Where should the focus be for those training for Special Operations programs? Should it be on becoming stronger, faster, gaining weight (muscle) or learning skills like land navigation, swimming, SCUBA or shooting?
Or do you focus on getting more mentally tough? And if so, how do you do that? Previous articles have tackled the mental toughness question, so for this article, the focus is on getting into the right mindset during your preparation and carrying it over to your selection program.
I would not even call it a military mindset, as that does not describe it accurately. Sure, you need to have a military mindset, but you should concentrate more on having a never-quit attitude.
It is much easier said than done. Saying you never will quit on social media or to your buddies is one thing, but not quitting when you are cold, wet, dirty, tired, hungry or in pain from carrying rucks, boats, logs or another person for miles is another.
Part of this mindset requires you to look objectively at yourself and ask, "What are my weaknesses?"
If you can answer that honestly, then you will be on the right path to a never-quit mindset. It takes a logical, mature person to acknowledge a weakness. If you do not work daily on your weakness before being tested, it will be exposed at any Special Ops selection program.
One thing we always have said is that BUD/S will show you what makes you average to below average in the first month. Here are the top weaknesses that will stop you if you have neglected them in your pre-training:
1. Special skills tested at your selection: If you have two-mile ocean swims with fins, 60- to 80-pound ruck marches for hours, four- to six-mile timed runs and you are "not a runner" or "not a swimmer," you will get your butt handed to you on an almost daily basis. That constant average to below-average showing -- or, worse, failing a standard -- either will push those quit buttons inside your head or cause you to get kicked out for failing timed events. If cardio is your weakness, do not neglect it or think that getting by on the minimum standard is sufficient in the Special Ops world.
2. Too much focus on endurance: For many of these advanced Special Ops schools, it is a "running man's game." If you are a solid runner, you typically will do well at most programs. However, if you are only great at running and lack upper-body strength, core stability or a strong lower back, hips or legs for heavy load-bearing movements, you will be crushed either at the pull-up bar or under a heavy log, boat or ruck.
Where this type of endurance/muscle stamina focus does work is if you are transitioning from a powerlifting football player-type athletic history. Having a foundation in strength is good, but you have to work on longer-distance cardio, higher-repetition calisthenics and lighter weights. This was my weakness -- endurance and muscle stamina.
3. Too much focus on lifting: Some students are worried about "losing their gains" by doing too much cardio and neglecting their lifting. There obviously is a place for staying strong and lifting weights to maintain that strength, but watch trying to get strong at the same time as trying to run a faster, long-distance pace.
Underestimating the amount of running done in a Special Ops program will cause either injury or failure to meet the standard. Dropping your run pace from an eight-minute mile to a sub seven-minute mile while doing heavy deadlift and squat cycles will create slower returns in strength and goal pace running. Do a lifting cycle (periodization), then do running/PT/endurance cycles through the year.
Because upper-body strength is atypical with endurance athletes, those students who are cardiovascular athletes (running, swimming, triathletes) should focus more on lifting. If you are a swimmer, gravity can be a bear. Running, lifting or doing anything out of the water can cause lower-extremity injuries if you are not working on "gravity weakness" before attending your selection phase.
Let's face it; working on a weakness is never fun. When I first started this journey as a former powerlifting football player, I thought anything more than 100 yards was long-distance running. Swimming a mile? What? People do that?
By doing things you at first may hate (but know you have to), you may grow to enjoy the new "strength" as weakness evolves away from a substandard performance event. This is the mindset you have to find by doing these types of things.
You will know this feeling and mindset when you practice, practice, practice, then one day finally master something you never have been good at doing. The level of confidence gained from going from zero to 20+ pull-ups, running a six-minute mile or swimming 500 yards without stopping the first time is a big step toward gaining the mentality to propel you into the graduation group of the selection class.
Take your weakness seriously. Yes, you can get kicked out and fail out of training.
Related article: Mental Toughness Series
Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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