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Navy SEAL Method for Teaching Mental Toughness

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Primary Blog/Navy SEAL Method for Teaching Mental Toughness

Navy SEAL Method for Teaching Mental Toughness


Most people do not understand what mental toughness actually is, its purpose, or how to get it. Some people believe being clutch, performing well, etc. is mental toughness. While those things can result from mental toughness, they are not in themselves mental toughness.

Mental toughness is a problem-solving mindset. If you are going to reach the pinnacle of your sport, you are guaranteed to face obstacles. Mental toughness is how you will get over those obstacles. Mental toughness requires a strategy; no amount of mental willpower will transform your skills from zero to hero. Mental toughness is not a personality trait.

You have to figure out where you are now and what skills you lack to get where you want to be. Next, you will lay out a step-by-step plan with daily, weekly, and monthly goals. Discipline in your step-by-step plan will build not only the skills you need, but it will also develop mental strength.

If your everyday routine is more difficult than your competition day, then competition day becomes just another day.

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Is Mental Toughness Learned or are You Born With It?

We want our children and ourselves to be mentally tough people. Developing mental toughness is a learnable skill. In the early years of sports, it may seem like some kids are born mentally tough and some are not, but that is really just a misunderstanding of sport psychology and what is actually going on.

Confusing Mental Toughness With Early Success.

Some kids learn faster and are born with more athletic talent

Some kids love the sport and spend all their free time practicing it

Some kids have older siblings that practice with them and elevate their skills

Some kids have parents that are obsessed with the sport and force them to practice

Some kids hit their growth spurts early and have a size advantage

Adversity Creates Mentally Tough People

These skill gaps will level out as they get older and the median level of skill increases. Those who had less skill early on often surpass the “more athletic” kids as they get older. The kids who struggle early in sports but stick with them through hardships and failure build mental strength and are better prepared for future struggles.

This early adversity in life will build resilience as long as they use a growth mindset and overcome the fear of failure. As parents, we want to do everything we can to ensure that our children’s self-esteem is not tied to athletic success. Mentally tough athletes focus on continuous improvement and rely on daily habits to get them through tough times.

Mental Toughness Navy SEALs: Resilient People Can Beat the Odds

When I went to BUD/s (SEAL Training) I was 135 pounds, I had never really run further than a mile, and I had never swam in the ocean. There were Olympic caliber elite athletes there with me and in the back of my mind I was thinking “how am I going to compete with these guys”. By the end of BUD/s, I was winning the 4-mile timed runs.

This happened for two reasons. First, I improved my skills, I got stronger and faster. Second, everyone faster than me quit during “Hell Week”. I played lots of sports growing up, and while I was blessed with athletic ability, I was always much smaller than the other kids, so I had to work twice as hard to earn my spot. This built my resilience, grit, and mental toughness, preparing me to make it through BUD/s. Click here to read my story.

My assumption is that many of the talented athletes had spent most of their lives with coaches and others praising them for how great they were at their given sport, but they had not developed the ability to deal with challenges, failure, obstacles, stress and seemingly impossible tasks.

They lacked resilience and mental skills, when things got hard, they quit. If your only goal is to avoid failure, then you will never really develop mental toughness. Mental strength is built by overcoming failure, not by avoiding it. Don’t underestimate the importance of challenges and the role they play in building mentally tough people. Navy SEALs are mentally tough people and the training identifies those that have built mental toughness in their personal lives.

Can Mental Toughness be Trained?

You can learn to be mentally tough. It will not only benefit you in sports but also in life. Here are a couple of ways you can start today.

  • 1. Develop two mindsets: training, and competition. (I discuss this in my book) Athletes need to manage expectations, especially during skill building. This will reduce stress and help them maintain motivation.
  • 2. Compete against people at the level you want to be at. (you are sure to fail initially, but stick with it) Results suggest that exposure to elite sport performers increases one’s ability and focus. Seeing what success looks like is of utmost importance for athletes.
  • 3.Develop two mindsets: training, and competition. (I discuss this in my book) Athletes need to manage expectations, especially during skill building. This will reduce stress and help them maintain motivation.

To learn mental toughness, assess where you are, make a plan to get where you want to go, know why you want to go there and follow the plan. Mental toughness comes as a result of your discipline. Mental toughness isn’t just for Navy SEALs and Olympic athletes it’s for you as well.

Being Mentally Tough is not about Ignoring Reality

I was having a conversation with a good friend, who pitched in the minor leagues, about this topic. He told me that his biggest problem was that he would struggle with batters who had previously teed off on him and hit the ball out of the park.

He said he couldn’t just forget the past incident and move on. He thought his issue was a lack of mental toughness. I disagreed; mental toughness is not amnesia.

