Navy SEALs training is regarded as the harshest in the world. However, it is not the physical aspects of Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training that force three of four candidates to quit. "Today our primary weapon systems are our people's heads," one Lieutenant Commander is quoted saying on the SEALs website. "You want to excel in all the physical areas, but the physical is just a prerequisite to be a SEAL. Mental weakness is what actually screens you out."
The SEALs program opens with three weeks of intense physical training. This is followed by "Hell Week," aptly named for its sleep deprivation, bone-jarring obstacle courses, multi-mile swims wearing fins, constant running, climbing, jumping and diving and other challenges designed to eliminate all but the most resolute candidates. Says Commander Eric Potterat, a Naval Special Warfare psychologist: "For the first time, to my knowledge, we're able to predict—from the neck up—some of the science of mental toughness."
Those who make it through the tortuous 132 hours of Hell Week emerge with an inner sense that their bodies can go far beyond their previous expectations. Having pushed the boundaries of their physical limitations is now the foundation for all future training and operations: combat swimming, diving, navigation, demolitions, weapons, parachuting, and more. "Panic, fear, doubt," notes Potterat. "The minute we teach our candidates to be able to control that, their confidence goes up because they don't have the same fear response that you or I might have."
The skill that separates SEALs from all other Special Operations forces is combat diving. This phase demands teamwork, but it also steepens the mental curve to becoming a SEAL. If a candidate cannot display control underwater, if he panics when mishaps occur in a dive or with his equipment, he is finished. To precisely test the breathing procedures candidates are taught, instructors jostle and harass them underwater, tearing away mouthpieces and hoses, generating confusion, simulating numerous oceanic threats to the success of a mission—and life itself. "Water allows us to induce a high degree of stress," says one instructor. "You won't be a success for long if you freak out underwater."
When the brain senses fear, the heart beats faster, lungs breathe heavier, some people start to sweat and shake. These are natural reactions, but the SEAL must overcome them. He must exercise "breathing/arousal control," an acquired ability to master—mentally—one's physical reactions amid the stress of danger. His very survival, and that of his group, may depend upon it. Essentially," says one SEALs instructor, "you're bending the body's software to control its hardware."
Faith in Oneself
According to Will Guild, a 27-year veteran of the Navy Seals, faith in oneself is critical to the mental toughness necessary to survive training. "It's something I tell all the SEALs," he says. "Have faith that you'll figure it out. You are a lot stronger physically and mentally than you think you are." The concept of one's mind over the body is reflected in a phrase often chanted by candidates and instructors alike during Hell Week: "If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."