Comfort, speed, and efficiency in the water are all hallmarks of a successful NSW recruit. Aquatics expert Dan Kish talks with us about developing confidence in the water. For more information visit www.sealswcc.com.
“Get your heads up and get your eyes open. Stop trying to hide from the pain.”
“Heads up; eyes open.”
DF: Welcome to, “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” the official Navy SEAL podcast.
DF: Comfort, speed, and efficiency in the water are all hallmarks of a successful NSW recruit. Today at NSW Preparatory School we continue our discussion with aquatics expert, Dan Kish, to speak specifically about safely developing confidence in the water.
DF: This will be a popular episode because there are so many people that are not comfortable in the water and even before that flat out can’t swim or have had very little exposure to the types of swimming that you’re talking about. For people who are in that camp, what is your recommendation for them in terms of kind of introducing water sports initially into their training regimen? Do you recommend people kind of start with the real basics like modified freestyle just to kind of learning to at least kind of start the crawl, walk, run kind of part of this swim process? I can’t help but think that there’s going to be a lot of people that tune into this episode to learn like, “Hey, I’m a bad, I know I’m a bad swimmer,” or, “I think I’m a bad swimmer. Where do I even start? This combat sidestroke, I can barely even get in the water without feeling like I’m going to drown, you know what I mean?
DK: That’s common. A lot of friends that joined, you know, higher military branches and very weak and deficient in the water, and they knew it, and they asked me like, “Hey, I know you can swim. Can you help me out here?” and I would drag them to the pool with me. Water polo is another great way to become comfortable and confident and with team building going on. It’s the most calories you’ll ever burn in a match or game, you know, one game of polo. There is no rest cause you’re treading no matter what you are doing. You’re in the pool. You are sprinting. And great ways to become, you know, a little bit more comfortable and confident. You don’t have to be the fastest swimmer. We just want you to have a good foundation or base that we can build on and make you, you know, get dialed in and tuned in to become much, you know, more efficient in the water, and it should be the last of your worries once you get out, you know, two mile swims in the bay, water rescues, pool comp, knot-tying should be flawless once you get out there I hope.
DF: So, you just mentioned a comfortable or confident base. Can you maybe give me your definition of that? It doesn’t have to be precise, but I’m sure people will, set that as a benchmark for where they want to get at a bare minimum. And so, kind of maybe give me a picture of what that means to you.
DK: It’s very easy to identify who is scared or uncomfortable in the water from day one. If you’re swimming with big eyes, panic mode, just trying to find the wall as fast as you can, that’s wrong. You know, slow things down. You should be able to swim, you know, longer distances. You don’t need to have a ton of speed, but your 500-yard times should hopefully be under that ten minute, you know, nine minute base to be good and comfortable in the water. If you’re over eleven, twelve minutes, you’re going to struggle significantly in the pool evolutions that take place here.
DF: So, that’s a pretty good number then. People can actually kind of have a metric for themself to say, you know, “Where I’m at in this spectrum in terms of comfortability.” Obviously, I think with the type of instruction you can provide in your other teammates, obviously people can get much better and much more comfortable, especially with additional exposure, but that’s a good place for them to start is that what you’re saying?
DK: Yes, get your, you know, 500-yard time down, you know, with the least number of strokes as well. So, be efficient and get your time down. We call that here golfing, where we want to take the lowest number of strokes while going the fastest time. We’ll play around with that a little bit. And we will always train half the time on our right side and half the time on our left side here at the prep school. Majority of us have a strong dominant side, and majority of us have a bad side, and we want to be good on both, and that helps play a role with being comfortable no matter, not always operationally speaking you can go swim down on your right side and swim back on the mission on your right side as well. Be good on both, and that’s the same with freestyle. You’ll always breathe half the time over your right shoulder, half the time over your left shoulder.
DF: Is that a testing requirement for the PST to be swimming half and half on each side?
DK: That is not a testing requirement here. When we train, we enforce it heavily. If you watch the Olympics, you’re like, “Oh, Michael Phelps only breathes over his right shoulder.” Correct. They race like that. They do not train like that. You will always train half the time on your good side, half time on your bad side or with breathing on a freestyle or combat sidestroke, so we do enforce that pretty strictly here, be good on both. And that will help any one side develop better as well.
DF: Let’s talk a little bit about buoyancy. It’s something that I really wasn’t even that aware of until maybe a few months ago when we started doing a little bit of reading and research about the PST in general. How can someone determine whether they’re negatively buoyant or positively buoyant, is that something that’s easy to determine, or is it just like, “I keep sinking to the bottom of the pool...” How do you determine that?
DK: So, that’s funny. We’re all humans. You know, we’re all pretty much the same. How come you’re buoyant, and I’m negative? It makes no sense. However, about 20% of the candidates that come through, you know, sink to the bottom.
DF: Is that a body composition thing?
DK: Body composition plays a low role. You see, you know, the bulkier muscle guys, but we still have some candidates that exhale all their air and are still bobbing at the service.
DF: Yeah, ‘cause I definitely sink if I let out the oxygen out of my lungs, so.
DK: Which is good. What I tell them is, “You need to learn how to control your body in the water.” Some of us are positive, some of us are negative. Both have perks here at Naval Special Warfare Prep School. When we swim, we want to be at or even better on the surface, right, so we want to be positive in the water. You know, the less drag, you’ll increase speed. If you’re negative in the water, you’re going to be working a little bit harder. We want to get that body position at or on the surface. But if you’re negative, once we start working, the first time we do pool skills, one of the stations is floats, and your hands and feet will be together behind your back, and you need to do what it takes to control your body. You have to stay at the surface, you have to stay inside your six foot by six foot, you know, box, and you can’t just travel or swim all around. And for some of us, it’s the easiest thing you’ll ever do, right. You just be a bobber in the water, simple, hands and feet together. Other candidates that are negative, you’re going to be working a little bit harder. You know, get those little dolphin, shrimp kicks going, stay at the surface the entire time. So, yes, we’re all humans, why is it different? Some of us are positive, some of us are negative. Females float better than men, different demographics float better than others, everybody, everyone is different in the water. You need to learn how to control your body in the water.
DF: So, talk to me a little bit about that. Is that just a matter of keeping a certain amount of air in your lungs? You did mention something about, you know, kind of flutter kick or shrimp kick a little bit to kind of help keep yourself propelled towards the surface. Can you talk to me a little bit about that? Like what types of techniques maybe someone should investigate or kind of try out in the pool or in the ocean or wherever to kind of figure out what works for them. What’s the starting point for that?
DK: Yes, so here we have fresh water pools. In the ocean, different density makeups, it’s easier to float salt water than fresh water. So, if you’re positive in the water, you can almost get in a vertical position, straight up and down, which is quite difficult to do. You have to be very positive in the water. And then you’ll play with your lung capacity. Can you breathe and exhale and still stay at the surface or on the surface?
DF: So, you’re talking about really kind of staying like a pencil in the water, not moving your arms too much and just using your breathing to kind of determine at what level you start to, your mouth will start to sink under the water. Is that accurate?
DK: That would be someone who is extremely positive in the water, can float very easily.
DF: Just by kind of, just sticking their body vertically in the water, and their face will stay above water.
DK: Which is a small percent of candidates that come through. The majority of us, we want to get our body into a question mark shape almost, so your head will be down in the water, the buoyant parts of your body are obviously your lungs, your organs, your chest cavity is quite positive and buoyant in the water there. So, once you get your body in your question mark shape, so your hands will be together behind your back, your feet will be together, bring your knees up to your chest, and they’ll float at the surface. And then when you do need a breath, work your legs, kick your head up, get that quick breath in, and get right back down, head down into that question mark shape that your whole body should be in. This is the majority of our candidates that we see during our floats. So, during, we started doing some pool skills and drown proofing tests, you have to float for three minutes. So, stay inside your six foot by six foot box staying at the surface for those entire three minutes.
DF: It seems like you’re saying the majority of people are negative, it’s either negative buoyant or buoyant. Is that correct terminology?
DK: From the second half of the spectrum I would say a little bit more negative in the water. When you come, your feet will be tied together here. So, you need to learn how to control small dolphin kicks or working, you know, with the lower half of your body there to keep yourself at the surface and then work those into your breaths, so get a good rhythm, kick your head up for a breath, kick your head right back down, try and stay in that question mark shape. But we will work with you here. We have five aquatic coaches here to help you, make you more comfortable and confident in the water.
DF: I’m just going to interrupt real quick cause I think that’s a really key point, comfortable and confident in the water. Being exposed to water, underwater is a really fast way to make you uncomfortable, and developing the techniques and skills to give you the confidence to know that you’ll be able to get a breath when you need one as opposed to when your body’s kind of wanting one is, I think is a pretty big key to even developing your skill and efficiency in the combat sidestroke. Being able to know that you can get the breath you need, and you don’t need to break from that mental focus and put your chest up and, “Give me a second to regroup.” I can’t think of any other way other than just exposure and time, practice to really accelerate that unless you have any tips that you can add to that.
DK: Absolutely. The first three letters in SEAL spell sea, right. You’re going to be in the water. That should be the least of your worries if you have a mission, operationally speaking, if you’re in the water for that long, about your swimming abilities or how comfortable and confident you are. We are humans. We’re not designed for the water at all. We walk upright, we have a curved spine, we need air. We do not belong in the water. I think we’re one of the few mammals at birth that cannot swim. Spend time in the water to become comfortable and confident. It does not happen overnight. The golden rule we have here is every day you’re out of the water, it takes about two days to get back where you were, so if you have, you know, a long weekend, or you’ve been out of the pool for a week, it’s going to feel like you’re swimming in mud and all sluggish because you naturally will lose that feel for the water. We need to spend time in the pool, you know, find pools. You don’t have to swim lots. Back in the day, we used to swim, you know, up to 100,000 meters a day, just spend time…
DF: You mean individually, an individual would swim 100,000 meters in one day?
DK: That’s common during peak training, training trips, training times, but here at prep, we swim about 2 to 4,000 meters a day, which we want some quality training with also some treading, some pool skills taking place, water rescues, whatever else we do. So, here at prep, we swim about 2 to 4,000 meters a day to help us from, you know, kicking, swimming, pacing, long distance swims, short sprints. We kind of do a mixed bag with all the strokes almost every day here.
DF: Let’s talk a little bit about mobility. There’s obviously huge focus on strength and coming into this pipeline, you know. These guys have to do X number of pull-ups and pushups. Guys have been asking each other how much they can bench since they were teenagers, right. Not everybody has the type of genetics that you are gifted with, the type of swimmer body that you would see versus, you know, an Olympic weightlifter or fill in a blank for any other sport, right. That seems like it would be a little bit of an issue for some people, whether it’s the shoulders and their ability to reach and kind of cause a little bit of that stuttered stroke and stuff like that. Do you work on mobility here, or do you recommend the guys and athletes that are kind of coming into this process work on mobility? Any specific exercises for that, that you recommend?
DK: We all love those big, bulky mirror muscles. Those are not going to assist you in the pool. We want to have, you know, the longest range of motion possible, increase, you know, your shoulder mobility, make you more efficient in the water and just to help with injury prevention as well. So, stay away from bulky muscles. We want to be flexible, so we will do some stretching here, increase your range of motion, shoulder mobility. If I see some candidates that are really bad in the water, I will pull them aside and show them some extra stretches they can do to help them, help them out. There’s been a couple times, as groups, we’ll do, a class stretch. With the swimming background, I do, a majority of all the shoulder mobility, increase that range of motion, but there are some partner stretches, you know, grabbing your hands behind your back should be taking place. If you’re bad at that, work with a towel little by little. Working on perfect streamline. A majority of our candidates can’t even do that, where, you know, everyone can show me a streamline, but is your wrist over wrist, are you squeezing your ears with your biceps, are you as long as possible in the water? And it’s just unnatural to be in the water keeping your arms above you for that long that I think candidates really don’t expect, and it will help you out in the long run, you know, be more efficient and hopefully prevent some injuries as well.
DF: After speaking with people involved with kind of the strength and conditioning out of water portion of building up for this, there’s a big emphasis on the parts of the body that people aren’t working on in the gym, you know what I mean, the upper back and the shoulders specifically I think are, got to be a common weak point for people, not necessarily in strength but in mobility and being able to get a really, really long stroke, you need to be able to get your hands straight over shoulders, and you see nobody off the street can do those types of movements to be able to make their body that long. Do you think that’s representative of what you see in the pool?
DK: It is common. Hopefully, it will go away over time. Once we do start swimming, you’re going to start getting used to having your arms out in front of you for long periods of time, whether we’re doing some, you know, kicking drills in the streamlined position, whether we’re just swimming some long-distance freestyle sets, where we kind of over-exaggerate, you know, front quadrant swimming. You’re always keeping one hand out in front of your body, you know, the most efficient ways to swim freestyle, and that should start going away over time, but hopefully you can come with a good range of motion in your shoulders. We’re not going to overstress your shoulders too much in the pool. A lot of us swimmers have been doing it for many years, we’ll start having some shoulder injuries more common in the pool. Ankle flexibility is also a huge one that gets overlooked in the pool. A lot of our candidates kick like they are wearing boots, and they have no boots on.
DF: So, you’re saying keeping their foot at like a 90-degree angle?
DK: Correct, which is not what we want to do here. You should not have to think about pointing your toes while kicking, but ankle flexibility plays a big role in the water. We will slowly increase the amount of meters we do with fins on starting off with no fins and then slowly working our way up to, you know, 4, 5,000 meters with fins on, but if you have poor ankle flexibility, there’s some other stretches you can use, you know, such as writing the alphabet, sitting on your feet while you’re watching TV or whatever it is but other, natural abilities to get kind of overlooked in the pool there.
DF: So, you mentioned fins, what’s your take on the fin issue in terms of for prep and training, how do you recommend people incorporate, if at all, fins and masks and goggles and caps or whatever it is into their training process developing for PST tests?
DK: So, almost every pool has some basic equipment. Luckily for swimming, you don’t need any. If you want some goggles or a mask, absolutely wear them. Take your mask off every now and then. Swim, you know, swim with your face in the water. Your gear will fail. Masks will break. Mission still needs to be carried on. You shouldn’t be freaking out if you have no mask. You can still swim; still carry out the mission. Fins, just wear some regular rubber surface fins. You don’t need to have 10-foot-long dive fins, some ridiculous things on your feet that are, you know, stiff as a board. Just basic surface fins or Zoomers, which are those little bit shorter looking fins. Help you out just condition your legs a little bit more. Kickboards are almost found at every single pool as well. We do use those here at prep as well, you know, condition your legs. If you can condition, you know, the biggest muscle groups of your body, the rest of your body will be good to go as well, so we will focus a lot on kicking. It’s also the quickest way to get in shape as well, kicking with the board, without a board, you know, in streamline position, on your side. We will do a lot of other drills, you know, with some equipment on, some equipment off, so be comfortable all strokes with, without equipment. You should be good in the water no matter what. If you’re wearing pants, if you’re wearing a shirt, just a suit, all have different feels for the water, which you should be able to, execute with no problem.
DF: What kind of things that are a little bit unconventional do you think are helpful that you would recommend that are safe for people to develop their skills and their capabilities and their comfort level?
DK: One great thing about swimming, there’s infinite amount of drills you can do to help you out, become more, you know, comfortable in the water, are just bite-sized pieces of the stroke. So, you can start swimming, you know, with just one arm or just, you know, one leg out of the water. We’ll do some goofy, you know, body balance drills like that. Always swim with a lifeguard, with a buddy. You don’t need to do underwater swims. You do not need to do, you know, anything crazy outside of here, you know, at a pool, just do some basic lap swims, different intervals, different distances. You know, join your high school team, polo team. Treading is a big one. I think it’s overlooked.
DF: You mean in terms of people not practicing that?
DK: Correct. Coming here with no base on how to tread in the water, so staying stationary at the surface with your head dry, and we’ll do this for extended periods of time. Our hands out of the water, with, you know, one hand out, two hands out in the streamline position, and you need to learn how to control your body in the water. So, come with a good base of tread, whether it’s the eggbeater kick, which you see the most efficient way to tread, or with a breaststroke or a scissor kick to help you out keep your head above the surface there.
DF: You talked a little bit about, “no need to underwater swim…” How is the PST, administered in terms of starting off your swim? Are you allowed to go underwater and push off the side of the pool and go as far as you can underwater? Are you able to kick off and do that on every lap? What are the, kind of, standards for that?
DK: So, once we start doing underwater swims here, we have a one-to-one safety ratio. So one candidate per one staff member, you know, with fins, snorkel, rescue tube in case something happens in the higher risk training evolutions. However, once we start doing our swims in the water, every time you push off the water without fins on, you should be executing at least one underwater breaststroke pull-out, which is the most efficient way to swim underwater. Not the fastest way but the most efficient way to swim under water. So, push off in that tight streamline position, so we have wrist over wrist. You’re squeezing your ears with your biceps, you know, powerful push off the wall, you know, as tight and streamlined as far as you can. Then when you start slowing down, your hands will separate, start anchoring, you know, your arms, push that water past your chest, past your hips, past your feet, long glide, and then sneak your hands back out front while executing a breaststroke kick. Underwater swimming is the single greatest thing you can almost do to become better in the water because you’re building up your lung capacity, you learn how to catch and move through the water and obviously how to be streamlined as possible in the water. So, it’s a great thing. We do not allow our candidates to swim underwater, though, without us there, so there’s a fine line with the safety issue, but off every wall, execute one underwater breaststroke pull out. Try and travel about 15 meters off the wall.
DF: You mean in total before initiating a stroke or...?
DK: Correct, which is, in the competitive world, that is how far you are allowed to go off every single wall, so try and use that, you know, be comfortable with pushing off in the streamline position, executing one underwater breaststroke pullout, and try and travel as far as you can. And you should be relaxed while doing this efficient way to swim under water. You should not be having a higher heart rate, freak out mode, which we see when candidates start doing, you know, our underwater swims. Sometimes you see people, with big eyes, start breathing too heavily, and that’s when stuff can go south very quick.
DF: How do you feel that open water swimming plays into the training process to get you to BUD/S?
