Mental Toughness: Think Like a Navy SEAL / Spartan Warrior

By on December 31, 2019

Mental toughness is perhaps the single most important trait to develop if you want to get the very most out of your mind and body. From a fitness perspective, this is what will set someone who goes to the gym occasionally apart from a true warrior.

The Navy SEALS are considered among the most elite military units in the entire world. Only 20-30% of potential SEALS make it through the intensive training and selection process known as BUD/S. This is a 24 week training challenge designed to develop an individual’s stamina, and leadership; including the infamous “hell week.” During this process, students train for over five days and five nights solidly, with only four hours of sleep total.

Mental toughness

But what might surprise you, is that physical prowess is not the most important attribute for a prospective SEAL. Not by far. In fact, you only need to be able to do 50 sit ups and 10 or 6 pull-ups in order to be considered as an applicant (sources vary though, and 15-20 is considered competitive).

I’ll speak a lot more about this training in future. But for now, I’m interested in what it is that sets a successful candidate out from the rest. If it’s not just a case of survival of the fittest, then what is the secret sauce?

Turns out, that would be mental toughness. The ability to stay focused on a task while your body is screaming at you to stop. The ability to force yourself to continue training and pushing yourself, when you just want to give in.

Navy SEAL Mental Toughness

And it turns out, this has been the same for warrior cultures throughout the centuries. Spartan warriors allegedly trained in a very similar manner. A Spartan wasn’t necessarily the biggest or strongest athlete. Rather, the Spartan was the most mentally tough and resilient. The Spartan warrior stood out for being able to fight in all conditions, with minimal sleep or food. All designed to develop invincible mental toughness.

Spartan’s were forced to train outdoors, barefoot, wearing only a thin cloak called a phoinikis. They were fed small quantities of “black broth” and were taught to fight and steel food if they needed more.

Spartan Wrestling

They were tasked with such things as pulling weeds out of river beds and surviving in the wilderness. As such, they could fight in the sweltering heat, or the biting cold.

They told him (and it was the truth) that the habit of body and mode of life for athlete and soldier were totally different, and particularly that their diet and training were not the same, since the one required much sleep, continuous surfeit of food, and fixed periods of activity and repose, in order to preserve or improve their condition, which the slightest influence or the least departure from routine is apt to change for the worse; whereas the soldier ought to be conversant with all sorts of irregularity and all sorts of inequality, and above all should accustom himself to endure lack of food easily, and as easily lack of sleep.

Life of Philopoimen, Plutarch

In short, this mental attitude is what has set the most elite warriors apart throughout history.

So, how do you acquire this mindset? This mental toughness?

The Psychology of Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is known as hardiness or cognitive hardiness in psychology literature, and was proposed by psychologist Suzanna C. Kobasa in 1979. It describes a pattern of personality characteristics that allow high performing individuals to continue to function and remain healthy under highly stressful conditions.

Hardiness

This is not only a trait found amongst elite athletes and warrior cultures, but also among top executives and managers. It’s one of the reasons that these positions are often held by people who might be clinically described as psychopaths.

Likewise, this personality trait is highly useful for elite military personnel and top performing athletes. In one study (study), it was found that these individuals showed heightened arousal during strenuous activity but also greater parasympathetic expression at rest. In short, they were better able to ramp themselves up when they needed to find the drive to train, fight, or compete, but also better able to switch off and rest when the chance presented itself to recover. Essentially, the top performers can make their parasympathetic nervous system work for them, rather than against them.

Learned helplessness

This would be crucial during a challenge like Hell Week, where you have such limited opportunity to rest and sleep. One study from Yale Medical School linked this capability to higher quantities of the neuropeptide Y (NPY) and DHEA. DHEA is known to buffer the effects of cortisol in the hippocampus specifically, allowing for heightened performance and alertness during highly stressful circumstances.

DHEA is known to buffer the effects of cortisol in the hippocampus

Mental toughness or hardiness prevents a state called “learned helplessness,” which describes the point of complete shut-down; where we stop even trying. This has been linked with depression.

But mental toughness is not just something innate. This trait can be developed through metacognitive strategies, as taught to Navy SEALS. Metacognition means “thinking about thought,” which in turn means you are effectively getting inside your own head to understand how your own mind operates and what you might need to tell yourself to keep pushing through the tough stuff. This in turn can indirectly impact on the central nervous system, to provide the state of calm necessarily to push through something stressful or even frightening.

Outdoor training

Develop Mental Toughness With These Strategies

So, how does a Navy SEAL develop mental toughness?

Here are a few methods that are commonly suggested:

1 Eat the Whole Elephant

Eating the whole elephant is a strange term that refers to breaking down a big task (like eating an elephant) into much smaller and more manageable chunks. You then focus purely on those short-term goals, rather than considering the overwhelming challenge that you may find daunting.

That means a SEAL might not think at all about getting through all of Hell Week, but rather just getting through the next “evolution.”

Farmers' Walks

Likewise, in the gym this might mean that instead of trying to perform 1 minute of battleropes when you’re exhausted, you instead break this down into six ten second chunks. Ten seconds is nothing, right?

2 Four-by-Four for Four

Four-by-Four for Four is a breathing technique used by SEALs that requires you to breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, breathe out for four seconds, hold for four, and then continue. It’s similar to techniques used in yoga.

By doing this, you are able to focus on something other than what’s going on around you (your breathing) and thereby calm your mind as you might do in nearly any form of meditation.

