In 1962, as the Vietnam War raged on, President John F. Kennedy officially created a new group of military special operators who could perform unconventional war operations in the waters that flowed through Vietnam. This group was to be the naval counterpart to the Army’s Green Berets. They were named the Navy SEALs, a name borne out of their ability to conduct SEa, Air, and Land operations.
Since that time, there are few groups of people in the world more admired, respected, or esteemed than the SEALs. In my estimation, there’s likely no group in the world that deserves it more. At a time when we idolize musicians, athletes, and celebrities well beyond the level of value that they contribute to society, it’s refreshing to know that almost everyone recognizes that SEALs are badasses. While SEALs probably get the lion’s share of attention and recognition, the other special operations teams (Army Rangers, Delta Force, Green Berets, etc.) are equally worthy of our respect.
Becoming a SEAL – Application, Indoc, and BUD/S
But today, we’re focusing on the SEALs, and one particular thing we can learn from them. Let’s start by looking into what it takes to become a SEAL. To begin with, you don’t get to just sign up and go to tryouts to become a SEAL. You have to be invited to tryout. That applies to everyone, whether you’re a civilian or you’re already in the Navy or other branch of the military. You have to go through a formal process where you ask to become part of a training class. It’s a very competitive process consisting of both prior credentials and the results of physical, intellectual, and psychological testing. Plenty of very impressive people don’t make it in on their first try. As a result, they have to wait and go through the application and testing process again.
Being accepted means that you get an official tryout via the SEAL training program, BUD/S, an acronym for Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal training. BUD/S is conducted at the Naval Special Warfare headquarters in Coronado, California, just outside of San Diego. It is widely considered the toughest training program on earth, although the Army Rangers and certain sniper program graduates might argue effectively to the contrary.
However, before you get to BUD/S, you must complete a five-week Indoctrination Training (Indoc) program, which is just a program to get you somewhat prepared for BUD/S. Plenty of candidates never make it through Indoc. Those who successfully complete Indoc have earned the right to begin BUD/S, a six-month program that is broken down into three phases. Phase One is an eight-week conditioning program that both builds and tests the candidates’ physical and mental capabilities; Phase Two teaches diving and underwater training, while Phase Three covers land warfare. Judging by the number of dropouts, Phase One is by far the toughest. The fourth week of Phase One is the legendary and aptly titled “Hell Week”.
Hell Week begins on a Sunday afternoon or evening with smoke, gunfire, and explosions, screaming, and immediately thereafter, water. For the next week, SEAL candidates will run hundreds of miles, do pushups, situps, and flutterkicks by the thousands, carry boats and logs for miles, spend the entire week soaked in the freezing waters of the Pacific Ocean, and be constantly chafed from sand, all the while rowing for their lives during boat races while receiving perpetual instruction, yelling, disgust, and mockery from their instructors. And while they will not be starved (which is different from their colleagues in Ranger training), they will run to and from the chow hall, if they are allowed to eat inside.
The kicker during Hell Week – they don’t get to sleep. They will get about two hours for a nap on Wednesday and another such nap on Thursday before the program ends on Friday in the middle of the day. So, yeah, they get a max of four hours of sleep total, with no sleep from Sunday until Wednesday afternoon. At all times during BUD/S, but especially during Hell Week, the instructors keep “the bell” present. The bell is what candidates use to quit the program. The instructors make sure that the bell is brought to all training activities, so that the prospect of immediate relief via quitting the program is always available. When a candidate decides to quit, he signifies his choice by ringing the ever-present bell three times, then placing his helmet on the Grinder, the main quad area where the candidates gather. While the candidates suffer treading water in the cold ocean, the officers promise pizza, donuts, hot chocolate, and a hot shower to anyone who quits. And it’s not an empty promise, they put the food out in front of them.
During BUD/S, the Navy pays for the candidates to relocate their families to the training area – but not until the candidate has competed Hell Week. As you might imagine Hell Week is where the vast majority of the candidates quit. Most who endure Hell Week will complete the program, which includes two more phases. But of the 1,000 candidates chosen to enter BUD/S each year, only 250 on average will complete it. Classes that begin Indoc with 180 people are sometimes whittled down to less than 25 by graduation.
BUD/S vs. Combat – No Comparison
Now, at this point, it’s wise to remind ourselves that, no matter how ridiculously hard BUD/S is, it pales in comparison to actual combat. People get hurt during BUD/S, there are plenty of sprains, strains, and even some broken bones. But no one get his head blown off, and no one has a bullet shatter his femur while watching his friend’s lifeblood leak from his body, and no one hears the pleas for help from a dying teammate knowing that they can’t do anything to help. In combat, you don’t get to ring the bell and go home.