DK: So, I strongly enforce that every candidate that leaves here can do the one mile in the bay, mile and a half, two-mile open water swims under those time standards of 90, 85, 80 minutes. They’re all physically able to do that. One thing that you cannot teach in a pool with a line telling you where to go with no waves, no marine life, no tides pushing you around is guiding and sighting. So, once we start doing some buddy swims where you’re partnered up with someone, you’ll always swim within six feet of each other at all times. So, guiding and sighting is one thing that’s difficult to teach in a pool, so every once in a while when you swim, work on picking your head up, looking down range, focus on, you know, a person walking by, a fixed object down far away, you know, mimicking a boat, a buoy, a bridge, an island, whatever’s out there, and then without stopping or pausing in the water and continue swimming. We will be swimming 4,000 meters, you know, a day, which is well over two miles in 90 minutes, so everyone is obviously able to pass that time standard here, but open water is a new realm, and Mother Nature can play a big role sometimes with what’s taking place there.
DF: Yeah, I guess there’s a big safety issue, too, if you lived by the beach, and you wanted to try to get out in open water and that’s where you’re going to practice your strokes. I’m going to have to guess that’s not something you recommend in terms of trying to increase your fitness level generally unless you’re really an expert swimmer, and even so, I don’t think that that’s really worth the risk.
DK: Unnecessary. Find a pool with a lifeguard, make sure you have some swim buddies around, you know, go work out or train with people, similar in speed or age, and try to push each other that way. You don’t need to find open water. Here at Great Lakes, we have Lake Michigan in our backyard. We are only in there, you know, a handful of times a year due to the amount of safety equipment, staff, everything that takes place in order to swim outdoors, and the limited window, which we have here in Lake Michigan is quite small, and that’s if the weather cooperates with us on those days. So, there is a lot of safety aspects takes place to swim open water, but easily find a pool, get your workouts in there, and, you know, try and do, you know, 3,000 meters, which is two miles, hopefully under the 90-minute mark. Spend as much time in the water as you can, and come to prep with a good base or foundation that we can build on.
DF: Well, Dan, thank you so much. Where can people find out more about any other details they might want to about this topic?
DK: So you can go to SEALSWCC.com, wonderful illustrations, pictures and descriptions about what to expect here at Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School.
DF: Great, Dan. Thank you so much for your time and all the great information.
DK: Any time.
Music Continues and end.
Naval Special Warfare is always looking for hard-charging, motivated applicants, including Sailors already serving in the Fleet. We talked with a SEAL Officer whose job is to pick the best applicants from the "Big Navy" for a career in NSW. For more information visit www.sealswcc.com
The only easy day was yesterday...
DF: Welcome to, “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” the official Navy SEAL podcast.
DF: Naval Special Warfare is always looking for hard-charging, motivated applicants from all communities. However, specific attention is paid to existing Navy sailors wanting to convert from a career-path in the “Big Navy” to one in Naval Special Warfare. I’m Daniel Fletcher. Today I speak with the Special Operations Enlisted Community Manager, a SEAL Officer, to find out more about the conversion process.
DF: First, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. I know you’re a busy person. You have an important job; you have a lot of stuff going on. I think the information that you’ll be able to give us will be really valuable to people coming through the pipeline, so thank you first and foremost. Tell us a little bit about your roles and responsibilities, kind of your baseline areas of focus.
ECM: I’m a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy. I’m an 1130 Designator, that’s a SEAL Special Warfare Officer. I’m currently the NSW Enlisted Community Manager. This is typically like on O4, O5 SEAL assigned to the Bureau of Personnel. We advise the Commander at NPC and staff on SEAL enlisted personnel matters, so anything from policies to planning, to trying to develop incentives to keep people in the Navy or join the Navy.
DF: Correct me if I’m wrong here, you’re kind of a strategic piece in keeping the right numbers and types of personnel coming into the pipeline to keep mission capabilities where they need to be?
ECM: Numbers is certainly a big part of it. We also focus on the quality and putting everything together, whether it’s the recruiting mission, the training at the Naval Special Warfare Center. We don’t necessarily oversee that, but we’re definitely influential (DF: A big part of it) in all the decisions.
DF: One of the main reasons why we’re here is to talk about the specific selection and the draft process. Just to give people an idea of some of the stuff that might be a little intangible that kind of contributes to whether they make it through or not, maybe if you could speak to that a little bit and give us a little bit of your insight of some of the things that might be a little bit overlooked in terms of what you’re looking for in these candidates.
ECM: We use what we call the whole person approach, so we look at the candidate completely. Everything that we know about the candidate, everything that’s put into the package, we assess, and no one single factor is going to disqualify that person. We take what we’re seeing of the candidate, and we compare it to what our needs are. We have certain needs with year groups to correct inventory shortfalls… (DF: When you say inventory, sorry to cut you off, you’re talking about personnel?) Right, absolutely. So, when we’re short on year, whether that’s not enough people made it through BUD/S or the SWCC schoolhouse, we’ll look to make up those shortfalls by bringing people that are already in the Navy, fleet sailors.
DF: Are there any areas of the process that you think candidates might overlook as being more important than they might realize in terms of this whole person approach?
ECM: No, I think a lot of stuff that make people a good sailor out of the Navy is the same things we’re looking for them to make good SEALs, and that’s things like being a good team player, being a leader within their organization and sustained superior performance. And we use the standard Navy assessments to, to evaluate that, so things like their evaluation reports that they get from their commands and the people they’re working for out in the Navy. We value what they do to make themselves a better team player at that command, so any qualifications that they can earn out in the Navy, that all contributes to the way we evaluate them.
DF: Is there a certain ratio that you see that is kind of consistent in terms of people you’re pulling in from Big Navy versus people off the street?
ECM: No, I’d say the success rate, or attrition rate, is pretty consistent, whether they’re coming off the street, a street session, or somebody that we’ve brought in that’s already in the Navy.
DF: Do one or the other in particular have an advantage do you think? It seems like maybe the people coming from the Navy side might have a bit more of a paper trail that you guys could reference and weed out a little bit more. Is that the case?
ECM: I wouldn’t say anyone has an advantage. That’s going to come down to what that person has on the inside; the personal commitment that they’ve made to complete training. That’s unique for everyone, so those attrition rates are pretty consistent.
DF: Our core audience is the recruit. I would love to find out a lot of details about your individual job in terms of responsibilities... and day-to-day stuff that you do. I think it’s really fascinating. From your perspective, what can a SEAL/SWCC candidate do to best prepare themself for this selection process in your mind?
ECM: Number one is be a sailor in good standing, right, so excel where you’re at in the fleet, in the job that’s assigned to you and all the tasks that are given to you by whoever you’re working for in the Navy. That’s first and foremost. We don’t want folks who’ve been in trouble or problematic. We need to have trust that they’re going to, you know, be able to succeed in environments where a lot’s expected out of them.
DF: Are there areas where you feel like candidates are over-focusing on certain aspects of the process or certain numbers they’re trying to hit or any of that? You find that to be the case at all? People maybe have the wrong impression of the selection process?
ECM: So, another big part of what we’re looking for candidates is physical fitness, and we measure that through the PST. I think there’s probably a lot of people that narrow their focus down to the PST and the numbers they’re generating and their PST score, and while that’s very important, like I said earlier, we use the whole person approach. Strong character, strong mindset is very valuable to a candidate. I used to tell people that it was about making it through BUD/S is about 80% mental and about 30% physical. I know that math doesn’t initially add up, but it basically means it’s going to take more than what you got. You got to find a place somewhere inside you to find that extra 10% and then give it, right. I’m a firm believer that BUD/S is mostly mental. It’s going to come down to having that mental strength and that mental discipline to get up every day and go to work and go train in austere conditions, in an environment that is pretty hostile to you, every single day, and you got to find that motivation to get up and go do that.
DF: We’ve talked on that basically with everyone we’ve spoken with, about the importance of the mental aspect here, so I think it’s great to hear that again. I think another thing that I’ll try to highlight, you can correct me if I’m wrong, is that you’re looking for people that are leaders and that are also great teammates, and that’s not something that’s really measured in a really clinical sense. There’s no PST for teamwork that I’m aware of. Is that something that’s done with relations to their superior officers?
ECM: Sure, so I think you’re right in saying that’s a little difficult to measure. A couple ways we measure that is through letters of recommendation from immediate supervisors. So you think most of the people that we’re targeting for our fleet conversion to SO and SB have less than six years of service and are an E5 or below.
DF: Is there any particular reason, just ‘cause their age, or is it a lot of reasons?
ECM: We target those guys because we don’t want to bring them into the community too senior. Right? So we don’t want a guy who’s kind of new to the teams and may have some Navy experience but not a lot of experience in the teams in a position where they’re leading troops, leading SEALs in a position where they don’t necessarily have the experience base to support that leadership role.
DF: I gotcha. So, is that something that you encourage actively to seek out letters of recommendation, or is that kind of a more organic process you kind of wait for that to happen?
ECM: It’s something that’s encouraged to be included in their application for fleet conversion, so we’re looking for letter of rec from LPOs, Chief Petty Officers, Senior Chief Petty Officers that are in that sailor’s chain of command that can kind of speak to what that person is doing on a daily basis for that command and where they’ve seen that sailor demonstrate leadership, initiative, all those characteristics that we’re looking for.
DF: Do you guys have a face-to-face interview process to validate any of that stuff, or are you guys going off paper for most of that?
ECM: An option available to the sailors is engaging with the SEAL/SWCC scout team, and part of that process of putting their application together involves an interview with the scout team.
DF: That makes sense.
DF: How often are you doing this process, and maybe give us a little bit of an overview of what that looks like for you?
ECM: Quarterly, I hold a fleet conversion panel, and we take applications from fleet sailors looking to convert from whatever rate they are in or status they’re in if they’re undesignated to SO or SB, right. So, we have a need, specific year groups, to assess sailors in those year groups into SO and SB into the pipeline. We apply historical attrition rates to those numbers. General rule of thumb, it’s about five sailors to make one SEAL. So, this quarterly panel that occurs is, the voting members are SEAL and SWCC E7 and above who review the packages, applications, all the documents within, brief that sailor’s record to the group, and then we vote on that sailor whether or not we’re going to give them a shot going to BUD/S or SWCC.
DF: How many of you guys are sitting down to do this?
ECM: It’s anywhere between five and ten folks.
DF: Okay, and what are some of the first things that you look for that you’re kind of just, “This person’s in,” in terms of weeding out those application packages?
ECM: So, first and foremost, we’re looking at what the community’s need is. We advertise that need via the NPC, Naval Personnel Command website. We have a spot on there, and we’ll open up year groups to conversion based on our need. So, if we have a year group where a lot of qualified personnel, qualified SEALs or SWCC get out of the Navy unexpectedly, we may open that year group for conversion. So, that’s first and foremost. We’re looking at “What do we need as a community?” to bring folks in. Second, we’re looking at “Does this candidate meet all the minimum requirements?” Is this a complete package, right? So, are they within age limits? Are they within time and service limits? What’s their current pay grade? And as long as all the prescribed requirements as outlined in the MILPERSMAN 1220 tack 300 for SEAL, tack 400 for SWCC, are met, we consider that a valid application, right.
DF: So, you’re pushing people aside that are just, outright, they’re not able to be there for rules.
ECM: Right, if you can’t follow instructions, and you can’t, if you can’t go down a checklist and put an application together…I don’t want you to check my parachute, and I don’t want you to check my dive rig. You got to figure it out. So, that’s step one. Don’t let your career counselor do it for you. If they want to help, absolutely. That’s an asset to tap into, but it’s your responsibility. It’s your application; it’s your package. So, that’s step one, and those are the ones that go to the panel to be looked at, and then, you know, it’s a competitive process, and we want the best and the brightest that the Navy has to offer, so it’s not a free for all. We don’t take everybody within our need, and we start to look for red flags, and then we look for the quality of the candidate, right, so we’re looking at the PST score, not only the raw numbers of that PST, but we’re looking at how that PST compares to all the candidates we’ve selected in the last 12 months.
DF: And that’s in terms of trying to make sure you have a balanced force? Can you explain why you’re looking at those numbers compared to the stuff that’s kind of historically recent?
ECM: We look back at the last four quarterly panels, and we look at all the candidates that we selected, and we create essentially a distribution, a bell curve distribution, and we look at where this new applicant falls as far as standard deviations above or standard deviations below the mean PST score. Now, if you’re below, we all know a lower PST score is better, so if you’re below that means you’re a pretty good athlete, right. You’re running faster, you’re swimming faster, stronger. If you’re way above, you’re going to be a little bit weaker in that pack, and we know that the weaker you are physically, the more challenging it is for you to complete the course at BUD/S. So, if you have a high PST, meaning a bad PST score, your likelihood of success is probably lower than somebody who has…
DF: And you want people to make it through the process. This isn’t just for fun. When you talked briefly about kind of red flags, can you maybe give us some examples of those?
ECM: In dealing with the fleet sailors, we have a lot of folks who have been to BUD/S before, or have been in training before, so we ask that if you have been to BUD/S before, and you are now looking for a second chance at BUD/S that you have served your minimum 24 months in the fleet.
DF: You mean after your first BUD/S excursion?
ECM: Correct, right, right, so regardless of why you stopped training, whether it was your own choice, drop on request or an injury, removed from training, you go out into the fleet for a minimum of 24 months. We get a lot of folks who apply at the sixth month mark, twelve month mark looking to come right back. That’s not really our deal that we’re offering. We can’t say we made a good evaluation on your ability to correct whatever deficiency you had, whether you were immature, whether you were not physically fit enough or just didn’t have the mental game. Two years is the period of time we’re looking to make that assessment. We’re also requiring those students or those applicants to write a personal statement saying why they did not complete training the first time, and this is pretty important. We want to hear in your words, why they didn’t complete training. We’re not looking for a novel. We’re not looking for a chapter book on that; we’re just looking for one page, concise, to the point, but also pretty descriptive of why you didn’t complete training the first time and why you need a second shot. So, that’s one of those red flags we’re looking for, and anybody out there that’s not an author, an English major, we’re not grading your punctuation, we’re not grading your grammar; we’re looking for content, absolutely. Another thing we’re looking at is the evaluations that a sailor has. So whether they have never been to BUD/S before or had been to BUD/S before, we’re looking at the evaluations, and we’re looking at how well they’ve done. We’re looking for people to break out amongst their peer groups on a ship, so the way the Navy evaluation system works is there’s EPs, early promote, MP, must promote…
DF: When you say break out, you mean kind of people that are accelerated in their promotion process, or maybe you can explain.
ECM: Not necessarily promotion but doing well, doing everything that they’re asked and exceeding those expectations wherever they are out in the fleet. So, if they’re working on a ship, and they’re a group of 30 other E4s on the ship, you know, we want to see someone in the top seven of those 30. Not necessarily, you know, a disqualifying thing, right, so if you’re not an EP sailor, if you’re an MP sailor, we’ll still take a look at you cause we’re looking at the whole person approach, and there’s no one thing that’s going to disqualify anyone, but that certainly would help.
DF: My impression is that you follow the steps, there’s not much you can do to change who you are at a core. You’re looking for a specific type of person that’s capable, not necessarily someone who’s able to check these boxes.
ECM: Certainly, we look at letters of recommendation pretty equally, no matter who they’re from, whether it’s a Commander of a ship or the Senior Chief in a division on a ship or a Troop Chief from a SEAL team, or a CO from a SEAL team. We weight those equally.
DF: That makes a lot of sense. So, we have people that are applying to this process that are not rated, and they have a rating. Can you talk a little bit more about that? We briefly touched that earlier.
ECM: There’s probably some misconception from guys who do not pass at one of the training pipelines we have the first time, and they end up going to the fleet, by picking one rate over another or maybe remaining undesignated, they’re going to have an opportunity to return to training faster than someone else, right. So, to dispel some of those myths, 24 months is the minimum period of time that you need to spend in the fleet. You’re not getting around that. The second part of that is, is we want you to become valuable to the Navy in that 24 months. Whatever you see the best way for you to contribute to the Navy, we want to see you maximize that. For some people, that may be being undesignated and contributing to the Navy effort in that sense. In other people, it might be going out and finding a rate and completing an A school and contributing in a more qualified or technical sense. Whatever is right for the individual is going to work. Our goal is to really look at what have you done in the two years that you were in the Navy before you reapplied…and how you’ve done it and how successful you’ve been at it. ‘Cause, really, getting a rate is not for everyone, being undesignated is not for everyone. Everyone’s got their own unique skills and attributes, and we really want to see you maximize that for the Navy. We want to see you maximize those skills you have to become valuable for the Navy, and then we’re going to assess that and say, “This guy is a team player. This guy is making the most of assets he has,” and we like that.
DF: Yeah, I think that definitely rings as a smarter choice than trying to predict what would be a more successful choice for them. You have a lot of responsibility; a lot falls on your shoulders in terms of making the right choices. What’s the most difficult part of your job?
ECM: A big part of what we do in community management is planning for the future, planning for growth, planning for unexpected losses, planning for how individuals will interpret our policies or incentives. This is challenging because there are so many moving parts. We build session plans based on factors such as current requirements, what we have on hand as far as SEAL and SWCC qualified personnel and historical success rates. All these numbers change independent of each other, and sometimes in difficult to predict patterns. The human factor can sometimes be unpredictable.
DF: Yeah, exactly. Trying to predict where things are going to go is a unique challenge.
ECM: Yeah, all these different variables kind of contribute to what we set as a session in production targets. And honestly, there’s a lot of numbers that go behind it, but there’s a lot of variables that are hard to account for, and trying to predict how many guys are going to graduate each year, it can be pretty problematic.
DF: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point to bring home. What kind of advice can you give to someone who is putting an application for this process?
ECM: Sure, I’d say if you’re thinking about applying for a Special Warfare special program like SO or SB, the best thing you can do is put a complete package together with your best foot forward and get it submitted. So, there’s some misconceptions out there that there’s a lot of people that can stand in your way from putting in an application. I think that’s incorrect.
DF: What do you mean by stand in your way?
ECM: If you’re not getting a lot of support from your command that you’re at, certainly they can voice that opinion, but they can’t prevent you from applying for one of these programs. That goes the same for the community managers that I work with at BUPERS. All the communities have a need to fill sailors into jobs. Our need is pretty strong in the Navy’s opinion, and there’s very few cases where another community’s need outweighs our need. It does happen sometimes, and it’s always on a case-by-case basis. So, best thing you can do, as a sailor, is put your application together, make it the strongest application you can possibly make, whether that’s your letters of recommendation, your PST score, your evaluations, the qualifications you’re earning on the ship, and make sure it’s submitted. It will get to us. We will look at it. Based on our need and that sailor’s qualification, we’ll make our selections, and we’ll go to bat for you if we really want you, so put your best foot forward, get your application in, and we’ll take care of it with community managers and commands if we need to.
