Mentally Tough? Why the Power of the Mind Is Crucial in Spec Ops Training

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U.S. Navy SEAL candidates participate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training at Naval Special Warfare Command at Coronado, California.
U.S. Navy SEAL candidates participate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training at Naval Special Warfare Command at Coronado, California, Jan. 23, 2018. (Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt/U.S. Navy photo)

Preparing for any Special Operations training program can be challenging and often lead to questioning whether you are tough enough to endure. Who knows whether you won't quit in the moment that you become physically exhausted? 

This week's email question has more to do with mental toughness than physical preparation and concerns a recent statistic about the BUD/S physical screening test (PST) minimum standards.

Stew - I read that if you just reach the minimum standards at BUD/S on the entrance PST, you have a 6% chance of graduating SEAL training. As you know, these minimums are:

-- Swim 500 yards. Maximum time allowed is 12 minutes, 30 seconds -- utilizing only the side or breaststroke. The combat swimmer stroke is a nickname for the sidestroke, with only a slight arm-pull modification.

-- Max push-ups. Minimum number is 42 in 2 minutes.

-- Max sit-ups. Minimum number is 50 in 2 minutes.

-- Max pull-ups. Minimum is six with no time limit, but you cannot touch the ground or let go of the bar.

-- 1.5-mile run. Wearing boots and pants, the maximum time allowed for this one is 11 minutes, 30 seconds; in shoes, you have 11 minutes.

How can anyone finish BUD/S going into it with only 6 pull-ups and these slow run and swim times?

Great question. However, now with the Naval Special Warfare Mentor program, no mentor will sign off on you attending boot camp with these minimum standards. Now, the BUD/S requirements are a bit elevated and actually will test the students on their max effort through scores in this range before they go to boot camp:

  • Swim 500 yards: 9-10 minutes
  • Max push-ups: 80-100 reps
  • Max sit-ups: 80-100 reps
  • Max pull-ups: 15-20 reps
  • 1.5-mile run: 9-10 minutes

But this does not answer your question, which is basically how to play with pain and discomfort.

The skill you must practice and learn how to do is to disassociate. Since I was introduced to this concept, I interviewed several SEALs, physiologists and psychologists, as well as thought about my own experiences. It was confirmed by all parties, Spec Ops students and scientists alike. The ability to disassociate is a highly useful skill that can be used in athletics, daily life and SEAL training.

The ability to disassociate should not be confused with the dissociative disorder often caused by traumatic events. Rather, it is a method to endure long, painful, uncomfortable and tiring events like Hell Week or cold-water exposure. Everyone I spoke with had a unique story how they were able to disassociate. Here are several examples:

1. Pain: A dental visit using no painkiller when getting a cavity filled. Many endured this with a focus on a "happy place" or gazing at a tiny spot on the ceiling. I tried this once. I made it but realized my disassociation skills were not as strong as I thought.

2. Competitive/long-distance running: Many marathon runners spend the first few miles getting their pace down and then spend the next 20 or so miles focusing on something else like building a house brick by brick to help with the monotony of running 26.2 miles. Then they come back and finish strong with that final kick that requires more focus to accomplish.

3. Swimming: Many swimmers call what they do for hours at a time going into a "swim coma." Looking at the black line for 6,000 meters requires the mind to wander, but also to be physically in the event itself. Many collegiate swimmers talk about writing term papers while swimming.

4. High-rep PT: When you do workouts preparing for BUD/S, the total reps in a pyramid workout or superset can take you into several hundred push-ups, sit-ups, dips and even pull-ups. Many former SEALs talk about zoning out within 5-6 sets when doing these monotonous high-repetition calisthenics workouts.

5. Cold water: Thinking warm thoughts and repeatedly flexing your muscles at regular intervals will help you fight the cold from getting into your brain, telling you to quit. While sitting in freezing water, I always looked forward to a warm shower, putting on dry clothes and crawling into bed under some big blankets.

6. Team player: Many people just keep going so they do not let down their team.  I remember taping up sprained ankles and still playing in football games, because I did not want to let down my team or miss out on a chance to compete.

A few of the SEALs I talked to actually broke a bone during Hell Week and did not quit, even with a broken foot or leg. They said they did not want to let down their boat crew and their swim buddy. To them, quitting was not an option, and they found the focus not to think about the pain by helping out others in the team.

How do you get this ability to disassociate? Practice.

I truly think that this is why many of my workouts help people successfully prepare for Spec Ops training programs. There are many high-volume workouts that allow for this disassociation process to occur, whether it is because of monotony or pain.

Now the key to this skill working during your Special Ops  career is the ability to think tactically and logically while disassociating from the pain and discomfort of whatever training gives you. Disassociate may get you through BUD/S and other challenging Spec Ops courses, but being a good Special Operator requires you not to get into a zombie mode when tactical decisions are required. Once again, this, too, takes practice at long, tiring events with a full mission profile in your training with your teams.

Like I always say, no 45-minute gym workout will prepare you truly for a day in Special Ops training, but your ability to keep going and occupy your mind will help you for hours of a typical training day.

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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