Mentally Prepare Yourself Like a U.S. Navy SEAL
The United States Navy SEALs are arguably one of the most highly trained and competent military forces in the world. Do you think that as a police officer or other law enforcement professional you could learn something from how they prepare themselves for the stresses and rigors of their duties?
I had a chance to interview Commander Eric Potterat, Ph.D. of the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command. Dr. Potterat is the Force Psychologist for the U.S. Navy SEALs. In our interview he describes the 7 primary techniques he uses to train the SEALs for Mental Toughness and to improve their Operational Readiness.
Dr. Potterat suggested that many of the techniques used to train the U.S. Navy SEALs have been adapted from the specialized training given to elite athletes to enhance their performance and allow them to successfully compete in the most competitive international events.
He said that he feels that law enforcement and military training can be very similar and that both can learn many things from the advanced psychological conditioning used by Olympic, and other elite, athletes.
The goals of this kind of Mental Preparedness training can be… two fold:
1. To minimize the negative effects of stress and allow for peak performance when needed.
2. To minimize the long-term negative effects of stress that might ruin your health.
If you would like to listen to our 41 minute interview please click the replay button below or RIGHT CLICK HERE (that’s CONTROL CLICK if you use a Mac) to download (SAVE LINK AS…) a copy of the mp3 file. It is a 10MB file.
US Navy SEAL Operational Readiness Training
Dr. Potterat created this training program in 2006 to build Mental Toughness and encourage more perspective Navy SEAL candidates to successfully complete the BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) selection process. Originally It was just the first four items listed below and then it evolved into more comprehensive Operational Readiness Training and the last three items were added.
The U.S. Navy SEAL Training focuses on:
1) Goal-setting or Segmenting
This is the process of mentally breaking down large goals or tasks into smaller more manageable steps so that psychologically they don’t seem so overwhelming. i.e. breaking down any large challenging task into smaller more mentally manageable units. By doing this you create a series of easy to accomplish tasks and use them as stepping stones toward reaching a larger or more difficult challenge. Most humans are very goal oriented and this technique capitalizes on that fact to create a pathway to success. Use this while you are running to shorten your next goal not to the next mile but rather a landmark directly ahead. “I’ve got to get to that big tree, and then I’ve go to get to that red car and then to that sign post etc.” Or imagine your are engaged in a fight for your life. This technique might be utilized to focus on surviving for one more minute instead of what seems like an eternity. Focus on the next minute and then the next.
2) Arousal Control – with deliberate breathing
This processes uses a specific breathing technique that Dr. Potterat described as the “Theory of 4’s” which involves deep diaphragmatic breathing using a 4×4 count. You take in a deep breath using your diaphragm, filling 25% of your lungs on each count for 4 seconds, and then exhaling 25% of the air from your lungs on each count for 4 seconds. Repeat this for 4-6 minutes. This can be one of the most effective techniques and can be employed in a variety of situations. It is very efficient at counteracting all the stress reactions that occur in the human body and can be used to condition your body to relax.
In his writings Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, U.S. Army (ret.) describes what he calls “Combat Breathing” using a 4x4x4x4 count which means breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, breath out for four counts and hold there for four counts before beginning all over again.
3) Mental rehearsal, or Visualization
This process is similar to a “stress inoculation” where you visualize the challenges you might face, and mentally rehearse successfully overcoming those challenges. This serves as an “inoculation” to prepare your mind with small doses of that stress and the image of a successful resolution. This conditions your mind to deal effectively with the real situation and induces you to move toward that successful outcome. This may be very similar to the “What If” game you may have been taught in your basic law enforcement training. As you approach a potentially dangerous situation you run multiple scenarios through your mind and plan for countermeasures that create a successful outcome. This is also similar and can be used in conjunction with item 6) listed below called “Contingency Planning”.
4) Take Charge of Your Self Talk
Dr. Potterat suggested that this may be one of the most effective techniques, albeit one of the most complex. We all have chatter going on in our heads and many times that chatter is very negative. We imagine the worst things that could happen and the mind that “talks” to us can be very critical. It is important for everyone to redirect this conversation toward the positive. When you are engaged in a job where lives are on the line it becomes critical to control this emotional dialogue. A lot of this psychology comes from the work of Albert Ellis who was the American psychologist that developed the concept of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. You will hear Dr. Potterat explaining this in depth in our interview but the short version is that we must learn to take charge of our irrational belief systems and focus our mind’s conversation, or our “self-talk”, on to something positive. You must, through daily practice, remove your own critical self-talk and replace it with positive, encouraging and success-focused messages. This is the concept of creating a winners mentality or developing a winning mindset.
The Navy’s original four training techniques were expanded upon to be more effective and cover issues of on-going operational readiness in addition to creating mental toughness. Their newer training includes these additional techniques:
This is a mental technique used to deal with mental trauma, strong emotions and grief in the middle of a crisis situation. When powerfully negative events trigger strong emotional responses it can be debilitating and negatively affect your performance. This can’t happen to a Navy SEAL during a combat mission nor a law enforcement officer in the middle of a high risk or crisis situation. In order to maintain your effectiveness and mental focus you must put those feelings and emotions in a mentally created “black box’ to store them for a future moment, when lives are not in danger and, when you will be able to effectively process those feelings and emotions. This is a psychological skill that takes practice and precision but that will help you maintain the focus and clarity needed to complete your task and survive the situation. Dr. Potterat stressed in our interview that this doesn’t mean that you never process those feelings and emotions but that you set them aside to complete the task at hand and then work with a mental health professional at a later date to effectively process those emotions.