DF: Well, I think you dropped a lot of wisdom on us. It’s been super helpful to talk to you. I think your words go a lot of way to help people kind of make this transition and hopefully get more successful people through the BUD/S process. Thank you so much for your time.
ECM: You got it.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWC.com, and join us again for the next NSW Podcast.
Navy SEAL and SWCC candidates get a taste of NSW training at boot camp. The Dive Motivators begin the process of familiarization -- and selection -- of candidates for the long training pipeline ahead of them. Reality sets in quickly. Listen as we talk with a SEAL Master Chief. Find out more at www.sealswcc.com
“you have to pay attention to detail and you have to give it your maximum effort”
DF: Welcome to, “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” the official Navy SEALs podcast.
DF: Navy boot camp is the first place Special Warfare recruits will receive unique training. It starts early, with what they call “Dive Motivation.” This is where special warfare candidates perform their morning workout. I’m Daniel Fletcher, today I speak with Dive Motivator, SEAL Master Chief Steve Drum to get some personal advice about recruit fitness. From mental performance and focus to the physical standards test.
DF: Well, first of all, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. I know you have a busy schedule. Your words of wisdom will be really appreciated and I think really nice insight for people that are going through this process.
SD: Sure, my pleasure.
DF: Tell us a little bit about what you do here on a regular basis. Your main priorities and responsibilities briefly, that would be a great start.
SD: Within our commodity, we have all of the Warrior Challenge programs, so SEAL, SWCC, Diver, EOD and Air Rescue. And so what we do here is we facilitate a progressive workout schedule to consist of roughly 26 workouts. About half of them are going to be progressive swim workouts, and the other half are going to be progressive run workouts. After you show up here at boot camp, and you pass the PST. Then you are going to be put into a schedule where you’re going to start off with a three-mile run some basic, fundamental swimming drills to get stroke development down and things like that, and it’s all just to get you further comfortable in the water. It’s all to get you some more mileage and time on your feet okay, but it’s important to note that we’re here to facilitate these workouts, but dive motivator training here is subordinate to the overall training that you receive at boot camp. You’re here to be a basically trained sailor. That’s front and foremost here. Official Naval Special Warfare and NSO programs officially start when you graduate boot camp. That said, we’re here to make sure that you’re as prepared as you can for the next phase in the pipeline. So, we’re here to give you not just the workouts but give you mentoring, turn the heat up on you a little bit to ensure that you’re able to collaborate with your shipmates to the left and right of you to be able to buy into something greater than self. That you’re able to get along, and you’re able to buy into the mission that we have here.
DF: You’re kind of a bridge in terms of the fitness piece between people taking their initial PST and then arriving at BUD/S if they make it that far? Is that fair, or is that not accurate?
SD: We’re going to make sure that when you show up, it’s a different animal than when you were probably taking the PST back with your mentors and your coordinators. This is why we always advise that you have a good cushion when you show up here at RTC.
DF: When you say cushion, you mean a baseline fitness level, or what do you mean by that?
SD: If you are leaving at your 15-day PST, and you’re just doing the bare minimums, it’s going to be hard here for the following reasons. A: you’re going from, unless you worked a really difficult job right before you shipped, you’re going to go from a minimal amount of stress, plenty of sleep, good nutrition, and maybe some of these guys, two workouts a day, and you’re going to come over here, and you’re not going to get the sleep, you’re not going to get the high quality food, you’re going to be stressed, we try to give you a minimum of three workouts a week, but sometimes the training schedule, again, the other mandatory testable events, your firefighting, your live fire training, all you other drill, that going to take front and center.
Your last week at training here at boot camp, you may get one or sometimes zero workouts, but we’ll do everything in our power to make sure that we’re bridging that gap as you asked, bridging that gap between showing up on the street and making sure you are getting time on your feet, that you’re going to be training outside on the track when the weather supports it, and you’re going to be getting into the large pool and getting longer swims. You’re going to get introduced with fins if you haven’t done that already. You will be in a good place when you show up to go across the street. It’s very critical that they understand boot camp is not just a speed bump. You are here to be a basically trained sailor, and that’s very important because as you learn how to take information from your recruit division commanders. You process that information, and you execute it to 100% adherence to the instruction. If you can’t do that, then we can’t really use you in the SEAL Teams or any of the other programs.
DF: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. First and foremost, you need to join the Navy, and to do that, there’s a lot of fundamentals. Your piece is more getting your feet wet so to speak, in terms of physical intensity, and kind of trying to maintain fitness level, but primarily people need to be aware that they’re here to become a sailor. They’re not here to come and just work out, right?
SD: Right, when you get here you’re going to learn how to march, you’re going to learn how to fold your clothes and make your bed, and we’re not just doing that. You’re not folding your clothes and making your bed just to do it. You’re doing it because even in the SEAL Teams, when we start talking about free-fall jumping on oxygen and building rigs to throw out of the plane and all these type of things are very sequence oriented, and they’re very detailed, and they have to be done 100% correct all the time. And so, you wouldn’t want to skip the boot camp training if you could. You want to go through it because it’s only going to help you be better at making it through to your ultimate job, your ultimate goal.
DF: Right, I think that we made that clear with some of the other people that we’ve spoken with and that’s been hit home a lot. It seems like that’s a common thing for people to think they’re just going to breeze through this process and try to get to BUD/S and that this really isn’t that important, and I think it’s important to reiterate that even coming from your side in the fitness area that’s a top priority of yours to make clear. (SD: yes) So, we’ve heard from people to aim for a competitive PST score. Does that line up with your thinking?
SD: We are strict here with the PST standards. We’re not trying to fail people, but when I say that you need to do 50 perfect pushups, that means 50 perfect pushups. Go and research what exactly the standard is. It’s breaking 90 all the way up, locking the elbows out all the way down, breaking 90, and so that’s what you’re going to be held accountable for and if not, you’re going to get stood up, and you’re going to fail the PST for that day, and you’ll be given a couple more opportunities, but, again, your life is going to be a lot easier if you just pass the first time out the gates. I’m not interested in seeing 100 of your crappy pushups. I need to see 50 perfect ones.
DF: So, I’ll read between the lines here, and you can correct me or tell me if I’m wrong, but would it be a good idea if you’re a recruit, you’re at a boat team or with a mentor, to even maybe ask, “Be strict on me with these standards because I want them to be right, I want them to be perfect.” Because who knows who’ll be judging them when they’re at home before they get here, is that do you think that’s a good idea?
SD: Correct. Absolutely, 100%. Again for whatever reason, people think, “I’m going to try to get as many as I can” at the cost of perfect form, and that’s not going to work out for you well. That’s not what we’re looking for here, so, again, when I say perfect pull-ups, that’s dead arm hang, chin all the way over the bar, not up at the bar looking up at the sky. It’s chin over the bar. Your sit-ups, arms crossed thumbs on your clavicles, all the way up to elbows right below the bottom of the knees and then all the way down, upper back touching the deck. So, we’re strict about it.
DF: Yeah, and as you should be, right. (SD: Right.) I think that kind of makes sense that people might be struggling a little bit more when they get here than they might anticipate, because they had previously had X score, and now maybe they’re struggling like you said, they’re not doing this at 5 in the morning in their hometown. They might not be doing this on, you know, lack of protein shakes and lack of pre-workout supplements, fill in the blanks, so I think it’s important if you recognize that things are going to be more intense.
SD: You better drop the No Explode. If you think you’re going to have that kind of stuff to help you here. You’re sadly mistaken.
DF: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s important that people realize that it’s going to be a different environment that they’re in. The numbers aren’t just going to be passed on. What should a potential SEAL or SWCC or fill in the blank NSW candidate know about the dive motivator process and the stuff that you do here that they might not be aware of?
SD: So, first off, you’re going into an NSW program, either SEAL or SWCC. You are going to be segregated into that division whereas we’ll typically pair up the NSO programs. Now, they’ll be some, maybe some overlap between the two, but the best we can, we try to keep NSW with NSW and NSO with NSO. NSO being Air Rescue, EOD and Diver.
DF: And then SWCC/SEAL. Their training will be the same here?
SD: You’re going to get whatever specifics you need once you get to your respective preparation course or A school you’re going to get dialed in. When you leave here to go to prep for SEAL and SWCC training, they’re going to start teaching the knot tying, the lifesaving, things like that that are going to help you, but right now, we’re all about the general purpose fitness and water comfortability, stroke development and time on your feet.
DF: So the NSW candidates you see coming in here, are there any low points in their skills or techniques that you see as a consistent issue that you could maybe point out?
SD: One of the things that kind of is a pet peeve of mine that we see here is, we’ll still see people who will show up routinely who have never swam without a mask or goggles. And so, you’ll see them, and they’ll get in here to do this PST in the pool, and they can’t even stick their faces in the water, and to me I’m baffled because so much of first phase in BUD/S is without your mask, is with you trying to see underwater without a mask, so you’d better be doing, I’m not saying to swim all the time without a mask, but do both. Learn how to swim with a mask on, without a mask.
Another thing that I want to highlight, if we don’t get to it later, I’ll talk about it now is, don’t cram for the test when you get here, okay. By the time you get to BUD/S or SWCC training or any of the other programs, I want you to be fresh, injury free. So, start your training far out enough in advance. If you’re going through the SEAL/SWCC website, then you’ll know. Find out who you can rely on in that forum to give you the sound advice. If not, you can reach out to the actual professionals on there, and they’ll tell you.
Ultimately, all you have to do, is do well on the PST. If you want anything above that, that’s a bonus, but I wouldn’t get too carried away. Definitely don’t be working on breath holds, don’t be doing all this crazy stuff trying to tread with, with scuba tanks on. I just, be very comfortable in the water, maybe you can work on some treading with and without fins, but don’t show up hurt. Don’t be trying to, (DF: I see, over-train.) don’t be slacking and then figure you’re going to start ramping up all this running and swimming, and then you’re going to be prone to overuse injuries. You’re going to show up, and you’re going to be hurt, and you could lose your contract, get dropped from the program.
DF: So don’t over-train.
SD: Don’t over-train or under-recover. Make sure that you’re ramping up, you’re hitting it hard, and then as you get closer and closer, you’re fine-tuning it, you’re at a good place where, yeah, you’re still getting the reps in, you’re still getting some volume in, but you’re training intelligently, and there’s really in today’s day and age no excuse whatsoever to not have the information you need to train smartly. Don’t get carried away with a lot of these programs that tell you that you need to go and do a mini Hell Week or go to these really expensive rigorous courses, where what you really need to do is make sure that you’re doing this program for the right reasons. Understand that you really want it because you’re going to be tested, and when, even in boot camp, you may have your doubts, where you’re like, “Ah, I don’t know if this is really what I want to do,” but remember, it was a good idea when you thought about it. It’s not any less of a good idea now that you’re eight weeks in, six months in, okay. It’s still a good idea, and you’ll still be glad that you’ve completed the program successfully.
DF: Are you guys doing your workouts on kind of a consistent time of the day? You guys always here in the morning? You guys kind of surprising people? How does that work?
SD: Good question, good question. Yes, you’re going to do everything that a basic recruit does here at boot camp. The exact same things, only you get to start your day a couple hours earlier. You’re going to REV typically about 4:30, and then you’re going to show up over here at the dive motivator at the combat training pool, and we’re going to start kicking the workouts off at about 5:15 and you’re going to be wrapping and on the road to breakfast, at about no later than 7:15. Your initial PST’s going to look like this. You’re going to show up, and you’re going to do your third-class swim test, which is pretty easy for those who’ve been training well to get here to do these programs. You’re going to jump off a tower, you’re going to work on float, basic swim stroke, flotation with your coveralls, things like that. At some point, you’ll practice an abandoned ship rescue at sea type thing with an inflatable raft, but as soon as you’re done you’re going to roll right into your PST. We’re going to hit you with the swim, followed by your push, sit, pull, and then we’re going to take you out to the track outside during the warmer months. When it’s cold, we’ll take a bus, and you’ll go across a street to an indoor track, and you’ll do your run there.
DF: What is the flexibility like for people that might not be hitting the right number for PST and need to retake? How many chances do they get, or if they’re really close, or if you feel like there’s maybe some sort of excusable reason why maybe they didn’t hit the right number of laps, they miscounted, or maybe they have a slight injury or something like that. Where you know that the candidate should be capable of hitting a better number?
SD: You definitely want to pass the first time, your life will be a lot easier. However, we’re definitely going to take into consideration things like injury, things like, “Hey, I had to get some teeth pulled.” If you fail your initial PST, full transparency here, you will have ‘til your fifth week of training to pass your PST. And if you don’t pass it by then, then you’ll be reclassified.
DF: So, there’s plenty of opportunity for the right people to hit the right numbers?
SD: Correct. (DF: Okay, that’s good to know.) And it’s also it’s important to know that when you quit the program, you still are obligated to stay in the Navy. You’re obligated to go reclassify, okay. If you are medically dropped or medically disqualified, you have the option to, to try to, to stay in the Navy for a different program that you may qualify for, or you can elect to separate at that point because that’s the contract you came in at. But if you quit, then you are going to go reclassify, and it’s not going to be the same rate that you joined at. It’s going to be what’s available at the time. But, again the overarching theme here is that you’re coming here to be a basically trained sailor, and you’re going to learn the tools that you need at boot camp while you’re learning to be a basically trained sailor. That’s absolutely going to help you to be a better SEAL, SWCC or NSO candidate. We provide three points for mentoring typically with the recruits. The first piece is kind of like, “Hey, the welcome aboard. Here’s what’s expected of you when you show up to dive motivator for PT.” The second one is usually I’ll give the introductory brief, and what I get into there is the big four sports psychology, and I get into what I call the Operational Mindset. And the operational mindset is purpose, “Why am I here?” and commitment,” yes, I made the right decision to come here. I absolutely am ready to start buying in and then collaborate with the people around me, collaborate and be a part of the Navy, be a part of the team.”
The second piece is preparation, and not just the preparation like the physical piece of training, the pushups and the swim, but also the preparation to make sure that no matter what happens, we’re as ready as we can be. To include making sure that all of our stuff, our backpacks are packed the night before, inspecting my bunkmate’s, he’s inspecting mine, to make sure that all of our gear is ready.
In terms of, the mental piece, BUD/S training is all about testing your mental fortitude, it’s about testing your ability to stay calm and perform under pressure, and it’s about your ability to collaborate and be a team player. That’s what all this is about, and the cold water and all the physical conditioning, that’s all the medium in which we, test that. So, it’s getting into your mind and understanding that you are going to suffer. You are going to have moments of doubt, but you have to revisit why you’re there. And I tell people to write about it, “Dear Diary, no kidding. This is what happened to me today, and this is how I can be better tomorrow,” really sit there and reflect and figure out how you can increase your performance. We talk about the big four, we talk about the goal-setting, so when I’m doing things where I’m extremely stressed, and I want to elect to quit or to panic, I can keep focused on my goal of that particular evolution, and I do that by going through mental rehearsal or visualization techniques to think about it. “All right, this is what’s going to happen to me. Let me walk through,” and I use that in the SEAL Teams. When I was doing the more stressful things like close quarter combat, clearing rooms, I would sit outside the door before training, and I would go through it in my head. And I would also do performance based self-talk, “Okay, if he goes left, I’m going to go right,” and I’m going to think about what’s going to happen to me beforehand because your body absolutely processes that as a little bit of experience beforehand. And we even get into mindfulness a little bit, slowing your breathing down, taking deep and long breaths to make sure that you’re kind of dumping a little bit of stress and getting into that habit of being able to focus back on what our goal is. So, we choose what the goal is, and performing that goal rather than choosing panic, rather than choosing fear and quitting and things like that.
DF: I want to highlight one part of what you just said and that was the journaling portion. We spoke with Mike Caviston and that’s a part of his recommendations as well, journaling your workouts. Something that’s consistent that I’ve heard through almost everyone that I’ve interviewed, is the “why” part, “Why am I doing this?” and the goal-setting part, and I think that incorporating that “why” part into the journaling of your fitness, I think that’s a really good piece of advice for candidates because when the dust settles or, you know, you boil everything down, that’s what you’re left with, the “Why am I doing this?” and like you’re saying, remind yourself of, why it was a good choice to begin with or whoever is your inspiration or whatever your inspiration is, keeping that forefront is, I think that’s important.
SD: Absolutely, and you write things in your journal like, “This is why I want to be a SEAL or SWCC, and this is why this is a good decision,” and write down, “I know that I’m going to face challenges. I know that there are days when I’m not going to perform well, that I’m going to fail things potentially.” Things are going to test your confidence, and so when that happens to you, you go back to that journal that you wrote in, you know, months ago, and you’re like, “Yeah, I’m prepared for this,” because when you’re cold, when you’re tired, when you’re stressed, you’re more prone to an emotional hijacking. It’s just like when you’re under the water, and you’re doing pool competency, and your body starts going without air, you forget your goal, and you elect to want to bolt to the surface, and then you’ll regret it. You’ll fail. Same thing here. When you are tired and when you’re stressed, you’re prone to let emotions negatively impact your decision-making, whereas you make it a routine to actually revisit when you wrote that stuff in a clear, well-rested, unstressed mind state, and you revisit that, and you say, “Yes, that’s right. I know this is what I want. I made the right decision to come here. I knew this was going to be hard. I’m going to have hard weeks, but I can do this. This is very, very doable,” and that’s absolutely the truth. You pass the screening test, you have what it takes to get through BUD/S. People go through, and they’ll get only more further refined. You’ll be even more confident in your knot tying, your lifesaving and drown proofing and things like that. You’re given the practice test at that point, but at the end of the day, it still comes down to being able to push the negative thoughts out of your brain, deal with what’s happening, deal with the fear, deal with the stress, the uncertainty and drive through it.
DF: I was expecting to sit here and talk to you about, you know, the details and minutia of the training process, the gear you use and stuff like that, and it’s interesting to hear that’s really not what’s most important. The physical part is just what’s going to push you through. But your mind, it can’t break, and that needs to stay focused.
