The Navy SEALs - a group of elite operators who continue to sacrifice themselves to preserve our freedom. To be transparent, I believe that the term “elite” is a gross understatement when describing them. Furthermore, what they have done (on or off the record) for all of us can never be repaid.
But, could you imagine if the Navy hired college basketball or football coaches to “train” the SEALs? Of course you couldn’t, but the opposite is happening. As over the past few years I have been hearing more and more of coaches or athletic departments bringing in Navy SEALs for a day to train their respective teams. I’m not referring to inspirational speeches or sessions describing the structure of command and the function of communication within the unit. Rather I’m speaking of the hiring of them to actually take a team through a day’s worth of physical training.
I think that it’s fair to say that most people are enamored by this group of operators (I know I am) - what they do, how they do it, and what they went through to prepare for such a job. So it stands to reason why a sport coach would leap at the opportunity to hire such a group. So while on the surface, it might seem like a great idea to hire them to come and train a team for a day, I tend to think otherwise. And believe that this might actually work to the team’s detriment.
I’m not entirely sure where the idea of hiring ex-Navy SEALs came from, but like most fads in collegiate athletics, some team likely did this; ESPN or some other media outlet did a feature on the coach bringing in this group of elite warriors, and before you know it, every other coach in the country wants to do the exact same thing.
To justify the need for this, sport coaches often use the terms or sayings like “mental toughness” or “my team needs to know what it’s like to push themselves.” Others may say, “my team is lazy, and they need to know what it’s like to work hard for a change”; “we need to bond as a team” or “I need to send a message”.
Now I am not disagreeing with these coaches’ statements or evaluations of their teams. I am however disagreeing with their solution to the problem – hiring an elite commando unit. I would like to reiterate that many coaches seek this resolution because they heard someone else has already done this, and by default, they go with any of the aforementioned “lines” to explain to their athletic director why they need to pay for this. Also, these coaches will use these statements when trying to justify their rationale to the medical and strength/performance staff, who likely will be opposed to this idea as injuries typically ensue with this type of training.
The fundamental problem with this type of training is that we are using Navy SEAL training to train those who are not Navy SEALs. I’m unclear how this notion of training makes sense in collegiate athletics, since in any other instance, and to anyone with the slightest bit of common sense wouldn’t be rational.
Why do SEALs train the way they do?
The answer is to prepare them to be SEALs. Let me elaborate on their training. Those aspiring to become SEALs endure 6-months of grueling training called Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL or BUD/S. During this half-year, SEAL recruits partake in 8 weeks of intense physical training, followed by 8 weeks of diving (with more physical training), and 9 weeks of land warfare (with even more intense physical training).
To be clear, BUD/S is just preparation for the more formalized training SEALs go through. BUD/S is more of a vetting process paired with basic training principles to determine who has “the right stuff.”
While there are a number of reasons this training is structured the way it is, one overarching reason is so the BUD/S instructors can “tear” down each member of the BUD/S class to the extent that creates a sense of reliance on their classmates. Reliance on their new brothers in arms, who stand side by side with them, is a critical element throughout this hellacious preparation. Thus camaraderie is built, and a trust, that those in the trenches with them will have their back, regardless of the circumstances. This makes perfect sense since this is the scenario that these individuals may be subjected to, and subjected to on more than one occasion.
What do Navy SEALs know about training?
It’s likely most Navy SEALs are not well versed in exercise science, planning and periodization, or developing training programs. Thus, training athletes is not their area of expertise. I am completely fine with them having a lack of understanding in the sports sciences, as neither their livelihood nor our freedom hinges on them having great command of this knowledge. However, they are experts in weapons, explosives, clandestine operations and counter terrorism. That being said, if I wanted my team to learn any one of those skills, or if the success of my season was reliant upon the ability of my athletes to advance on a beachhead, or to secure a bunker, then I’d be sure to reach out to them.
Secondarily, just because someone experienced something, doesn’t make them qualified to coach/teach/take others through it. I experienced an appendectomy once, but I am hardly qualified to operate on anyone. Navy SEALs are neither trainers nor strength coaches. I’m pretty sure a sport coach wouldn’t want some outsider who only played their sport to come and coach their players’ for a day. Why should this be any different? So if I were seeking individuals to train my team, it would stand to reason that I seek out the most qualified individuals to do so.
Is this really “mental toughness”?
A better question might be, is this the only way to achieve mental toughness? I would say that mental toughness could be enhanced through a number of other methods that don’t expose the athlete to an increased risk of injury. And if a coach isn’t happy with the mental fortitude of their athletes’, then perhaps they should first evaluate their recruiting methods or coaching style. Better yet, lean upon the support staff to help remedy the situation, rather than individuals who have never met the athletes, don’t know their personalities, nor evaluated their biomechanics and have no knowledge of the training and injury histories of each player. That aside, the question remains, is one day of SEAL training really capable of instilling mental toughness?
One of my closest friends is a former Navy SEAL, and he put it best. “We had a saying in the SEALs…everyone wants to be a Frogman on Friday.” In other words, anyone can endure one day of so-called SEAL training, or as my friend said, “when you know that at 6:30 tonight you’ll be sitting on your couch with you’re your feet kicked up and watching TV…you can get through anything.” My point to all of this is that one-day of doing Navy SEAL-type training, doesn’t instill the mental fortitude of a Navy SEAL.
Remember, the introductory (for lack of a better word) SEAL training takes six-months to elicit the desired response of mental toughness, mindset, and grit. There are a large number of individuals who elect to embark upon BUD/S, yet many do not make it. A number of them do not have the mental toughness and other qualities to complete BUD/S. A great number of others however have such mental toughness and desire that they push through the process with injuries or other medical issues like pneumonia, that they are involuntarily removed, or in some cases physically pulled out so not to inflict greater harm unto themselves - I’m not referring to those individuals.
What about “team bonding”?
The same goes for team bonding. The bond that takes place as a result of BUD/S doesn’t happen in one day or one training session. It takes place over the course of six-months. I’ve seen sports teams go through this type of training in the past, and guess what? – Those who you would expect would give in first, do. They drop the log or boat and do not carry their weight. Does this create bonding or further verify the fact that the person who you suspected as being the weakest is the weakest? What if this person who doesn’t pull his/her weight in Navy SEAL training is the best player on the team, then what? Do you want to single out your best player for not “towing the line” in a Navy SEAL training session even though he or she does more than his or her share on the field or court?
Here’s the bottom line…
I recently read an article pertaining to injuries in major league baseball. In his article, author Will Carroll said, “There are only two ways to win in baseball: collect talent, and keep it on the field.” I think this same philosophy can be applied to all sports. That being said, exposing athletes to an unnecessary risk of injury, or increasing the risk of re-aggravating a prior injury doesn’t seem like the wisest course of action. Coaches need to place their teams in the best position possible to succeed. I have seen teams participate in these SEAL training exercises and the result was not resulted in mental toughness, team bonding, or teaching athletes to “push harder”. The result was exhaustion – which places the athletes at a higher risk of injury during the next training session. Injuries – either new or re-aggravating a previous injury cause “undue” adverse results and frustrate the support staff (performance coaches and athletic trainers). When the head coach doesn’t heed the advice of his staff, he undermines their expertise diminishes their training endeavor.
So if we weigh the risk vs. reward to implementing a day’s worth of Navy SEAL training for a team, then I would deduce that there is very little reward and far too much risk.
Long time coach and respected colleague Vern Gambetta hit the nail on the head with this quote, “not one workout will make an athlete, but one workout can break an athlete.” I couldn’t agree more!
As for the SEALs - I thank you for your serivce, and for what you all continually do to preserve our freedom.