Here's the No. 1 Reason Why People Fail Special Ops Training

Ranger navigates obstacle course
A Ranger student executes a low crawl through water and under barbed wire at the Darby Queen obstacle course. (Patrick A. Albright, Maneuver Center of Excellence and Fort Benning Public Affairs/U.S. Army)

There are many reasons why people fail to complete special ops training programs. From failing to meet the standards, to injuries, to quitting, the reasons why most people do not graduate can be as unique as the individual attempting the process.

However, most failures are not so unique and can be attributed to preparation, or lack thereof. The common denominator simply comes down to being ill-prepared for the course of instruction. That lack of preparation can cover many areas, including physical, mental, resilience, emotional and even academic issues.

Take No Chances When It Comes to Preparation

Step No. 1: Get TO the Training

Ace the fitness test and ASVAB for starters. If you prepare well enough that you can exceed the standards of your entrance exams before you contact a recruiter, you will have more time to prepare so you can get through the training and focus on graduation.

Most people stop their preparation at Step No. 1 and only prepare themselves to get accepted into the training program. Do not set a timeline to see a recruiter. Instead, set a performance starting line before you start the process if you want to succeed in training programs with these types of high attrition rates in your initial years of military service.

Step No. 2: Prepare to get THROUGH the Training

Critical to the next phase of the journey will be running longer distances, swimming with fins, treading, more calisthenics and lifting to prepare for load bearing involving logs, boats and rucking events. Most people skip this phase entirely and arrive at spec ops training having never run, rucked, swam with fins or any of the things required of them while enduring training.

Most think boot camp and the prep course after boot camp will prepare them properly for this big hurdle, but these programs simply do not spend enough time focusing specifically on the tasks at hand.

However, if you were training before basic training or boot camp in these needed activities, the training and prep course of the initial months of your military life will be a good steppingstone for you to handle the next events of special ops training.

Step No. 3: Mentally Prepare for the Journey

Your mental toughness and resilience at handling physical, emotional and tactical stress is not something that is easily built by watching movies, looking at posters or thinking you are tough enough. You must experience hard work and training throughout your preparation phases in life.

This may start with high school sports and academic challenges, accepting negative feedback from coaches and teachers to improve your performance, and handling a long day of work. Work can be before or after school or a combination of schoolwork and athletics at the end of the day. Days like this are great ways to prepare for the long hours of military life in your future.

There is no 30-minute gym workout that is going to prepare you for a day of special ops training. You not only need to put in more training time, but also focus on moving, working and doing things all day. If you spent a good deal of your life moving and working hard in a variety of activities, you may have developed the ability to handle a day of spec ops training that turns into night with no end in sight.

There will come a time in special ops training that has something to do with your preparation, but has more to do with your will and how badly you really want to succeed at the daily challenges in front of you -- day after day after day.

The grind of these training programs is what tests your will. Are you willing to put in the preparation so that, when you feel like you are physically and mentally at your end, you can keep going and finish the day? Then can you repeat that day tomorrow after a short night of sleep?

When going through a military special ops selection program with an average attrition rate of 70%-80%, you need all the tools you can fit into your backpack. That means crushing a fitness test, even on a bad day, and having some experience in the events of your future training before attending that course.

Face it, you must be honest with yourself as you start the potentially very long journey to prepare yourself thoroughly for what could very well be one of the most difficult things you ever try to accomplish.

Step No. 4: Get Good At Things You Are Not Currently Good At Doing

During your preparation phases, you will have to do things you don't enjoy. That may be running or more calisthenics and less lifting for a few cycles if you come from a strength background. Or you may have to run less, swim more and lift more if you come from a running endurance background.

Also, if you are not a swimming athlete, getting good at swimming is not easy. Getting into swimming shape is downright difficult to do and takes time if you are a non-swimming athlete. This may require a longer timeline than you originally planned.

If you are a swimming athlete, you can afford to get out of the pool and build yourself to be better at running, rucking and lifting while you get used to gravity. We all have a weakness that cannot be ignored and must be improved during the preparation phase. Just remember, any weakness will be exposed in the first week of any special ops training program.

Swimming, treading, running fast for long distances, rucking, and durability and work capacity are what you need to master during preparation phases. But these skills must take another step if you want to advance into the tactical professions. As soon as you master swimming, treading water, running fast enough and rucking, you will then be required to add tactical skills like land and underwater navigation (compass reading), knot tying, obstacle courses, and being comfortable doing uncomfortable things in cold, wet, sandy, and low light situations during special ops training.

This learning curve is steep and requires a quick wit and ability to reproduce new skills proficiently. This is where a history of studying academics, learning athletics and other team skills is helpful to have experienced long before you joined the military.

By far, this is the most important piece of advice I give to 18-year-olds since they do not quite comprehend the level of fitness and emotional maturity required. Being away from home for the first time, living with a group of strangers in close quarters in a different city or state while receiving constant negative feedback, makes for a perfect storm that frequently leads to failure. Having some life experiences is helpful in this journey and can make you less of an attrition statistic if you address all of these issues.

-- 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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