Here's What Being 'Mentally Ready' Means for Special Ops Selection

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Special Forces selection
Candidates assigned to the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School carry a telephone pole during a morning ruck march as part of Special Forces Assessment and Selection at Camp Mackall, North Carolina, on March 12, 2020. (U.S. Army photo by K. Kassens)

There is a saying that special ops selection programs are 10% physical and 90% mental. People will then follow up with the question, "How do I get mentally ready?"

This common cliché is not based in any science. Selection programs are extremely physical, and that level of physical ability required can take years to fully develop.

During the process of learning how to train, working even when you do not feel like it and pushing toward your goal, you’ll also begin to develop a mental readiness that you most definitely will need.

There is a magic moment that is 100% mental.

There will be a moment during your training when you have nothing left. You will be tired, hungry, wet, cold, dirty, sitting in dark ocean water, and you are left alone with your thoughts. What are you thinking at this moment? This is the test, and it is all mental.

Will your will to succeed be stronger than your desire to end the pain? What is your WHY? Do you have a good answer as to why you really want to go through the pain required to get into a special ops community? Because it is really easy to quit right now. Most people do.

In the end, it will come down to how hard you are willing to work to achieve your dream. These are just a few of the mental games that go through your head when times get tough.

But wait! There's more. Are you mentally ready for instructors who may reinforce your negative thoughts?

Mind games and negative feedback are constant. Can you check your ego at the door and realize you need to work on some things before as you join the military or go through selection?

Can you handle not being the best at something and being told you are a horrible student and you should just quit now? Can you handle being the worst at something and finishing last even as you struggle with as hard as you can to meet the standard?

You have a lot of new skills to learn on a steep learning curve. You're in a new, high-stress environment; missing home; forced to perform at levels you once thought impossible; and challenged by instructors every day.

Are you ready for this snowball of stress? It is a daily grind that most people are not prepared for and are not mentally or emotionally capable of handling.

This type of mental preparedness is mostly about maturity and resilience gained through life experiences. It has nothing to do with your mental game in academics, though you still need to pass academic tests (navigation, dive physics, medical exams, etc.); memorize procedures that will one day save your life, as well as the nomenclature of weapons and systems; and develop tactical proficiency.

Being able to see a skill performed and then successfully replicate the movement or action is also a mental skill. Your martial arts, athletic history and other skills that require coaching and direction will help you build the ability to see it and then do it. Being confident -- but not overconfident -- is part of this type of mental skill as well.

Finally, are you ready for the grind to master performing a full day's work?

Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) and other military special ops training are not 100% about working out, but you rarely stop moving. When you do slow down, you will have to learn something new. Some training days turn into nights.

Being able to work out for a few hours, work the full day in manual labor jobs, prep your gear late into the evening and repeat this day over and over is a grind. Are you really ready for that? There is no nap time at BUD/S unless your boat crew wins a race on Day 3 of Hell Week.

Most people are not ready for this long day, which then turns into a long week. Still feeling the residual effects of Monday's workout on Thursday is something you may have to endure regularly, especially if you did not prepare yourself for this long cycle of training and constant activity.

When you ask yourself whether you are mentally prepared, make sure you can answer any doubt with a positive reason as to why you are doing this.

Then, when you think you have it all figured out, ask yourself one more question:

Did I practice and train until I got right, or did I practice until I couldn't get it wrong?

Repetition, repetition, repetition is the only thing that makes success possible -- especially when it comes to new skills learned and turning weaknesses into strengths. This is something every tactical athlete has to do as they prepare for the test that is special ops selection.

-- 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 stew@stewsmith.com.

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