One of the negative side-effects of not processing negative feelings is “emotional numbness” that affects many law enforcement officers who don’t ask for help when they need it. Maintaining our mental health is of the utmost importance in police work, and other law enforcement careers, and yet it is the one thing that many of us avoid. If you don’t have the support systems in place at your agency contact CopsAlive.com and ask for our assistance in setting them up.
6) Contingency Planning (Plan A, then Plan B, then on to Plan C)
This technique is somewhat controversial in psychological and performance enhancement circles but works well for the Navy SEALs and will work well in law enforcement also. In this mental exercise you always have multiple options running through your mind. Add this to our police “What If” game scenario where you are always anticipating unseen threats and now you add in the anticipation and planning of multiple responses. This then becomes a system of multiple response options or contingency plans. “If Plan A doesn’t work, I’ll move to Plan B. If Plan B doesn’t work I have a Plan C ready to go in my mind”.
At this point in our interview Dr. Potterat and I discussed the concept of “Hypervigilance” and when it would be appropriate to turn off these mental operations and just relax. He suggested that police officers, as do special forces operators, need to learn about positive life balance. The mental techniques we are describing are powerful and effective when used to manage the human stress response during critical, life threatening situations. That is not something that you should be doing, or need to be doing, at home with your family. He mentioned the metaphor of the “Dimmer Switch” rather than a light switch that only turns on and off. He didn’t believe that we could simply just turn these psychological survival mechanisms on and off but rather be able to “Dim” them when not needed. This is not meant to say that you should be oblivious to danger but turn your awareness to an appropriate setting when away from work. He also warned against building your whole identity around your job. Survival is a whole-life skill and supported by having many things that give your life meaning, not just your job. Family, sports, hobbies and other interests can grow and enrich your life and make you more resilient to the negative effects of stress as well as all of these specific mental toughening techniques.
7) Focus and Concentration
The final technique is about learning to build your powers of mental focus and concentration. There are many ways to do this although Dr. Potterat refrained from going into the details of how the training was conducted to protect the operational security of the training.
Our suggestion is to start small with simple focus tasks to train your mind to avoid multitasking and do one thing at a time, and do it well. You can stare at an object for one minute to see if you can tune out all other distractions, or you can try to complete a simple task without allowing anything to distract, or interrupt you. Practice this for one minute at a time and increase your time each time you do this training exercise. One great example for cops comes from our CopsAlive “Trained Observer Training” where we have you sit in a public place and glance at a person for 5 seconds. Then look away and write as complete a physical description as you can. When finished look back and compare what you are seeing with the person you described. If you are feeling bold you can go up and ask for their age, height and weight to check your accuracy.
Psychology Today published an article on July 30, 2012 by Joseph Cardillo, Ph.D. entitled: “3 Day Plan to Increase Your Focus and Sharpen Your Concentration”. You can find it on the web by CLICKING HERE.
Kansas State University suggests three simple techniques originally developed in by Clifford G. Schuette, Ed.D to improve your mental focus. They are:
Be Here Now – When you notice your thoughts wandering astray, say to yourself “Be here now” and gently bring your attention back to where you want it.
The Spider Technique – Train yourself not to give in to distractions
Worry Time – Set aside a specific time each day to think about the things that keep entering your mind and interfering with your concentration.
You can read more from them on the web by CLICKING HERE.
All of these mental toughening techniques need to be “conditioned” into your mind just as you would condition your body for physical fitness. Excellent physical fitness does not come from one or two days a month in the gym and mental fitness doesn’t grow if you only try these techniques once. Overall human fitness comes from daily training and conditioning and your ability to build resilience and survive this career is dependent upon your regular fitness practices.
Finally, we discussed the importance of having a support system that works toward maintaining your long-term emotional and mental well-being. These techniques are perfect for preparing yourself to effectively manage stress and be able to perform your job at peak levels but they must also be coupled with a support system that will help you once the extreme stresses and danger subside.
Does your agency have a peer support, family support or chaplains program? Do you have a staff Police Psychologist or at least a psychologist that understands law enforcement issues available for consultation? If not these are things you need to build into your agencies long-term strategic plan. CopsAlive.com can help with that. Look at the listing below about our Armor Your Agency training program.
Dr. Potterat mentioned a quote he heard from a coach at the Olympic Training Center which said: “The difference between no medal and a gold medal is all between the ears”. He suggested that on an international stage where the top athletes from around the world compete, the top scores are usually only separated by milliseconds and the defining advantage goes to the athlete who has best prepared themselves mentally.
Have you prepared yourself mentally for the challenges of a long-term law enforcement career?