SD: You know, it goes without saying you need to have a very highly elevated level of physical fitness and swimming ability, of course. I was never really particularly good at anything. I could do PT okay. I could make my timed runs. I was a complete disaster in the soft sand, got gooned on just about every single run, but then I’d say, “Hey, maybe that made me a little bit tougher when Hell Week comes along,” and I wasn’t a strong swimmer. I was comfortable in the water, I had that going for me cause I spent a lot of time in the pool as a kid, but I was not a fast swimmer. I was not a fast runner. I was not a PT stud, but yet six months later, I’m sitting there on the grinder graduating with the class that I started with.
DF: So, I’ll just kind of highlight the things I think that I’ve heard from you that are really important. Obviously making sure you’re paying attention to detail and doing the basic things at boot camp. You can’t brush over that. (SD: no, you don’t want to) You can’t just slide through because I think that a lot of people are just thinking, “This is BS work that I need to do to get to BUD/S.” But it’s been reiterated multiple times that these are things that will be checked on at BUD/S. This is not just busy work. This is not just BS to kind of give you a hard time.
SD: Look at it like this. Hell Week is the first major hurdle. After that comes the second major hurdle, which is in Dive Phase, and it’s known as the Pool Competency. Up to that point, you’ve never been scuba diving, it’s all still in the pool, and you’re learning how to put the gear on, how to take it off in a very precise sequence okay. So, you’ve got to know that reflexively all of those things are now added to what’s known as the Pool Comp Test, where you’re given all the different problems related to cutting off inhalation, exhalation, hoses on your breathing apparatus, and you have to work through that problem, and when you sort it out, it has to be in those exact procedures, only you’re stressed, and all you want to do is get a breath of air, and you’re doing the Funky Chicken. If you are thinking of that process instead of just head down like a pack mule, when you’re folding your clothes and when you’re making your bed, if you’re trying to figure out, “Okay, I’m in the moment. I’m thinking about why this is important,” if you’re kind of thinking about that early on, you are really setting yourself up for success when you are hopefully making it through Hell Week and finding yourself stressing out about Pool Comp. You will have effectively set the table if you’re able to be in the moment, understand why all the things that you’re doing are important.
DF: That can’t be overemphasized because there’s so much in the media about the physical portion, about the toughness, about the logs, the sand, the cold water. But there’s procedure, there’s attention to detail, there’s order that is equally a part of this training process. That’s not tough guy stuff, it’s focus, and that’s connected to this process, which goes back to the crawl, walk, run. You know, you start with T-shirts, and then it ends up being dive apparatus and jump gear or weapons systems. It’s all procedural, and that’s often just really glossed over. That these guys are just tough guys, you know what I mean?
SD: It is, and the other piece that’s worth mentioning that’s absolutely the linchpin for the whole community, for the whole program is that based on that motto you’ll hear in the SEAL teams, “Long live the brotherhood,”. You’ve got to start putting the people to the left and right of you needs above your own. Me as an example, I wanted to be a SEAL because I figured, “Hey, it would be cool to crawl around and paint my face green and get challenged by a very difficult selection process.” but that was not enough to keep me there. Once I got there, and I realized that I was surrounded by the best people that I would ever work with and I would ever be surrounded by, I knew that I had found a home, and I knew that that’s why I wanted to stay there. And when you show up at boot camp, it starts there. You start building, and a lot of those guys are going to go away statistically, that’s just inevitable, but you’ll be left with a core bunch of guys that you’ll start identifying as great Americans, and this is who I want to spend you know, a career with in many cases. You’ll be expected to start thinking in that mindset as soon as you get here.
We don’t do this training alone. We can’t get through this training by ourselves. We’ve got to start leaning on each other, and you’ll find guys that, that have trouble with swimming. They’ll go over at night when they come back. They’ll have a couple kids that are probably water polo players in college, and you’ll be like, “Hey, can we talk about that eggbeater?” or whatever, whatever it is. You know, that’s what it takes for a class to be successful, for individuals to be successful. I mean, I know great Team guys that could barely pass the timed run in third phase, but they’re phenomenal, phenomenal guys, and they were really good at other things, So we try to say, hey, these minimum standards are low because you may suffer in one area but be really good in all the other areas. If you have trouble with the run, but you’re crushing the other areas, you know, there’s room for you here. We’ll find a way for you to fit.
DF: If you had the ear of a candidate and you had just a couple minutes to give them some of your solid rocks of advice for this aspect, and the whole process, what else would you say to them?
SD: Invest in the mental process. Again, figure out why you really want to be here. Spend a lot of time thinking about it understanding it, and write about it. Get in the habit of reflecting on your experiences. In life, we’re only as good as our ability to draw the right conclusions from what’s happened to us and how those inform our decisions tomorrow. Spend as much time being deliberate, thinking about your successes and how to repeat them and how to further improve them. Make sure that you are spending enough time investing in your training, way in advance to you showing up at boot camp. Make sure that before you ship, you are nice and healthy. If you’re worried about breath holds and things like that do freestyle sprints. That’s going to get your wind up. That’s going to help your, your capacity. Just spend time in the water and just be comfortable. Make sure you’re swimming with a mask on and a mask off. Make sure your PST performance is 100% and in accordance with the instruction. Get somebody to film you doing your pull, push, sit. Make sure you’re cranking out solid, perfect reps. And, you know, if you do all that, you show up, and you’re ready to be part of a team. You have everything you need to be successful and make it through this program.
DF: I think that’s some really great, powerful advice. Thank you for taking the time to join us.
SD: Thank you, my pleasure.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWC.com, and join us again for the next NSW Podcast.
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Physical and mental health is important to the recruiting process for SPECWAR candidates. We spoke with an expert at the Navy's Recruit Training Command to find out how Navy SEAL and SWCC candidates can stay on top of their game. For more info check out www.sealswcc.com.
“You have to pay attention to detail and you have to give it your maximum effort”
Daniel Fletcher: Welcome to “The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday,” the official Navy SEAL podcast.
DF: Mental and physical health is essential to a successful trip through Navy Boot Camp, even more so for NSW candidates. I’m Daniel Fletcher. As we continue our boot camp series from Great Lakes, Illinois, we sit down with medical liaison for crew training command, Chief Hospital Corpsman Jeff Ramirez. We answer some common questions about recruit medical history, mental health, medications, and preventative care. Listen up.
DF: Thanks for sitting down with us for one, and if you could just briefly talk about what you do here that would be a great start.
JR: I deal with all medical related issues, in terms of recruit appointments, any injuries that we have here going to network hospitals, to the federal healthcare center, outsourced down to Chicago. Any questionable areas that the doctors have that they need to liaison with the RDCs here in terms of missed appointments or recruits not eating enough, or even if they feel like they’re getting too much exercise, because there’s instances where we start breaking some recruits down that are couch potatoes, and then they get over here, and they learn right away that it’s a little different here.
DF: What types of tests or any type of screening do you administer, or is that not part of your position?
JR: So, that’s not part of my position here. So, I deal with the docs, and it’s going to range from mental health to your physical therapy, your preventative meds and then general, sick hall, but it’s every illness or injury or anything medical related between RTC and the providers.
DF: Okay. Are there any ailments or injuries that you see specifically for the 800 guys that are coming through the pipeline here?
JR: 800 guys... I would say the biggest injuries that I see would be shin splints, stress fractures and not getting enough nutrients. Rhabdo, Rhabdomyolysis. We’ll see that. They didn’t train for the pipeline before they got here. So, when they’re doing the DIVEMO PT, their body is breaking it down. (DF: Pretty severe.) Their muscles are breaking it down pretty severe, yes.
DF: I guess that is kind of a form of a failed test so to speak, if someone’s put in a position physically where their body is not holding up. Are there any other specific medical tests that are given periodically or on a routine basis that you see NSW candidates having issues with?
JR: Special physicals. They’ll go to special physicals. They’ll answer the questionnaires there, go through their overall history to see if there’s anything that raises any red flags. In terms of anything periodic, that doesn’t happen unless they, they choose to go to sick hall. You know, if they’re having some issues that RDCs say they see, any 800, any recruit really walking around with limps or looking distressed or sick, we’re going to send them to sick hall regardless. You’ll get your labs drawn over there, or if you’ve got to go to bone density scan or X-rays. A lot of 800s, you know, they really want to be here most of them, so it’s kind of hard to get them to go to medical sometimes. So it’s, you know, its our responsibility, and I get a lot of phone calls about that, “Hey, I have a recruit that’s kind of been limping around. He says he’s okay, but, however, my spidey senses are telling me he probably needs to get seen.” Then we’ll go ahead and send him in there and usually find out something else.
DF: If there’s somebody who gets to this point in the process and then a medical screening turns up not good enough or a fail, whatever you want to call it. Are there chances for a candidate to kind of retake a test? Can you tell me a little bit about that landscape of that kind of situation?
JR: So, if we’re going to use vision as an example. So if you came in. the MEPS doctor says your vision’s a certain score, and you come here, and it’s not, or you’re colorblind, they’re going to reissue the actual test again. So, you’re going to do one at MEPS, you’re going to do one here. If you fail that, you’re going to do it again. And if all the scores end up as the same here, then they’re going either request a waiver, if you’re eligible. The special phys docs, they’re going to determine whose waiverable per the BUMED instruction. So they’ll go in there and make sure it is a waiverable condition, whether it’s vision, hearing. If it is waiverable, we’ll keep them in the pipeline here, and then the waivers usually come back by the time they get out of here. If it’s not since they’re most of them are contracted, then they can opt to either pick a different rate or pretty much get separated in their contract. So, your basic recruits, they’re coming in they’re not contracted like the 800s. If they don’t meet specific requirements for a certain job, then they’ll get put in another job. But for the 800s, if they don’t want to fulfill their contract because they can’t, due to something medically related, then they can either opt to go or stay with another rate.
DF: Our primary audience is, I guess I could say the laymen or the layperson or civilian. So I’ll do a little bit of interpreting for them. So, someone who comes into the Special Warfare pipeline is kind of quasi hired by the Navy, and they can then choose to choose a different direction to take their career. Is that, is that accurate?
JR: Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying and if they got their heart set on being a SEAL, and you don’t meet the medical qualifications to fulfill that contract, then yes, you can drop on request and get separated from the Navy all together.
DF: Or decide to to make a different decision. How often do you see that misalignment of MEPS decision versus something onsite here?
JR: There is those that do fall through the cracks. There’s always human error. It’s not as much as we think. Most of our, our drops are usually “drop on request” really, after. In terms of medical, it’s not as much as we, we actually think.
DF: Okay, well, that’s good to hear. What types of tests can a recruit fail to have them say, “You’re not going to be able to be in the Navy at all”?
JR: Hearing’s on a bigger scale right now than vision is.
DF: Why is that?
JR: Any kind of permanent hearing loss, the deeper decibels. It’s an automatic disqualifier, and some of them aren’t even waiverable.
DF: So, you’re saying that it’s starting to become a bigger issue than it used to be? Or it’s more noticeable or...
JR: Probably more, more noticeable. I would say that the ear buds and the working out. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t say, “I do it myself.” I would imagine that has something to do with it. So if you listen something loud, right away you’ll have that, that that minimum hearing loss, the temporary, lower frequencies, but the higher frequencies, that would be you consistently listened to your earphones really loud when you’re in the gym 24/7, or in your cars nowadays.
DF: No good. I’m guessing that there’s sometimes injuries that happen during basic training that can kind of put someone in that same situation. Is that something that people should be concerned with, or is that pretty rare in terms of shin splints that are so severe, or whatever it may be that they’re not able to continue? Do they have a chance to maybe, have a few weeks to kind of heal up?
JR: So, we have the recruit convalescence unit that’s actually here in Ship 4. The reason for that is if you get shin splints or stress fractures, you actually get a rehab time. So, when you go to the hospital, you see one of our docs, and they say, “Hey, you got shin splints. You’re going to be Light Limited duty for 21 days.” So, that’s 21 days of rehab. So during that 21 days they’re going to go to Ship 4 and their job is to get better. They’ll be put in a hold status until they are fit for full duty. Once they’re fit for full duty, they’ll incorporate with another 800 division to keep the training going.
DF: Does that happen often enough that you think that’s a successful way to deal with that?
JR: I don’t think it happens as much for the 800s. For the regular recruit divisions yes, for the 800s, no.
DF: And that’s the same process for both of them in terms of the time that they’re given and stuff like that?
JR: Yes. If you look at the recruit convalescence unit, you’ll have for every 30, 40 recruits, you might have one 800 in there. Usually when the 800s get injured, it’s because that individual didn’t prep. So, he came over here and did a little bit more running than he or she was doing at the time.
DF: Right, right, right. From your perspective, what type of advice would you give to someone coming into the pipeline to avoid types of medical issues that we’re speaking of?
JR: The biggest thing is prep. So, don’t do the bare minimum before you actually get here. Going over to DIVEMO PT, they’re going to give you a workout you know. So if you weren’t prepped before you got over here, it’s going to show, and it’s going to show quick. DIVEMO’s really where they start falling out, its not regular PT. It’s not the PT that all the other recruits get here because you’re contracted. You’re going to do something more strenuous. So, definitely prep is huge.
DF: Is there part of the process that you think people should be maybe more aware?
JR: You have to prep. Prep’s the biggest thing. If you’re taking a lot of protein powders and all this stuff you can get from GNC or bodybuilding.com, whatever you’re taking, just remember you’re not going to have it here you know, the stuff that gets you over a good workout, because sometimes you’re pushing your body so much that you need that extra protein, or you need a little bit extra, (DF: or whether it’s Pre-workout or whatever) pre-workout, you’re not going to have it here. That’s going to cut straight out of your your whole diet. Now you need to know how to eat correctly, and we do our classes here to teach you how to eat. However, it’s a lot better if you have the history of doing it and you know your greens, you know your fruits, you know what you’re doing. Because you can’t just take that simple protein powder and call it a day. It’s not going to happen here.
DF: Right. If there’s anything that you see on a common basis that you think that people should be more aware of, it would be great for you to kind of cover some of that as well.
JR: One big thing is the psych issue. And when I say that, it would be more geared towards the mental health part of it. Mental health is a big part here, and it’s a great, great tool for crew training command. Some of the 800 guys that we have, we’ll get them, and they’re watching videos and everything since they were young, they’re real motivated, can’t wait to do it. Which is outstanding. However, they come to boot camp, and they figure out, “Maybe this is not what I wanted to do.” So, it’s a general hype that they get themselves going through for however long that they get themselves hyped up for, but they get here, and they kind of shut down a little bit, and once they shut down, it’s kind of hard to pick them back up. So then they end up going to mental health and talking to them. Sometimes they can say things that may disqualify them. Does it happen? Yes. And it’s not, you know, on a huge scale; however, it does happen. Almost like they pretty much psych themselves out. The first couple DIVEMO days, they kind of psych themselves out, and they go, “Okay, maybe this is not what I want to do,” cause it’s strenuous. It hurts. At the end of the day, this is what you wanted, and you’re getting trained by the best people we have over there, but sometimes they can... psych themselves out and they put themselves in a bad position.
DF: I think you brought up a good point. So much of the focus on the prep and even further along in the BUD/S process, and then throughout, there’s a huge emphasis on physical preparedness, physical capabilities, but the mental aspects seem to be coming to the forefront a lot more than it used to be in the past, and even awareness of mental health issues. Speak to that a little bit, are there underlying issues that people should be aware of if they want to come through basic training, or maybe in the past, they had issues with depression or anxiety. What’s the Navy’s kind of opinion on that in NSW and the Big Navy, and how does that kind of fit into your job?
JR: I work with mental health really, really closely here, and the reason being is because it is a different kind of day and age. We do have kids getting prescribed meds from an early age. However, that’s not all disqualifying factors. Yes, there are certain diagnosis where it’s going to be a disqualifying factor, and that’s just kind of what it is. If you are bipolar type II or something like that, it’s going to be a disqualifying factor. However, if you struggle a little bit through school or even your first year of college, and you’ve shown progression, and you have those notes by a doc saying that you’re good to go, you’ve been on meds for a little bit, or something bad happened in the family, these are all things that they are waiverable. You’ve just got to show the actual documentation. So, in terms of someone prepping to come here, it’s good to know that if you’re going to get your civilian medical records, and it’s going to say that you’re put on a certain medication, don’t just stop. Don’t just stop and say, “Okay, well, I’m going to stop taking this because I plan to go to boot camp in a year.” So, if you stop when your doctor tells you to stop, and then you show the progression for the one or two years, preferably two, you know, the doc can sign off on that and say, “Hey, this person fell into a kind of a slump, did what he had to do, she had to do, and recovered fully. We’re good.” Where we have the issue is when someone goes to a hard part in their life, gets prescribed some medications and then decides this is what they want to do. They want to go to boot camp and then just stops it. So, when you get someone’s civilian medical records, it shows that you were getting treated, and then there’s a blank. So there’s really nothing to go off of, and now you got to get reevaluated here (DF: It’s a liability issue) its huge. So, there’s nothing wrong with mental health. It’s a part of all of us whether we like it or not; however, it’s the way we go about it.
DF: Well, I think that’s a good thing to point out. I think a lot of people might say, “You know, whatever existing condition whether it’s physical, mental or whatever disqualifies me,” and I think reading between the lines is talk to your doctor, and you guys want to see as long of a spread between, whether it’s a prescription or a diagnosis and having some evidence to say, like, “Hey, this is where I am now.” I think that would be helpful for a lot of people to hear because a lot of people just might say, “Well, I can’t do that now.”
JR: Absolutely. And I mean overall in mental health, there’s a lot of different areas, a lot of different diagnoses, and it doesn’t speak for every single one of them, but there’s a big chunk out there that you can still be in the Navy, nothing wrong with it. They just need to see the full treatment plan. They can’t just cut it off in the middle cause you never went through treatment.
DF: There seems to be maybe some confusion in the aspect of medical records and how that’s integrated into the Navy from civilian integrating the sailor life. What’s that process look like, or, you know, does the Navy scoop up everyone’s medical records when you come in?
