know why they’re there. They saw a movie, they read a book, and some of that is superficial, and it’s not enough to carry them through tough times, so I would challenge all future young men that are interested in this program to really sit down and think about that deep-seated reason why he wants to be in SOF. What are some examples? My dad was a SEAL. Those students that have a dad that’s a SEAL have a 4-times higher probability of making it through the program, as an example. I want to make the world a safer place for future generations. Superficial reasons will very quickly be stripped away as soon as times get tough, so understanding the why, the deep-seated reason, that is number one in goal setting, is to understand why you want to go down this road, and it has to mean something. It has to mean something deeply to you and your family and the country in order for you to be successful. Once again, I find that the young men that don’t make it through the program have never sat down and really, truly, honestly explored the why.
In reference to goal setting, it could be something as simple as jumping in a cold shower in the morning. And at first, it’s going to be very, very uncomfortable. Turn that knob all the way over on cold, and gut it out. Control your breathing, relax, be calm, shoot for 20 seconds for you first time, and then try that for a week or two until you get comfortable, and it’s no longer challenging you, and then roll into 30 seconds, and then roll into a minute, and then roll into two minutes, and then after that, every couple weeks, stay in there for 15 minutes to really surpass your mark and to build that conditioned confidence. Use goals with everything you do. Your goals have to be specific, they have to be measurable, they have to be attainable, they have to be realistic, and they have to be timely. That’s a format we use when setting goals. We call it SMART goals, and you can do that with running, with your run times. Make sure, as an example, let’s say you’re running a 32-minute four-mile timed run. That’s specific. You want to improve that. You want to knock two minutes off that time. So, make sure it’s measurable. You’re going to go from 32 to 30 minutes. That’s going from an 8-minute mile to a 7.30 mile. Is that attainable? Yes. You’re not biting off more than you can chew. Is that realistic? Absolutely, and timely. Put a goal on it. You want to be able to do this, you know, three months into your training. So, there’s an example of how to use SMART goals.
DF: A lot of these people’s goals is obviously to graduate, but there’s a lot of little tasks between them and graduation. How, how do people navigate these daily challenges almost as if it’s their own Hell Week getting through this process?
M: I would say, you know, Hell Week, let me talk a moment about Hell Week. So, I think Hell Week is the gold standard in our community. I believe it’s what separates us from the other services and the other SOF forces around the world in that Hell Week is our primary filter to truly test the resiliency, will, determination for a young man to become a SEAL. During Hell Week, the students will go through seemingly impossible tasks for five days, day and night with as little as four hours of sleep for the entire week. What will successfully get a young man through Hell Week and successfully get a person through life is never quitting, never giving up, especially when the chips are down. And never giving up has much more to do with being disciplined than it does with motivation. We hear a lot of talk and a lot of discussion about being motivated to do this or that. There are going to be many times during Hell Week and in life where you’re not motivated. You’re going to wake up and simply not be motivated, and what’s going to get you through that task or that day or Hell Week is maintaining the task and staying on task through discipline, sheer will and determination to accomplish that goal and discipline. Discipline equals success.
DF: Well, thank you for all the information you shared. It’s been super helpful. If you could just leave us with a few words of wisdom, a few words of wisdom for the people listening, maybe to get them through this training process or maybe some inspirational words.
M: Motivation is like the weather. It comes, and it goes. Some days it’s good, some days it’s bad. The sun equates to discipline. The sun is going to rise every day, and it’s going to set every day, irregardless of the weather, irregardless of where you are in the world, the sun is going to rise, and it’s going to set. That’s the mindset you need, to be well disciplined. You want to be like the sun. You want to show up every day to train, whether you’re motivated or not, and you’ll feel better when you do. The only easy day was yesterday. What this means is that life is about constant evolution, every day failing and crushing through failure and becoming better and becoming stronger and becoming faster. Always better today than we were yesterday.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWCC.com, and join us again for the next NSW podcast.