The United States Navy SEALs rank among the world’s elite special operations forces. These highly trained warriors undertake some of the most dangerous missions in the military, from clearing the beaches of World War II, to daring raids like the one that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.
To become a Navy SEAL, you have to survive the SEALs’ rigorous Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) 24-week training program. If you make it through their demanding physical tests, the odds are still against you, roughly two-thirds of those who start the program don’t finish, and attrition rates have gone up to as high as 80 percent1.
Drop-out rates are especially high during week six, also known as Hell Week. In five and a half days, trainees are put through hell — they train non-stop, are pushed to the edges of their physical and mental limits, and get only five hours of sleep, at most, for the entire week.
Hell Week explodes unexpectedly, trainees know it will happen, but they don’t know when. They only know it will start with chaos:
They ran us out of the tent, screaming: “Go here, go over there, you guys can’t get it right, drop on the ground, get up.” We were trying to do what they were telling us to do, but there was too much at once, it was impossible. They were spraying us with hoses, shooting off guns. “Hit the ocean,” they ordered and we had to jump in the surf. It was a cold night, and we were freezing. After we were completely soaked, they hauled us back out and screamed at us to do push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups.Richard Machowicz, Unleash the Warrior Within
SEAL training is entirely voluntary. Candidates can drop on request (DOR) at any time, by ringing a ceremonial brass ship’s bell. During BUD/S, trainees are continuously tormented by instructors and tempted to quit at the same time.
48 hours into Navy SEAL Richard Machowicz’s Hell Week, the instructors put him and his comrades into the cold ocean once again. They brought out the ship’s bell, and announced that they weren’t going to let anybody out until somebody quits.
The class stayed in the water for 30 minutes, shivering from the cold. One guy couldn’t take it anymore, he jumped up and rang the bell three times — he was out. A rush of people followed him, and the bell kept on ringing. In 10 minutes, 80 men dropped out of BUD/S Class 136.
To make matters worse, the instructors drove an ambulance in, filled with hot chocolate, coffee, and donuts, which they served to the quitters.
… Meanwhile, while it seemed our classmates were being rewarded for quitting, the few of us remaining in the water hadn’t stopped shaking … Somewhere in the corner of my mind came the realization that the instructors were weeding us out by playing negative games with our minds. The only way I would be able to win this one would be to play a positive game.Richard Machowicz, Unleash the Warrior Within
SEAL training, beginning from day one at BUD/S, is designed to create warriors … It is a sorting process that finds young men who would rather die than quit, then instills them with a relentless desire to fight and win as a team … It is a ruthless process; for every man who succeeds, four men will fail. It’s a rendering for men of character, spirit, and a burning desire to win at all costs.Dick Couch, The Warrior Elite
How do these young men weather such brutal training, brave through the terrors of Hell Week, and endure to graduate as Navy SEALs in the end?
While you have to be physically strong to survive BUD/S, you also have to be mentally and emotionally resilient.
Hell Week isn’t designed to kill you. It’s designed to make you wish you were dead — or at least to push you to the edge of physical and mental endurance to see how you react. While the demands are mostly physical, the journey through them is all about mental attitude.Rorke Denver, Damn Few
In an interview with Cops Alive, Commander Eric Potterat, PhD, the Force Psychologist for the US Navy SEALs, talks about the seven techniques taught to Navy SEALs to help them weather the hardest situations. In this post, we’ll focus on the original ‘Big Four’ techniques.
The 4 Mental Techniques US Navy SEALs Use to Conquer Hard Times
1. Set Goals and Break Them down into Bite-Sized Chunks
Navy SEALs are taught to break down, or ‘chunk’ large goals into smaller, bite-sized pieces, so challenging situations don’t appear overwhelming. By knocking down a series of achievable targets, SEALs keep themselves moving towards the larger goal.
In his book Resilience, Navy SEAL Eric Greitens writes about how staying focused on the task at hand can keep you in the game when things get tough. Greitens remembers the second night of his Hell Week, when more men quit in a moment than at any other time in their training.
BUD/S Class 237 had already been up for 20 hours, training nonstop. At the beginning of the second night, their BUD/S instructors lined the class up on the beach, making them watch the sun go down. As the sun set, the instructors brought the brass ship’s bell out, and started playing with the trainees’ minds, reminding them that they had many more dark nights to go.
