How to Increase Your Mental Toughness for Physical Tests

A Navy SEAL conducts a military dive operation.
U.S. service members assigned to Naval Special Warfare Group 2 conducts military dive operations off the East Coast of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean, May 29, 2019. (Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Jayme Pastoric/U.S. Navy)

It's no mystery -- success in high attrition rate selection programs and challenging physical events comes down to physical and mental preparation. Acing these tests also requires a high state of motivation, self-confidence and, most importantly, discipline. How to build upon these intangibles is a tough question to answer. Here are some recommendations to prepare for the toughest goals.

Mental preparation or academics?

Don't confuse mental preparation for academic preparation. Often students get these confused. Mental toughness and academic preparation are two different things.

Military special ops program classroom time teaches the principles students have to understand, such as math, physics, anatomy and memorizing nomenclature of all types of gear and procedures.

Being a good academic student is a necessary requirement for many military and special ops programs, while mental preparation is more about your mental toughness that you have created over a lifetime of trials, successes and failures.

Self-confidence is built by enduring and excelling at the mental and academic rigor in preparation for your selection program.

Army psychologist David Grossman refers to these life events as "stress inoculations" that help you build the needed resiliency in life as well as the ability to beat high attrition rate events.

People often ask how long they should train for such special ops professions, and the answer really is "all your life" before joining the military and screening. This means all your school life, sports life, training hours and staying motivated throughout the ups and downs.

The motivation evolution

Every motivation to do something challenging started with a seed. It's that seed that gives initial confidence to challenge yourself.

It is through your initial inspiration and motivation that you start your journey to complete selection (or any goal, for that matter). This could be anything from a poster, a movie, words spoken to you, or you know someone who graduated from a challenging program that most people would not dare attempt. 

However, this inspirational seed has to grow in strength and become self-motivation. There will be days when you do not have the motivation or energy to train for your goal.

This is when your habits of never quitting, working hard consistently through tiredness and being persistent have created enough discipline in your life to go train anyway. Discipline wins.

Building discipline and mental toughness

The most common questions don't have to do the difficult classroom work, but how to train the mind to be tougher? How do you find the "fuel when the tank is empty?"

How do you build mental toughness? Here is a list of helpful tools to enable you to push through the events when you have nothing left, and it is cold, dark, wet, miserable and you are alone with your thoughts:

Performance cues and subliminal triggers: This is probably the most powerful method because as with self-talk, these cues can be imagined and spoken when needed.

There are also very powerful subliminal triggers you may have not considered. Meeting and talking to people who have achieved your dream or goal will help you build the type of mindset that turns the impossible into possible. There is a quote by Marie Wilson, "You cannot be what you cannot see." Although she used this to describe the lack of female mentors in such positions as politics (president), STEM careers or even female heroines in movies, it applies to all of us with regard to goal-setting and achievement.

If you have not seen, heard or experienced people like yourself attending and graduating high attrition rate selection programs, the chances that your brain will make the necessary developments to push yourself in that direction are less. That is, unless you are a true pioneer and you get after it just to become the first to do something. Most of us are not pioneers.

However, here are some powerful cues and triggers:

  • Seeing graduation and imagining you receiving the diploma can be a powerful trigger when needed.
  • Performance cue -- Remembering previous successes on what was your greatest day ever. 
  • Remember that feeling of scoring the winning shot or making the highest grade in the class.
  • "Game time," or, "Let's do this." -- Or something that elicits a response to your performance the moment it is needed the most are examples of performance cues.
  • Do not forget your why or the years of hard training required to get to where you are right now -- prepared to make a decision to keep going forward.

Positive self-talk: "Do not listen to yourself; talk to yourself." And this has to be a positive, never-quit mentality, or your personal motivation will slide, and words such as "quit, can't or never" start to creep into your vocabulary. 

Compete mode: Beast mode, game face or whatever you want to call it -- your ability to take each event at your selection and make it a competition against others, a different team or even yourself will enable you never to think about quitting. Too many people get into survival mode when they enter the challenge and just want to finish or pass the standard. The mentality you need to succeed in special ops selection programs is: "Exceeding the standard is the standard." No minimum standards should be your goal.

Pushing yourself to win or come within the top 10% of the class in at least one event that day is the mindset you need going into the event, regardless of the outcome. That winning focus is a game changer, no matter what you do in life.

You also have to realize when going through selection that you are enduring the test. It is your entrance exam to your dream. The selection is not how the community you seek and life in the teams is all about. If you say the SEAL teams, Special Forces ODA or other spec ops unit was not for you while you are in the middle of selection, how do you know? The selection is nothing like the job. Selection will prepare you, however. The recommendation is to suck up the selection, achieve the goal you set out to accomplish years ago, and you will be well-prepared for the next step of making the special ops team.

Related article: 

Triggers, cues, impact motivation, endurance, longevity

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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