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Former Navy SEAL Chief's Advice on Mental Toughness

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Primary Blog/Former Navy SEAL Chief's Advice on Mental Toughness

One hundred thirty-five pounds, I had never been in the ocean or run farther than 1.5 miles. I succeeded where others failed by using a mindset.

After the Navy, I chased the PGA Tour for three years. After running out of money for the third time, I had to shift gears. It took the same mindset to do this. I went from 100 job applications being rejected to 15 job offers, but it took a year.

In this article, you will learn how to use this mindset, become mentally tough, and achieve your goals.

Topics Covered:

  • ​Mental toughness as defined by Navy SEALs
  • ​Resilience, Mental Toughness, and Grit
  • ​Navy SEAL Training Overview
  • ​Hell Week
  • ​Breaking down small goals (a guide to developing mental toughness)
  • ​How you can use this mindset to accomplish your goals
  • ​The Secret to Navy SEAL mental toughness
  • ​Navy SEAL myths

Mental Toughness as Defined by Navy SEALS:

Navy SEALs highly value the concept of mental toughness, which is often said to be the most critical factor differentiating those who successfully complete the rigorous training from those who do not.

Mental toughness isn't necessarily about being physically stronger or faster than everyone else. Instead, it's about the ability to meet, face, and overcome the numerous physical, mental, and emotional challenges that those in the SEAL community regularly encounter.

Mental toughness is a guide to seeing who has what it takes to continue when they have nothing left to give.

Navy SEAL mental toughness is not some secret thing. Navy SEALs (and others in special operations) are just normal people who learned how to develop mental toughness.

The process of becoming mentally tough is about getting small wins. These small wins build mental toughness and self-confidence.

Resilience, Mental Toughness and Grit

Resilience deals with the past and is how you push past failure. If you are resilient, you will see failure as feedback, learn from it, and improve. Mistakes will be made, and you are bound to fail at something. Making mistakes is acceptable; making the same mistake repeatedly is not.

Mental toughness is focused on the now. This is the mental discipline and strength to make it to your next rock. Motivation is important, but when you aren't motivated, you will need the discipline of mental toughness to keep pushing forward.


Grit looks at the future. This is why you are doing what you are doing. Having a future goal or reason for doing something and having that reason be bigger than yourself is a powerful motivation. Use your vision of the future to create a compelling narrative with powerful insights to fuel you.

Navy SEAL Training Overview

Most people could complete a day of SEAL training. While some individual evolutions and days are harder than others, these things don't break people.

What breaks them is the grind. If you played sports in high school, imagine the most brutal practice you ever did and remember how sore and tired you were the next day.

Only this time, the next day is not an easier day or a day off; it's just as hard as the day before.

I would not classify myself as an extraordinary person; when I went to SEAL training, I was just a skinny kid from a small town in Texas that believed in himself. In hell week, I used a simple but effective strategy to succeed where most fail.

If you want a great Navy SEAL training overview, here is a documentary of BUD/s class 234 that the discovery channel filmed.

Hell Week

Hell Week is a grueling test of physical endurance, mental tenacity, and emotional resilience. It typically begins on a Sunday night and ends on the following Friday afternoon, during which recruits face continuous training with minimal sleep. Hell week is used by Navy SEALs to develop and identify the mentally tough. While specific activities can vary, here's a general idea of what the week entails:

  • Physical conditioning: This includes a variety of intense activities such as calisthenics, running in the sand, swimming, paddling small boats, log PT (physical training with 200-pound logs), and obstacle courses. These activities are designed to push candidates to their physical limits and often occur in harsh conditions, like cold water and high surf.
  • "Surf Torture" or "Cold Water Conditioning": Candidates lock arms and lie down in the frigid surf, with waves crashing over them. This is physically challenging due to the cold and tests mental fortitude, as recruits must remain calm and controlled in uncomfortable conditions.
  • Nighttime activities: Training continues at all hours. This often includes long-distance runs and swims in the dark, which test navigational skills and confidence under stress.
  • Team-oriented drills: These exercises require the teams to work together to complete tasks or challenges. This can involve carrying heavy objects (logs or inflatable boats) over long distances or performing complicated tasks. These exercises foster cooperation and teamwork, critical attributes of a SEAL. SEALs operate as a team, these drills weed out individuals who cannot do that.
  • Sleep deprivation: One of the most challenging aspects of Hell Week is severe sleep deprivation. Candidates are allowed a maximum of about four hours of sleep for the entire week. The lack of sleep pushes candidates to their mental limits, testing their ability to remain focused and perform under extreme fatigue.
  • Mental challenges: Various activities test a candidate's ability to think and make decisions under high stress and physical exhaustion. These might include complex problem-solving tasks or scenarios where they must prioritize tasks while bombarded with loud noises and distractions. The goal of these challenges is developing an unbeatable mind.

Throughout Hell Week, instructors watch closely for signs of teamwork, leadership, and an unyielding commitment to the task. They are assessing physical strength, mental toughness, and ability to perform under extreme pressure.

