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Mental Toughness: Unique Experience at the US Navy Seals Training Day


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By Bo Hanson – 4x Olympian, Coaching Consultant & Director of Athlete Assessments

Recently I was fortunate to take part (as a coach, not athlete!) in a US Navy Seals training day in San Diego, specifically for groups of Olympic athletes in training for 2012.  To say this was a unique experience, would be an understatement. I was genuinely moved by the entire experience and in particular the commitment of the athletes and the Navy Seal Officers who took charge in training the athletes. This article is a tribute to what I learnt on the day and how this translates into our lives as coaches, athletes and sports administrative staff.

The Navy Seals are one of the most elite combat units in operation in the worst conflict zones in the world today.  Regularly the Navy Seals do their work where regular combat units do not have the capabilities to create a successful outcome. This sees the Navy Seals operating in places civilians cannot imagine, under circumstances which demand the highest levels of mental toughness and team work. These two concepts formed the basis for the lessons the Navy Seal Chiefs would deliver to the athletes during the training day.

Beginning in the briefing room, I listened to the Navy Seal Instructors share the Navy Seals Ethos and explain the origins of the Trident they serve under. The use of this symbolism and the degree to which the Navy Seals subscribed to their ethos was such an important aspect to the day.  It showed immediately what the Navy Seals’ identity is and how they aspire to behave on a daily basis. This Ethos is written in full below.

US Navy Seal Ethos

In times of war or uncertainty there is a special breed of warrior ready to answer our Nation’s call. A common man with uncommon desire to succeed. Forged by adversity, he stands alongside America’s finest special operations forces to serve his country, the American people, and protect their way of life.

I am that man.

My Trident is a symbol of honor and heritage. Bestowed upon me by the heroes that have gone before, it embodies the trust of those I have sworn to protect. By wearing the Trident I accept the responsibility of my chosen profession and way of life.

It is a privilege that I must earn every day.

My loyalty to Country and Team is beyond reproach. I humbly serve as a guardian to my fellow Americans always ready to defend those who are unable to defend themselves. I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions. I voluntarily accept the inherent hazards of my profession, placing the welfare and security of others before my own.

I serve with honor on and off the battlefield. The ability to control my emotions and my actions, regardless of circumstance, sets me apart from other men. Uncompromising integrity is my standard. My character and honor are steadfast. My word is my bond.

We expect to lead and be led. In the absence of orders I will take charge, lead my teammates and accomplish the mission. I lead by example in all situations.

I will never quit. I persevere and thrive on adversity. My Nation expects me to be physically harder and mentally stronger than my enemies. If knocked down, I will get back up, every time.  I will draw on every remaining ounce of strength to protect my teammates and to accomplish our mission.

I am never out of the fight.

We demand discipline. We expect innovation. The lives of my teammates and the success of our mission depend on me – my technical skill, tactical proficiency, and attention to detail. My training is never complete.

We train for war and fight to win. I stand ready to bring the full spectrum of combat power to bear in order to achieve my mission and the goals established by my country. The execution of my duties will be swift and violent when required yet guided by the very principles that I serve to defend.

Brave men have fought and died building the proud tradition and feared reputation that I am bound to uphold. In the worst of conditions, the legacy of my teammates steadies my resolve and silently guides my every deed.

I will not fail.

Underpinning the ethos is a commitment to setting a standard of behavior and performance which is becoming of a Navy Seal. The Instructors spoke at length about the concept of “standards”.  These standards are what one is willing to accept or not accept in terms of one’s own performance.  Like a thermostat which used for regulating temperature on your air-conditioning system to ensure the temperature does not go above or below that set level, setting standards in any other endeavor ensures you perform to your desired expectations of yourself.

Athletes choose to set their standards at varying levels.  Some are high some are low. Many athletes do not even realize they have set a standard for themselves, but it is something which happens either consciously or unconsciously. One thing is certain, it is rare to surpass your own set standards. This is why it is critical to re-calibrate your standards on a regular basis as you continue to develop and improve. What was once a stretch in your performance becomes over time, a less challenging performance to achieve.

What was clear about the Navy Seals is the degree to which they have set their standards at the highest possible levels of what humans can endure and survive in. They also hold each other accountable to these standards for the reality is, their lives depend on knowing their fellow Seals operate to the same levels of expectation. They do not let each other down and can be counted on to do their job in the most challenging conditions imaginable. This is the essence of what mental toughness is.

Watch Bo Hanson speak about spending a day with the U.S. Navy Seals and what he learnt from them about Mental Toughness.

The US Navy Ethos (detailed above) formed the basis for the Instructor’s expectations of the athletes throughout the physically and mentally demanding 4-hour training session. I have never seen a session conducted over a prolonged period of time where the point of complete physical exhaustion was passed so often in so many different expressions.  Push ups, sit ups, log lifting, running and the list goes on. The Seals seem to have mastered every way possible to inflict serious agony on every major and minor muscle group. The whole point of pushing the athletes to their physical breaking point is not so much the physical training but most importantly to test the mental strength of each athlete.  The Seals are renowned for their mental toughness and this training day was an opportunity to assist the athletes to develop greater levels of this in themselves through the use of the four key elements to achieving mental toughness.

This is the four step plan for US Navy Seal Mental Toughness:
Goal setting: Set short term achievable goals and count out loud to create a point to focus on.
Visualize: See yourself achieving your goals and being the success you aspire to.
Positive self-talk: Saying encouraging and inspiring words to yourself.
Stress Management: Learn to assess each situation before taking action. Never be rushed into doing something without full instruction, understanding of the situation or rational thought. Take slow deep breaths to focus your attention and lower your heart rate. Seals can do this in the space of seconds where normal civilians may take minutes to achieve. Seals do not have minutes to compose themselves. Take a step back from the situation before stepping back in and taking action.

For athletes training to compete at the Olympics, the key skills they must master are mentioned above.  The challenge with the Olympics is it only occurs every four years, so athletes get little practice in the unique Olympic competition environment.  This is where the ability to remain composed is critical.  Staying composed is something which can be tested by putting yourself under significant physical strain such as what occurred during the Navy Seal’s training day.

What also struck me most about the Navy Seals is they espouse themselves to be “common men” who have an “uncommon desire” to succeed.  I was not sure what a Navy Seal is supposed to physically look like, but as they themselves say, they are common men who just look physically fit and capable, without being the most muscular or biggest men around.  However, when they started handing out their packs such as their armored jackets, weapons and everything else they need to carry, it became obvious that these men were amongst the strongest pound-for-pound men in the world. Couple that with their strength of will and their commitment to each other and you have someone who is willing to put the team ahead of themselves.

The ability to do this was summed up in a story the Instructors told us about one of their men who is no longer with us. In what is a sad story, there is a wonderful sense of pride for what this man was and what the Navy Seals overall embody.  In sport we talk about self-less behavior, yet will never truly understand this concept to the degree each Navy Seal understands it.  We also talk about paying attention and being 100% prepared, yet again, in sport where the stakes are little more than winning or losing a game, we will never understand the true meaning of these concepts.

On so many levels I appreciated and valued my time with the US Navy Seals. They are an inspiring group of unique individuals determined to work as a team for causes they believe in.  If sporting teams, could capture the essence of the US Navy Seal’s Ethos and earn it by living it daily, those teams would likely be highly successful winning teams.

At Athlete Assessments, we’re here to provide you with excellence in service and to help you be your best. If there is anything we can assist you with, please Contact Us.

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