Developing Mental Toughness

Mental Toughness is very powerful, as illustrated by its central place in Special Operations Forces (SpecOps) training, but is often misunderstood for persistence, which is only a part of it.

It forms the backbone of what it takes for US Navy Seals (USNS) candidates to go through the BUD/s selection course, arguably the most intense and selective SpecOps training in the western world (not a specialist about Russian specops training, it could be even more extreme..)

Movnat training as part of the FFS is, in my opinion, the best way for regular persons like you and me to develop and increase our Mental Toughness. It’s not by chance that Erwan Le Corre, the creator of the Movnat method, was invited to train Seal Team three in Hawaii. I’ll now go through the definition of MT I find the most appropriate before looking at how we can develop it over time. I’ll take examples

How do you define Mental Toughness anyway?

Mental Toughness is a state of mind that combines, at least, the following three attributes:

  • Being results-driven and achievement focused: once you have your goal, you focus on achieving it 100%, whatever it takes. “The mission is the priority” in USNS parlance. That also means you have to have at least one—ambitious—goal to apply your MT towards. Examples: BUD/S – graduating the selection course without quitting; FFS – being in top physical shape and developing strong physical capabilities.
  • Persistence: all ambitious goals require hard work, so you need to be persistent and put in the work to reach them. USNS: “Quitting is not an option”. Examples: BUD/S – trainees do not quit in the face of intense physical pain, cold and emotional abuse; FFS – you train whenever you have the opportunity to train, be it for 1 min or 15 mins, at the playground, on your commute or at the gym.
  • Resilience: life is neither easy nor fair, you will get numerous negative surprises, and if your goals are ambitious enough, you will get them more than the average person. USNS motto: “Embrace the suck”. Yes, it will suck, but guess what? Embrace it and go beyond it. Examples: BUD/S – instructors purposefully punish students unfairly to gauge their reaction and see if they’d quit in the face of unfairness. They also build up expectations to then go against them with painful surprises. FFS – you cannot train as planned, you make up for it at another time, even if not convenient. You wanted to train but you’re now traveling? Train at the airport, your hotel room, etc. Embrace the suck when life hits you.

How then do you develop Mental Toughness?

Everyone would probably agree that the three mental traits described above are desirable. In combination, they provide what I think is Mental Toughness for a person. The key question is: how do you develop them?

There are a number of Mental strategies and approaches that can be used, most used by SpecOps training, including USNS training. They can also be practiced, at a more mundane but nonetheless effective level, through Movnat training.

“The only easy day was yesterday.”

This phrase is written on the Grinder, the place where morning Physical Training is held during BUD/S. That approach helps Seal students graduate from BUD/S and is also key in developing persistence and resilience. Take it to heart, it’s a powerful mantra.

How does it help? It seems simple but it really does shift your outlook on life from expecting negative surprises from time to time to expecting them every single day. And the day after there’ll be more, and so on. It doesn’t mean seeing life negatively either, as your achievements are very positive, but it means knowing they won’t come easy.

You go to sleep knowing tomorrow will be more difficult than today. And you wake up ready to tackle whatever life throws at you, knowing life is not fair nor easy. Going through the day without obstacles to overcome? Savor your luck, for you know tomorrow will be different.

A corollary is the other USNS saying: “Training is never over.” BUD/S training is the toughest of all military special forces and they then go through another 6 months of advanced training before earning their trident and Seal status. So you’d think those guys are then pretty armed to deploy with their teams and accomplish anything right? Wrong: they join their assigned teams with the title of “new guy” and are trusted with literally nothing. All seal teams do physical training, run and swim on a daily basis because even though they’re in top shape, they need to improve even further. They train other specialties. They train as a platoon. Whatever they do, they keep training against ever increasing standards. Think about that if you think you’ve achieved a level where you’re satisfied with yourself. Raise your goals, you’re capable of more. And yes, that also means tomorrow won’t be any easier because you’re now aiming higher.

“Become comfortable being uncomfortable.”

