Ask Stew: How Can I Learn to Retain Information When I'm Stressed or Fatigued?

BUD/S Training
U.S. Navy SEAL candidates participate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt)

Academic learning and tactical skill development are two ways to acquire expertise in any military profession. You may need to remember terminology, perform math and read extensively to learn the basic ideas, then you must be able to physically put them into practice.

Depending on how you learn best, you may read about a certain drill, watch someone do it and then repeat what you've read and seen well enough to pass. However, it's likely you may need to practice that drill both physically and mentally dozens of times before you get it right.

Testing environments are stressful by nature, and being exhausted makes that process more difficult. Here is a great question from a future special ops selection student who is concerned about learning new skills, such as diving, land navigation and shooting weapons, while tired from the military training grind.

Hello Stew, is there any method to maintain focus and learning abilities under stress or fatigue? For instance, how do you handle the learning and taking tactical and academic tests when tired during selection? Thank you. Alex.

Alex, great question. First, breathe and relax. You can control much of the anxiety of testing by getting good at box breathing.

There are a few things you need to understand about the differences between selection and tactical training. For instance, if you look at the Special Ops programs from each of the branches of service, there is a section of training where most of the attrition occurs. This is the selection phase and is usually the first few weeks of the training pipeline.

For instance, the Army has a selection program where you will be chosen to continue to the Qualification Course (Q Course) if you meet the standards and are a good fit for the Special Forces. You get tested more physically and pushed to engage your mental toughness in those first weeks, but you start to really learn your trade during the following phases. Yes, there is the typical stress of learning something new and applying it to meet the expectations of the instructors, but you will not be enduring a hell week of activity at the same time.

Your first goal is to get through the selection phase. At BUD/S, the SEAL candidates endure the first four weeks of training that culminates with the 120-hour-long Hell Week. During these four weeks, more than 75%-80% of the class will quit, fail to meet the standards or get rolled due to injury.

There is not much tactical information you will be required to learn, other than military bearing and following procedures. The phases of diving and land warfare are still physical, but not like the first four weeks where you're constantly wet and sandy, and the boats, logs and long waking hours of Hell Week will beat you down and test your resolve.

My advice is to prepare well for the physical challenges that cause the most attrition in your selection. Focus on running, swimming, rucking and other load-bearing activities. You may need to work on pool skills, depending on your branch of service selection program.

Get into such good physical condition that you can handle the regular training events and the long days of moving and learning. You will also find that you will be less tired when the time comes to learn new skills. You'll find that you have the energy to practice them both in your head and for real.

Becoming a tactical athlete requires well-developed fitness skills that will allow you to exceed the selection standards. Here is a Venn Diagram that explains what you need to improve to get to a point where you have no weaknesses. You do not have to be great at every one of these elements below, but you need to be good at all of them.

IMAGE: stew Tactical Athlete Active Duty Operator 1000

Notice the OODA Loop Section

The section is where all the other sections work together to improve your abilities, but success also comes down to your ability to think and react. If you practice these skills and maintain a "never quit" attitude, you will develop the right mindset to accomplish the task, regardless of the physical discomfort of the situation.

See more about why developing yourself to be a well-rounded athlete plays an important role in helping you increase your ability to learn under stress.

Observe, Orient, Decide and Act

This OODA process usually takes a split second to complete, while more difficult problems may take more than a few seconds to go from observation to action. Regardless, when we look at the Tactical Fitness Venn Diagram (above), you can place this square in the bottom left section with mindset, tactical skills and coordination, because OODA embodies the process of moving and thinking through problems and tactical situations, no matter if they're menial tasks or life-or-death situations.


Situational awareness (both internal and external) will enhance how well you observe important details. This type of awareness is required, whether you're working toward a tactical mindset or simply being vigilant.


This phase is important as it includes your life experiences, job skills, education, creative thinking and tactical training. These factors will largely determine your options, depending on the situation.


Deciding on a course of action can be a quick version of test and evaluate or a lightning-fast reaction to imminent danger. Since the brain is wired to decide with a steady flow of information from both the observation and orientation phases, the decision process can be smooth or almost unconscious.


The combination of attention to detail, information received, training, education and experience to pull from make up the most important part of the OODA Loop.

The OODA Loop is a natural occurring process; however, doing it well requires thoughtful practice with intention. You can perform better during tactical skills development training and testing with thoughtful practice and be ready later when OODA is most important as you're doing this for real.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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