Friday Focus: Train to Compete, Not Just Survive

Developing proper mindset toward fitness
San Diego-area high school students participate in log physical training during the third annual Navy SEAL Invitational hosted by the Navy SEAL & SWCC Scout Team. (Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Apprentice Conor Minto/U.S. Navy photo)

Here is a concept I developed one day during a challenging event for my Spec Ops preparation: "Train to compete, not just survive."

I came up with this while I was running my first and only marathon. My goal was to complete it in under four hours (not a huge goal, I know). As I watched people stretching, I saw runners from Kenya who were not even thinking about finishing but about winning or dropping a minute off their best time.

That mindset spoke to me during the entire race. I realized I was just in survival mode and not really trying to compete on a high level. The phrase "train to compete, not just survive" was born.

I used this quote during the rest of my preparation and during SEAL training as well. I saw recruits who were striving for the minimum standards that would allow them to get to the training, and I also noticed students and active duty members doing the same to get through the training.

This survival mode did not work well in either of the two phases of the training (to and through). The students and active-duty members who were competing to win something that day were the ones who not only made it to the training, but they made it through the training as well.

This is a mindset that will help you in everyday life. Try it.

The big idea here is that "exceeding the standard is the standard." Sure, minimum physical standards exist for a reason, but so do C and D grades in academics. These grades are passing but just average. If you want to stand out in any profession, being "just average" is not the way to go. This is particularly true for special ops preparation, testing and training. When only 20%-25% of those who start actually finish, there is no room for average.

Here's how this applies to us and pass the PT test:

I used these ideas just about every day when I was going through Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL. They kept me focused on performing and made each day feel like a race event was coming up. There was a general excitement about each day, versus dread about whether I'd make it through. There were some events where I had to bring my A Game to perform well. Having that additional adrenaline pump and mental focus made all the difference.

I promise that "if you think about winning, you will never think about quitting." That's a powerful statement in your head when your focus is on your actions of competing versus surviving. You know a saying is good when it helps you find other cool sayings too when you're trying to explain it.

"Train to compete, not just survive."

"Exceeding the standards is the standard."

"You never think about quitting when you think about winning."

Time to put this into action:

Start "talking to yourself and stop listening to yourself." Make the dialogue in your head a one-way conversation. Be proactive with your discussion by focusing on your why. Your why will be tested at some point in your journey. What you tell yourself when you question yourself can be huge and life-changing, depending on your answer.

If you are on active duty, a recruit or a candidate preparing for a fitness test or selection program and your desire is to make this work for you, check out the articles below from the fitness page. What you tell yourself can be a difference between competing or survival or even trying at all.

Here is a list of related articles and videos on the topic of mental toughness that requires similar internal dialogues:

Five Steps to Building Mental Toughness: After recent conversations with a few different Special Ops friends (Army SF, SEAL, Delta, UK Army Commando), we all agreed that to be one of the few who graduate special ops training, you eventually have to do one thing without caring how it feels.

Twelve Questions about Mental Toughness (article / video): This is a thorough review of the mental toughness topic, based on a question from a future military member.

Mental Toughness -- Is it an Art or Science?

How to Build Mental Toughness

Increase Mental Toughness During Physical Events

Mentally Tough -- Power of the Mind is Spec Ops Training

Ten Ways to Build Mental Toughness and Stay Motivated

Teamwork and Mental Toughness -- More Important than Fitness

Can You Make a Special Operator?

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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