By Eric Barker
August 25, 2015
IDEAS
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Know what’s really interesting? Learning how Navy SEALs build mental toughness to handle deadly situations.

Know what else is really interesting? Learning how Olympic athletes deal with the pressure of competition when the entire world is watching.

Know what’s the most interesting of all? When you find out they do a lot of the same things.

Mental Links To Excellence” is a research study of what Olympians do to prepare for their big day. And so much of it lines up with what I learned researching SEAL training and talking to former Navy Seal Platoon Commander James Waters.

The best part is you and I can use these methods to perform better at work and in our personal lives.

Let’s find out how…

1) Talk Positively To Yourself

Your brain is always going. It’s estimated you say 300 to 1000 words to yourself per minute. Olympic athletes and SEALs agree: those words need to be positive.

One of the Olympians said:

SEALs use the same method — and they do it in a far more terrifying scenario. How terrifying?

You’re underwater with SCUBA gear. An instructor suddenly swims up behind you. He yanks the regulator out of your mouth. You can’t breathe. Then he ties your oxygen lines in a knot.

Your brain starts screaming, “YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.” But you have to keep cool, stay underwater and follow procedure to get your gear back in working order so you can breathe again.

And this happens over and over — for 20 minutes. Welcome to the dreaded “pool comp” section of SEAL qualification.

You get 4 attempts. Why? Because you need them. Only one in five guys can do it the first time out.

Want to see just how scary it is? Watch this video from 8 mins to 10 mins, 5 seconds:

The danger here is panic. And SEALs are not allowed to panic… even when they cannot breathe. They must think positive to keep calm and pass “pool comp.”

So how can you use this?

Got a big presentation at work coming up? Encountering obstacles? You need to remember the 3 P’s.

Permanence, pervasiveness and whether it’s personal.

Pessimists tell themselves that bad events:

  1. Will last a long time, or forever. (“I’ll never get this done.”)
  2. Are universal. (“You can’t trust any of those people.”)
  3. Are their own fault. (“I’m terrible at this.”)

Optimists look at setbacks in the exact opposite way:

  1. Bad things are temporary. (“That happens occasionally but it’s no big deal.”)
  2. Bad things have a specific cause and aren’t universal. (“When the weather is better that won’t be a problem.”)
  3. It’s not their fault. (“I’m good at this but today wasn’t my lucky day.”)

When talking to yourself, be an optimist, not a pessimist.

(For more on how to think positively, click here.)

Okay, so you’re talking to yourself positively. What else do Olympians and SEALs agree on when you need to be at your best?

2) Setting Goals

You hear this a lot. But you probably don’t do it. Specifically, ask yourself what you need to achieve right now.

From the Olympian Study:

SEALs are taught to set goals too. Sometimes really small ones, but it’s enough to keep them going when every muscle in their body is screaming for them to quit:

And what happened when they achieved those goals? SEALs set new ones. The focus is on always improving. Here’s former SEAL Platoon Commander, James Waters:

So how can you use this?

Ask yourself, “What do I need to do to make this presentation better?”

Write your goals down and track your progress. As Dan Pink notes in his bestselling book on motivation, Drive, nothing motivates you better than seeing progress.

(For more secrets on how to build grit — from my interview with Navy SEAL platoon commander James Waters — click here.)

You’re thinking positive and setting goals. But how do you get ready for the unexpected problems that always pop up at the last minute?

3) Practice Visualization

Close your eyes. See the big challenge. Walk through every step of it. Sound silly? Maybe, but the best of the best do this a lot.

From the study of Olympians:

Again, SEALs are taught to do the same thing:

So how can you use this?

Visualize that presentation. But don’t merely fantasize about being perfect and just make yourself feel good. That kills motivation:

You want to see the problems you might encounter and visualize how you will overcome them.

Dan Coyle, the expert on expertise, says it’s an essential part of how US Special Forces prepare for every dangerous mission:

(For more lessons from top athletes on how to be the best, click here.)

You’re visualizing the big day and walking through how you’ll deal with adversity. Cool. But how do you take that to the next level like the pros do?

4) Use Simulations

Visualization is great because you can do it anywhere as often as you like. But in the end you must make practice as close to the real thing as possible.

From the study of Olympians:

And SEALs didn’t just visualize either. Before the raid on Bin Laden’s compound they built full-size replicas of the location so their training would be tailored to what they would face.

Via Daniel Coyle’s excellent book The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel Mike Kenny agreed:

So how can you use this?

How will you deal with the fear of standing in front of a big crowd when you give that presentation?

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and an introvert herself, is now a professional public speaker. How did she overcome public speaking fear?

She practiced in front of small, supportive groups to desensitize herself — she used a simulation.

From my interview with Susan:

(To learn how to overcome your problems the way Special Forces operatives do, click here.)

So Olympic athletes and Navy SEALs agree on a lot. Let’s round up what we’ve learned and see how it can work for you.

Sum Up

Here’s what Olympic athletes and Navy SEALs both do to be the best and achieve mental toughness:

  • Talk Positively To Yourself: Remember the 3 P’s: tell yourself bad things aren’t permanent, pervasive or personal — but good things are.
  • Setting Goals: Know what you want to achieve. Write it down. Focus on progress.
  • Practice Visualization: Don’t fantasize about getting what you want but see yourself overcoming specific obstacles.
  • Use Simulations: Always make your practice as close to the real thing as possible.

Olympians and Navy SEALs, by definition, are the best at what they do. But the methods they use to get there are things we can all use.

And those techniques aren’t based on muscles or natural talent. They’re all about good preparation and hard work. Apply those and you can get there too.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said:

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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