After 9/11, SOF units became the go-to option for policymakers. This highligthed the need for a larger, more effective force. Thus, SOF units began implementing techniques from professional sports teams to their selection processes and to their operational elements. Nearly two decades since, however, the opposite is beginning to happen.
Recently, top CrossFit athletes joined Special Forces operators assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group (5th SFG) for a day of PT, marksmanship and other events. Among the participants were Noah Ohlsen, who came 2nd at the 2019 CrossFit Games, and Captain Chandler Smith, who came 15th.
“We wanted to show the physical fitness aspect of a Special Operations unit and how it is similar to some top athletes in the world,” said a Special Forces senior non-commissioned officer.
Ever since its inception, CrossFit has become rather popular in the military community. The functional fitness it advocates translates directly to increased combat effectiveness.
“We wanted to bring together these two separate groups of people because we share very similar values,” said Major James McNally, the commanding officer of A Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th SFG. “You have these elite level athletes on one hand, and our elite Special Forces performers from 5th SFG (A) on the other.”
However, an important — yet seldom mentioned — difference between professional athletes and SOF operators is the nature of their physical training. Both professional athletes and SOF operators need to be in superb physical condition. But there is a nuanced difference between physical fitness and physical toughness.
NFL, CrossFit, NBA, you name it, athletes go out on the field properly nutritioned and rested. Their operating conditions, moreover, are monitored. Sometimes during their training it might be raining or snowing and it might be hot or cold; but they will not face conditions that would jeopardize their health.
On the other hand, SOF operators, and indeed close-combat warfighters, are required to perform life-and-death tasks malnutritioned, sleepless, exhausted and often under fire. SOF units often have to ruck miles carrying dozens of pounds of gear before even beginning their missions. The CrossFit equivalent would be athletes conducting a 3-4 hour long WOD before competing.
Physical toughness — the ability to withstand extreme environmental and situational conditions — is far more important than the ability to bench press 315lbs, squat 405lbs or sprint 100m in under 15 seconds. And I would argue that physical toughness requires even more mental power than peak physical fitness. The number of professional athletes who drop from SOF selection courses (for instance, BUD/S, SFAS, RASP, A&S) because they simply can’t handle the cold water, the repetitive long rucks or the cadre’s mind-games, supports this.