This saying is common to many SpecOps training and is powerful in its own right. Again, it reverses the baseline of the normal. Your new normal should be uncomfortable. It doesn’t mean you’re always uncomfortable, but mentally the exception is now being comfortable, not the reverse. It doesn’t mean being miserable either, it only means owning and mastering being uncomfortable.

How exactly do you do that? These strategies will help:

  • Use past achievements: what are the achievements you regard as your toughest in your life? Remember them and use them to remind you that you can do similar things again. You don’t feel like you’ve achieved anything? It’s likely wrong but I won’t change your own perception. Then use others’ achievements. Read about inspiring persons, present or past. Read the books I listed under the Mental Toughness section: when you realize what Seals students go through in terms of pain, endurance, cold resistance, etc. you will realize that you should be able to achieve 1% of what they do, which is already more than the average person. And you build from there. See the next tip.
  • Focus on the results, not the process, for the process will never be perfect. Most people these days obsess about the process: get the perfect shoes to run in, the perfect time of the day, the perfect program, the perfect form, etc. What’s important is not the process, but that you achieve your goals. It doesn’t matter how imperfect your process is if you get there. That also goes for underestimating your abilities. Again, most people will not challenge themselves because they think they cannot achieve ambitious goals. And again they’re mostly wrong because they’re capable of much more than they think.
  • No one gets a perfect process with perfect conditions, don’t let yourself be impacted by this: the fitness world is filled with a ton of different programs and food strategies that advocate complex structures that you have to follow rigidly. These make many people feel that if you don’t follow the programs exactly, then you’re not achieving anything and you might as well just abandon because you won’t be going anywhere in terms of reaching your goals. Well, guess what, unless you’re a professional athlete and training is your job, then everyone else is in the same boat and not training under perfect conditions. We all do the best we can and if we keep doing that, then we’ll make good progress. The only decision that will block all progress is if we compare ourselves to an ideal scenario where we get to do everything perfectly and we end up quitting because we’re demoralized by it. Adam Brown was a navy seal operators who lost sight in one eye during training with his seal team. He still went on to attempt, and pass, sniper school (yes, with one eye, not his good one) and the selection for Seal Team 6, again with one eye. He certainly didn’t get perfect process under perfect conditions, yet he still went in, did his best, and achieved incredible outcomes.
  • Corollary: Learn to ignore minor discomforts, they’re part of any process and don’t mean you’re disadvantaged. So next time you train and the pull-up bar is sweaty and slippery, instead of complaining in your head or deciding that it’s too slippery to train pull-ups, ignore that minor discomfort and just get on with your training. Think about the seal trainees at BUD/S doing their physical exercises: they were army boots, are wet, full of sand chafing skin everywhere. If mentally they start to get angry that they’re working out in less than optimal conditions, they’ll just quit in minutes. They just learn to ignore discomforts. Hell week is when this attitude gets them through: getting sand in the food they get at midnight? They just gobble it up along with the food as they need the food. No use dwelling on it. They cannot put their shoes back on after medical inspection because their feet have swollen too much? They cut the shoes to fit them. It’s either that, continuing without shoes or quitting. Some quit, the ones that don’t just ignore they had to cut their shoes…
  • Break goals into bite-sized tasks. Develop your own achievements over time. Expose your feet 10s under a cold shower tomorrow morning. Then increase to 20s. Then expose feet and calves for 10s. Build up a to a 3 mins full-body cold shower. Use your past achievements to power through to higher goals. When you’ve done a full-body cold shower for 10s, then the goal of achieving 20s is only resisting 10 more seconds. You know you can do the first 10s, you only have to push through the second 10s, etc.
  • Use visualization and scenario techniques: something I’m particularly fond of is to carry an object in the position exerting the most effort possible, like a backpack in a chest carry instead of on my back. It tires the arms pretty quickly, so how do you keep going instead of just switching it over your back? You use group scenarios like imagining you’re carrying a log at BUD/S with other students, who depend on you carrying your share. You can also imagine you’re carrying an injured loved one back to the nearest road from a forest with no cell phone reception. Find what gets you moving and use that in visualization scenarios.
  • Positive self-talk. It seems simple but many operators recommend it strongly for a reason: it works. Find a mantra that will see you through the tough situations and that you can repeat in your head over and over while you struggle. Choose something short and simple, as your brain will be busy with the task at hands. It can be as simple as “You can do this!”. Some will choose deeply personal mantras. Try several and you’ll find one that works for you.
  • Box breathing: breathing regulates the sympathetic system and can be a huge help in relaxing and attacking situations that might otherwise be stressful. I taught it to my kids when they get frustrated, so they can defuse the situation calmly. The technique taught at BUD/S is simple: inspire deeply for 4s, hold your breath for 4s and then expire for 4s and repeat the cycle—use nasal breathing.
  • Conquer the veil of fear. We all feel fear in front of some intimidating situations but fear only occurs before you actually do the action that created the fear in the first place, not while you are doing it. Think about a stressful exam or physical obstacle you feared and remember how you felt when you started the actual action: fear disappears when you start to act. A technique that may be useful is to imagine fear as a soft silky veil in front of you you have to tear through to get to where you need to be. Visualize you getting through that veil and starting the action and you might just find this lowers your fear.
  • Appreciate small victories. Becoming comfortable being uncomfortable doesn’t mean being miserable. On the contrary, it means celebrating small victories throughout and sincerely appreciating them. You can find them anywhere if you switch your outlook. An example from BUD/S is DH Xavier finding a small victory after an instance of Log Physical Training, which is always arduous and rips the skin with the sand on the wood, etc. The author just thought: “That’s one less Log PT we have to go through until the end of BUD/S, win.”

