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Six tips to mentally prepare for Navy SEAL training

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BUD/S candidate lifting log
U.S. Navy SEAL candidates participate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. SEALs are the maritime component of U.S. Special Forces and are trained to conduct a variety of operations from the sea, air and land. April 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt)

There have been loads of articles, podcasts, books, and other media created over the years covering how to physically train for Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. That makes sense, as BUD/S is one of the most physically demanding military training programs in the world. Despite that, though, the arguably far more important training to undergo in preparation for BUD/S is mental.

Physical preparation is critical to completing BUD/S. While it is a necessary part of the process, however, it is not sufficient. I knew plenty of guys back when I went through BUD/S who had the physical ability in spades to make it through but didn’t. What they lacked was the mental commitment. In fairness, I should also note that some of those who did indeed have the mental dedication to finishing also did not make it, for a variety of reasons, including failure to pass timed evolutions, unsafe conduct on the live fire range, injury, and a few other causes.

Regardless, I will give you six mental strategies to help you develop the proper mindset to make it through SEAL training. These strategies worked for me, and I replayed each in my mind on a near-daily basis during BUD/S, like some ancient guru reciting a mantra. They were partly passed down to me from my family members who had made it through the training and I refined and tailored them. All of them played a huge part in my success at BUD/S, and I hope they might help you, too.

Finish, fail, or die

Navy SEAL candidates
U.S. Navy SEAL candidates participate in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. SEALs are the maritime component of U.S. Special Forces and are trained to conduct a variety of operations from the sea, air, and land. (U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Abe McNatt)

Without question, the one thing I told myself most often during BUD/S was, “They’re either going to kill me or fail me, but I am not quitting.” There are lots of things that can cause someone to fail BUD/S – injury, serious medical conditions, academics in Dive Phase, the 5.5 mile timed swim, Third Phase run times, drown proofing, dive competency, and more – and I never felt completely sure I would make all the benchmarks or not get hurt. Yet, what I did know for sure was that I was not going to quit and that the one thing I had absolute control over was my own mind. I am a naturally stubborn man, and that played no small part in my making it through BUD/S. I was determined to finish.

Remember: each evolution will end

My dad also made it through BUD/S, about 30 years before me, and the one thing he told me over and over again before I started the program was to remember that no matter how terrible the training evolution, how cold the surf torture session, or how demanding the physical training, all evolutions would come to an end. BUD/S is highly regimented and scheduled, and there are dozens of evolutions students go through each day. If one is particularly kicking your butt, then grit your teeth, muscle through it, and focus on making it to the end of it. Then, you can warm up, cool down, hydrate, catch your breath, or whatever else you need to do to carry on. I reminded myself of this every day. It is a simple rewording of the old saying, when you find yourself in Hell, keep going.

Related: The favorite games of BUD/S instructors that SEAL candidates suffer through

Live meal-to-meal, day-to-day

sailors eat
Sailors are served ice cream on the mess decks during an ice cream social aboard U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19), January 2024. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Charlotte Duran)

Piggybacking on the the above idea, I learned pretty quickly in BUD/S that to survive day-to-day you just need to focus on making it to the next meal. One of the things that sets SEAL training apart from some other crucible-style training programs, especially, for example, Ranger School, is that in BUD/S, you get to eat – a lot. Yes, you have to run a mile to the chow hall for each meal, then a mile back, but that doesn’t matter. Each meal break is a chance to stuff your face, recharge, and prepare for the next dose of torture that will be dealt your way. It makes a big difference if you can just tell yourself you’ll make it to the next meal, or the next day. Before you know it, you only have one day, then one meal, to go. That is one of the best feelings you will ever experience in your life, I promise you. 

Don’t forget: others have done it

I routinely joke that I wasn’t terrified of BUD/S because members of my family had made it through, and “if those guys can do it, surely I can too.” While that is just a tongue-in-cheek poke to have a little fun at my relatives’ expense, there is a nugget of truth there. You need to tell yourself that completing BUD/S is an achievable goal for those willing to put in the preparation and the mental commitment. Once you realize that it does not take a Superman to succeed, you will develop the confidence that you, too, can be one of the 20 percent who make it through. Do the prep work, then make yourself believe – make yourself know – that you are as mentally and physically prepared as any other person who has made it through.

Related: Cold winds and cloudy skies: Delta Force cold-weather operations

Remember: it’s a game

BUD/S instructor
A Navy SEAL instructor watches as BUD/S students participate in surf drill training at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, CA. (Photo by Donna Miles/Office of the Secretary of Defense Public Affairs)

It is important to remember, especially during First and Second Phases of BUD/S, that each and every day, during each and every evolution, the instructors are trying to see if you have what it takes to withstand the physical and mental strain of making it through the program. They are going to harass you, they are going to insult you, they are going to make you physically uncomfortable, and they are going to play mind games at your expense. They are going to try to convince you to quit. They are going to tell you that you will never make it through, that you are weak. Never forget that their goal in all of this is not to take pleasure in your pain and suffering (though most surely they do), but rather to act as gatekeepers allowing only the worthy to enter their small club. It is a rite of passage. It is a crucible you have to get through. It is a game. Remember that, and win the game at all costs. You might not believe it, but in most cases, they actually want you to make it through.

Do not have a Plan B

Finally, it is imperative that you go into BUD/S without a backup plan. While that sounds like terrible advice for a program with an 80 percent failure rate, I assure you it is critical that you tell yourself the only option is that you make it through the training, earn your Trident (the SEAL warfare insignia worn on the uniform), and become a Navy SEAL. If you have any inkling whatsoever that there are other good options for you if you don’t make it and that those alternatives would not be so bad, then you have lost the war before you have even commenced the battle. While it might be a little like jumping out of a plane without a reserve parachute, go into BUD/S training with one and only one plan: finish, fail, or die.

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Frumentarius is a former Navy SEAL, former CIA officer, and currently a battalion chief in a career fire department in the Midwest.