5 Steps to Building Mental Toughness

U.S. Navy SEALs lead a ‘mental toughness’ presentation to promote Naval special warfare awareness at Cooper High School near Minneapolis on Jan. 27, 2011. (Petty Officer 2nd Class William Parker/U.S. Navy)

I've read some articles recently that have provoked me to explain qualities of mental toughness and why people fail challenging special ops programs.

After recent conversations with a few different special ops friends (Army SF, SEAL, Delta, UK Army Commando), we agreed that to be one of the few who graduate special ops training, you eventually have to do one thing without care:

'Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable'

I first heard it worded that way by friend and former Navy SEAL Don Shipley, who runs a tactical training program in Virginia that is extremely SEAL-like. I think this term applies to so much; not just in military and other special ops areas, but in life as well.

This really is the key to building mental toughness. You do not get mentally tough overnight, nor do you get inspired one day and magically become mentally tough. You build it every day. Here are some examples of little ways you can start building mental toughness for anything you do in life, using the mantra "getting comfortable being uncomfortable."

1. Wake up early to train, work, etc. -- No matter what you are waking up early to do, it is difficult to get out of a comfortable bed when under a warm quilt at zero dark thirty to do anything. Doing something that also will cause discomfort to your body like military PT, running, sports team practice (first of a two-a-day), finishing homework and studying, or to do a job you do not like. All of these are examples of a way to build mental toughness each day of your life. You can start this early in high school and be well-prepared for whatever post-high school route you take. But you never are too old to get moving when you just don't feel like it.

2. Try something new -- Going to new places, meeting new people and doing new things usually brings a measure of discomfort. Pushing through the initial sticky point of thinking, "Maybe another day," will take you another step further and open your world to new options, opportunities and possibly a new path in life. Usually a new chapter in your life means the end of a previous chapter. Be bold and turn the page. Every page you turn builds another day of mental toughness that you did not have yesterday. The only easy day was yesterday, right?

3. Moving toward a goal -- Believe it or not, just moving will help you build mental toughness. It is easy to stay still, get comfortable doing nothing and accomplish very little. It takes guts to start moving and producing a day that takes you one step closer to your goal. It does not matter what that goal is. It can be to get bigger, faster, stronger, smarter or closer to finishing a project, writing a book or preparing for a job interview. Moving toward a goal helps you get tougher every day. Don't be the person that lets the grass grow under your feet. Keep moving; don't stay idle.

4. Cold, wet, sandy, hot, humid, underwater, ski diving, etc. -- If you're in the military or a special ops program, you will be uncomfortable in so many ways. You have to realize that there is nothing you can do about it, except let it be a part of you. At SEAL training, we were wet and sandy every day. It honestly felt weird after training when my pants or even my bed did not have sand in them. Getting over fears of heights and water are huge to building mental toughness and confidence to advance in life.

5. Find ways to get comfortable -- SEAL story: If you go through SEAL training, you will know you have made it when during the third to fourth day of Hell Week and after winning a race, you get to rest because "it pays to be a winner." For 10-15 minutes, you and your BUD/S classmates in your boat crew huddle up in a spooning formation while the instructor places an overturned inflatable boat over your team. Your team's body heat warms each other and stays captured in the boat, acting like a tent. Even though you are still wet and horizontal in a bed of sand, it is the most comfortable you have been in your life. If you can get to that level of finding comfort within a heap-load of discomfort, you have made it.

So whatever your goal is, chase it and find yourself being uncomfortable. At the same time, watch your confidence soar and mental toughness grow. That is how to build mental toughness -- through hard, daily work and not remaining idle.

Stew Smith works as a presenter and is on the editorial board with the Tactical Strength and Conditioning program of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).

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