A navy seal explains 4 exercises that build mental toughness in just five minutes

We all know that navy seals are the toughest of the tough, but not many people realise that it is not just physical toughness that makes a great seal, it’s mental toughness. 

Have you ever tried running a marathon, but had a voice in your head telling you that it’s too far?

Ever had a job interview and worried that you’ll be laughed out of the room?

We’ve analysed psychological research on the Mental Links to Excellence of Olympic Athletes and interviews with a former Navy Seal. These are arguably some of the toughest people on the planet, and here’s the crazy thing… they are all doing the same four things.

One: They talk to themselves positively

Did you know that in only one minute, we typically say between 300-1000 words to ourselves? It’s the voice that tells us we can’t do something, we’ll look stupid or we’ll fail.

A terrifying test in Navy Seal training is known as the pool comp, whilst swimming underwater the instructor will suddenly break their breathing apparatus. The challenge is for the Seal to remain calm and fix the problem quickly.

The only way to do this is talk to themselves positively, “stay calm, you can hold your breath for two minutes, take it one step at a time.”

Next time you are facing a crisis or challenging situation, think like a Seal. Think positively.

Two: They set themselves goals

The theory is that if you don’t set a goal, how will you know when you’ve achieved it?

To build mental toughness navy seals and athletes set their goals in a very specific way, every single day.

“The best athletes had clear daily goals. They knew what they wanted to accomplish each day, each workout, each sequence or interval.”

How can you use daily goal setting to build mental toughness? Imagine you are dieting and want to lose a stone. You start off well, but soon find your willpower breaking and old habits reforming.

The problem is that the goal was too big and vague. It was easy to talk negatively to yourself (see step one) and inevitably fail.

Instead, a navy seal would set themselves a series of specific goals.

Today’s goals:


  • Run 5k, sub 24 minutes.
  • Eat three meals and two snacks (100g protein, maximum of 2000 calories).
  • Drink 3 litres of water.
  • Stretch legs, 15 minutes minimum.


Do you see the difference? If you weighed every day, and based on your progress set yourself a set of goals every day – then losing weight isn’t so tough.

Three: They practice visualisation

A sure fire way to fail at something is to think you are going to fail, that’s why Seals will always visualise the scenario before they do it:

“With mental rehearsal they were taught to visualise themselves succeeding with their activities.”

Sounds easy, right? But there’s a little more to it.

Visualising everything being perfect doesn’t guarantee it will go well, instead visualise the entire scenario, break down each activity and think about what could potentially go wrong and how you will overcome each obstacle.

The seals call this ‘mental preparedness’ and it can help you too.

Four: They use simulations

The final step focuses on being prepared as possible by using simulations.

Mike Kenny, a super tough Special Forces Lieutenant Colonel said:

“In Army parlance they say, “train like you fight.”

You need to do too, if you have a big presentation in work then gather some friends and practice in front of them. If you screw up, don’t stop and start again – react to the situation as if it was your boss sitting in front of you.

Let’s do this

Though most of us will never be as strong or tough physically as a Navy Seal, analysing this research has cracked the secret world of mental toughness right open. Remember:

  • Make sure that the voice inside your head is talking positively
  • Set yourself specific, daily goals
  • Visualise each scenario and plan for challenges
  • Simulate each scenario as if it were happening for real

As the Seals say, you need to be “all in, all the time”. With this in mind, what will your first step be to becoming mentally tough?

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Written by Justin Brown

I'm Justin Brown, the founder of Ideapod. I've overseen the evolution of Ideapod from a social network for ideas into a publishing and education platform with millions of monthly readers and multiple products helping people to think critically, see issues clearly and engage with the world responsibility.

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