I can make it to that rock!
(Guide to developing mental toughness)

I made it through hell week with a simple but effective strategy. I ignored the magnitude of the task before me (hell week). Initially, I just tried to make it to the next meal. By the next day, I just tried to make it through the evolution I was currently doing. A few hours later, all I did was pick a rock on the beach about 30 feet in front of me, and I made it to that rock. I picked the next rock and did it again when I got there. Before I knew it, and after making it to what seemed like a million rocks, it was Friday, and hell week was over. Here's what I looked like that Friday.

This specific personal example is how I beat the odds. I didn't realize it then, but breaking down seemingly impossible tasks into possible steps gave me the emotional control and discipline needed to stay the course. I used this same level of mental toughness as a template as a professional athlete, at business school, and in the business world.

Here's how you can use this mindset to accomplish your goals.

Start with a reason bigger than yourself.

I planned to play college golf after high school. After 9/11, I felt called to serve my country; golf did not seem that important. I had heard that Navy SEALs were the most elite force of all special operations; that's what I wanted to be part of. SEALs sustain excellence and hold each other to a high standard. I wanted to be part of the SEAL community and serve my country.

So when making your personal and professional goals start with your why. This is your reason for accomplishing the goal in the first place. Here are a few examples.

  • It's your calling
  • It will make the world a better place.
  • ​It will provide for your family.
  • ​It will challenge you and build your belief in yourself.
  • ​It will set an example for your children.
  • ​It will create jobs for others.
  • ​It will help you own your time.

Make it to the Next Rock

Break down your goal into smaller achievable steps. I recommend using SMART goals. Click here to read more about SMART goals.

Start by making a plan of what steps need to be taken to achieve your goal, then focus solely on the first step and take that step, then repeat. Avoid paralysis by analysis and take action. What could you do today to push forward toward your goals? Remember, successful people are hyper-focused toward achieving their specific personal and professional goals.

Distraction, Resistance and Victimhood

Three monsters stand in the way of us accomplishing our goals. They are distraction resistance and victimhood. Recognizing them is the first step in defeating them.

  • Distraction - how many times have you gone to check your email, ended up on social media, and wasted 20 minutes? It happens quickly, and awareness is the first step in mitigating distraction.
  • Resistance - this is that little voice saying, "I can't," learn to recognize it and push through.
  • Victimhood - this sounds like excuses, and while they may be true, it hinders your progress - counter victimhood by taking responsibility.

Grab a Free eBook on Defeating These Monsters!

The Secret to Navy SEAL mental toughness

SEALs and other special operations units operate in some of the most extreme environments under the most inhospitable circumstances.

The secret is, there is no secret. Developing an unbeatable mind is something that anyone can achieve. It is definitely not easy, but it can be done.

Mental toughness and resilience are more common than you think. Maybe you need to look harder. That single parent, working two jobs to make ends meet in hopes that their children will have a better life. That's mental toughness.

What makes a Navy SEAL Team special is the group of individuals coming together to accomplish a common goal. If you are mentally weak, then you may need different friends or to set an example for your friends to follow. It is much easier to be mentally tough when it is what you are surrounded by. If there was a secret, it is that SEALs sustain excellence, and this excellence is contagious.

Navy SEAL Myths

They are fearless or have some secret fear-suppressing techniques.

Fear (limbic system) is normal, and I don't believe that fear-suppressing techniques are an actual thing. Navy SEALs and special operations, in general, are not superhuman individuals. They have just learned to face their fears.

The more you face your fears, the easier it becomes. I am terrified of heights, but I never let it stop me. I didn't hesitate when jumping out of planes, fast roping, etc., but that doesn't mean the fear disappeared. I hated every minute of it, but I did it anyway.

Facing your fears develops mental toughness and self-confidence in your conscious and subconscious mind.

They can perform because of some breathing techniques or visualization.

They perform because of their training and trust in their teammates. They put in the work. There is no secret; it's just hard work. I often looked forward to deployment so that I could get some sleep. If your training is harder than what you are training for, then you will be prepared when you get there.

They have a refuse-to-lose mindset.

A refuse-to-lose mindset is honestly an idiotic statement. No one wants to lose, but that is not always in your control; stuff happens. Sometimes you have to retreat, regroup and get a new plan. This is the same in SEAL missions, business, sports, etc. SEALs operate with a mindset of "I will figure it out." SEAL missions often require this mindset of outside the box thinking.

Summary

Navy SEAL mental toughness is just mental toughness. Mental toughness is a skill; like other skills, it can be learned. Set some goals and break them down into small steps. Use discipline to execute these steps. Once this becomes a habit, you will have mental toughness.

The SEAL mental game is not some secret thing only available to an extraordinary person, mental toughness and resilience are something that you can master, but it won't be easy. So get to work and get your own Navy SEAL mental toughness. Remember, work smarter, not just harder.

You don't have to have all the answers. I don't know is never an acceptable answer. Instead say "I will figure it out" as used by navy SEALs. You don't have to be part of an elite force, you can develop mental toughness. When you do your self confidence will also grow. Remember these simple but powerful insights and make it to your next rock.

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Hi, I Am Chad Metcalf


My goal is to provide practical and actionable resources (that worked for me) to help you get from where you are to where you want to be. 

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