The mental toughness secrets of the Navy Seals


(I heard the following story years ago.  I assure you, no animals were harmed in the production of this blog post). Long, long ago there was a small, quiet village in the forest, and in this village there was an old man.  This rather wize old man owned a couple of wolves.  This being a quiet village, without much to do for entertainment (and a very different time and place then from where we are today as a society) each Friday afternoon he would have them both fight and would take bets on the dogs.   The whole town would gather with eager anticipation to watch these fights and to place their bets.  Large sums of goods and coins exchanged hands each time and it seemed both wolves were evenly matched, with each seeming to win about as much as the other.  It went on like this for years - some weeks the white wolf would win and some weeks the grey wolf would win - but for some reason, without fail, the old man ALWAYS ended up betting on the eventual winner.  After years of this, the townspeople got frustrated because they felt like they were being taken advantage of but they couldn’t figure out how.  Attendance dropped away.  Eventually, since the income had dried up and he no longer had anything to lose, one of the townspeople was able to convince the old man to share his secret - how did he always know which wolf would win!?  “Simple,” said the old man.  “I just bet on the one that I’d been feeding all week.”

What does this have to do with mental toughness?  Well, Mark Divine, former Navy Seal Commander, best selling author, boils this down well in his book Unbeatable Mind.  Basically, mental toughness is really just the end result of properly controlling our focus - i.e. which wolf we "feed."  Let’s play this out in our own thinking. Let’s call the“white wolf,” Positive Self-Talk (or as Mark calls it, our "Courage Wolf") and the“grey wolf,” Negative Self-Talk the (or as Mark calls it, our "Fear Wolf.")   We are working toward a goal of some kind - fitness related, work related, military, etc., when some form of adversity pops up.  Let’s say you were planning on going to the gym on your way home from work today, but something comes up and your boss tells you he needs you to work late.  So which wolf are you going to feed?

“Damn! Something always comes up”, “Another day wasted”, “Man I’m never going to get reach my weight loss goal.  I’m just wasting my time…” (hello slippery slope).  This leads to FEELING frustrated, angry, powerless, etc.  Now to shake that FEELING, it’s possible when you get home you decide to treat yourself to ______.  (Pizza because you don't want to cook, dessert because you “deserve it” and know that the sugar coma will blunt the frustration, a beer because it will take the edge off, etc…)

Let’s try this again by applying the 3 steps that Mark used and uses to train Navy Seals and business executives for controlling their focus and developing mental toughness:

  1. Witness

  2. Interdict/Redirect

  3. Maintain

#1. Witness.  According to the Huffington Post we have between 50,000-70,000 thoughts each day. (  These thoughts, when we attach to them, have a direct impact on our emotions / how we feel - even at a neurotransmitter level.  A huge amount of these thoughts come to us unsolicited.  This means if we aren’t monitoring which thoughts that we are “attaching” to we are letting our emotions and feelings “happen” to us.  On the other hand, if we monitor and choose which thoughts we focus on, now we take CONTROL of our emotions / feelings, which is the key for mental toughness.  I’m not suggesting that we monitor every single thought all day long - that would be impossible.  But it is important to monitor your inner dialogue and how you communicate to yourself.  You need to notice when that dialogue turns negative and starts talking you into giving up or convincing yourself that it isn’t possible.  A great way to develop this type of “mindfulness” is through meditation.  Headspace is an app that does a great job of teaching the practice and has a free trial -  (  I highly recommend doing their Take10 challenge where you go through their guided meditation for 10 minutes per day for 10 days, for free.  If you give it a shot but still decide that meditation isn’t your thing, then it’s just a matter of practice but I encourage you to try it out and see if this is something for you. Mark also introduces you to some forms of breathing control/ meditation in the book.   (There are other benefits that come from meditation as well such as being better at handling stress and anxiety just to name a few.)

#2. Interdict/Redirect.  THIS is where you get to choose.  We can’t really control all of the thoughts that pop into our heads, but we can control our focus.  We can choose to let a thought go and to focus on another (another skill that can be developed with practice).  This is where you get to choose which “wolf” you are feeding.  For example, in the above case, maybe it starts the same.  “Damn!  Something always comes up!  Another day wasted!  Man… - Ok, stop it.  This kind of thinking isn’t helping anything.  I know I want to get in shape.  I will make it happen.  I know how much better I’m going to feel.  I’ll find a solution.  How can I get my work done AND get my workout in? …”  See how that keeps us in a much more resourceful state of mind?  (More on how to redirect here: How to accomplish anything develop an Extraordinary Level of Persistence)

#3. Maintain.  We all have certain habit patterns of thinking.  They are just an accumulation of years of living, of being influenced by our friends, family, TV, the media, books we read, etc. - until eventually we just get programmed to think a certain way without even realizing it.  This process that we are discussing helps to put you back in control of your programming, but like developing any habit, it takes time and focus.  (More on developing habits here: <link>)  Eventually though, instead of defaulting into a negative loop that leads to failure, you will be defaulting to the positive one automatically and this is really the foundation for accomplishing virtually anything.  Having trouble with the same negative thought popping up again and again?  Sometimes it needs more investigation and I find the process that I discussed here can help a lot:

BONUS: #4. Repeat.  I've added this one.  It's important to realize that this skill, like all, takes practice and we may catch ourselves falling back into negative habit patterns of thinking regularly.  That's to be expected.  Don't get frustrated and give up, just get right back up on the bicycle and start again.  Repeating the steps 1-3 throughout the day can and will eventually build new mental habits that are the backbone of world class mental toughness and persistence.

HOMEWORK to start now (the links are to the above mentioned related posts that may be helpful in these areas):

  1. Notice the negative thoughts. (Headspace - I use this app 4-5 days/ week)

  2. Interdict/Redirect: (For some suggestions as to where to redirect your thoughts to: How to accomplish anything and develop an Extraordinary Level of Persistence.)

  3. Maintain. Take ownership of your focus and feed the right wolf. (More here)

  4. Repeat. (More on habit building here)

I’d love to hear your thoughts below!  Please give me a comment, a thumbs up or a share if you like!