Four by Four for Four

At the same time though, you’ll also be sending calm signals via your vagal nerve to your autonomic nervous system. This can reduce anxiety and arousal and help you to feel calmer as you take on the next challenge. It can be considered a form of arousal control, and is similar to how you might prevent a panic attack by controlling breathing.

3 Nonreactivity

Nonreactivity is essentially like the mental toughness equivalent of a flow state. It means that you’re going to switch off from your situation and the implications and instead focus purely on the moment. This is a kind of zen state where your body just does what needs to be done, while you maintain a calm focus.

Nonreactivity is a state you might find yourself in naturally when you push yourself beyond your limits, and it can allow you to tap into deep reserves of strength and endurance. Swimmers experience something similar called a “swim coma.” Once you’ve achieved this state once, you’ll find it easier to reach in future.

Nonreactiveness

But you can also improve your chances of experiencing this state by using mindfulness meditation, and even by adopting a stoic philosophy. Stoicism teaches us not to try and create a life of sunshine and rainbows, but to expect that sometimes bad things happen. That is outside our control and what we can control is our reaction to those things.

Your body just does what needs to be done

By learning not to dwell on the negative and to stay focused during intense challenge, we can get through nearly anything.

4 Cognitive Behavioural Threapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a topic I’ve gone into in depth in the past, so I won’t beat a dead horse here. What this means though, is becoming more aware of your own thoughts and beliefs, such that you can begin to replace the negative and unuseful ones with more suitable alternatives – using a process called “cognitive restructuring.”

In short, you need to try to find what thoughts are actually motivating you to quit, and then to assess whether they’re at all logical.

Develop Mental Toughness

For instance, we often listen to our body telling us to stop training because we’re worried that we’re going to injure ourselves. But as David Goggins points out, our brain often starts telling us we’re done when we’re really only about 40% spent! You can definitely walk another 100 meters with those kettlebells without injury then.

Likewise, I’ve done some personal reflection and found that often the reason I don’t want to be productive or workout in the evenings is because I’m trying to preserve my sleepy state AND to communicate to others that I’m done. This isn’t me consciously shirking my responsibility, but rather an unconscious motivation to embrace the tiredness.

Our brain starts telling us we’re done when we’re really only about 40% spent

Simply knowing that this is what is going on, now allows me to push through that feeling and train anyway. If I exercise, I’ll feel awake and better. And that’s a GOOD thing!

There’s no point getting disheartened when things go wrong. No point giving up when the going gets tough. So why do you do it? Time to do some soul searching!

The Most Important Tip of All: Practice

All these tips might sound great on paper, but they will be useless to you unless you practice using them in a truly tough situation.

And THIS is what is the real secret to developing mental toughness: to train for it.

Discomfort training

David Goggins describes this as “callusing” the mind. The issue here is that we are all too used to comfort, and all too unfamiliar with discomfort. That’s why we tend to give up, or to get extremely upset as soon as anything goes wrong. We have lost the ability to endure.

Your workouts are a step in the right direction, but they are still controlled periods of activity in a warm and plush environment.

How about taking that workout outside on a cold winter morning and really developing some grit?

Mental toughness training

How about working out after a long hard day, or when you are sleep deprived? How about training in the snow? Or doing it in public where people can see you and you feel immense social pressure? Fasted training?

If you want TRULY functional strength and useful performance, then this should be considered a must. After all, you can’t be sure that the zombie apocalypse is going to occur just when you’re relaxed and well-fed.

What would happen if Batman was attacked by all of his foes when he was struggling with the flu?

US Memory Champion Ron White describes how a Navy SEAL helped him train by encouraging him to memorize packs of cards under water. If he could do that, then memorizing them on land during a competition would be easy! Likewise, he was taught to continue training even when he was unwell. Because there was no guarantee he’d be well on the day of the competition!

What would happen if Batman was attacked by all of his foes when he was struggling with the flu?

Just to be clear, I am NOT recommending that you do anything that will cause harm to your body. That includes training when you have the flu. It also includes intentional sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation training

But taking a freezing cold shower in the morning and forcing yourself to stand there? That’s actually good for you. And it will develop your mental toughness.

Training outdoors in barefoot? That’s extremely good for you and will make you a far more functional athlete.

Performing as many reps as possible of an exercise in a given time frame is also a great way to develop mental toughness using these strategies. CrossFit is great at developing mental toughness, but I don’t recommend the practice of using deadlifts and squats for AMRAP rounds. Instead, choose something you can’t easily injure yourself with: like press ups or battle ropes.

Spartan mental toughness

It’s another reason I love metcon finishers.

How about going for a long farmer’s walk with two kettlebells?

The most important thing of all? Train when you really don’t want to. If you have half an hour spare and you think about doing push ups and you find your mind cringes at the thought… then that is the perfect opportunity to make yourself do them anyway.

Train when you really don’t want to.

With enough practice, you’ll teach your brain that it is in control of your body and can call upon your full strength and endurance at ANY time. You’ll be able to recruit more muscle fiber, and of course by training more regularly without fail, you’ll see huge gains over time.

Train hard

Like Ron White, you can also apply a similar logic to other aspects of your life. I’m a freelance writer who writes 10,000 words a day and often a lot more. But I tend to work with headphones, coffee, and a comfy sweater. What happens when I’m forced to work on the train when I’m overtired?

Lately, I have been challenging myself to maintain this kind of product output in suboptimal conditions – while surrounded with distracting background chatter for instance. The result is that I’m becoming far more consistently productive.

Don’t make it easy, make it HARD.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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