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Top Reasons Why People Fail Special Ops

Sailors taking a physical screening test. Sailors interested in applying for SEAL or Special Warfare Combatant– craft Crewman (SWCC) training must complete a timed swim, run, push– ups, sit– ups and pull– ups. (U.S. Navy/MC2 Dominique M. Lasco)

I love getting email questions that require me to think and recall over the years some of my experiences to share. These questions are from a future SOF candidate, who asks a simple question, “Why is the attrition rate so high?” Here are his specifics:

I was curious Stew, why are the attrition rates for SOF so high? It seems that to get into any SOF training program you have to pass a physical examination to show you can handle training, academic tests, and reach a pretty high level of fitness. Therefore; all those who start should technically be able to complete the course? But of course most end up quitting. Through what means do trainees feel that the course isn’t for them? Or is it that people believe the workload isn’t worth the reward? Is it naive to think that because you only meet the minimums that you cannot succeed in the course? Is it more of a solid success-​​driven mentality requirement?

In my personal experience and after talking with recent graduates as well as failures from various SOF training programs that include: BUD/​S, EOD, Ranger, Army SF, RECON, AFPJ, and various SWAT training programs, I have developed the following list of reasons why people do not make it through SOF training. Let’s call this the Top Ten Reasons Why People Fail in Special Ops:

There are many ways to fail out or quit any of the Special Ops programs utilized by our military as well as city, state, and federal police departments. But typically the biggest reason someone fails is the candidate is not prepared in some way. Here is a list of reasons why most people do not make it through the various Special Ops training programs available:

Physical /​ Mental Toughness Failure: I have discussed this term “mental toughness” and tried to define it many ways, but it is critical in your success in any of these programs. You have to understand that the physical challenge gets so overwhelming that you have to dig deep into your “how much you want it” pocket to find the fuel when the tank is empty. It does not matter how great a runner, swimmer, lifter, shooter, etc…if you are not tough mentally — you will likely not make it through training. See related articles: Top Ten List of Mental Toughness /​ Science of Mental Toughness.

Physical Reasons People Fail:

Running – Face it – it is a running man’s game out there. You have to be a good runner with a solid foundation of long distance /​ fast paced running no matter what your size. I have seen 220+ lbs men run 18 minute 3 mile runs and sub-​​200lb men fail. If you cannot run well, you will be the first to leave typically – either by failing to keep up or by over-​​use injury caused by not being physically prepared to run. I list this one near the top, because almost every graduate I talk to comes back and says, “I wish I had run more – it is a running man’s game.”

Swimming – You do not have to be a world class swimmer to ace even the toughest Spec Ops swimming programs including BUD/​S and AFPJs, but you have to be in good swimming condition, have solid technique, and be comfortable in the water. Failing to swim well typically keeps you from getting INTO Spec Ops training, but one of the less likely events to fail during training. Now the swimming skills – that is a different story. See water confidence below.

Special Forces training with tireRucking – If you are training for the Army and Marines, you will be rucking. The Special Ops world is the same. Even at BUD/​S that used to start rucking once doing land warfare (3rd phase) are now rucking in every phase to prepare their graduates for future rucks in mountain /​ sandy regions of the world. So start rucking if you have not started yet. Finding how to wear your ruck, how to pace yourself for longer distances is as critical as conditioning yourself for endless rucking days. Most people who fail rucks did not practice rucking, had weak legs and core strength to carry the ruck at a passing pace. See - What is a Ruck article.

Lack of muscle stamina /​ endurance – It is great to be strong, but having the ability to move your body weight countless times up and down, over and under objects comes with specific training. High repetition calisthenics is needed more than heavy weight training. I am not saying you should not lift, in fact you should do both, but with a focus of muscle stamina not 1 rep max lifts.

Injury – Injuries happen sometimes due to lack of preparation for runs, rucks, swim, carrying boats /​ logs, sometimes it is an accident that could happen to anyone. Sometimes it was not meant to be. It is true but injuries happen to the best candidates. If you have performed well to the point of your injury, you will likely be rolled and allowed to heal and join the next class. However, if you are borderline failure or failed a few events (eventually passing) over the course of training and you get injured, you will likely be kicked out of training due to failure /​ performance combination.

Ocean /​ Land Navigation /​ Tactical Skills (physical /​ academic tests) – Some find it difficult to do proper ocean, land navigation or underwater navigation for that matter and fail tactical training tests. There are several academic tests one must take when navigating land, ocean, sub-​​surface (SCUBA) as well as combat medical courses, dive physics, weapons system nomenclature and more. All of which are stressful and many are oral /​ performance tests under duress. The academic tests can also be tough to someone who is a poor student and the tactical tests can be stressful when placed under the clock and you have to perform to a certain standard.

Mental reasons why people fail:

Navy swimming testWater confidence – Like I said earlier, you do not have to be an All-​​American swimmer, but you have to not be scared of water and be able to move comfortably in any situation. Drown-​​proofing, life-​​saving, underwater knot tying, SCUBA, underwater swimming are just a few of the skills a maritime Special Ops candidate will have to endure. These claim many Special Ops candidates statistically and probably one of the biggest deterrents why some people choose not to attempt Special Ops programs that involve underwater operations.

Gunnery Sgt. Gabriel Machado, left, Master Sgt. Raul Argumedo, center, and Gunnery Sgt. Matthew Bateman jump in tandem from a KC-130J Super Hercules aircraft Nov. 20, 2014. (Photo By: Cpl. Drew Tech)Fear (water, darkness, claustrophobic, underwater at night, heights) – If you are a student at a Special Operations school, you will be introduced to many of your fears and forced to deal with them. Many people fear cold, wet, and dark water forcing you to either successfully navigate through the fear and conquer it or the fear will conquer you. I remember our first night swim (boogie man swim they called it), we had quitters that night and they were not even wet yet. I personally never liked jumping out of airplanes, was near ill every jump. Many others and I shared the same feeling and somehow dealt with it until it became more natural to us and actually felt weird landing in an airplane. What is your fear?

Instructor /​ Event Intimidation (aka mind-​​game) – Usually the instructors will make every pass/​fail event one of the toughest events ever that no one ever passes. Having an instructor critique you constantly and making you pay physically for any errors or indiscretions is stressful and can get under your skin if you cannot handle negative feedback. You will be told you are the worst student ever and it is up to you how to process that and come back stronger.

General Physical Discomfort (Cold, Hunger, Exhausted, Sleepy, Wet, Sandy) – This last one is borderline mental and physical. Sometimes the thought of being cold or wet or both can cause people to quit while still dry. Sometimes you just cannot handle being cold, wet, sandy, and being tired anymore and just want to call it quits. This one is part mind-​​game and part physical pain /​ discomfort. Spending days uncomfortable and tired will either make you stronger and appreciate those nice warm nights under a blanket, or completely break you mentally so you lose focus and cannot continue.

As you can see, there are many reason why people do not graduate Special Ops programs. In fact, there are many more than these I just listed like not being a team player or mature enough to handle high levels of stress. Though pre-​​screening of Special Ops candidates has advanced over the last few decades, the REAL TEST is the actual training course. Testing to get TO the training will never insure someone gets THROUGH the training. Though all Special Ops recruiters are getting better at picking those that have the highest potential for success, there is no test to date that can measure a candidate’s heart and will. It is the Special Ops training course that does that.

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Contributor

Stew Smith works as a presenter and editorial board member with the Tactical Strength and Conditioning program of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). He has also written hundreds of articles on Military.com's Fitness Center that focus on a variety of fitness, nutritional, and tactical issues military members face throughout their career.

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