Like a US Navy SEAL: Developing Mental Toughness

November 9, 2015
Sharon Shin Grandview High School 11th Grade

Sharon Shin
Grandview High School
11th Grade

Trapped underwater with a tremendous force thrashing you around, depleting oxygen inside your body, tearing off your goggles, and tangling your breathing equipment into knots, you would feel the urge to come up to the surface and desperately shout out for help. However, the recruits of the US Navy SEALs in San Diego, California must surmount the fear of drowning and maintain composure even in such life-threatening circumstances.

During the Underwater Pool Competency Test, the instructors created the aforementioned scenario to simulate assaults by sea creatures under stormy water. On average, only 36 candidates out of 140 are able to accomplish the dreadful task of untangling the knots within 20 minutes.

Upon learning that the lack of ability to control signals from the amygdala, the center of emotion in the brain, has hampered many recruits from passing the test, the commanders of the SEALs worked with psychologists to develop a mental toughness program. The program focuses on four different techniques: goal setting, mental rehearsal, self-talk, and arousal control centered on breathing.

Goal setting promotes the role of the frontal lobe in reasoning and planning; aiming for specific, short-term goals helped the recruits concentrate on the task at hand with less distraction.

Mental rehearsal, also called visualization, is running through the activity in one’s mind. Having imagined themselves overcome the hindrances and achieve the desired outcome, the recruits better coped with fear when faced with the same situation in reality.

Self-talking, or speaking positively to oneself, instilled confidence and prevented the recruits from being overwhelmed with concerns.

Lastly, arousal control centered on breathing imitates the body’s relaxation response through long exhale process. This allowed the recruits to receive more oxygen and thus remain calm.

A combination of these four techniques indeed proved effective, as the SEALs’ passing rate increased from 25% to 33% after the program.

Fortunately, these four techniques are not limited to the SEALs’ recruits but could be applied to a plethora of people. Having a positive and calm mindset can be highly advantageous in various aspects of our lives, whether it be during sports games, art performances, presentations, or tests.

It is part of our human nature to have fears. Nevertheless, we are capable of extinguishing unnecessarily overwhelming fears by applying these four techniques. Next time you have to untie a “knot” or solve problems under extreme duress, practice these techniques. They will not only boost your mental toughness, but also help exert your full potential.


  1. Azou Abedelilah

    November 9, 2015 at 4:03 PM

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    • azou abedelilah

      November 19, 2015 at 11:28 AM

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    November 9, 2015 at 4:05 PM

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