JR: Any diagnosis, anything that legally you have to put on your medical history form, and that’s a medical history form that’s legally used by the whole Department of Defense. You do have to provide that documentation if you put a diagnosis on there. So, if you put a diagnosis on there, you have to provide that actual information because the docs want to know what the treatment plan was for and how it’s going to affect you. In terms of receiving all the civilian medical records, we’ll get what you put in there. Do we get them all? Probably not. With that being said, we probably don’t get it because they’ve still got human error, or you’ve got humans lying as well.
DF: Right. Do you see that as an issue normally, or I guess not normally, but...?
JR: I think it is an issue. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have recruits separating every day because they’ll go to mental health, or they’ll get seen because a past injury is going to act up. Past injury acts up here, and we find out that it’s something that was pre-existing. (DF: You can’t lie about that) So, now, if they want to stay in, we’re going to request those civilian medical records so we can see if you can actually stay in. But in terms of the Navy just reaching out to civilian hospitals and getting medical records, that’s not even legal.
DF: Well, obviously, it seems like being honest on your, on your forms is probably not only legal but the better thing to do for your own success.
JR: Yes, absolutely. So, like I said, any medical history form you get in the Navy, you have to list, legally. That’s why they’re asking you. We’ve got to know what’s wrong with you, and if you don’t provide that, that actual information, I mean you can get in trouble for that. But in terms of if you don’t provide it, and even if we think something, it’s not like we can reach out to where you got seen as a kid and say, “Hey, I need those records.” It definitely doesn’t work like that.
DF: Are there any kind of medical issues that can develop here that can disqualify someone completely from the Navy?
JR: Reoccurring stress fractures or reoccurring shin splints. You’re contracted to be here, however, if you can’t get past DIVEMO because you just keep on breaking, unfortunately. That’s not your fault. However, that’s something that would definitely you want to make it much farther than that because you’re pretty fragile, and after this pipeline you’re going into something even more, more aggressive.
DF: Right, right. More rigorous. Appreciate you taking the time to sit down and talk with us. I know this might not be the most glamorous topic, but it’s just as important as every other part of this pipeline. You know, crawl, walk, run. Medical is a big part of that. Thank you for your service, and thank you for the time today.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWCC.com, and join us again for the next NSW Podcast.
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To be a Navy SEAL or SWCC, you must first be in the NAVY. The first stop in the training pipeline is Recruit Training Command, known informally as "boot camp." In this episode we visit RTC and learn more about boot camp for NSW candidates.
DANIEL FLETCHER: To become a Navy SEAL or SWCC you must first learn to be a sailor. This essential process starts at Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes, Illinois. First utilized in 1911 and home to the United States Navy Boot Camp. This, is where it all starts.
“you have to pay attention to detail and you have to give it your maximum effort”
DF: Welcome to The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday, the official Navy SEAL podcast. Every aspect of a Navy recruit’s life is scheduled, categorized, and inspected. There are rules and standards for how the toilet paper, toothbrushes, and T-shirts are stored to how they eat, dress, walk, and speak. I'm Daniel Fletcher. Over the next few episodes you’ll hear from a select group of people responsible for on-boarding NSW candidates into the Navy. Today I speak with Chief Petty Officer William Roberts, one of the Recruit Division Commanders conducting this eight-week orientation.
DF: This podcast is meant specifically for people in the SEAL/SWCC pipeline. For a minute, if you could talk a little bit about how those candidates are treated or the process. Maybe, is it different than people that are off the street joining the “Big Navy?”
WR: As an RDC, which is a short term for Recruit Division Commander, we’re just responsible for how ever many recruits come in. It doesn’t matter if it’s 105 recruits, 60-something recruits. We’re just responsible for their day-to-day care and their day-to-day wellbeing from the time they arrive to the date of departure. We take care of when they eat, when they sleep, what training they need, where they have to go, when they have to be there, how they fold their clothes. We train all of that from beginning to end, from day of arrival to date of departure.
WR: For anyone that’s in what we call 800 Divisions, which are your SEALs and SWCC recruits or candidates, boot camp is not any different for them than it is for anybody else. There’s a few other requirements in regards to what we call Dive Motivation PT that they have to participate in on a daily basis Monday through Friday. Outside of that, the only difference here is that there is an expectation that they are going to be better than those that are coming in for “Big Navy” just “Regular Navy” as we call it. There’s an expectation that they’re going to perform a whole lot better than those recruits, so there’s, for lack of better terms, a bull’s eye on their back. Everybody’s gunning for them; all the other RDCs are gunning for them. Staff, not necessarily gunning for them, but every simple mistake they make, it’s highlighted because they’re what’s called an 800 Recruit.
DF: So the 800 Recruits coming in here, they have a higher expectation of themselves as well and that they’re going to be held to a higher standard later on through their employment with the Navy.
WR: Definitely. The idea is that they come here, they know why they’re here as far as being in the Navy. The Regular “Nav” is more, “I didn’t have a choice. There was nothing else left for me to do. I don’t know what I want to do, so this is just the option for me to try right now.” Whereas in SEALs and SWCCs, they kind of know they’re signing up to put their lives on the line. They...know... that’s what they’re going to do barring that they make it through the training pipeline.
DF: Right. Right. Yeah, I think a lot of people think that if you want to become a SEAL, you go to Coronado, you go to BUD/S, and you become a SEAL, and they kind of skip over the process of basic training or Navy recruitment process. Probably do a lot of reading about Navy SEALs and the BUD/S training and all the stuff that they’re going to have to do and Hell Week and the whole 9 yards. When they’re joining the Navy, there’s a lot of rules and regulations and discipline that needs to come first before holding logs over your head. I think that’s an important distinction.
WR: Definitely. Recruits that come in for that program need to know that they’re in the Navy first. The way that I tell my recruits that I’ve had so far is that not every sailor is EOD or SWCC or SEAL, but every SEAL or SWCC driver is a Sailor. So, they have to know that that’s what they’re in here to do. They’re here to be Sailors. Being a SEAL or SWCC is just the job that they have while they’re in the Navy; no different from myself as an Aviation Electronics Technician or anybody else that has a particular job in the Navy. We train them to the best of our abilities to be Sailors.
DF: What do you think a new recruit needs to know before they get here or maybe any expectations you think that aren’t obvious?
WR: They need to know that they’re going to be held to a standard right away; that the standard for their PT sessions and Dive Motivation PT is different from what the standard is to be in the compartment. They need to know that coming here, being a SEAL by nature of what they chose to do, they are a leader. A lot of recruits that we get in nowadays want to come in and be what’s called Gray Men. They just want to get through boot camp and keep their heads down.
DF: You said Gray Man?
WR: Gray Man.
DF: Explain that a little bit more for me.
WR: They just...They want to be nobody in the division. So, in the division, we have Divisional Staff, and a lot of times, they’ll talk to people that have been through boot camp before, and those people are letting them know if, like, your RDCs don’t know your name, you’re doing a good job, and that’s not necessarily the case. For me personally, as an RDC, I make it a point to know every last one of my recruits, whether they’re doing good or whether they’re doing bad, or if they’re just that person that’s kind of in the middle; I get to know all of my recruits. So, every division needs leadership. It can’t come from the RDCs all the time, and we miss out on a lot of good leaders because they’ve been told to just be a gray man and kind of put their heads down, and I guess, blend in to everybody else. Don’t stand out.
DF: Because they think it’ll be easier?
WR: I believe so. I mean it doesn’t make it easier for them. It might make it easier for them as an individual, but it makes it harder for the division because they might be the one leader that the division needs, and if they don’t step up and take that position, then it just makes it harder for the division, which in turn makes it harder for them because if the division is suffering, everybody is suffering.
DF: That’s something that I’ve found through a lot of the people I’ve interviewed that leadership is important, and teamwork is important, even almost the most important, (WR: Definitely.) and encouraging people coming into the recruitment process to take leadership positions and really embrace that mentality, not try to kind of just slide through under the radar and get it done, but step up and be a leader because they need to stand above other people, and they need to take those leadership roles. So, I think that’s a good nugget to take away, is to not try to just skim by but step up, you know what I mean? Make an impression and help the people around you because that’s another thing I think is a little bit of a misunderstanding with a lot of the SOF guys, is that they’re stars; they’re all stars, but more than that, they’re teammates, and I think that’s an important distinction. (WR: Yes.)
DF: We took a little tour of the facility here, The Ship you call it, which is actually almost like a barracks. We walked through... some of the people that just got here...they’re kind of learning really fundamentals and then up to where you’re working with people that have been here for a few more weeks. It’s almost shocking to come in off the street from a hotel into this environment where it’s different than being out on the street. Maybe if you could walk us through your typical day, what your schedule is like on an average day or maybe what you did even today just to paint a picture for the people listening what daily life is like when they’re here.
WR: On a day-to-day basis, you’re looking at 04:30 wake up time, getting the house on spot and being ready to go by 04:45, being down on what we call the Grinder, formed up in mass formation by 04:50, and then we’re going to march to our Dive Motivation PT, which is a good mile, maybe a quarter mile away. And then you’re going to form up there, get dressed, get changed out for what you need to do, and you’re going to do whatever the Dive Motivators have in store for you as far as PT is concerned that day. After they release you, RDCs will pick you up, you mass back up, you march back, you eat breakfast. You are required to have at least one hygiene period a day. So you might hygiene early in the morning right after PT, but if you get in trouble, and you need to be disciplined, you might do something that causes you to sweat, but you’re not required to...be allowed to take another shower. That’s up to the discretion of the RDCs. I could tell you that there’s been times where I put my recruits to sleep sweaty to teach them a lesson. It just depends on the RDC, of course. You eat chow three times a day, and then after that, based on what the training is, you will go into evening routine. Evening routine is just the time to kind of decompress the day and relax and get prepared for the next day.
DF: What time is that starting usually?
WR: 20:30 is evening routine, and then at 21:30, you have Taps, which is lights out, and everybody goes to sleep. Most recruits are up at like three in the morning because they want to make it to Dive Motivation PT on time. They have to make sure house is on spot, and it normally takes them a good hour to make sure the house is on spot, so they’re getting up early and getting everything ready to go. I train my recruits. “When I turn these lights on, you will be ready to go.” All I have to do is inspect so we can leave. And if it’s not done, then you’ll be late to Dive Motivation PT, and if you’re late to Dive Motivation PT, they will handle you accordingly over there.
DF: So, not a lot of free time.
WR: The only free time is maybe evening routine, and there is free time on Sundays, but that starts at a certain time. You have what’s called Holiday Routine, which is 07:00 to 13:00 on Sundays, and then you can go to the chapel if you’re a religious person or spiritual person, you go to the chapel; you can write your letters home to your families, shine your boots; get your uniforms ready to go for the week. Everything you do is about preparing for the next day. I always train my recruits, and, again, I want to be very clear that every RDC is different. Every RDC has their own way of doing business within a framework of our regulations. But I always train my recruits, “Make sure you do something today to make tomorrow easier for you.” So we’re always going to prepare for the next day the day prior.
DF: Obviously the people that are coming in, these potential NSW recruits, are already in great shape. They’ve been working out with boat crews probably for quite a while. And they’re continuing to exercise while they’re here. Do you find that there’s any drop in fitness level, or are they getting in better shape while they’re here, or what’s your impression on that?
WR: I think it just depends on how things go. I’ve never had a problem with a recruit during PT. One of my divisions was all SO, all SEAL Operator candidates, and every last one of them passed their PST on the very first time, minus one; he miscounted the laps, but other than that, they passed their PFA, which is something that has to be done in order to get out of boot camp. The PST is something for the SEAL Operator side or the SWCC side. We have to do a PFA.
DF: Can you talk a little about what the PFA is and what it’s for and what it entails?
WR: So, the PFA is what’s called our Physical Fitness Assessment. That’s the Big Navy physical fitness test. Everyone in the Navy, no matter what you do, is required to take this test.
DF: Is that done after you’ve been here or right when you get here? When is that done?
WR: There’s an initial PFA, which is done maybe three or four days after you arrive, and then you have what’s called an RDC Assessment. A RDC Assessment PFA is in the middle of boot camp, and that’s kind of to assess how the RDCs are doing to catch up the recruits that might have struggled during the baseline PFA. That’s normally not a problem with SO and SWCC candidates. And then you have the Official PFA. Now, the Official PFA has to be passed in order for you to graduate boot camp. So, you have to pass that in order to graduate boot camp, minus some other things that you must have, but in regards to physical activity, you have to pass that in order to graduate boot camp.
DF: And what are the details of that test?
WR: The PFA just requires you to do, based on your age, a certain amount of push-ups, a certain amount of sit-ups, and a mile and a half run in a certain amount of time.
DF: So, that’s something, for the guys who’ve been training for NSW, should not be an issue.
WR: Not a problem at all.
DF: So, is that something that’s ranked, or is a pass/fail thing?
WR: It’s a pass/fail, pass/fail.
DF: I know there is some concern that the fitness levels of these guys may drop while they’re here because they’ve been working it hard to try to really maximize their physical strength and their endurance. Are there facilities here for them to squeeze in an extra workout?
WR: There are no other facilities here that they can use while they’re in what’s called a Recruit Status, or here at boot camp. However, our 800 Recruits do have pull-up bars and leg lift systems so to speak within the compartments. So, when we’re not doing Active Training, when it’s Evening Routine, and it’s kind of their time, that’s when they can do their extra pull-ups if they want. That’s when they can do their extra leg lifts if they want. They can do their push-ups; they can do sit-ups; they can do whatever they choose to do physically during their Evening Routine time or any time that the RDCs are not actively training them. So if they struggle with push-ups, or they want to get more push-ups in, they definitely have the time to do that. I’m not an advocate of recruits being out of their racks after Taps. However, I do know that recruits don’t just go to sleep when we turn those lights out. So if they want to do some push-ups and different things like that as well, they can do that. That’s not necessarily the right thing to do, but they do have that time to do that.
DF: We talk a lot about the physical requirements, and that’s something that’s pretty well known in the public even, but what other specific expectations do you think that recruits should have in mind?
WR: So the one thing that recruits should expect to get here is to be told how to do everything, and that everything has a purpose. You’re going to be held accountable for everything, from the way you fold your underwear, which we call skivvies, the way you fold your T-shirts, the way you fold your uniforms, where you put things, where you stow things, how your mattress or your blanket is folded, the way your sheets are made, the way your bunk is made. All of those things are checked every single day, and to be prepared, number one, to be taught how to do that, but to have the attention to detail. I think a lot of times with SEAL and SWCC, they come in so focused on getting to the next phase of the pipeline that they don’t have the attention to detail necessary that they need to be successful here, and you have to get through this process in order to get to the next process. Outside of that, and I’ve noticed that even with the recruits in general, not just SEAL Operators but just recruits in general, a lot of them come in and have never been told that they’re wrong or never been told that they made a mistake, and that that mistake is not acceptable. So that’s normally the biggest problem we have with recruits, is telling them that they’re wrong and getting them to accept the fact that they’re wrong, and they have to adjust their mindset and their attitude to move forward.
DF: It seems that that’s a big takeaway, kind of maybe humbling yourself and not getting ahead of yourself. It might seem like basic stuff, but it’s foundational, and it’s the next step, and take it seriously. Slow down, listen to people. Do you think that life is hard here for recruits?
WR: At the beginning, very much so. At the beginning its very…
DF: Define what you... When you say “beginning,” what do you mean by that?
WR: When they first get here, boot camp is very difficult because there’s somebody immediately in your face telling you that you’re wrong. Again, have an open mind to the fact that everybody’s different. Everybody is going to lead you differently. Everybody’s going to talk to you differently. Me personally, I don’t yell at my recruits at first cause I know they don’t know. But then I train them, and once I’ve trained you, and I know you know it, now I can start yelling if I choose to do so or start disciplining you if I choose to do so about you not reaching what we call here Checkpoints. Everything that we do is a Checkpoint. Do it the way we told you to do it, but it takes a person to buy in to “it matters how I fold my T-shirt”. “It matters that my keys should be tucked into my T-shirt.” “It matters that I lock my AMB drawer,” which is the personal drawer that recruits have here that they can put their letters from home and address books and different things like that in there, their wallets that they come up with, but those drawers have to be locked at all times that they’re not actively in it, but you have to believe that that stuff matters. And as soon as you believe that it matters, boot camp is easy because now you’ll take care of it. If you don’t think it matters and you won’t take care of it, and then you’re being held accountable or singled out or yelled at or whatever the case may be on a routine basis.
DF: It strikes me, the parallels, with some of the basic stuff that the recruits are learning here with a lot of regular life stuff. You might not think that school is important when you’re in school learning algebra or whatever, but it’s learning how to learn, learning how to live, learning how to discipline yourself; attention to detail; it’s the things that, the kind of between the lines stuff that you’re really learning in this process that maybe people gloss over cause they just want to play with guns. When the 800 guys are on The Ship here, is there any way to tell them from the other recruits, or is it something just really only staff knows?
WR: When they’re in uniform, you probably only going to know if you’re staff. Most of the 800 Recruits, especially those that are really prepared, you can look at them and tell, “Okay, that’s 800 Recruit, just based on their physical attributes and the way they look.” We have a thing about 800 Recruits, 800 Recruits will not stop talking even though they’re supposed to stop talking… they’re chatty. They’re very chatty for whatever reason. I don’t know what that is, but, so you can tell them by that and just their physical attributes.
DF: You mean amongst themselves or talking back to you?
WR: No, amongst themselves. Amongst themselves, they’re very chatty. And then also too trying to get them to separate their relationship because in Special Warfare, there’s a lot of first name basis and really a lot of camaraderie and buddy-buddy regardless of pay grade because “we’re all Special Forces.” It’s not like that here, so we have to make sure you’re not going to call me by my last name like we’ve been growing up together. You’re not going to thumbs up me; you’re not going to high-five me or anything like that. You’re going do it the way I told you to do it, and then when you graduate, then we can talk about the rest of the stuff after that, so that’s one of the things as well, but normally just their physical attributes.
DF: Sometimes a recruit may drop out of this process. What are some of the common issues that you see that are causing that to happen in this part of the pipeline process?
WR: Most of the time the recruit drops out, it’s something in their medical background. I’ve had some recruits get very homesick. Some recruits just can’t adapt to what we do here because they have a mindset coming in that all they’re going to do is work out and go eat, and that’s not what we do. We we turn civilians into Sailors. That’s what we do, and the rest of it is up to them how they succeed in the pipeline for SEALs or SWCC. Maybe some physical injuries that might happen while they’re in boot camp, maybe they twist an ankle, or hearing’s messed up, or maybe their vision is messed up. And it’s tested here because no matter what they say out before they get here, if the doctors here say there’s something wrong, then that’s what we’re going to have to go with.
