By: Mike Caviston, Director of Fitness, Naval Special Warfare Center
Posted: September 15, 2020

People often talk about mental toughness in regard to physical efforts. You’re struggling to finish a long run, or to get one more leg press rep in the weight room, and your coach yells “You can do it! It’s all in your head!” You think, my head is fine, but my legs are jelly. If I could move things with my mind I’d be wearing a superhero costume like the X-Men. It takes motivation to push yourself physically, but you can’t “will” yourself to do something you aren’t physically capable of doing. So physical training will always be indispensable when preparing for a grueling program (like BUD/S or BCS).

What is the role of Mental Toughness for performance? Does “mental toughness” even exist? Yes: sports psychologists have studied it, and many athletes believe it is the most important determinant of success in sport. So what is it? These elements are commonly found in definitions of Mental Toughness:

  1. Ability to focus
  2. To rebound from failure
  3. To cope with pressure
  4. Determined to persist in face of adversity
  5. High sense of self-belief
  6. Unshakeable faith you control your destiny
  7. Relatively unaffected by competition

These qualities are important when doing sports, but are also important for things like a chess match, a spelling bee, a job interview, or passing the SATs – which don’t have a physical component at all. You can learn and practice mental toughness in situations that don’t involve physical effort.

However, mental strategies certainly determine how effectively a physical training program is executed. Basic strategies (the Big 4) used and taught in Naval Special Warfare (NSW) can be applied to a training program such as the Physical Training Guide. For example:


Plan workouts in advance. Have plans for the day, week, and month. Set targets for miles to run and swim, exercises and reps to perform, etc. Check off your goals when you accomplish them so you can see the work you’ve accomplished. Use the technique of Segmenting to get through challenging workouts. For example, if doing a six-mile run, focus on reaching specific landmarks every mile or so (segments), and think of running a series of short runs (easy) as opposed to a long run (hard). In the weight room, concentrate on one set at a time rather than all the exercises you are going to do.


Rehearse mentally before you work out. See yourself running a specific route and think about how you will adjust your pace when the terrain changes. Visualize your technique for the Combat Sidestroke before you swim. Visualize perfect form for push-ups, pull-ups and other exercises. Do all this just before your workout as well as at quiet times throughout the day.


Sometimes create pressure or stress in your training. If you play sports this will happen on game day. If not, you might sign up for a race or competition. Or do a mock Physical Screening Test (PST) with an audience that knows your targets for each event. Practice techniques such as slow deep breathing to remain calm at the start and avoid letting excitement and adrenaline cause you to set off with an unsustainable pace.


Develop the habit of using positive comments and eliminating negative comments during training. Think about what challenging situations may occur during training and what you will tell yourself when they do.

Another mental strategy that has been studied by sports psychologists is Association/Disassociation. Let’s say you are out for a run and come to a steep hill. To make it up the hill will require an increase in physical effort. If you focus on the road and your environment and the tension in your legs and how hard you are breathing, you are using Association. If you try to block out all sensation and think of something distracting or listen to music, you are using Disassociation. Which strategy is better? It depends. In this case distraction might help you block out discomfort and let you make it up the hill. But it isn’t a good idea to be distracted too much of the time. If you always block out sensations from your activity, you may ignore warning signs of impending injury or fail to notice some hazard in your immediate environment. You may work too hard too soon and become too fatigued to finish your workout. Rather than only using Association or Disassociation, the best strategy is to alternate between the two depending on the situation. In many situations it is best to keep some awareness of your activity, environment, and sensations so you can react and adjust as necessary (i.e., “listen” to your body). Occasionally, such as going up that steep hill or when making the final sprint, you want to shut out all sensations and distractions and just get to the finish. Practice and experience will give you a better sense of when to tune in (associate) and when to tune out (disassociate).

Physical and Mental Toughness are almost certainly connected. If you are physically tough, physically demanding evolutions cause less mental stress. If you are mentally tough, you’ll show more commitment to training and eliminate excuses for missing workouts. Developing your mental toughness and sharpening your mental strategies will let you get the most benefit from your physical training.


Naval Special Warfare Assessment Command