Know what’s really interesting? Learning how Navy SEALs build mental toughness to handle deadly situations.
Know what else is really interesting? Learning how Olympic athletes deal with the pressure of competition when the entire world is watching.
Know what’s the most interesting of all? When you find out they do a lot of the same things.
“Mental Links To Excellence” is a research study of what Olympians do to prepare for their big day. And so much of it lines up with what I learned researching SEAL training and talking to former Navy SEAL Platoon Commander James Waters.
The best part is you and I can use these methods to perform better at work and in our personal lives.
Let’s find out how…
1) Talk Positively to Yourself
Your brain is always going. It’s estimated you say 300 to 1000 words to yourself per minute. Olympic athletes and SEALs agree: those words need to be positive.
One of the Olympians said:
Immediately before the race I was thinking about trying to stay on that edge, just letting myself relax, and doing a lot of positive self-talk about what I was going to do. I just felt like we couldn’t do anything wrong. It was just up to us. I said, “There’s nothing that’s affecting us in a negative way, the only thing now is to do it, and we can do it…I just have to do my best.”
SEALs use the same method—and they do it in a far more terrifying scenario. How terrifying?
You’re underwater with SCUBA gear. An instructor suddenly swims up behind you. He yanks the regulator out of your mouth. You can’t breathe. Then he ties your oxygen lines in a knot.
Your brain starts screaming, “YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.” But you have to keep cool, stay underwater and follow procedure to get your gear back in working order so you can breathe again.
And this happens over and over—for 20 minutes. Welcome to the dreaded “pool comp” section of SEAL qualification.
You get 4 attempts. Why? Because you need them. Only one in five guys can do it the first time out.
Want to see just how scary it is? Watch this video from 8 mins to 10 mins, 5 seconds:
The danger here is panic. And SEALs are not allowed to panic… even when they cannot breathe. They must think positive to keep calm and pass “pool comp.”
So how can you use this?
Got a big presentation at work coming up? Encountering obstacles? You need to remember the 3 P’s.
Permanence, pervasiveness and whether it’s personal.
Pessimists tell themselves that bad events:
- Will last a long time, or forever. (“I’ll never get this done.”)
- Are universal. (“You can’t trust any of those people.”)
- Are their own fault. (“I’m terrible at this.”)
Optimists look at setbacks in the exact opposite way:
- Bad things are temporary. (“That happens occasionally but it’s no big deal.”)
- Bad things have a specific cause and aren’t universal. (“When the weather is better that won’t be a problem.”)
- It’s not their fault. (“I’m good at this but today wasn’t my lucky day.”)
When talking to yourself, be an optimist, not a pessimist.
(For more on how to think positively, click here.)
Okay, so you’re talking to yourself positively. What else do Olympians and SEALs agree on when you need to be at your best?
2) Setting Goals
You hear this a lot. But you probably don’t do it. Specifically, ask yourself what you need to achieve right now.
From the Olympian Study:
The best athletes had clear daily goals. They knew what they wanted to accomplish each day, each workout, each sequence or interval. They were determined to accomplish these goals and focused fully on doing so.
SEALs are taught to set goals too. Sometimes really small ones, but it’s enough to keep them going when every muscle in their body is screaming for them to quit:
With goal setting the recruits were taught to set goals in extremely short chunks. For instance, one former Navy Seal discussed how he set goals such as making it to lunch, then dinner.
And what happened when they achieved those goals? SEALs set new ones. The focus is on always improving. Here’s former SEAL Platoon Commander, James Waters:
Eric, this gets at my point of the SEAL experience, this constant learning, constantly not being satisfied. That’s one of the interesting things about the community: you never feel like you’ve got it all figured out. If you do feel like you figured it out, you probably aren’t doing it right. If you’re not willing to learn from other people then frankly you’re not doing all you need to do to be the best operator you can possibly be. It’s a culture of constant self-improvement and constant measurement of how you’re doing. That’s a theme I think that all SEALs would agree is critical.
So how can you use this?
Ask yourself, “What do I need to do to make this presentation better?”
(For more secrets on how to build grit—from my interview with Navy SEAL platoon commander James Waters—click here.)