Simply forgetting the fact that someone dominated you in the past does not change the facts. Simply forgetting will also not prevent or even lessen the chance of it happening again. He needed to improve his skills, and through that improvement, his confidence would also improve. Eliminating mental chatter and replacing it with positive self talk will help, but it is no replacement for skill building.

“Competence breeds confidence, and confidence sets the stage for performance.”

Kevin Kirk Top 100 Golf Teacher in the USA

A better approach would have been this:

1. Identify the problem – Certain hitters are getting the best of him

2. Analyze the problem – Which pitcher do well against these hitters and how

3. Formulate a new strategy – Take what works for others and start developing those skills

4. Find someone good to test the new strategy against – Find the best hitter on your team and practice against them (intentional practice)

5. Test the strategy in competition – You have something new when you face the opponent you feared in the past, this at least will give you a small boost in confidence at the start

6. If it fails, reboot the system – This is the process for improvement, and if you aren’t failing, you are either staying in your comfort zone too much or you are the best in the world.

7. Remember, if you attribute failure to your mental strength when it is really your skills that need improvement, then your mental health will suffer, which will reduce your self-belief in the skills you do have.

How Do You Develop Mental Toughness?

Many parents want to teach their young athletes mental toughness, but they don’t know where to start. I have found a couple of things to be true when it comes to teaching others to be mentally tough.

Click here to learn the 8 key ways successful elite athletes use mental toughness.

Parent’s and Coaches can’t Force It

1. You can’t make someone be mentally tough

2. You can’t always give the answer, but you can guide them to it through outside resources and good questions. You can guide your young athlete to develop self awareness.

3. You can provide a challenge for them to overcome.

As a parent if you want to help your young athlete build their mental toughness it starts by understanding their skills. You learn this by watching them in practice, not just at games. There are honestly few things worse than seeing parents yell at their children from the sidelines about their performance during the game.

If the parent doesn’t watch practice or practice with them personally, then they have no frame of reference to evaluate their performance on the field. Additionally, yelling at them puts additional pressure on them, which further lowers performance.

Ask How You Can Help

An approach I have taken with my oldest son as he climbs the ranks of competitive grappling is this: Before a competition, I ask him if he wants my help formulating a game plan or if he has that covered. Sometimes he wants help, sometimes he does not.

Before the match, I ask him if he wants me to verbally coach him from the sidelines or if he wants me to be quiet. He typically asks for me to coach since I train with him daily and know his game better than anyone else.

Reduce Pressure

After these steps, I do everything I can to lower the pressure on him. First, I tell him that there is no reason why he can’t win; he has put in the work, he has the skills, etc.

Second, I tell him that if he gets caught in a submission and is in danger, he should tap immediately; priority one is to not get injured (these aren’t paid events).

Third, if you lose, we know what to work on next, and your life is going to be exactly the same tomorrow, whether you win or lose today.

I am doing everything I can to reduce fear of failure, control his anxiety and to put him in the best mental state, I want him confident. These things are closely related, as the mental state plays an important role in high performance.

Teach Them to Manage Themselves

Leading up to an event I make sure to encourage him to get enough rest and to focus on his strategy. Having a plan will reduce anxiety. If you get pushback on this point, let them stay up all night or overtrain leading up to a performance – learning from natural consequences is very effective.

Help Them Put Things in Perspective

After the event, we review the tape and figure out what he did well and what could be improved. I wait until he is ready to do this. If he had a bad day, he needs time to cool down first, and that is fine. Becoming elite at anything is a challenge, and it is important to maintain motivation.

Make Sure They Know Why

You must know your why, work hard, and build daily habits to achieve your goals. Your why and seeing success as a result of your daily habits and behaviors will build mental strength.

Take Action

So as coaches and parents, here are some steps we can take to help our athletes grow on and off the field and build their mental strength.

  1. Know where they are skill-wise, observe, and let them tell you
  2. Ask them what their plan to improve is and if they need your help – hold them accountable to their plan
  3. On game day – lower their nerves
  4. After failure – wait until the next day and ask if they want to talk about it
  5. Repeat

Not only will they be better as a result, but your relationship with them will be better as well. You can also apply these steps yourself, try them out, and see if your mental toughness gets a boost.

Conclusion


Mental toughness and mental health is an important part of any athlete’s success, and it starts by setting up a plan to reach their goals. As parents, we are in a unique position to help our children build mental strength on and off the field. We are here to help them overcome fear.

The lessons learned through their sport will benefit them in life. Sometimes we will need to be firm and other times we will need to ease up and teach them some self compassion. Essentially we want them to work hard, but in order to stay motivated they will have to move past perfectionism and negativity.

It starts with understanding their skillset, asking how we can help, reducing pressure before a performance, teaching them to manage themselves, putting things in perspective after failure, knowing why they do what they do, and taking action. With these steps in place, mental toughness can be achieved in sports and life.





Please let me know if you found this helpful.

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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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