How Special Ops Instructors View Candidates

A Special Ops recruiter swims during a workout.
Air Force Special Operations Recruiter Master Sgt. Cam Bruggeman swims during a workout at the pool for the 350th Battlefield Airman Training Squadron preparatory course at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in San Antonio, June 27, 2018. (EJ Hersom/Defense Department)

People often ask me about the mentality of making it through tough military selection programs and other highly challenging military and law enforcement special-ops programs. Here is a great question about how special-ops instructors view you as a candidate, along with some clarification:

Stew, can you explain the pros and cons and difference in your philosophy of going to training to compete, vs. surviving and being the Gray Man?

There may be some misunderstanding about what the Gray Man is in selection programs. It, by no means, is the guy who survives on just above the minimum standards, does not contribute to the class and is not a good team player.

It is true that the Gray Man does not stand out in the crowd and may not win an event with superior fitness, but the Gray Man never fails anything, either. He is just a solid guy in the class who gets the job done and meets the standards, but behind the scenes, the entire class needs to work well together.

Everyone has to become a good team player. You will not get through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S) or other selection programs on your own. The Gray Man is just solid. There is nothing wrong with being that guy in the class. 

It is true you do not want to let the instructor know your name. Failing runs, swims, pool events, poor evaluations and ducking your head under the boat will get you noticed by instructors. Be the guy who meets the standards; that is all the instructors want to see.

Most importantly, the Gray Man is not arrogant, mouthy to his teammates, back-talks an instructor, or whines or shows too much emotion when times are tough. The Gray Man does not stand out negatively among the instructors, but receives good peer evaluations from his classmates.

Sometimes you need a guy to suffer in silence like the Gray Man can. Then there are times when it is cold, dark, wet, sandy and downright miserable that someone cracks a joke and makes the unbearable more tolerable.

However, there are winners in runs, swims, obstacle courses, shooting events, diving events and other challenges. Being a standout in that way is not the Gray Man, either, but you will be known by the instructors as a good team player, and it pays to be a winner. 

Compete, not just survive

You typically will see three types of people in spec-ops selections:

1. Outliers and competitors. The type of people who attend these selection programs like BUD/S will have special abilities somewhere. Maybe they battle to win all the runs or swims, or the obstacle course is their thing. Maybe they crush every PT test and can out-navigate and shoot everyone. There are people in the class motivated to win events or at least compete for the 10% of the class in as many things as possible. The Honor Man of the class is no Gray Man.

2. Gray Man. As defined above, the guy who gets the job done, never fails, never wins, and never gets gooned (finishing in the bottom half of the class on runs). Overall, the Gray Man is a good team player and a guy you want in your squad.

3. Survival mode. There are some who attend these training programs woefully underprepared. They have to check into their mental toughness every day to meet the standards. They may be borderline pass/fail on a majority of events.

This man is the easiest to consider quitting, in my opinion. However, all three types of people quit. Just statistically speaking, if you are bordering on failure every day -- and making a name for yourself being last consistently -- your confidence and health may fade.

The difference between the three mentally, is that the competitor thinks more about winning events than quitting or failing an event. The Gray Man is solid and puts out to pass the events and maybe has to dig down deep on a few events of the week to remain in the middle of the pack. The Survivor Man is struggling with multiple events every day to reach his goal of just passing the standard.

There are a few of these in each class that actually graduate by sheer will and guts. There is an award for that person -- the Fire in the Gut Award. This is given to the guy who endured the most; overcame the most injuries, illnesses or personal loss; or just made it through every day with maximum effort and a never-quit attitude.

Sometimes, we all are a little bit of all three of those types. You have good days and bad days, and you can soar with the eagles one day and be at the bottom of the heap the next. Your ability to handle that transition and struggle with failure is what makes a graduate.

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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