The secret benefits of a Navy SEAL sniper mindset?

As a former sniper course manager for the SEAL Teams, I can tell you that I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of a positive mindset.

Victor Frankl talks about mindset and his Nazi prisoner experience in his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Many in the camp he was in just “gave up” mentally and died.

The mind turns off and the body follows.

 

Afghanistan, 2002

The three of us are picking through the desert hardscrabble, collecting the packs another platoon stashed here earlier, when we hear a sound. We turn and look up the ravine toward the dirt road where we parked our truck a few minutes ago. A crowd of maybe fifty Afghan guys is standing up there, seven or eight yards away, looking down at us. A crowd of Afghan guys with guns. A crowd of Afghan guys with guns, who don’t look happy.

It’s early 2002, just a few months after 9/11, and we are in northeastern Afghanistan on a search-and-seizure operation, looking for bad guys. We wonder if maybe we just found some.

We wonder if maybe some just found us.

Now they’re moving closer.

Now they’ve surrounded us. A few have hung back by our truck, and there’s nothing in the sweet wide world stopping them from climbing in and driving it away, leaving us stranded with their armed and very pissed-off friends.

I feel something shifting inside. Certain blood vessels constrict, others dilate. My palms suddenly feel cool, yet moist with sweat. Tiny hairs on the backs of my arms and neck stand at attention. My mouth is dry, my hearing suddenly more acute. I can practically feel the release and surge of epinephrine as my adrenals fire off their liquid torpedoes. Fire one! One’s away, sir! Fire two! My face doesn’t show it, but in my mind, I smile. I know what this is.

This is fear. And I’m about to use it.

There’s no time to assess or strategize. This is going down, right now. The handful by the truck have the high ground — always a tactical advantage in any armed conflict — and the rest have us immobilized here in the ravine. There are three of us, four or five dozen of them. They outnumber and outgun us in every possible way. Physically, logistically speaking, there is no way for us to prevail here. We’ll have to do it through sheer balls and bravado.

We shout at them, yell aggressive words we know they don’t understand. They scream back words we don’t know either.

They push closer. Now they’re physically shoving us.

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Our nerve ends are blazing electrochemical fireworks, adrenals, and pituitaries lighting up our brain stems and spinal nerves with the buzz of a million years of struggle and survival. The air around us crackles. We shout louder.

They don’t flinch.

American troops Afghanistan
U.S. troops enter a building in Afghanistan. (DVIDS)

We get right up in their faces as if we were the ones with the upper hand. We brandish our weapons. If this were a cowboy movie we would fire shots into the ground at their feet, too, only this isn’t a movie and we aren’t John Wayne and we are not fucking around here and they know it. If we shoot, it won’t be into the ground.

They stop coming closer. They start backing off.

We hightail our balls and bravado up the ravine and into the truck and back to our camp, our heartbeats gradually slowing back to normal as we bump along the dirt road. Were we afraid? You bet your ass we were.

That was what saved us.

 

The Battle in Your Mind

You’ve done this. I know you have. You wouldn’t be here, reading this, if you hadn’t.

No, you probably have not faced down a group of heavily armed hostile fighters on foreign soil. But at some point in your life, you’ve faced down threatening people or situations, in ways big or small. Everyone has. It’s part of the human condition.

There have been moments when your fear caused you to mobilize, to tap some inner strength or ability, and go beyond where you thought you could go. And no doubt, there have also been times when fear made you back down and back out. Like I said: the human condition.

Before you read on, I want you to think about this for a moment, to reflect back on the events of your life and find examples of both.

Times when something inside you spurred you on to triumph. And times when something inside dragged you down into defeat.

Have you got those in mind? Good.

Here’s the crucial point: all of those battles, the triumphs, the defeats, took place in your mind.

 

Bringing About the Secret Benefits

The aspects to focus on with mental management are:

  1. Visualization: Close your eyes, rehearse and practice in your mind.
  2. Ditch negative feedback loops and corrections for positive ones. Sometimes this involves quitting negative people and environments (career, anyone?). I talk about this in Power of Thought and The Red Circle. A positive style of coaching will win over a negative style of coaching all day long. It’s why Olympic Gold Medalists train this way and use all three of these tips here.
  3. Self Talk: How we talk to ourselves matters and what we allow other people to put in our heads matters also. Be on the lookout for negative energy vampires who’ll suck you dry.

You may have noticed something about the Afghanistan scenario I described above. We never actually used our guns. Nor threw any punches.

We were Navy SEALs, as well trained in the art and science of shooting weapons and using physical force to fight as anyone on the planet. But none of that helped in that situation; there were no tools or technology, no show of force or fighting skills involved. We did not have the higher ground. We did not have superior numbers. We were not on home turf. We had zero advantage.

The only weapon we used was the mastery of mind.

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