Better Test Performance The Navy SEALs Way


The elite SEALs teams—the U.S. Navy’s Special Ops forces—have discovered how to make their trainees more successful at completing the mythically-tough training and actually become Navy SEALs.  In fact, they now teach trainees stress control techniques that may be responsible for helping to boost the number of successful passing candidates from one fourth of each class to one third of each class.

Amazingly, these techniques are very similar to what I’ve been teaching my students for years.  No magic here.  What I teach comes directly out of good psychological , and the SEALs have been doing their homework!

According to a recent History Channel documentary on science, SEAL trainees are now taught four key stress control techniques that allow them to perform better even during the grinding SEAL Hell Week.

The four keys?  , Mental Rehearsal, Self Talk, and Arousal Control.  I normally teach these techniques in my GRE prep course to help students cope with test and daunting schedules.

Check back tomorrow as we look at how the SEALs use goal setting to overcome stress and how you can use it to excel during finals!

From the Series “Better Test Performance The Navy SEALs Way”
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

22 thoughts on “Better Test Performance The Navy SEALs Way

  1. Saw this documentary yesterday also, sharpbeam. The SEAL example was a refreshing application of neuroscience. (Had it playing in the background in my office and after 15 minutes I scrambled around to get a VHS into the recorder. =)

    I look forward to your ideas on applying the 4 principles to test-taking.

    PS: You may like a piece in Stanford’s alumni magazine on Carol Dweck’s work – The Effort Effect: why failure spurs on some and shuts down others.

  2. Thanks for stopping by fouroboros, sharpbean. (posting this here and there =)

    I like your idea on WoW although I’ve never played. Speaking of which, not sure if you know of Kathy Sierra, but an interesting idea on the threshold between reward/persistence and learning curves in software (or any system) can be found here:

    On the topic of fixed or growth, I’ve been struggling to get a book out that touches in part on the same thing. I find that ideology and culture really hold huge sway until *emotional* events cause the breaking down of walls. Reality only gets a chance when fantasy fails spectacularly, a la Wall Street’s current come-uppance. A meager crack at the barrier here from 2004:

  3. Sounds like a bit of B.S. to me. That thought process goes on in your mind whether you want it to or not. Completion of BUD/S training for Navy SEALS has always fluctuated and going from one quarter to one third completion is no surprise. It is all dependent on the quality of the candidates sent to BUD/S. There is more emphasis being put on finding endurance athletes, like triathletes, who are already mentally tough. I think the changes that have taken place in the search for SEAL candidates is the reason for any increases in percentages of candidates completing BUD/S training and becoming Navy SEALS. BUD/S classes that started with over a hundred candidates have graduated anywhere from eight to thirty or so. I graduated BUD/S class 49, West Coast and I can tell you that “the only easy day was yesterday”. If you took one day at a time, and your goals were set for that day, and that day only, you would have broken the code for managing some of the mental stress. It was about that simple, but a lot of BUD/S trainees couldn’t seem to stop thinking about that long swim or tough run that they would face later in the week and they “psyched themselves out”. I don’t think that the four keys of Goal Setting, Mental Rehearsal, Self Talk, and Arousal Control, whatever that is, has been responsible for increasing the percentages of candidates completing BUD/S training. I do think that the changes made in searching for endurance athletes has made an enormous difference. Endurance athletes tend to be smarter as well as being mentally tough. Jim LaVore, BUD/S class 49, wc. SEAL Team One, Vietnam Veteran.

  4. I appreciate your take on this, Jim. Undoubtedly, the SEALs have made many changes over the years (such as seeking out endurance athletes) and each of these has contributed in some way to increased trainee success rates. In the interview on the History channel documentary, if I remember correctly, it was a Navy SEALs representative who asserted that these four keys were in some way responsible for the higher pass rates. That’s no proof, of course, but it is the opinion of someone who is more likely to know than I am.

    I tend to give it credence, however, not because I heard it from one interview on TV, but because it provides yet one more example among many of how these mental skills have proven their utility. Other sources (better supported with research) include sports psychology, survival psychology (see for example the excellent and readable book, Deep Survival, by Laurence Gonzales), covert conditioning, cognitive behavioral therapy, etc.

    Endurance athletes do tend to be more mentally tough, as you rightly point out. Might that mental toughness come in part from an application of these principles?

    To what do you attribute your own ability to persevere and succeed under circumstances (such as BUD/S training) where most others failed? What were you thinking and saying to yourself to keep yourself going? I would love to gain some insight from your personal experience.

  5. Update: Jim, I’ve recently had a chance to watch the History Channel documentary again. It was Eric Potterat, the SEALs command psychologist, who talked about these four techniques, however he did not say they were responsible for the higher pass rates. That statement was made by the show’s narrator.

    The usefulness of each the four techniques was commented on by Roger Herbert, the SEALs Commanding Officer; by Chuck Pfarrer, a Navy SEAL; or by another SEAL or SEAL candidate. I’ve revised the post to reflect this.

    Again, thanks for your input. I hate to be wrong, and you’ve saved me from perpetuating an error.

  6. I’m familiar with these techniques and the current/recent research in the area of sport psychology and the application of these techniques to improve performance. This is a growing area.

    By the way, has anyone done a search on that SEAL command psychologist. His name is Eric Potterat. Google him and take a look at his resume. Holy cow! He seems to have done quite a bit of research in performance and special operations.

  7. I am in the Teams and have heard Doc Potterat speak a few times. That dude knows what the hell he is talking about. He is one of the few docs who is trusted. He gives a lot of talks on performance enhancement and techniques to make Team guys better. Most guys I know think this guy is the real deal.

  8. Dr. Eric Potterat is the psych doc for the SEALs. Every SEAL I know who has heard him teach and seen the program he developed says amazing things about him. I saw that the Today Show featured his mental toughness program and test last week.

  9. I have been Goggling and found this blog. I was actually searching for some info about the research that Dr. Potterat (the psych for the SEAL Teams) has been doing and has done. I heard him speak about 3 months ago and was blown away. He gave a lecture on methods to control the human stress response and human performance. He has done a lot of work with sports teams as well. Everyone that I talk to says that this is ‘the guy’ to go to.

  10. i think eric potterat is full of shit. try and see for your self. he has a facebook page that he hides out of fear of being stressed over.

  11. Read some of CDR Potterat’s work recently. I think it is all pretty reasonable. He seems to be credible when it comes to SEAL research on the mind and performance. The stuff he talks about is the stuff I used to get through years ago. His work with Optibrain is interesting.

  12. Came across this blog. Heard Dr. Potterat speak during a panel discussion on the science of mental toughness at MIT last month. There were about 200 professors and students at the talk. He, a few SEALs, and Dr. Minsky presented an extremely interesting panel on the science and attributes of elite performance. The talk certainly inspired many of us to follow-up with this area of applied mental conditioning. Many of my graduate students are still talking about this panel discussion. It was the first time we had seen or heard about the science behind the mental aspects of performance. Well done!

  13. What a bunch of braggarts including Potterat and his Admiral Mike Mullins. Listen to Dr. Steve Pieczenik and you will find out what this is really all about. He’s got an entirely different take on what it takes to succeed.

  14. Listened to Pieczenik and was completely bored. That guy and what he talks about is not going to make me a better warrior. Potterat talks about things that make me a better shooter.

  15. Hi does anyone know the name of the documentary? I am very keen to watch it.
    And also excellent article, great tips.

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