As the sun went down, and darkness began to fall, “something broke” in the ranks. Men started running for the bell, and it clanged, again and again.
It was the darkest moment for so many of because they weren’t thinking about what was right in front of us. They were thinking about everything that was to come. And in their minds, what they hadn’t yet seen or touched or tasted turned monstrous.Eric Greitens, Resilience
The lesson is clear; when times get tough, focus on the moment, and be careful not to let your mind obsess over what else is to come.
Set a goal to handle your difficulties, then break it down into simple, achievable steps. Check the horizon to make sure you’re going in the right direction, but keep your eyes on the road right in front of you.
2. Control Your Breathing to Control Your State
The Navy SEALs’ more technical name for this technique is ‘arousal control,’ but it’s simply using your breath to control the stress reactions ‘aroused’ by difficult situations.
In the Teams, we’re taught to use the breath as a method of inhibiting our physiological arousal or our “fight, flight or freeze” response (previously known as “fight or flight”). The breath is the link between the sympathetic nervous system, which leads us into response mode, and the parasympathetic nervous systems, which brings us back into balance when the coast is clear.Mark Divine, The Way of the SEAL
When the sympathetic nervous system is triggered by a threat, or a perceived threat, the body unleashes a chemical cocktail of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream, to rev up your senses and get you ready to “fight or flight.”
The problem is that the mind can’t differentiate between a real or perceived threat; the same amount of survival-level stress can be triggered by seeing a lion, or by being berated by a client, or by imagining yourself being berated by a client.
Deep, conscious breathing is a way to control the stress response, and bring your mind and body back into the game.
Dr. Potterat teaches a specific breathing technique using a 4 x 4 count. When you’re feeling stressed and anxious:
- Inhale deeply for four counts
- Exhale for four counts
- Repeat as necessary
Navy SEAL Mark Divine and Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, U.S. Army, teach a slightly different variation, which Divine calls ‘Box Breathing’ and Grossman calls ‘Tactical Breathing.’
- Inhale for four counts
- Hold the breath for four counts
- Exhale for four counts (Grossman recommends inhaling through the nose, and exhaling through the mouth)
- Hold for another four counts
- Repeat as necessary
3. Visualise Overcoming Obstacles and Succeeding
Dr. Potterat teaches the SEALs to visualise success, with one important difference from the success visualisation commonly taught in self-help books.
Instead of only visualising success, SEALs are taught to visualise challenges they might face, and mentally rehearse overcoming these challenges successfully.
This kind of visualisation has the added benefit of helping you to anticipate what might go wrong, and to come up with solutions before problems happen.
Preparing, mentally and physically, means imagining what might go wrong. It also means imagining how you will react to, cope with, and overcome potential hardship.Eric Greitens, Resilience
4. Talk Positively to Yourself
Dr. Potterat suggests that this may be one of the most effective techniques to stay mentally and emotionally resilient.
We all have a voice in our head that takes jabs at our self-confidence and self-esteem; when things look bleak, the difference between failure and success may come down to how we talk to ourselves; to either encourage ourselves to push on, or to break ourselves down to quit.
During Thursday of Divine’s Hell Week, an instructor caught Mark Divine joking with another student, and decided he wanted Divine out of SEAL training. Divine used a combination of positive self-talk and humour to help him overcome a seemingly impossible challenge.
“I’m gonna make you quit, and I ain’t gonna leave until you do,” he said with a matter-of-fact smile. I smiled back at him, which he definitely didn’t like. He smiled wider. “Let’s start with one thousand eight-count body builders.”
“Okay,” I thought, “time to dig deep. He’ll have to kill me to get me to quit, so I had better pass out doing these builders before I die.”Mark Divine, The Way of the SEAL
Divine had been up training since Sunday afternoon, nearly five days straight by this point. But by talking to himself positively, he was able to make it to seven hundred reps before feeling he was done.
Divine realised that he needed to pull something deeper and more powerful from inside him to make it through this test, so he just started laughing to make himself feel more positive. It worked; Divine started feeling better, as if he was being recharged from within.
I looked Instructor Evil in the eye and said, “Easy day, this is fun.”