But that’s also the interesting thing about BUD/S for us. It’s a ridiculously hard thing that men choose to start, endure, and complete, knowing that they can walk away at any moment and the pain will end. While few of us will ever sign up for BUD/S or anything remotely as difficult, we will all be forced to do difficult things if are going to become the men we long to be. The restlessness in our spirit can only be quieted by achievements won as a result of striving and overcoming obstacles through our intellect, resilience, strength, and courage. We are going to have to strain, often for long periods of time. We are going to be uncomfortable, often for long periods of time. We may feel hopeless, often for long periods of time. But those who endure will be rewarded with contentment for their souls.
How SEALs survive Hell Week and Do the Impossible
So, how do SEALs do it? How do they survive BUD/S in general and Hell Week in particular?
In SEAL training, as in life, it’s not merely the most talented that succeed. It’s the toughest. Plenty of big strong guys become SEALs. But plenty of them drop out on the first day. What separates them, if it’s not their physical attributes? It’s their mental toughness.
Completing hard things comes down to mental toughness. It’s all about mindset. You complete hard things by breaking them down into difficult, but manageable parts, and then stay focused only on that manageable part. This takes mental toughness because your mind will want to wander beyond the immediate part to the thing as a whole. The thing as a whole is overwhelming, and to think of it as a whole will cause you to either quit or fail to start. So you must have to mental toughness and discipline to keep your eyes on the immediate part rather than the whole.
Imagine a SEAL, 10 minutes or 10 hours into Hell Week thinking “I’m freezing and I’m freaking exhausted! There’s no way I can do this for another four days!” The man who thinks like that will quit almost every single time. He has allowed his mind to think about the whole week, and it overwhelms him.
Instead, the most successful SEALs are those who break the week down into manageable parts. “If I can just make through the first day, I’ll be okay. I can survive anything for one day”. They know they can endure that part, so they keep your focus there.
As the hours go on and both their body and mind grow more weary, the size of the “part” typically gets smaller. “If I can just make it until the next meal, I’ll be okay. I can endure anything for a few hours.” Over time, those four-hour parts become 1-hour parts, 15-minute parts, and minute-by-minute parts. Eventually, most candidates reach the point where they’re just focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. If they begin thinking beyond their manageable part, they’ll get overwhelmed and likely will quit. Those who have the mental toughness to keep their focus on the manageable part in front of them will survive.
This is much easier said than done, mind you. My kids play travel sports, and I remember one tournament in particular required us to leave home at around 6:30 a.m. We drove for a couple of hours, then played ball games all day long. We got home that night (the next morning) at around 2:00 a.m. As I was driving home, tired as could be, I thought about Hell Week. “Imagine”, I said to my wife, “being at BUD/S and knowing that, not only were you not going to sleep tonight, you weren’t going to sleep the next night or the next night.” That thought alone was overwhelming, even without the idea of doing unfathomable loads of conditioning exercises and spending every waking moment cold and wet. But, when you break that larger, monumental, overwhelming thing down into smaller parts, your mind doesn’t revolt nearly as much.
Applications for Us
As their instructors tell them at the beginning, this is the key to surviving Hell Week. If they lose mental discipline and let their mind start thinking about the whole thing, they’ll never make it through; it’s too overwhelming. But as long as they keep their mind focused on the small part that they can manage, they’ll go far beyond what they believed they could. The same principle applies to us. Most of us have something monumental that we want to do. But, when think about starting, or perhaps even after we start, we get overwhelmed with the project. We get tired, and the project just seems too big.
- “There’s no way I’ll ever write that book.” Start with a chapter. Or a page. Or a paragraph. Or a chapter heading. Or a title. Whatever seems manageable.
- “I’ll never learn that language.” Start with some vocabulary. Learn the numbers. Learn the rooms of a house. Learn family members. Start easy.
- “I’ll never lose 50 pounds.” Start by skipping dessert one day or eating a salad for lunch instead of fast food. One meal on one day. You can do it. Then try it again the next day.
- “I’ll never add any muscle or get stronger.” Go to the gym today and do your workout. Don’t worry about tomorrow’s workout. Just do today’s.
- “I could never ___________.” Fill in the blank.
We all have hard things in our lives that seem like they’re too much for us at times. The key to accomplishing them? Breaking them down into manageable parts and being tough enough mentally to keep our focus on that part that is right in front of you. That’s another thing that SEALs learn when they take their marksmanship and sniper training, it’s called “Front-Sight Focus”. If you’re worried about shooting every target around you, you’ll hit none. Focus in on that one thing in front of you that you need to shoot and are able to shoot, block out everything else, and pull the trigger.
One other thing to remember as you’re going through the ringer, trying to do that thing that stands between you and what you want in life: it’s not the most talented who win in life, it’s those who won’t quit until they succeed. So get started and don’t give up, keeping your focus on the small steps in front of you that you know you can handle. It will be hard, count on it. Expect it. But you can do it. You can slow down, but don’t stop. Godspeed.
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