The debate on mental toughness is nothing new. Are you born with it or can be trained? Though this short article will not end the debate on the topic, there is no doubt mental toughness requires a process. A process of 'just getting tougher" is longer than a phrase, but can be started with some inspiration and motivation. However, it has to quickly evolve into good habit building and discipline by understanding the focused journey of goal achievement, or it will die with your initial motivation. As the saying goes, "Everyone wants to be a frogman on a sunny day." This is a saying that can apply to any goal that requires more than just motivation, but also work, sacrifice, and persistent progression, whether it be a physical goal of losing 100lbs, an academic goal of a medical professional, or a physical and mental challenge of becoming a special operator.
Are We Born With Mental Toughness?
Are you born with Mental Toughness? YES. We are all born with an impressive ability to survive in life or death situation or do things that you may have never done in order to survive another day. But is this a mental toughness ability or a survival skill? Well, if you think about it - maybe mental toughness is built deep into the core of the survival of the fittest. This could be the "we are born with it" argument as mental toughness goes to the foundation of our ability to not just survive but compete as a human species. The people who display this mental toughness have learned how to tap into that innate skill by making a goal a consequence of survival. They found a WHY so big that they can tap into that mysterious fuel that people find - even when most people thought the tank was empty.
Learning Mental Toughness?
Can Mental Toughness be taught, trained or nurtured in the environment you reside? If you consider life 200 years ago and longer, you might agree that they were tougher than we are today. No modern comforts with homes of heat and air conditioning and no food storage to name a few. To survive with the basic of food and shelter required work. You had to work for everything whether it was farming, hunting, fishing, chopping wood, building fires, making clothes. Sure, maybe you were resourceful in something and were able to trade or buy the other needs to survive. Today, we still have to work, but with less severe consequences, and often much less physically demanding, unless you are still on a farm or do manual labor. Our predecessors survived the only way they knew how because of the times and environment. But there are young people today, due to their circumstances, are tougher and endure hard workdays after school helping to provide for their family. They do build these resiliency skills that will last a lifetime as they have learned to tap into this survival work mode.
Compromise on the Debate
Yes - we are born with mental toughness - not just some of us - but ALL of us. We just have to learn how to tap into that energy and get tougher by learning the process to get there. If your environment is not forcing you to become mentally tough, you have to create an environment in order to achieve whatever goal you have. This may mean working harder, adding training or schooling to your already busy day. Prioritize, focus on the goal, and start new habits in order to break into this energy.
Here is a diagram with short discussion of each section of the journey to not just goal accomplishment but building confidence and actually becoming mentally tough:
Motivation Has to Build Good Habits / Eliminate Bad Habits – take the initial motivation you have when you say, “I want to be a ________” and get to work. You may not have a solid plan yet, but you start your research and figure out what you need to do physically, academically, and administratively in order to get to your goal. This phase does not last forever, so move fast with building these habits so you can progress further in the process.
Together with learning WHY you want to do this will help you stay persistent in your preparation and build discipline. Eventually your motivation has to become discipline as you will not be 100% motivated every day. You may need to work, train, study, even when you don’t feel like it – that is when you know discipline kicks in. Enjoy the days that you accomplish something even when you did not want to before you started. That is a powerful indicator that you are moving along in the process.
Depending on your goal, your discipline will make you stronger, faster, have more endurance, or smarter because you are working toward that goal regardless of whether you feel like it or not. For the future special operator, developing into an advanced level tactical athlete requires getting good at all the elements of Tactical Fitness (as discussed here – Tactical Athlete). When you get stronger your physical durability improves. When get in better cardiovascular conditioning / combined with strength and stamina, you gain work capacity that will last you when the days turn into night and you still have to grind to get things done. Same goes for an academic goal and achievement process. Your discipline in learning, studying, and testing techniques will help you achieve similar step by step processes as the school year grinds. Putting in the extra time makes all the difference.
When you get good at the grind, you build confidence with being uncomfortable. Soon you are comfortable being uncomfortable. Though you may be even further tested however and pushed beyond your perceived limits. This is the moment when you decide to keep going or stop. This is that magic moment when you realize you actually have fuel left in your tank even when you thought it was empty. Sometimes this is a thought / memory of your personal accomplishments during this journey, recognizing the WHY you started on this goal in order to keep you going. As David Goggins says, “Pulling from the cookie jar,” in his book – Can’t Hurt Me to give you confidence that you can do this. Sometimes it is an actual piece of food or water that fuels or cools you down for a moment to collect yourself and get back to it again. Sometimes it is just you getting stubborn and saying, “NO – I am not stopping.” And you just got tougher.
Regardless of where you are on the debate, it requires a process in order to see the rewards of becoming mentally tough. This process may take years to develop the supporting foundation (body) to endure the abilities of a mentally tough mind. There is no reason why you cannot continually develop mental toughness throughout your lifetime as you are able to pull from these accomplishments and parallel the next journey with the same process.
Programming Ideas Below: FREE WORKOUTS!!!!