DF: Are they more strict here you think, the Medical?
WR: I’m not really sure. I never really get into it. We typically just kind of take care of that and just make sure the recruit is taken care of one way or another; try to build them up cause a lot of them are very disappointed when they find out that they can’t do what they joined up to do. Just try to build them up and let them know they can still have an impact in the Fleet without being a SEAL or SWCC.
DF: Are there different medical standards for different tracks through NSW, like if you want to be EOD versus SEAL, or is the standards the same, do you know?
WR: There are certain standards changes with vision. There are certain standards changes with hearing. There are different standards for SEAL Operators and SWCC versus EOD in regards to PT for the PST. There’s different standards for that, but on the medical side, I’m not sure if there’s that many differences.
DF: Your position is really key in that cultural shift between civilian life and Sailor life. A lot of the time spent before getting here is spent on physical preparation with mentors and Boat Teams or Boat Crews. Talk a little bit about what’s needed to effectively transition from a civilian life into becoming a Sailor.
WR: Well, the most important thing is is just having the right mentality, having the right attitude, being positive about what you’re getting ready to go through and understanding that you put in a lot of sacrifice to get to this point and don’t risk it over the fact that you don’t like that someone told you were incorrect, or someone’s trying to tell you a certain way to do something that you don’t necessarily agree with. Again, everything that we do has a reason and has a purpose. Even myself personally, I’ve been in 19 years, and I still fold my T-shirts the way I learned how to fold it in boot camp, which is still the same way we do it today here now that I’m training recruits. So the mental aspect is probably the biggest portion of it, just having an open mind to what you’re getting ready to get into. There are things that are going to be thrown at you. I like to tell my recruits, it’s like drinking out of a fire hydrant because we’re constantly giving it to you, and we only have eight weeks. If there’s anything you can get from your recruiters, I think they give you something that has your general orders in it, maybe something that has the Sailor’s Creed in it. Memorize those things before you get here. It’s only going to help your time here at boot camp be that much more successful because if you already know that, then that’s other time that you can spend learning something else that you might struggle with because immediately, we’re going to get right in day one, we’re going to start grilling you on that because we know that recruiters gave you that information. So, we’re going to start grilling you on it right away.
DF: What part of that process do you think a lot of the the 800 candidates trip up in, thinking that they know everything or…?
WR: Candidates slip in that process because they don’t think it matters. My all SO Division, it wasn’t until maybe week three that I had to kind of get them in the right mentality of why we do it the way we do it; why it’s important for you to be a leader; why it’s important for you to know the things that you want to do. And by the time we got to the end, they were very grateful and thankful for the information that we gave them. All they’re thinking about is the physical aspect and just getting to pre-BUD/S and BUD/S. To them a lot of times, boot camp is just a red tape portion that they have to get through, and it’s so much more than that.
DF: We touched on something before we were recording that I think is important to bring up. When these guys walk in the doors here, the people that they’re interfacing with, like yourself or whomever, they’re not all Special Forces guys. They’re not all SEALs. This isn’t a retired SEAL community here that people are coming to learn from guys that have been through it. I think that probably affects the mentality, and it’s important, I think, to speak to that a little bit. That humbling yourself is really important. You know better than anybody that’s here, and you’re not going to be. We’re all a team. Do you think that has anything to do with it?
WR: I think there’s some separation because SEALs are an Elite Force. And everybody knows that whether you’re in the Navy, outside of the Navy, everybody knows that the SEALs are the top of the line when it comes to Special Forces, and there is some separation. There’s some pride in that, and there should be, but also understanding that for SEALs, a lot of the things that they do, Regular Navy is involved in it as far as getting them to where they need to go and supporting them, whether it’s air support or on ground support, whatever the case may be, so understanding that in the team, everybody has a vital part whether you have a trident on your chest, or myself, I’m Air Warfare, you have all these different type of entities that are involved in the mission. And so I do think that some of that is they let the pride of being a SEAL kind of get in the way of understanding that.
DF: Even though they’re not even there yet.
WR: Exactly... Some of them come in with a mindset of, “I’m a SEAL,” and they need to understand you are not a SEAL. You’re not even a Sailor yet until you actually graduate boot camp. And even at that rate, you’re still not a SEAL until you go through the rest of the pipeline and do all the things that that entails.
DF: One of my big impressions from dealing with Active Operators is the the strength of character and professionalism that they have, and it seems like that this is the place where a lot of that is really built.
WR: Yes. We’re going to instill in them military bearing. We’re going to instill in them professionalism and all those things that come along with it; the ability to turn it on and turn it off. I tell my recruits there are certain times where you need to be a robot, and there are certain times where you can kind of be yourself, and we can relax. But when it’s time to turn it on, you need to be able to turn it on, and if you can’t do that, then we’re going to have it on at all times and just be a miserable time here, or we can, you know, kind of enjoy and make the most out of the process.
DF: Right. There’s a lot in the media about Hell Week, BUD/S, the strongest, the most elite physical specimens that are going to be the ones who get through this process. If you listen to other episodes, you know that it’s 70, 80% mental. What a lot of people gloss over is that the stuff that they’re learning here, they’re going to have to do it at BUD/S. They’re going to have to keep their stuff squared away. It’s not all just going to be push-ups and sand. They need to do the things that they’re learning here. It’s not like this is just throwaway knowledge. Is that correct?
WR: It’s absolutely correct. Everything we train them, they’re going to use at some point in time. If they wind up on a ship, the way we fold our T-shirts saves them room. So now rather than having two T-shirts, you’re going to have five or six T-shirts with you. Everything that we do serves a purpose, and that’s the one thing that recruits coming in should really focus in on. The mentality of accepting what we’re teaching them and knowing that they can use it not only in the compartments with their main RDCs, but they can also transition that into their Dive Motivator PTs. They can transition that into their pre-BUD/S, they can transition that into BUD/S to at least alleviate one problem that might come up while they’re in their training, or they can just focus on the physical because they know they’ve been trained by their RDCs. Of course, there’s going to be some differences in standards. There’s going to be other things that are going to be required as they move further along in training, but at least here, they know, “I was trained to put this item folded this way, put it in this spot, and that’s the only place it goes.” And if they can get that down here, then the rest of it should be easier for the most part at least transitioning to whatever they’re being told to do at their next phase of training.
DF: I think that’s really important. If you can’t prove to be trusted with handling your T-shirts, how are you going to expect to be trusted with thousands of dollars worth of weapons systems, night vision goggles, fill in the blank? You know? I think that’s important to understand.
WR: We train them that everybody’s dependent on everybody. I have a family at home, and I always tell my recruits, “My family’s dependent on you when you graduate from boot camp to save my life if it comes down to it.” Whether you’re Special Programs, whether we’re on the Fleet together because you didn’t make it for whatever reason, my family is dependent upon on you. Your family, is why you’re here, are dependent upon me or whoever your RDCs are to make sure that you’re taken care of, to make sure that you’re healthy, to make sure that you’re being cared for. Treat it=== with respect, all those different things that any parent would want for their child, we’re kind of helping each other. We’re going to do what we have to do for you, but in return, you have to pay it back. And what you can do in the pool and what you can do on the track is not paying your RDCs back for the time that they spent. You have to prove to us that we can trust you. ‘Cause if I can’t trust you here at boot camp, how can I, in my right mind, pass you through to get to the Fleet and handle more important things, whether it’s SEAL or Regular Navy.
DF: We talked a little bit about people dropping out of this process, whether it’s, you know, being homesick or injury. Is there anything else somebody can do to get themselves kicked out of here? I’m sure there is. What kind of stuff do you see that’s typical that you want to steer people clear of?
WR: There’s a lot of things we have what’s called here a SEAL’s Top Six, sexual harassment, no recruit-to-recruit contact. A lot of times, the, especially with SEALs, they come in, and they kind of know everybody that’s there for the most part ‘cause they were together at some point in time, and they want to high five, and they want to give daps or bro hugs or whatever the case may be, and that’s not tolerated here. You can’t do that. No sexual harassment obviously. You can’t abuse any drugs, and that can be as simple as a cough drop. If you go to medical and get a cough drop prescribed to you that has your name on it, you cannot give it to anybody else. That’s abusing drugs in the eyes of our Chain of Command, so you can be sent home for that. A lot of people make the mistake of trying to have that last little party before they get here, and then urinalysis comes up, and they pop for something on urinalysis, and they’re automatically kicked out cause it’s zero tolerance for drug use. Not passing that final PFA that we talked about earlier. Normally not a problem with SOs, but, again, if they miscount, it doesn’t matter how fast they ran it in; if they said they did 12, but they only did 11; you’re supposed to do 12. They just failed it. You get two times to do that, of course. They normally don’t make the same mistake twice, but not failing the PFA. And we have what’s called Battle Stations, which is our pinnacle training evolution, and you can fail that. I can’t really go into details about a station. You’ll learn about that as you come through boot camp, but if you fail that, you will be set back automatically two weeks in training, and Battle Stations is normally a week or the week of your graduation, so…
DF: Yeah, people think they might be over the hump.
WR: People are getting, they either think they’re over the hump, but also I…I always try to bring it back to the recruits’ family. Your families have already bought your tickets. Some of them are probably already on the way, now you have to make that phone call and tell them that they can’t see you, and they just wasted a trip. Or they have to rearrange their lives and get rescheduled for time off for different things like that depending on their, you know, their jobs or whatever it may be. But there’s a lot of rearranging that goes down, too, and if they just get down to the attention to detail portions that we talked about earlier, Battle Stations will be a breeze. It’s just about paying attention and locking in to finishing the goal, which is getting out of boot camp.
DF: So, if you if you were to talk to somebody, let’s say, I’m joining the Navy, and I want to be a Navy SEAL, what part of this process that you’re involved in would you highlight and say, “Make sure you do this”?
WR: Listen, humble yourself and listen. Even if you think it’s wrong, listen. Follow the instructions that are given, and allow the people that are in charge to do what they do. If they’re wrong, let them come back to you and tell you they’re wrong. If you find something that’s needs to be corrected, there’s a way to do it. There’s a tactful way to do it. Just embrace everything that’s going on, learn from it, know that you didn’t come here to make friends. You will, but you didn’t come here to make friends. The thing I tell my division the most is, “Let your light shine. If you’re a great person, you have the means to be able to pull somebody up, then let your light shine. Don’t try to hide your light because you don’t want to be called out, or you don’t want to be put in front of the camera so to speak. Just be who you are, and be the best that you can be.”
DF: What are you passionate about? What gets you up in the morning?
WR: I’m passionate about my job. I feel like as an RDC, and, again, I have to say this cause not everyone is the same, and there’s no guarantee that somebody coming in now is going to have me as an RDC, but I feel like I’m bigger than my title. I’m bigger than an RDC. I’m…to some of these recruits, I’m a father, a brother that they never had, a mentor they never had or something like that, so I’ll always keep in mind the fact that me being an RDC gives me an opportunity to change the world because if I can just touch one person, then I did my job.
DF: Appreciate you taking the time to sit down with us.
WR: No problem. Thank you for having me.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWCC.com, and join us again for the next NSW Podcast.
The open water can be deadly, and Navy SEALs and SWCC must master this unpredictable element to make it their ally. This episode explains NSW's secret technique: the Combat Sidestroke. More info can be found at www.SEALSWCC.com.
The open water can be both deadly and unforgiving. Before sailors become SEALs or SWCC, they must demonstrate mastery of this punishing and unpredictable element; making it their most valuable ally. I’m Daniel Fletcher, today we speak with aquatics expert Dan Kish at the Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School. We discuss the best practices, tools and techniques used exclusively by Navy SEAL or SWCC candidates and operators, particularly the Combat Sidestroke. Let’s DIVE in.
DF: For starters, thank you for taking the time. Your expertise is super important to be able to share with as many people as possible that are trying to get successfully through this program. For starters, if you can just go ahead and spend a little bit of time talking about your role here in Naval Special Warfare, and then we can take it from there.
DK: Sounds good. My name’s Dan. I am one of the physical training leaders here at Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School, and my main point of focus is the aquatic side. So, it’s much more than just swimming. We spend a lot of time on treading, water rescue, pool comp skills. My job is to help make the candidates as comfortable and confident in the water over the eight weeks here and plan and execute all the workouts safely to the highest standard that we expect of them.
DF: The water aspect of, of kind of the initial exposure to the standards of the, the physical standards test is usually where a lot of people I think are at their weakest. At least most people have not been exposed to the level of swimming that is needed, required to be able to make it in the program or even kind of start training. So, I think that your information will be really valuable for a lot of people listening. Maybe if you could just start off with talking just a little bit about your background in aquatics. I’m guessing that you were a swimmer, or you were involved in some sort of water sports before you came into the program.
DK: So, correct. I always loved being in the water. I was that kid you couldn’t get me out of the pool, the lake growing up. I got pretty good at swimming, so I swam, you know, the aquatic kid, high school, club, college, a little bit of postgraduate swimming, so all the staff members are Division 1 swimmers, collegiate swimmers. Did some postgraduate swimming, was good, got into coaching, became successful at that, and I’ve been here since class 297, so just over five years now, and I love it. We get all walks of life from kids that have barely seen a pool, barely passed the PST to get in, to Olympic Gold Medalists and everything in between there, so all walks of life come through, and kids just want to learn, get better in the water, but water is majority of time their weakest, you know, environment to be in. We’re humans. We don’t belong in the water at all, and a lot of kids come to prep not prepped for what we’re about to do here.
DF: The focus of this episode is the Combat Sidestroke, and we’ll get to that in just a second. You mentioned a couple other areas that your focus is on, whether it’s treading water and stuff like that. Are there areas that maybe other than the Combat Sidestroke that people should maybe investigate in addition to that stroke specifically to at least kind of get themself familiar with?
DK: Absolutely. Besides just swimming the Combat Sidestroke, we swim slick, so without fins on and then with fins on. We also train freestyle almost every day, and we also swim breaststroke here, so they all are great assets to know and learn. The better you are at all the strokes, the better you’ll be at any one. We’ll even throw some butterfly just for fun in there as well, great, you know, cardio building tool, great fuel for the water, but they all serve a purpose. We swim a lot of freestyle when we start doing rescues to get to your victim, great way, you know, to increase your lung capacity there. Breaststroke, we want to learn the pull for guiding and siding purposes, the kick to help you with the tread and to learn underwater breaststroke pull outs or the most efficient way to swim underwater there.
DF: So, basically, I mean you covered almost all aspects of aquatic sports, you know, in terms of swimming styles and stuff like that. I would be hesitant to say maybe it’s worth someone’s time to really become very, very, very proficient in all of those. Obviously they’re going to be using those strokes to train at more of a fitness context and more of just kind of a development context, not necessarily they’re going to be specifically quizzed or tested in those areas. But obviously it’s helpful to know that, that’s not the only thing you’re going to be doing in the water obviously.
DK: Correct, the exit test, so in order to leave Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School, you have to do the 1,000 meter swim Combat Sidestroke under 20 minutes, which our average time is right around 17 minutes. However, we still want you to become great at all the strokes, all the skills. It’s just more tools you can add to your toolbox to help you out further down the pipeline.
DF: So, obviously we’re going to try to unpack a little bit about some of the unique I guess challenges or difficulties that people have or maybe not so unique, common difficulties people have with this specific stroke. So, if you want to kind of start in really a broad sense, maybe take 1,000-foot up view of areas that you think are common that people have a misconception or maybe a very, very, very common mistake and maybe the quick fixes for those things just as kind of a real quick touch on that area.
DK: So, Combat Sidestroke, I swam competitively for over a decade, and I didn’t even know what Combat Sidestroke was until I got into the military, and then I started realizing what the stroke was, why it was created and then how to critique and correct it to be as efficient as possible, trying to be the fastest as possible and still create that low profile while swimming Combat Sidestroke. So, a lot of the times, the first couple weeks here, and what I really need to stress is technically correct swimming, so work on perfect, pretty Combat Sidestroke. Speed will eventually come, but focus on just perfect technique starting off, trying to be as long and efficient in the water as you can. We see a lot of students or candidates that come through that have, you know, a little bit bigger and bulkier muscles. Those are not always the best for in the water, decreasing your range of motion. You always want to be as long as possible. Get your stroke count down, help you prepare for those longer, open water swims that’ll be taking place.
DF: So, is it fair to say that you, that you see a lot of people that are maybe just learning for the first time, kind of trying to “over muscle” to kind of push and pull, to put too much into it and not focus on, on taking their time and lengthening their stroke and being efficient? Is that, do you think accurate?
DK: Yes. I witnessed that today during a PST. Just because you’re taking more and more strokes, you know, you’re swimming more violent and higher turnover rates, sometimes you feel like you’re going faster, but the clock doesn’t lie. There’s a kid swimming next to him taking half as many strokes and going faster, so I see that man attitude where you want to race and compete, and you’re taking a ton more strokes, but you’re just working harder to go, you know, the same time or sometimes even slower.
DF: It doesn’t mean you’re getting anywhere faster.
DF: Are there any big areas, or maybe what are some of your cues that you say to get people to kind of slow down? I would obviously think just like a running race, people try to, they go out hot, you know. Their adrenaline is pumping, they’re breathing faster, everything, you know what I mean.
DK: Absolutely, and we see that here. Over the eight weeks, we do many different workouts from short, fast, you know, high intensity sprints to longer distance, and the last couple weeks here, we focus a lot on pacing, we always have the clock facing you. You will always watch, you know, the clock when you leave, what your splits are, are you hitting your goal times, are you making the sets, but running and swimming, you’re always against the clock. You know, in the weight room, it’s weights. In the pool, you have to watch the clock to see, you know, how fast you are going.
DF: Other than kind of I would say, an excuse me for not using maybe the correct terminology, maybe strokes per minute or whatever the term is, what else do you see in terms of kind of like “sloppy” form that’s a really common theme that you’re constantly having to cue people with, you know, not to do?
DK: So, other things we see in the water, in the pool, a lot of candidates will we be swimming uphill, which is quite natural with the body position in the water. Same thing as running uphill, running uphill is a lot more energy.