These techniques used by the SEALs are not something they learn early in their careers and then discard, these are as much a part of their daily training routine as are any physical fitness exercises.
BONUS – Physical Fitness
In our interview we didn’t discuss the SEALs physical fitness program but we all know that a balanced fitness program is what we all need. As you work to build in a mental training system into your weekly routine you should also ensure that your physical training and conditioning is the best it can be as well.
According the the U.S. Navy’s website the Physical Readiness Test (PRT) is a standard Navy fitness test consisting of push-ups, curl-ups (sit-ups) and a 1.5-mile run.
Navy Physical Screening Test (PST)
While fitness is important for all Navy Sailors, it is imperative for those who make up communities like Special Warfare/Special Operations – which includes SEAL, Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman (SWCC), Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Technician, Navy Diver and Aviation Rescue Swimmer (AIRR) professionals.
The qualification standards and training programs for these specialties – referred to as Navy Challenge Programs – are far more demanding.
The chart below highlights the current minimum Navy Physical Screening Test (PST) requirements for Navy Challenge Programs – for aspiring service members who are in the Delayed Entry Program (DEP), in Boot Camp or already serving in the Navy.
Physical fitness standards CLICK HERE for the SEAL training preparation workout
Physical Screening Test SEAL SWCC EOD Diver AIRR
Swim 500 yards (450 M) – breaststroke or sidestroke
[in minutes] 12:30 13:00 14:00 14:00 12:00*
REST: 10 MINUTES
[in 2 minutes] 42 42 42 42 42
REST: 2 MINUTES
[in 2 minutes] 50 50 50 50 50
REST: 2 MINUTES
[in 2 minutes] 6 6 6 6 4
REST: 10 MINUTES
Run 1.5 miles
[in minutes] 11:00 12:30 12:45 12:45 12:00
*AIRR may use sidestroke or breaststroke and utilize American crawl/freestyle or a combination of all.
CLICK HERE to visit the Navy’s site to download the following training guides:
Naval Special Warfare Physical Training Guide (BUD/S NSW PT Guide)
Naval Special Warfare Injury Prevention Guide (BUD/S NSW IP Guide)
Special Operations Nutrition Guide (NAVSPECWARCOM Nutrition Guide)
You might also consider the Cooper Institute’s Law Enforcement fitness standards
The Cooper Institute says that “there is broad consensus that a lack of physical fitness is a strong predictor of disability, early retirement, and premature death. Because of this, many professional groups such as IACP and various state peace officer standards and training councils have proposed policy changes to counteract the adverse effects of low physical fitness in the law enforcement population. In fact, the IACP has stated that “the functions of a law enforcement agency require a level of physical fitness not demanded by many other occupations, and fitness requirements should be specified.”
The Cooper Center Longitudinal Study (CCLS) has shown repeatedly that having a moderate to high level of cardiorespiratory fitness significantly decreases the risk of developing coronary artery disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, certain cancers, and metabolic syndrome.
The Cooper Institute Recommended Fitness Test Battery including:
Vertical Jump1 RM Bench Press
1 Minute Sit-up
300 Meter Run
1 Minute Push-up
1.5 Mile Run
Could you meet the Cooper Institute Standards?:
1.5 mile run 14:40 – 15:54 minutes
300 meter run 64.3 – 66.0 sec
1RM bench press raw score 151 – 165 lbs
1RM bench press ratio .78 – .84 of body weight
Push-up 25 – 34 reps
Sit-up 30 – 38 reps
Vertical Jump 15.5 – 16 inches
Consider sending an officer through the 4.5 day Law Enforcement Fitness Specialist course conducted by The Cooper Institute. This course will prepare the officer to be a fitness coordinator who can set up a testing and training program in the department.
Fitness and Wellness
Coronary Risk Factors
Exercise and Safety
Anatomy and Kinesiology
Body Composition (Skinfold method)
Fitness Assessment for Law Enforcement/Public Safety
Strength Training and Prescription
Flexibility Training and Prescription
Cardiovascular Training and Prescription
Motivation and Adherence
Physical Fitness Testing in Law Enforcement/Public Safety
Physical Fitness Standards in Law Enforcement/Public Safety
To learn more CLICK HERE
or consider their 3.5 day Military and First Responder Exercise Leader Training
Leadership & Motivational Skills
Fundamentals of Circuit Training
Basic Anatomy and Developmental Circuit Exercises
Class Design & Group Planning
Exercise Guidelines & Safety Programming
Exercise Modification & Amplification Guidelines
Resistance & Cardiovascular Training Guidelines
Body Mechanics & Controversial Exercises
Static Stretching, Dynamic Stretching and Athletic Warm-up
Sports Nutrition & Application as a Fitness Leader
Interval Training & Running Drills
Partner Strengthening Exercises
Exercise Prototypes & Sample workouts
To learn more CLICK HERE
You can learn more on the Law Enforcement page of the Cooper Institute at: http://www.cooperinstitute.org/law-fire-military
CopsAlive is written to prompt discussions within our profession about the issues of law enforcement career survival. We invite you to share your opinions, ask questions and suggest topics for us in the Comment Box that is at the bottom of this article.
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