You’re thinking positive and setting goals. But how do you get ready for the unexpected problems that always pop up at the last minute?
3) Practice Visualization
Close your eyes. See the big challenge. Walk through every step of it. Sound silly? Maybe, but the best of the best do this a lot.
From the study of Olympians:
These athletes had very well developed imagery skills and used them daily. They used imagery to prepare themselves to get what they wanted out of training, to perfect skills within the training sessions, to make technical corrections, to imagine themselves being successful in competition, and to see themselves achieving their ultimate goal.
Again, SEALs are taught to do the same thing:
With mental rehearsal they were taught to visualize themselves succeeding in their activities and going through the motions.
So how can you use this?
Visualize that presentation. But don’t merely fantasize about being perfect and just make yourself feel good. That kills motivation:
Results indicate that one reason positive fantasies predict poor achievement is because they do not generate energy to pursue the desired future.
You want to see the problems you might encounter and visualize how you will overcome them.
…they spend the entire morning going over every possible mistake or disaster that could happen during the mission. Every possible screwup is mercilessly examined, and linked to an appropriate response: if the helicopter crash-lands, we’ll do X. If we are dropped off at the wrong spot, we’ll do Y. If we are outnumbered, we’ll do Z.
(For more lessons from top athletes on how to be the best, click here.)
You’re visualizing the big day and walking through how you’ll deal with adversity. Cool. But how do you take that to the next level like the pros do?
4) Use Simulations
Visualization is great because you can do it anywhere as often as you like. But in the end you must make practice as close to the real thing as possible.
From the study of Olympians:
The best athletes made extensive use of simulation training. They approached training runs, routines, plays, or scrimmages in practice as if they were at the competition, often wearing what they would wear and preparing like they would prepare.
And SEALs didn’t just visualize either. Before the raid on Bin Laden’s compound they built full-size replicas of the location so their training would be tailored to what they would face.
Via Daniel Coyle’s excellent book The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:
When U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6 mounted its May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, it prepared by constructing full-scale replicas of the compound in North Carolina and Nevada, and rehearsing for three weeks. Dozens of times the SEALs simulated the operation. Dozens of times, they created various conditions they might encounter.
Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel Mike Kenny agreed:
In Army parlance they say, “train like you fight.” Don’t screw around and say, “O.K., when it’s for real then we’ll really ramp up.” No, you need to do that now. You need to train as hard and as realistic as possible, because this notion that when it’s for real and the stakes are high, that’s when we’ll really turn it on and rise to the occasion… that’s not what happens. You will not rise to the occasion. You will sink to the lowest level of your training. It’s the truth.
So how can you use this?
How will you deal with the fear of standing in front of a big crowd when you give that presentation?
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and an introvert herself, is now a professional public speaker. How did she overcome public speaking fear?
She practiced in front of small, supportive groups to desensitize herself—she used a simulation.
From my interview with Susan:
I really had to desensitize myself to my fears of public speaking. I did that by practicing in very small, very supportive and very low-speed environments where it didn’t matter if I screwed up. And eventually you get used to the strange feeling of being looked at, which used to make me feel horrified. You become accustomed to it over time and your fear dissipates.
(To learn how to overcome your problems the way Special Forces operatives do, click here.)
So Olympic athletes and Navy SEALs agree on a lot. Let’s round up what we’ve learned and see how it can work for you.
Here’s what Olympic athletes and Navy SEALs both do to be the best and achieve mental toughness:
- Talk Positively To Yourself: Remember the three P’s: tell yourself bad things aren’t permanent, pervasive or personal—but good things are.
- Setting Goals: Know what you want to achieve. Write it down. Focus on progress.
- Practice Visualization: Don’t fantasize about getting what you want but see yourself overcoming specific obstacles.
- Use Simulations: Always make your practice as close to the real thing as possible.
Olympians and Navy SEALs, by definition, are the best at what they do. But the methods they use to get there are things we can all use.
And those techniques aren’t based on muscles or natural talent. They’re all about good preparation and hard work. Apply those and you can get there too.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said:
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
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Eric Barker is a writer who has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wired Magazine and Time Magazine. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 205,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.