He smiled at me, genuinely this time, and said, “Get back with your class, Divine. Nice job.”Mark Divine, The Way of the SEAL
One way to reinforce positive self-talk is to adopt a short, powerful mantra, which you can repeat to yourself during tough times.
Richard Machowicz’s well-known mantra is, “Not dead, can’t quit!” Mark Divine’s humorous mantra, “Looking good, feeling good, oughta be in Hollywood,” kept him going through SEAL training.
Eric Greitens suggests that you don’t have to make your mantra too complicated. In Resilience, he cites some examples researchers have taken from successful athletes: “Good job, do it again.” “Concentrate. Breathe.” “Stay tough.”
Forge Strength through Purpose, Teamwork and Challenge
In researching this article, three other sources of the Navy SEALs’ mental strength struck me. The first is having a strong purpose, the second is succeeding through teamwork, and the third is reframing difficulties as where the growth is.
5. Have a Strong Purpose
Dr. Potterat’s techniques for mental resilience presuppose that the Navy SEALs want to be there; they want to go through immense hardship in pursuit of a goal. They have a strong purpose, which helps them stay mentally and emotionally resilient.
People have to want it. Some people don’t and that’s fine. One of the secrets of resiliency, I think, is having a strong purpose, being clear on what you want and why you want it. That why will drive you forward when all else fails.
You have to want to win. You have to want to win so badly, losing is not even a possibility for you. If you feel that way, there is no obstacle the instructors can put in front of you that you won’t figure out how to get past.Rorke Denver, Damn Few
6. Succeed through Teamwork
There’s a reason why they’re called SEAL Teams. The image of a lone ranger saving the day only exists in the movies. SEALs train together to forge strong teams, and work together in the field to achieve mission success. In life, as in war, don’t go alone. Bring your friends.
Winning pays. Losing has consequences. Nothing substitutes for preparation. Life isn’t fair and neither is the battlefield. Even the smallest detail matters. We are a brotherhood. Our success depends on our team performance. And we will not fail.Rorke Denver, Damn Few
7. Reframe difficulty as growth
The other thing that struck me is how the Navy SEALs see difficulty as where the growth is.
They reinforce this with maxims like, “the only easy day was yesterday,” “embrace the suck,” and, “earn your Trident every day,” which refers to the Special Warfare insignia that trainees earn at graduation and marks them as Navy SEALs.
Another maxim I found inspiring was the Smoke Jumpers Creed quoted in Mark Divine’s The Way of the SEAL: “Do today what others won’t; do tomorrow what others can’t.”
In SEAL Team, when things looked the worst, when the mud was up to our ears, when the night was the coldest, when the mountain looked the highest, when the guns felt the hottest, the only way around it all was through it. “Get amongst it,” we’d say.Richard Machowicz, Unleash the Warrior Within
Afterword: Sources and Suggested Reading
The techniques from Commander Eric Potterat, PhD, came from an interview he gave with the website Cops Alive. The quotes came from books written by US Navy SEALs.
For an insider look at BUD/S training, Dick Couch’s The Warrior Elite has no peer. Couch, a Navy SEAL veteran, followed BUD/S Class 228 through to graduation; out of the 114 men who originally classed up with 228, only 10 graduated. The Warrior Elite tells you how, and why.
Rorke Denver’s Damn Few is a look into the life and making of a present-day SEAL, and I enjoyed its straightforward writing. Denver also acted in the movie Act of Valor, which starred active duty Navy SEALs and gave the world a look into SEAL life and tactics.
Richard Machowicz’s Unleash the Warrior Within and Mark Divine’s The Way of the SEAL are more ‘how-to’ books for personal growth, but they also come with harrowing stories about their times in the teams. While Divine’s book is newer, I actually enjoyed Machowicz’s book more; maybe because it was my first introduction to the rigours of SEAL training. (You may recognise Machowicz as the host of the TV show Future Weapons.)
I reviewed Eric Greitens’ Resilience in the earlier post ‘What a US Navy SEAL Talks about When He Talks about Resilience’, and while it is a personal growth book, it’s a more introspective, rather than prescriptive book, than either Machowicz’s or Divine’s. If a book that makes you think about life and resiliency from a modern-day warrior’s perspective sounds intriguing to you, I’d highly recommend it.
The featured image in this post is by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Michael W. Pendergrass. Released by the US Navy.