DF: Now, when you say swimming uphill, can you give me a kind of what that means to you?
DK: Coaches are yelling at you like your feet are dragging on the bottom of the pool, your hips are sagging down, you are creating more drag for yourself, so running uphill is very difficult. Swimming uphill would be the same metaphor for that. To correct that, we want to try and get your legs going a little bit more, so your feet should be, you know, near or at the surface. Your hips should be at the surface as well as, you know, your whole bodyline, your head. Normally, it’s, when people are not using their legs as much or thicker candidates in the water, but this will have a direct correlation, and once we start doing buddy tows, you’re going to have that same bad body position. Now, you have to tow someone. You’re creating a significant, you know, higher amount of drag for yourself, which is, you know, stay away from swimming uphill.
DF: And is that typically a head position issue that kind of leads and the body follows it, or what is, what’s usually the culprit there?
DK: So, correct head position does play a major role for that. The top of your head will always be pointing in the direction of travel. Majority of candidates, we’ll see, you can swim really good, showing me the top of your head pointing forward, but then they go and take a breath, and they will lift their head to breathe, which will shoot that body position, you know, back uphill, which is incorrect, creating more drag. A lot of our candidates are good until they do take a breath. So, A, don’t breathe, or B, learn how to control that breath.
DF: Or get back into position.
DK: Absolutely, so snap that quick breath in. You’ll have one eye in the water, one eye out of the water, and when your mouth is above the surface, you are inhaling only. We should not be hearing you exhale and inhale when your mouth is above the surface, you know, so dump that air out right before your breath. You know, if you’re very negative in the water, keep the air in, but right before your breath, dump that air out. When your mouth is above the surface, inhale only, eyes right back down, and that’s for freestyle and for Combat Sidestroke, same body position.
DF: So, would you say that that’s probably the largest deficiency in people’s stroke whenever they arrive or really the thing you see most common is body position in terms of kind of swimming uphill like you’re speaking about and not being able to breathe very efficiently and get back into the right position? Is that the most common problem that you see?
DK: Body position plays a major role. Conditioning and speed, you know, will come along, but if you’re swimming uphill, you’re just burning wasteful energy. Another major issue we see is a timing issue, which we see candidates stop, pause or sink at some point in their stroke. We always want to move, you know, forward in the water, whether it’s Combat Sidestroke, breaststroke or freestyle. A lot of times we’ll see them move forward in their stroke and then take a breath and stop, pause, sink and then start moving forward again, stop, pause, sink. We want to always move forward in the water even during your breath, so never shut down your legs, maintain that, you know, body moving forward. Don’t, just because you’re taking a breath does mean you stop, pause or sink.
DF: So, what do you think the culprit is there? My first kind of instinct is to think that the rhythm there is not quite at least, they’re not comfortable quite in the rhythm of the stroke yet, an experience thing, or is there, are there other culprits?
DK: It’s actually difficult to do, so they will have a, you know, pull, breathe, kick, glide, pretty common pattern for Combat Sidestroke and for breaststroke. So, you obviously start with your arms, then get your breath, execute your kick and hopefully have a long glide. Now, during the breath part of that, don’t stop dead in the water, do not sink and create more drag, and, you know, you should always be moving forward. So, once again, back to the breathing, normally our candidates are good until they do take a breath and then stop in the water there. Keep your legs going, so especially with freestyle, never disengage your legs. Always keep your legs going behind you. And in Combat Sidestroke, you know, during your recovery, try and have as, the least amount of underwater recovery as possible. So, when your arms are underneath the water, try and have the least amount of resistance that you can, active streamlining.
DF: So, active streamlining, and you said something about recovery. Now you’re talking about basically getting your hands back out in front of you for the stroke again. Can you maybe go into a little bit more detail about that? You’re talking about the efficiency or the least amount of resistance, is that what you’re saying?
DK: Correct. So, for Combat Sidestroke, it was designed to be very low profile, so no white water or splashing taking place. It’s a very efficient stroke. However, just like breaststroke arms, the underwater recovery part of the stroke is underwater, which is not very efficient because you’re pushing yourself backwards when you do that. We want to over-exaggerate the underwater recovery and minimize the amount of resistance when you move your hands back out into the streamlined position.
DF: So, you’re not fighting yourself essentially.
DK: Don’t push yourself backwards at all during your strokes.
DF: Okay, okay. So, is this stroke used primarily as a test and fitness mechanism if you will, or is this stroke used operationally during mission?
DK: So, both are correct. The stroke is great to increase your overall fitness levels without banging up your body, right. Swimming is a great way, whether, whatever stroke you’re doing, increase your overall fitness with very low to no impact, right. You should be able to swim, you know, for hours, still feel good. It’s not like you’re banging up your body, high stress, high impact environment. So, when you do swim, make sure you are over-exaggerating full range of motion. You should be feeling good, feel loose in the water, so that plays a cardio, you know, fitness role in it, but operationally speaking, it was designed to be efficient, so you could be able to swim your long distances, you know, infiltrate and extract a couple miles and still carry out the mission. The low profile aspect, so when you’re swimming up to shore, you don’t have a bunch of white water splashing behind you, a bunch of noise coming in, and it is quite simple to learn and execute. We do a lot of the fine-tuning, getting dialed in here, but if you look throughout history, you know, swimming has played an important role in the history of mankind and in warfare in every century. It goes back, back in the day, but just recently with the UDTs, you look at World War II, Korea, Vietnam, there’s many aquatic stories from, you know, the greats, the Medal of Honor recipients, where if they did not have that maritime, aquatic background, we would not have heard about these stories at all.
DF: How does the Combat Sidestroke differ from the regular sidestroke? Is there glaring differences, very similar? Just maybe kind of give me some detail on that would be great.
DK: So, the common sidestroke that you see from swim lessons or, you know, at your local YMCA, where you are basically, you know, picking apples off a tree and putting them in the basket, I remember being told that when I was like three years old. Combat Sidestroke, you’re going to have a little bit more rotations, so we’re not going to be swimming flats.
DF: So, in the hips or the shoulder area?
DK: So, just like any sport, you’ll have a lot of power come from your hips and your core. Back to those common mistakes that we see from our candidates, where people swim flats, which we do not want. Swimming is not just your arms up, swimming is not just your legs down; you want to get your whole body engaged. Drive with your hips and your core, back on to streamline on your stomach.
DF: I see. Maybe, I would say there’s no glide phase of the stroke, but towards the end of the stroke, I see what you’re saying. You’re facing the bottom of the pool more than just facing the side of the pool.
DK: Correct. Your bellybutton will not point to the wall the entire time. You will be rotating, so your bellybutton will point at the wall and the bottom throughout every cycle. When you take your breath, you know, with one eye in the water, one eye out, you’ll be looking at the wall. And then once you execute your scissor kick, so your top leg will start initiating that rotation, your top leg will go forward, execute your scissor kick, and while doing that, you’re going to drive with your hips back into the streamline position. So, it should be quite fluid motion during your, you know, pull, breathe, powerful kick and glide, but we’re not swimming flat on one side the entire time. You’ll be rotating just like we do in freestyle, same thing with Combat Sidestroke. Drive with your hips and your core, full body exercise. Don’t swim flat, and then don’t over rotate either. So, we see some candidates where they want to take a big breath, and they look up to the ceiling, and then they have to spend all that time going back into the streamline position on their stomach, wasting a lot of time and over rotating onto their backs, which is what we don’t want.
DF: That’s kind of what you’re talking about, the one eye cue as opposed to your, you know, whole face and both ears out of the water, you know, kind of thing.
DK: And that plays a role with swimming uphill. If you take your head up to breathe, for your breath, you know, your hips will drop. If you over rotate on your back, you’re just wasting more time, which is unnecessary and inefficient, so we want to be as efficient as possible while swimming then.
DF: We’re looking at the PST a little bit kind of like a race even if it’s just against the clock or yourself. Is working other strokes you think really beneficial to kind of helping the Combat Sidestroke time diminish in terms of kind of water fitness if you will? That’s probably not the right term, but.
DK: Absolutely, no, absolutely. The better you are at all four strokes, the better you’ll be at any one. All those elite swimmers, if you see, you know, just a butterfly or just a backstroke, they swim all four strokes almost every day still, whether it’s, you know, just a little bit, a warm up, a cool down, you know, main set. You will always train, you know, more than just Combat Sidestroke on your good side the entire time. So, like I said, we’ll do some freestyle almost every day with, you know, give yourself challenging breathing patterns. A wonderful way to build up your lung capacity while, you know, having a little bit of elevated heart rate with freestyle. Combat Sidestroke both sides. We will train breaststroke. The first week here, we’ll break it down where we have, you know, demonstration, drills, which, drills are just bite-sized pieces of the stroke broken down, so just the kick or just the arms, you know, focusing on being as hydrodynamic and focusing on the underwater recovery aspect. So, we will focus a lot those first week or two here on drills that are just bite-sized pieces of stroke to, you know, put it all together in the long run.
DF: So, my kind of takeaway so far about kind of developing up your Combat Sidestroke ability is general comfort in the water through a variety of strokes and being in there often enough that your body’s kind of, not necessarily grown used to it, but it really has in flexibility and strength to the point where you’re comfortable enough to get the time that you need. It’s not that you need to do these crazy static breath holds or put weights on yourself or do this type of really hard plowing work so much as it is getting yourself comfortable enough that you can do the stroke properly. And I think putting that before busting your butt on the sidestroke that you’re not doing right, it seems like that kind of stuff comes even more important than your Combat Sidestroke. Is that true, or am I really kind of a little bit off there?
DK: No, that’s a good summary of what we’re talking about here, that focus on, you know, part bit by bit, and then you’ll eventually put it all together, work on that perfect technique, and then slowly start, you know, increasing the amount of time you spend in the pool. Then start watching the clock a little bit more, you know, a little bit more intense workouts, and then start watching your times drop hopefully.
DF: This is a new stroke for I would say the vast majority of people if not everybody. You know, people have probably barely been exposed to the sidestroke, the normal sidestroke we’ll call it unless they had swimming instruction, right. So, Combat Sidestroke being totally new, people I’m sure will jump on the web, or maybe if they’re lucky or smart enough to find a swim coach or team or group, ask them about it. What do you see that’s common misinformation about this specific portion of the training process?
DK: One of the worst ones that I witness online, and all the staff see it, too, is when swimming Combat Sidestroke, your lead arm or the arm that always, you know, your bottom arm, so if you’re swimming on your right side, your right hand, just like a breaststroke pull, the right hand should stay out in front of your body. You’re not pulling that arm all the way down to your hips and then pushing yourself backwards almost with the underwater recovery portion. So, your lead arm, or you’re swimming on your right side, your right hand will always be out in front of your chest, so a small range of motion. You’re not getting a lot out of the arm, so during your pull and your breath, your hand will start coming towards your chest, and then when you execute your kick and your glide, push it back in a streamline. But do not pull that lead arm all the way down to your hip, stop in the water and then all that underwater recovery, it’s going to start pushing you the opposite way of which you want to be traveling.
DF: And so, that’s something that you see as kind of maybe a piece of common misinformation? You know what, honestly, I think with the term even sidestroke, it seems like that lead hand, is that what you call it… (DK: Lead arm.) Your lead arm is doing a little bit more of kind of a tugging crawl. It’s not doing a full stroke. It’s kind of there almost treading water, pulling you forward kind of consistently, not, not a full stroke so to speak. It’s more of a repetitive kind of a crawl, I guess is maybe not the right word.
DK: Correct, it’s a smaller range of motion out in front of your body, which is a sculling motion, so keeping your hand, you know, you’re not going to get a lot of power out of it, similar to a breaststroke pull, just enough to pick your head up for your breath and shoot back down or streamline.
DF: Yeah, more of kind of a corkscrew and not a full shoulder stroke all the way to your side. I see what you’re saying.
DK: But that also plays a role once we start introducing buddy tows or water rescues. You’re going to do that same exact motion with that lead arm the entire time. So, it’s still a drill that we’ll do here that will also be used down the pipeline with water rescues. So, it plays a role, and it reduces the amount of time of underwater recovery and the stroke, which should make you more efficient, less drag increasing speed there.
DF: So, for people, for the folks at home, it would be great to see this visually. You’re showing me more of a, of a rotation past the elbow, a circular rotation as opposed to a full stroke. It’s kind of a constant, more of a rotation as opposed to a stroke. That does make a lot more sense, to be able to keeping you from having more of a cycle in the stroke and keeping you moving forward as opposed to that pause that you’re talking about earlier as a problem.
DF: There’s a lot of talk about technique, and that’s also in the kind of judging standards for the PST, whether it’s pull-ups, pushups, clean reps. Is there anything for people testing themselves in this process to be aware of in terms of technique that will get them kind of a, red flagged, or, “This lap doesn’t count,” or anything like that they need to be aware of?
DK: Yes, so when we do our testing here, your wrists will always be in the water. So, the whole point of Combat Sidestroke is to have that low profile, where we’re not taking, you know, freestyle strokes with your arms flying all over the place. So, maintaining that low profile of keeping, you know, your wrists or hands in the water at all times. So, if we start seeing the hands come out, you know, you’ll be warned strictly once by an instructor, staff member, and if it happens again, you’ll be pulled from the test. So, that’s one of our criteria as well as never touching the bottom of the pool while we swim. You know, if you take a break, you know, 500-yard swim, operationally speaking, it’s going to be taking place in the ocean. There’s no, there’s no wall or floor to stop and take a break, so never touch the bottom of the pool when you’re swimming, and don’t spend time on the walls. So, when you do practice in the standard 25-yard pool, spend as little to no time on the walls as you can.
DF: When you’re tested here, what apparatus is used in terms on person?
DK: The initial entrance PST, you have to swim your 500-yard swim, which can be swum Combat Sidestroke, breaststroke or basic sidestroke, and that has to take place under 12:30 in order to get into our program. You’ll be wearing tri shorts with the, you know, the traditional UDT shorts.
DF: So, you’re talking basically like swim trunks, spandex, kind of set up?
DK: Yes, not a lot of drag. They’re not beach board shorts, which are good for training, actually… (DF: Almost like a running short, kind of.) Correct, with a standard dive mask on, so covering the nose. During the exit test, you will have the same swim trunks, a dive mask, but now you’ll be having fins and booties on, so rubber booties around your feet, your fins over that, your dive fins over that, and you’ll be executing 1,000-meter Combat Sidestroke under 20 minutes. 17 minutes is our average, so you should be crushing that. You should be able to float, you know, a 17-minute 1,000-meter swim no problem before you leave here.
DF: And that’s mask as well there?
DK: With your mask on.
DF: Okay. Well, great. I’ll let you kind of, kind of summarize and give us the, you know, you have 15 seconds to give somebody the important pointers of the Combat Sidestroke and then, you know, water comfort in general. I think we’ve covered just about all of it. I think it’s worth it kind of giving you a moment to kind of wrap up what you think is kind of key big points.
DK: Find a pool, get in and swim, try and join a swim team or a water polo club, get with your friends, get in the water, spend as much time in the water as you can, and come to prep with a good base or foundation that we can build on.
DF: Well, Dan, thank you so much. Where can people find out more about the specific standards for Combat Sidestroke and any other details they might want to about this topic?
DK: They can go to SEALSWCC.COM, wonderful illustrations, pictures and descriptions about how to swim Combat Sidestroke and what to expect here at Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School.
DF: Great, Dan. Thank you so much for your time and all the great information.
DK: Any time.
Hydration and blood sugar are crucial during intense physical training. Our staff nutrition expert explains how a solid eating plan may be the key to avoid training failure. For more go to www.SEALSWCC.com.
The only easy day was yesterday. (Intro)
What we put in our bodies affects everything. Today we sit down to talk with a Navy SEAL and SWCC nutritionist.
You’ll hear from my colleague, Angie Giovannini as she speaks with Justin Robinson about the importance of nutrition during and after training.
AG: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us a little bit about a really important pillar of training, which is nutrition. If we could just start out with you giving us a little bit of your background and how that fits into your work here at Naval Special Warfare. That would be really helpful.
JR: Great, well I’m happy to be here, too. I’ve been working at this Center, AKA the schoolhouse, for the last two and a half years. So, I started in June of 2015. Before that, was teaching college for a year, was in a similar position to this with an Army unit for a couple weeks before the government that had some cuts that came down, so it’s nice to be back into that system. Prior to that, I worked in professional baseball. I did a dual undergraduate in kinesiology and nutrition, and then my master’s degree is in kinesiology as well. I am a registered dietician and board certified specialist in sports dietetics, which I know is a mouthful, but…it’s the sports nutrition credential for dieticians.
AG: And so what drew you to Naval Special Warfare? How does that all fit in here?
JR: Really just working with people who are highly motivated. I’ve done the general training. I’ve done the personal training, I’ve done the general nutrition counseling, worked in the hospitals, and that’s great. You can make an impact, but I feel I’m at my best when I’m working with people who are highly motivated, people who will push me to do more research, to read more articles so I can come back to them and provide them with resources and information that will improve their careers, try to add some longevity to their careers. So, that’s probably the most, is highly, highly motivated population.
AG: And so, just to start out, let’s talk about how important nutrition is. Why is this something we’re even talking about today?
JR: Great question. Everybody’s got to eat. I look at it this way, that nutrition won’t be necessarily the difference maker. Having a solid nutrition program will not make you make it through this training pipeline. However, poor nutrition can be the reason that you don’t make it. So, we definitely see early on, in the early parts of phase and early parts of training when the intensity level is very high, we see low blood sugar or hypoglycemia. We see dehydration, we see heat injuries, and so, the individuals coming through the pipeline, the students who aren’t hydrating, who aren’t fueling high enough are going to get that low blood sugar, and it doesn’t matter how motivated you are, how fit you are, how strong you are, if you have low blood sugar, you can’t perform. And so, I like to say that it won’t be the reason you make it through, but it absolutely can be the reason that you don’t, so I want to eliminate that.
AG: Okay, on the flipside, there’s certain diets and certain eating choices that you make that can make you perform at your best… (JR: Absolutely) So, what are some things that you would recommend?