Give it your all

A phrase often repeated by BUD/S instructors is “It pays to be a winner.”. That describes the fact that the winners of the physical challenges get to rest while the middle of the pack moves on to the next challenge and the last ones are actually targeted for more punishing challenges at the end of the day in addition to all the other challenges they already did. All this is meant to impress the fact that trainees should always give it their all and use maximum effort without holding back.

How to try and apply this in real-life though?

  • “Move with a sense of urgency”: during the 6 months of BUD/S, trainees are not allowed to walk, ever, while on duty. They have to jog every time they move. This is meant to impress upon them the fact that time is limited, they have so much to do and prepare for, so they need to take advantage of every single minute. Try to look for ways to do the same in life. Work is of course a natural avenue, but it’s hard for everyone. You can use physical activity to get into the habit, which would then translate to work, school, etc. For example, I often get remarks on how I just run somewhere as if it’s strange, and I always reply: “Why would you walk if you can run (ie take a shower soon after you arrive)?”. Translated to movement in every day life, this means getting into mental shifts such as: Maximize effort in everyday tasks.
  • Burn your boats to leave you no options: this can be applied in training, though with a sense of carefulness. You may be able to find situations where you can feel the pressure of having no options while still minimizing risks of injury. As an example, I often run from work to pick-up my daughters in school. I know the time it takes me to do the run at an average pace, but because I had situations where I was late in the past, I also know the time it takes me to cover the distance when I go with an all-out effort. Sometimes I purposefully leave with only that all-out time to cover the distance, which leaves me no choice but to indeed go with max effort if I want to be on time at school. I still have an out though: school isn’t closing when I pick them up, they can stay longer of needed, but they know at what time I pick them up and they will be waiting and disappointed if I don’t show up. I don’t want that to happen so always go all-out. But if I sense an injury might be possible if I continue to push, then I slow down and eats the disappointment when arriving, explaining why.

Book recommendations to go further

The best Mental Toughness books are all coming from the same place: US Navy Seals training and memoirs, written by actual Seals, who are far from the brute force guys you may be taking them for. If you want to explore that domain, the books below are a fantastic intro.

Breaking BUD/S: How Regular Guys Can Become Navy SEALs

By DH Xavier (pseudonym). The single most useful book from this list. Why? Because it literally is a manual to go through BUD/S, the renowned 6-months initial training and selection course. What makes this book powerful is that there is isn’t any sugar-coating or political correctness. Yes, there is a lot of foul language. If you’re easily offended, this isn’t the book for you. The flipside is that you get to learn exactly what is going on at BUD/S, which is exceptionally difficult. You can’t help but be in awe of the persistence of the guys who make it and see your own life and struggles in a different way. Highly recommended.

