When it comes to preparing for basic or recruit training, there’s always been a great deal of emphasis placed on the physical aspect, and for good reason. For a lot of people, boot camp represents the most demanding environment they’ve ever experienced up until that point, and having a good level of physical fitness beforehand can make the challenges recruits face that much easier to manage. But amid all the discussion about running regimens and weight loss, few people touch upon what I found to be the most challenging part of recruit training: managing my mental well being in such a high stress environment.
For me and many others like me, boot camp’s physicality was one thing I not only expected, but reveled in. I’d been an athlete my whole life, playing mostly football and rugby, and when it came time to put boots to pavement or fight with the pugil sticks, I felt right at home pushing myself to the limits of exhaustion. For me, the hardest part of boot camp wasn’t the running, the climbing, or the swimming: it was the looming fear that I’d made the wrong decision, that I was missing out on important things at home, and that life would never be the same on the other side of graduation.
How to manage “FOMO”
In the social media world, FOMO is an acronym for “Fear of Missing Out,” and it’s one of the more pervasive forms of anxiety people feel at basic training. In a weird bit of irony, sometimes the very same letters from loved ones that inspire you can creep back into your head as a form of stress. We worry that our significant others are warming up to the idea of life without us, that our friends are making new memories together in our absence, or that our family members are going through a tough time without us there to provide support.
These concerns may sound fleeting out here in the real world, but in the veritable bubble of basic training, nagging doubts can snowball into real concerns, and real concerns can something feel overwhelming. Fortunately, there’s a secret for handling your FOMO-based fears: Remembering that your loved ones are also worrying about you.
Going away to basic training is an incredible adventure, filled with meeting new people, developing new skills, and learning about what you’re made of. Sure, the folks back at home are still going to parties and having a good time, but your experience at basic training is fleeting, and when it’s all over, the loved ones you left at home will be eager to hear about it. They’ll want to see how you’ve changed, but most importantly–they’ll want to see you.
Tips for dealing with FOMO
- Have a heart to heart with your loved ones before you leave and make sure they know how important they are to you. That conversation will provide you with peace of mind when FOMO starts to creep in.
- Remember that basic training is an adventure and that you’re bettering yourself. There will be time to catch up with your friends and loved ones once it’s over.
Be prepared for when you want to quit
It doesn’t matter how tough you are, how good you are in training, or how certain you are that you want to serve; eventually, we all hit our breaking point and just want to go home. Remember that wanting to quit is not the same thing as quitting, and there’s absolutely no shame in feeling like you’ve had enough. Basic training is carefully structured around the goal of overwhelming and frustrating recruits and trainees, because if you aren’t pushed to your limits, you’ll never know where they are.
Don’t go into basic training assuming you’ll never want to quit, instead, accept and acknowledge that you’ll reach your limit at some point, and remind yourself that you’re committed to seeing this through nonetheless. Sometimes, something as simple as recognizing that hard times will come ahead of time can make those hard times a bit easier. When all else fails, remind yourself that the clock never stops, and eventually, basic training will be over.
Tips for dealing with wanting to quit:
- Tell yourself ahead of time that you know you’ll want to quit at some point, and that you know you’re strong enough to get past it.
- Remember that no matter how hard the training is today, the drill instructors and sergeants can’t stop the clock. Eventually, today will end, and before you know it, so will basic training.
How to handle “mean” drill instructors/sergeants
We all know drill instructors and drill sergeants excel at being hard nosed and even mean to their recruits and trainees, and sometimes it can be tough not to take it personally when you’re being shouted at and belittled. Sometimes, drill instructors will seem like they’re being mean for no particular reason, like they’re singling you out unfairly, or like you can’t do anything right no matter how hard you try. When you’re already physically exhausted and mentally missing home, being singled out by a drill instructor for your mistakes can feel downright overwhelming. Here’s the thing though… it’s supposed to.
The people training you at basic all went through this training themselves at one point. Then, they went through another form of boot camp as they were training to become drill instructors or drill sergeants. These men and women know all about the emotional hardship of basic training, and importantly, they also know the important reasons behind that hardship. The point is to push you until you’re overwhelmed in the otherwise safe environment of training, so you’ll establish milestone events in your head to call upon when you feel overwhelmed in service later on. If the first truly grueling hardship you ever faced was in combat, you wouldn’t be well suited to manage it. But if you can remember other times when you felt this overwhelmed or down on yourself and still made it through, you’ll know that you can do it again.
Tips for dealing with mean drill instructors/sergeants:
- Remember that it’s their job to make you feel overwhelmed sometimes, so you can learn just how capable you are even when pressed to your limit.
- Understand that sometimes you’re being singled out because you’re strong, and that means having to push you that much harder for you to learn what you’re capable of.
- Keep in mind that your drill instructors/sergeants went through the same training and were overwhelmed at times just like you.
How to frame basic training in your mind
When I was attending recruit training on Parris Island, the one obstacle I had the most trouble with was the feeling that boot camp would never end. From my perspective doing pushups on the quarter deck in week 2, leaving the island in week 13 seemed so far away that it might as well have been make believe. When you’re measuring time in side straddle hops rather than hours or minutes, three months can start to seem like an eternity.
When you feel those feelings creep up into you head, remind yourself of other things you’ve done for two or three months, and how quickly that time past by. When you were a kid, summer vacation seemed to flash before your eyes, and that was just about as long as your tenure at basic. Stop focusing on how much you’ve got left ahead, and focus instead on what you’re doing right now. Focus on overcoming the immediate obstacles you’re facing and worry less about how many weeks you’ve got left. Before you know it, they’ll have passed you by while you were busy training.
Tips for dealing with the calendar:
- Focus on your immediate tasks and don’t allow yourself to dwell on the timeline
- Remember that the clock never stops, and before your know it, basic training will be over
- Sing songs to yourself in your head when standing in formation or doing menial tasks to keep your mind occupied
Cultivating mental toughness
There’s no way around it, basic training will challenge you mentally, emotionally, and physically, but don’t look at those challenges as a bad thing. Instead, remember that each challenge you overcome makes you that much stronger, that much more capable, and that much closer to your goal of serving in the United States military. Boot camp isn’t what the rest of service is like, it’s a crash course in learning your limits and acclimating to a military structure and way of life.
Don’t chastise yourself for missing home or wanting to give up, praise yourself for continuing to push yourself past those looming anxieties. Don’t sit up at night counting the challenges left to come, instead remind yourself of how many challenges you’ve already overcome.
Remember, you’ll still be you when you complete basic training, but you’ll also be so much more. You’ll be a part of something bigger than yourself. You’ll be stronger than you ever knew you could be.
You’ll be a member of the American Armed Forces.
Feature image courtesy of Gunnery Sgt. Tyler Hlavac, U.S. Marine Corps