The Heroes of Tomorrow program was developed by former Navy SEAL Stew Smith, fitness author. We can help prepare you for ANY profession that requires a Physical Fitness Test and YOU pay nothing for the training! Warning - it is rather advanced but we can scale it back a bit and teach running and swimming techniques and help you build up to your goal level of fitness.
It depends: The Complete Guide to Navy SEAL Fitness is a classic and focuses on high rep calisthenics and running and swimming base. You will build up your running over 12-18 weeks to 20 miles but very fast paced focus on both the 1.5 mile run for the PST and the 4 mile timed run for weekly run test at BUDS. If you are an athlete with a strong power / strength background in lifting and not running or swimming, Navy SEAL Fitness is ideal for you. IF you need some place to start Navy SEAL Fitness is ideal for you as well because a calisthenics base / running / swimming progression is a good place to build a foundation. Though you will likely need to spend some time in the Navy SEAL Weight Training Book OR if Navy SEAL FItness is too challenging, go with Navy SEAL SWCC, EOD, Diver, PST Phase 1 Workout. Phase 1 is a good starting point if Navy SEAL Fitness program is too tough.
Navy SEAL Weight Training - This is part two (winter lifting phase) of my SEAL Prep program. If you have done the Navy SEAL Fitness (12 weeks to BUDS) program a few times and need a break, this is the next program that integrates lifting with the Navy SEAL Prep training. This is ideal for people who have come from an endurance athlete background. Athletes like swimmers and runners will also require some strength training as you will be exposed to challenges under logs and boats during the first phase and many miles of rucking 50+ lbs of backpacks and gear in 2nd and 3rd phases of BUDS. Do not skip lifting in your year of training prep. However, if you are coming from a powerlifting / football background, supplementing a few lifts into your endurance / muscle stamina focus plan is something you may enjoy especially if training for a year or more during your prep phase.
Navy SEAL / SWCC, EOD, Diver Program Series - Phase 1 is what I call a beginner guide, but it is still challenging. It is geared toward those who are scoring minimally or failing their Navy PST test - 500yd swim, pushups, situps, pullups, 1.5 mile run. It is easier than The Complete Guide to Navy SEAL Fitness and a good prep course before attempting it.
Phase 2 and 3 of the Navy SEAL / SWCC, EOD, Diver program is about the same level of intensity as Navy SEAL Fitness and is also a good follow-up plan after Phase 1.
Phase 4 ot the Navy SEAL Key to Mental Toughness is by far my toughest workout ever created. It resembles a day of BUDS, complete with "wet and sandy", runs after eating, high rep punishment push-ups, 4 mile timed runs, 2 mile swims with fins, log PT simulation, and even a HellWeek Simulator with 3 workouts a day.
Tactical Fitness Series - Tactical Fitness, Tactical Strength, and Tactical Mobility is an ALL-encompassing program that focuses on lifting, calisthenics, run, ruck, swim, speed, agility, and flexibility / mobility. Many people focusing on USMC (OCS, RECON, MarSOC) Army Ranger / SF, Air Force Special Warfare, SWAT / Federal Law Enforcement, and Navy Special Warfare have done very well focusing on the Tactical Fitness Series and developing themselves into an all-round Tactical Athlete.
Tactical Fitness - At the core of this program is the Tactical Fitness Test which measures 12 standards for your physical capacity, including: cardiovascular conditioning, strength, muscle coordination, and stamina. Tactical fitness means having the skills needed to save lives and extend the limits of your endurance whether you are in the military, police, firefighting professions, or just an everyday hero. Also featured in the Tactical Fitness Test called the Dirty Dozen.
Tactical Strength - Tactical Strength is the lifting program used by Stew Smith and his Military, Police, Fire Fighter fitness program called the Heroes of Tomorrow. It is designed to build strength in the upper body, legs, and core to prepare you better for any load bearing activity (rucking, boat carry, log PT, etc). The program also does not neglect cardiovascular activity and will end workouts with rucking or swimming (or other non impact options (row, bike, elliptical) if needed. The cardio workouts will be quick and fast focusing more on speed and agility than long slow distance. We also use the Tactical Strength Test to test elements of speed, agility, and strength / power.
Tactical Mobility is a comprehensive fitness guide for greater mobility, flexibility, and performance—designed for the men and women serving in military, special ops, law enforcement, emergency services. Tactical Mobility is a perfect fit for any fitness program as a stand alone "Mobility day" supplemented into your regular routine and will help you reach the pain free level of fitness. Gaining flexibility and mobility is the goal of the program and it will help with performance and help reduce injuries.
The Warrior Workout Series - If you are solid with making your own workouts, but need some ideas. This three part series has 300 workouts (100 / book) to pick from focusing on all the elements of fitness and training programs. Each book is organized with periodization cycles in mind along with calisthenics only, weights / calisthenics mix, cardio options and more. Warrior Workout 1 - Warrior Workout 2 - Warrior Workout 3.