Six Days of Impossible: Navy SEAL Hell Week – A Doctor Looks Back

By Robert Adams. What makes this book precious is that it’s zooming in on arguably the most difficult evolution of BUD/S and that it was written by a Seal who later went on to complete medical school and is looking back at Hell Week with this new knowledge. Hell Week is where most candidates drop from the selection and it comes after several weeks of training. Five and a half days of constant physical exercise, mental harassment, cold exposure, with only 3-4 hours of sleep at most. The knowledge that men go through this gruelling trial and the insights added to the commentary are enough to make you forget about the difficulties you’re having while training or through your day.

The Warrior Elite: The Forging of SEAL Class 228

By Dick Couch. Couch is both a very gifted writer and a former Seal himself. He’s been allowed to follow Class 228 through BUD/S. His rendition of the training, along with all his detailed observations is precise and invaluable. He’s observing from the outside but adding insights from his own BUD/S experience. The fact it’s not a pure first-person account makes it a bit less powerful in terms of using empathy to grow your own mental toughness. But the description of the obstacles and trials faced are the best and is invaluable if you want to dig deeper.

The Finishing School: Earning the Navy SEAL Trident

By Dick Couch. This book is the follow-up work by the same author following another class of Seal Candidates for their next and final Qualification course, which they accede to after graduating from BUD/S. I would only recommend this book if you’re really interested in getting the most out of studying Seal training as this focuses on the mental rigours, how they plan operations, etc. Still very interesting and with lots of lessons, but definitely more intricate and less easily transposable to real life.

Navy SEAL Training Class 144: My BUD/S Journal

By Stephen Templin. The author isn’t a Seal but went through almost the entirety of BUD/S with exceptional performance before quitting with a stellar track-record in the last few days of the training to become a missionary. With such an author, you can probably guess this is a very entertaining first-person account of BUD/S. Still lots of insights, but the entertainment is definitely there. It also shows you the sort of character who eventually become seals and how you can try to emulate them a bit. I actually can’t resist to quote a passage from the book, where the Devils is an instructor at BUD/S:

I stole a glance over at the Devil, and he was placing a spider—a big daddy longlegs—on a student, who showed a little nervousness but not enough of a reaction to satisfy the Devil. He took it back and put it on someone else, who started squirming and shaking.

“I hate spiders,” I muttered. Lieutenant Devil’s ears perked up. Here he comes. Lieutenant Devil put the spider on my forehead.

I kept as still as I could, waiting for the insect’s next move. In military march, we step off with our left foot, but the spider stepped off with its first right leg. Then its second left leg. All eight of its legs were so long and thin that they seemed to tremble as the spider moved down my face, tickling my eyebrows. It stopped, and its peanut-shaped body hovered above the bridge of my nose. Devil’s eager eyes opened wide. I watched the spider anxiously as it stepped on my lips.

Keep moving, keep moving.

When its abdomen was over my mouth, I steeled myself, opened wide, and inhaled, sucking in the daddy longlegs. Then I closed my mouth and took a couple of bites before swallowing. The bitter taste was worth the price of helping the Devil’s next victim. And well worth the look on Lieutenant Devil’s face.

Warrior Soul: The Memoir of a Navy Seal

By Chuck Pfarrer, a former Seal officer, member of the famed Seal Team Six and who turned to a writing career after retiring from the Teams. A lot to take from this book and it reads like a novel. Many lessons including not sweating the small hardships in life and just getting things done without pausing even faced with incredible contexts. My favorite part is the description of their landing in Lebanon amongst the fighting and not finding a suitable place to establish camp with the other allied forces present. They just dug their shelter in the sand of the beach and covered it with the sand-filled bags. Problem solved, easy…

SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper

By Howard E. Wasdin and Stephen Templin. Another fantastic memoir covering in detail some real-world operations. Again, the entertainment is definitely present. But the real value is in transposing the hardships they are facing, and how they face and surmount them in our everyday life.

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