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Twelve Questions About Mental Toughness

Stew Smith

Twelve Interview Questions
About Mental Toughness

The following twelve questions are from a high school student doing a project.  They are so good, I told him I would make a video of my answers and write them out in article form for him. I am flattered he would ask me about my opinion on mental toughness. It is easy to think that special ops members exhibit that form of mental toughness, but truth be told - every human can be mentally tough.  It is ingrained in us all as natural survival skills, but it can also be nurtured and built as well. From the 6 year old cancer patient, single mom working 2 jobs, the athlete breaking unbelievable records, and many more acts of mental over physical achievements done by ALL people. 

Video of the Twelve Questions on Mental Toughness


Written Answers of the Twelve Questions on Mental Toughness

  1. How would you define mental toughness?
    Finding the fuel when the tank is empty.  Also getting comfortable being uncomfortable:

  2. Do you believe that sports help to cultivate mental toughness? In what ways?

    Yes 100%, but so can hard work doing manual labor before or after school and workouts. Staying on your feet working - getting the job done is a way to build mental toughness. But it takes some motivation to love what  you are doing, persistence in building good habits, and evolving into discipline to make them work - even when you do not feel like it.

  3. Consider your childhood. Would you describe yourself as an active child? What sports or hobbies did you do?

    Yes - very active - probably borderline hyperactive.  Played sports all the time, rode bikes and skateboard everywhere, ran, swam, and just always was moving.  Then once sports came into play went 110% full force into training hard to make teams and be a good team player. 

  4. What sport do you think requires the most mental toughness?

    Most of them.  Just getting up early for swimming practice (two a days most of the season) - getting cold rowing boats on Crew, playing with pain of bumps and bruises, sprains, jammed fingers in football / rugby and other contact sports.  Running and swimming to break records going 100% on  sprint distance that most would consider long distance. Wrestling on sweaty mats and going all out to beat another guy in combative activities (wrestling, boxing, martial arts, etc).  All of them build a level of mental toughness that will last a lifetime. 

  5. When you were in high school, what kind of mental strategies did you employ to handle adverse situations? 

    I did everything from making recordings to tell myself to wake up in the morning before school to train as well as create good habits that were daily events.  Eventually discipline grew from these daily habits and have been doing early morning workouts for nearly 40 years now - 5-6 days a week. 

  6. Was it easier to focus on physical or mental challenges when you were in high school?

    Yes - That is all I need to focus on.  My job was to study and make good grades and play sports.  My Dad said that I could work after school or play sports.  I played sports all year of school and worked all day in the summer.  It was good for me.  I needed to stay busy and my Dad knew it.

  7. What was an experience that you had that encouraged you to become a SEAL?

    Just meeting the people that went before me.  They were solid people on my rugby team and in my company while I was an underclassman at the Naval Academy (  At least 4 people every year went to BUDS on my rugby team and made it.  That took away the "impossible" factor out of it that many myths create for us wanna-be's. 

    Seeing is believing - I saw it was not impossible and had a ton of respect for the SEALs I met and they all loved their job.  Seemed like a logical fit for me coming from a hard training, scuba diving background.  Now I just needed to get into Spec Ops shape. 

  8. What personality traits do you have that you think made you fit to be a SEAL?

    Being a team player was helpful.  Knowing how to play with pain and did not mind being uncomfortable were the big three for me. I enjoyed the people around me.  They made me better - I made them better.  We were better together than by ourselves.  That is ANY winning Team.  I enjoyed the highly physical nature of the job, but more importantly I was honored to be working with the people in my class and later at my Team and in the Navy and other services in general.  We are on the same team in the end. 

  9. To what extent do you think people that are in good physical shape, but have never been an athlete or part of a team can complete BUD/S?

    You do not have to be an athlete to be in killer shape and there are many ways to get team experience.  Your family is a team, your school is a team, your classmates are a team, your community is a team.  We are all social animals that need a team to thrive.  Whether you get that through sports or through life, learning to work together is not necessarily a sports requirement.  To be a good runner, swimming, lifter, and do high rep calisthenics does not require being an athlete (it helps).  Building solid habits of training is the key in your preparation to be more durable and handle the loads, miles, and discomfort of training. 

  10. When you were going through BUD/S, do you think being a former athlete helped you to persevere?

    Yes, but some did being a hard worker during my preparation.  From high school summer jobs to early morning workouts before school, they were all instrumental in my abilities growing to a level that made sports teams and later spec ops teams. Learning to play with pain.  Being able to push myself to get a personal record (PR) in lifting, running, and other activities.  All were part of a mindset I cultivated in sports and manual labor jobs. 

  11. What mental strategies did you employ to persevere through the most challenging training or assignments? How did you adopt these strategies?

    I would say I learned something doing my first (and last) marathon.  It was more of a gut check for me.  I realized that I was just trying to finish and a few guys from Kenya were warming up to not just finish but win the race and break their own PRs.  I realized then I was in the wrong mindset. I came up with my saying I still use today, "Train to Compete - Not Just Survive".  Sure enough, I saw people trying to survive BUDS when I was there trying to win events (or at least be in the top 25%).  In a school that has a 75% attrition, you have to strive for that top 25% in all events to make it. You may not get it in everything and you may have to rely on your mental toughness to make up the difference - but being in that compete mindset makes all the difference:

    "You never think about quitting, when you think about winning."  Stew

  12. What did BUD/S teach you about your mental resilience and your ability to work under extreme pressure?

    My body is 10 times stronger than my mind wants it to be.  Our brain is there to protect us and sometimes we have the ability to disengage that part of the brain and get crazy things accomplished in order to LIVE ANOTHER DAY, to save a life, save your own life, or to protect those that need protecting.  We are capable of so much more physically if needed.  Learning how to engage that power is what the journey is all about. 

    Keep working - Keep Moving - And NEVER QUIT!

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