JR: So, it’s funny because especially now with so many different diet plans being very popular, it’s almost like a dichotomy. You have the vegans over here saying that plant-based is the only way to eat, and it makes you healthy, etc., etc. And on the other side, you have more of the carnivores, whole 30, Paleo and even the ketogenic crowd, who’s saying, “No, no, no, this is the only way to eat.” And so, as part bystander looking, trying to sort through the research, my goal is to try to find those common denominators. Why can a plant-based, meat-free vegan diet work for somebody, and likewise, why can an incredibly high fat, low carbohydrate diet also work? So, what are those common denominators? So, to answer your question better, I believe those common denominators are eating real food. You can call it clean eating, which has a very loose definition, but my definition of clean eating is real foods – so foods that don’t come in packages, food that’s not processed. If you do have food that comes in a package, the product over here that has five ingredients is probably better than the one over here that has 20. If you don’t like to cook – and here’s my first piece of advice – if you don’t like to cook, learn, learn how to do something other than cereal, macaroni and cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, learn how to do things like overnight oats. Learn how to cook some meats or some eggs because I feel that calorie for calorie, when you create something in your kitchen, it’s going to be healthier than it would be from a restaurant or a fast food restaurant, so clean eating. Try to eliminate added sugars, try to eliminate as much processed food as you can; would be those common denominators.
AG: And how do you see nutrition fitting in to the bigger picture of the fitness plan? I know there’s some pillars that you guys look at as a whole, as a big picture.
JR: I would say for longevity. In some respects, it’s similar to baseball. When you work with baseball players, and they play 162 games, and in my opinion, my role there wasn’t necessarily to make somebody better for one game, but it was to make that person just as good on game 162 or just as strong, just as fit as they were on game one or in spring training. So, looking at this training pipeline here. If you just look at an hour of what the students do, a lot of really fit people, a lot of strong athletes say, “I could do that.” Say, “All right, yeah, you maybe could do a log PT sessions, but could you do log PT after a 4-mile run in the sand, knowing that you have a 2-mile swim coming up, knowing that you’re going to get four hours of sleep, wake up and you do the whole thing again tomorrow, wet and sandy?” So, it’s about that longevity, sustainability and just trying to have those good foods more for that endurance and more for the long haul, the 21 weeks all the way up to a year and a half of training, depending on which pipeline you’re going through. So that’s what it is. It’s about the endurance factor.
AG: So, say I’m just considering for the first time going, you know, into the SEALs or the SWCC team. What would be the first steps you would suggest I take in reconsidering my diet?
JR: I think the most important factor is the right diet plan for the right part of the training program. So that’s what I really like to hone in on for my education piece is that what you’re doing early on in training will differ from when you get to qualification training, and that’ll differ from when you get to the teams as an operator. So, finding the right overall diet plan, I feel, is that first step. So, if you’re looking at some of the trendy diets as I mentioned – I’m not getting paid by anybody to say anything – so I don’t feel that a ketogenic or Paleo diet might be appropriate for an incoming student, whereas it may have application for operators or for qualification training students. So, getting enough calories I think is going to be the number one point. Getting enough carbohydrates, getting enough hydration, getting enough healthy fats, because it is very intense. So, I’d say that making sure that you’re feeding your body enough total energy. The second component to that would be to get your total weight and your body composition in check before getting here, because once you get to Prep, or once you get to Coronado, that’s not the place to try to gain that last ten pounds that you know you need to gain, or try to lose that last ten or fifteen pounds. So get your body composition where it needs to be.
AG: Is there like a metric or...?
JR: We don’t give hard numbers. So I can say that where we see the fewest amount of injuries is in that 10 to 15 percent body fat range. Typically, if incoming students are too low, so 7, 8 percent really fit athletes, then they have trouble keeping weight on, or maybe their endurance suffers. On the other end of that spectrum, if somebody’s coming in at 18, 19, 20 percent body fat, then they’re probably carrying around too much weight on their frame. So, 10 to 15 would be that range. But I would say we, the metrics we look at would be more of an obstacle course type of output. So how are you doing with body weight push ups? How’s your 4-mile run? How are your pull-ups? And if your run is suffering, but you’re really, really strong in the gym, well, then maybe you need to lose a little bit of weight. Likewise, if you’re a very, very fast, strong runner, but you can’t do that many pull-ups, then maybe you actually need to increase upper body strength. So it’s, I apologize, I can’t give you all that hard answer. I know, everybody loves numbers, and I’m sure there’s a lot of number geeks out there like me, but I’d say that 10 to 15 percent range.
AG: Okay, so let’s, let’s take it down to the most basic, you know, I wake up in the morning, I decide I want to go into Special Warfare. I go downstairs, I look at my kitchen. What do, you get to be there next to me, pointing out different things that I need to change? What do you think some of the most common changes would be?
JR: So, I’d say one of the first things would be to get rid of the breakfast cereal and the Pop Tarts. So sorry, no Cinnamon Toast Crunch. But looking again at whole foods, and if you really can’t think of anything else, think carb, fat, protein, fruit, vegetable. Just get in the kitchen, try to find something that looks like a carbohydrate, a protein and a fat. Put that on your plate. Try to get a fruit or a vegetable, try to get some color. So, eggs are fine. I know for about 30 years, we had the low-fat guidelines and low cholesterol, and we’re finding out now that that’s not as true as you once thought. So scramble some eggs would be fine; throw some spinach in there. If you want some breakfast meat, I would suggest ones that say ‘nitrate-free’ or ‘no nitrates added’ or uncured. So some uncured bacon, some eggs, some spinach, and then your carbohydrate, which could come from oatmeal or fruit. So, nothing too complex, carb, fat, protein, color, fruit or vegetable, and do your best to eliminate things that come in packages.
AG: What do you think of those categories? What do you think people get the most confused about? I mean, you know, you say carbohydrate – that could mean a lot of things.
JR: Is ‘all of them’ an answer? I think, I think we get confused, and I’ll try to hit on each of these very briefly, but I think we get confused on protein. So, with protein, we know that athletes or incoming students have high caloric needs, high protein needs, but that doesn’t mean that they need to fill their plates with protein. So, I like to say think of your plate for an entire day, your breakfast, your lunch, your dinner, your snacks, and about a third of that should be protein. If you get too much more than that, it’s not going to shut down your kidneys, but then you’re probably not getting enough of the other quality nutrients like carbs and fat. With fat, the biggest thing there is – again, we thought for so long that fat kind of makes you fat, but now we understand that it’s a great fuel – that the healthy fats, the Omega 3 fats that are in fish and chia seed and flaxseed and walnuts, have a strong anti-inflammatory effect on the body. So that would probably be the most controversial, is fat. And then carbohydrate – almost as controversial, but you, again, I think with a very, very high-energy output, a high caloric output, you need carbohydrates to fuel that. Again, once you get to a certain part of the training pipeline, or if your goal is to reduce weight, then we can modify carbs a little bit and tweak them down, but if you’re going into this pipeline on a low carb diet, you’re probably not going to have the energy to make it through.
AG: So, sugar is something that comes up a lot now. It seems like that’s under attack the most, and it appears that there’s science behind that, but would you agree?
JR: I would, and I would say we need to specify, though, between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars and then further specify between athletes and non-athletes. So, if you’re a non-athlete, then absolutely limit total sugar and especially added sugar. If you’re an athlete, I wouldn’t worry so much about naturally occurring sugars in fruits, for example. They’re a healthy carbohydrate. I would do your best to limit added sugars, which would be, some of them are very plain to see, like Skittles are all sugar, Fruit Loops are all sugar, but then there’s added sugars in products like yogurt and granola bars, and then there’s some of the, I guess you could call it a ‘hidden sugar’ in a product like sports drinks. So, if you are going to consume those added sugars, make sure that it’s within that 30-minute window around an exercise session because that’s when your body can use them up. So, 30 minutes before, during or 30 minutes after, but a sports drink is not the beverage of choice on a Saturday afternoon on a recovery day when you’re just sitting around the house.
AG: So, recover. (JR: YES!) That’s a topic that I definitely want to talk about. How, how do we recover best, most efficiently? Is it supplements? Is it food? What is the magic formula?
JR: Top priority I would say is sleep. I realize it’s not necessarily a nutritional issue, but most 18 to 22 year olds likely don’t sleep enough, and, you know, it’s funny; a quick story. When I was in college, my roommate on my way to gym would always say, “Oh, you’re going to go do some bodybuilding,” and actually I’d say, “No, I’m going to do some body breaking down. I’ll do my bodybuilding later on tonight when I sleep.” And so, that approach of that you recover when you sleep, it just kind of switches the mindset a little bit. So even before I focus on nutrition, if I see somebody who’s, who has poor sleep or is only sleeping four or five hours a night, I will focus on that. And then maybe we’ll have a team approach to see what we could tweak on that, but drinking the right recovery shake or eating the right foods is, has a lesser impact than something like sleep or potentially just taking off a day here and there. So listening to your body, knowing that there might be some days when you might need to skip a session just so you could foam roll and stretch and do some of those topics that I’m sure you’ve talked about on some of the other podcasts. But to hit the nutrition standpoint, sleep number one, proper mobility exercises, two, three, I’d say hydration. So, we’re getting into the nutrition aspects, hydration, because when you are breaking down muscle tissue, when you’re working out muscle glycogen, you’re also burning through water. And so, when we replace that muscle glycogen or the storage form of energy in the body, we need water to go along with it, so I’d say hydration one. And then, the rules aren’t really that different, the carbs, the fats, the proteins. I try to make things simple, so the old-school theory was I need carbs before a workout and protein after a workout, and there’s some truth to that. I try to make it a little bit easier and say get a combination of carbs and protein before and get a combination of carbs and protein after. And then, in your later meals, maybe in between your workouts, that’s where you maybe have a slight emphasis on the healthy fats, cause fats do digest rather slowly. So, a high-fat meal an hour before a run is probably not the best idea, but a high-fat meal two or three hours before, or two or three hours after is a great idea.
AG: So, you don’t, you don’t think protein powder is the answer? Cause it seems like that is pushed on us a lot.
JR: I’ll give you two responses to that. I think that in general, protein powders and shakes and bars are convenience foods, so, yes, they can be part of an overall training program for an athlete, and they can be beneficial. But I would still focus on whole foods first. Having said that, the other part to that, the other caveat is our supplement policy, which I know we’ll, we’ll get into a little bit. So, most protein powders would not be permitted for students going through the training pipeline. So my short answer to that is, try to do your best to train like you will when you get here. Create a similar environment for you now so that when you get to Prep, when you get to Coronado, when you get out to the teams, you know what to expect, and your body knows what to expect.
AG: Well, let’s just dive in then, supplements.
JR: So, supplements. I’ll start off with the letter of the law so to speak. The supplement policy only permits foods that say ‘nutrition’ facts versus foods that say ‘supplement facts’. So, anything on the back of a food label is going to typically say nutrition facts, drug facts or supplement facts. Anything that is a nutrition fact or drug fact is regulated by the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration. Anything that says supplement facts is not regulated, so no supplements are regulated in the United States. An act that came out in 1994 deregulated supplements, meaning that I could put – and I’m using an extreme case here, but it’s possible – I could put steroids in my protein powder and sell it, and somebody starts taking it, like, “Man, this protein powder’s really working,” and it’s, “Well, yeah, it’s not the protein in there. It’s the contaminated steroids.” And, so you hear of collegiate athletes and pro athletes testing positive, and they’ll blame it on a supplement because they probably took a supplement, they allegedly took a supplement that was not regulated and not properly tested. So, our supplement policy here is it must say ‘nutrition facts’, one, it must also be a single serving size. So we do believe that students need additional calories, additional carbs, fat and protein, so having a bottle of protein shake is fine. Having a protein bar is fine because that’s a single serving. The other component to our supplement policy is no energy drinks. We really want to do our best to limit caffeine, especially if you’re consuming a pre-workout, and as we just said maybe contaminated with amphetamines or the amount of caffeine listed may be different from what’s actually inside of the product. So it’s very easy to over-consume caffeine or amphetamine types of substances, which will affect heart rate, which will affect your body’s ability to regulate your temperature. And as I said, our students working out here are already at a high risk for dehydration and heat illness. So, it’s a very strict policy to be honest, but it’s also a very black and white supplement policy. For any students coming through who maybe do need a pill, a powder, for example, maybe someone who’s had a history of stress fractures and needs vitamin D or calcium, that has to be approved by a Navy medical provider. So, you can take things like fish oils, calcium, vitamin D, multivitamins if a Navy doctor says yes, for whatever reason this is what you need. So, my advice to students is train with food, cause like I said, I wouldn’t want, you know, the placebo effect to kick in, and you’re taking something that maybe is legit, it’s clean, it’s not going to make you test positive, but when you get here, you don’t have that anymore, and it’s like taking away the binky, you know. Or, and it’s such a mentally demanding environment here that I wouldn’t want that lack of a placebo effect, or I wouldn’t want you to take that away and think, “Oh, I need my multivitamin,” or, “I need my protein powder in order to recover properly.” It’s not physically necessary, so kind of get used to that now would be some of my advice.
AG: Yeah, that’s huge. Those are some very important takeaways, so nothing that says supplemental info on the label, train with whole foods, and pretty much, you know, do your best to eat vitamins in the food format, not in the pill format.
JR: Precisely, and if you need those extra calories, and you want convenience food, it’s fine to have the bottled protein shake, or some of the energy bars or protein bars. Again, going back to the clean eating, when you’re searching through the different ones, don’t necessarily just go for the one that has the most protein as a lot of us do, but maybe try to find the ones that have a grass-fed protein that’s a little cleaner. Try to find ones that don’t have artificial sugars, artificial colors, artificial flavors. So again, that fewer ingredients still applies to the bottle protein and the bars.
AG: So, while we’re talking about the labels, there’s a lot of words on labels that are hard to understand. Are there a few that you would say that are just no, absolute no’s? I remember partially hydrogenated soybean oil being something that’s pretty bad, or there are like three things that you just say no, no, no?
JR: Great question, and partially hydrogenated oils would be high up on that list. I would say anything that has a color or a number associated with it. So, you know, Red 5, Blue 4, any of these different artificial colors. So that would be the first thing. And I like to say that if a fifth grader could not pronounce it, it probably shouldn’t be there. So polysorbate 80, and sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, and some of those ones that, yes, if you’re a college chemical engineer chemistry student, you know what those mean, but if a fifth grader can’t pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t put it into your body.
AG: Nice, I like that rule a lot. So, when you look at the top part of the label, you know, percentages of everything, is there any sort of rule of, you know, not over this amount of sugar in one serving size or something like that that you would say is a rule of thumb?
JR: Another awesome question. And I would say when it comes to the percentages, my rule is to ignore those, because those percentages are based on a 2,000-calorie diet. And I would say that most of the students coming through the pipeline here need at least double, and sometimes even triple those amounts. So, early on --- and to throw the calories thing out there, some of the numbers – early on in training, students here are burning 5 to 6 thousand calories per day, and during Hell Week or during the Tour, that number goes up to 10 to 12 thousand calories per day. So, looking at the percentages and thinking that you need a 2,000-calorie diet, you’re going to be incredibly under-fueled for this training environment. So, I, I like to look at the ingredients. My other rule – ignore the percentages. I actually get away from the macros, the grams of carbohydrate, fat and protein to be honest, and I go straight to the ingredient list. The ingredient list is listed from largest amount of that food to the least, highest to least in terms of its weight. So, if you’re looking at a product, a bar, and brown rice syrup is the first ingredient on that energy bar, that means – which is a sugar – that means there’s more added sugar in that bar than anything else, whereas another bar over here, the first two ingredients may be cashews and dates. And yes, dates have sugar, but they’re a natural sugar. So, that would be my rule of thumb, is ignore the whole top part of that label, go to the ingredient list, look for things as we said that a fifth grader can’t pronounce, try to find the products that have the fewest number of ingredients, and then try to find the ones that don’t sound like artificial or added sugars.
AG: Okay, so, you know, a lot of people when they turn 18 are shopping for the first time, and that is going to be a lot of people that you’re seeing here. Do you have advice for someone as they walk into the grocery store to do the right thing?
JR: So, you always hear the tip of, ‘well, stick to the perimeter’, and I believe in that to an extent. However, there’s a lot of frozen foods in the middle, a lot of frozen vegetables and frozen fruit to make smoothies, in the center aisles that’s really healthy food. So you’ll hear that one a lot, and there’s some truth to it. The best advice I could have is it starts before you get to the grocery store, and that’s to make a plan. We talk about with operators here you have to pay attention to detail, so you have to be very detail-oriented thought process. So I say make, make a menu for the week, and you don’t have to make a menu of breakfast, lunch and dinner and snacks. The easiest way to do it would be to make a menu for five days, just for dinner. So, here are my dinners for the week, and I’m going to plan to have leftovers one night, and I’m going to plan to eat out one night, and then maybe my lunch is going to be my leftovers from the night before. So, make that five meal, week-long menu, and then see what ingredients you need, and use that to create your shopping list. Cause otherwise, I think we’ll have a tendency to buy the exact same things every single time we go through the grocery story, okay, we’ll get milk, we’ll get bread, we’ll get a thing of lettuce, and then we’ll go home that day, and we’ll make a salad, and then the next Sunday, we’ll open up the bottom drawer, and that lettuce is wilted, and you’re wasting money. So, I know at 18, budget is a concern, and so if you plan to do things like the salads and your fishes and your fresh meats early in the week, then you can plan to use your frozen foods, frozen vegetables later in the week.
AG: So, we were talking about all these things that are so good for you. One of my personal favorite expressions in this community is, “Work hard, play hard,” which indicates a certain amount of consumption of other things outside of training. What, what are your suggestions on managing that? I mean, you’re going to go have fun, you’re going to drink, you know, you’re going to eat junk food. What do you do when that occurs? How do you get, how do you recover from that, you know?
JR: Yeah, you’re absolutely right, “Work hard, play hard”. Another quote in this community is, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” So I know where you’re coming from with that thought process. So, I’m a big fan of the 80/20 rule, which you may have heard before, where if you focus on healthy eating 80 percent of the time, then that other 20 percent you can have the junk food and go out and enjoy it. So, within that, I’ll say two things: one, depending on your personal goals, you may need to adjust that. If you struggle with losing that last five to ten pounds that you know you need to lose cause you want to get that 4-mile run time down, you may need to be on a 90/10 type of diet. And then when you get to a certain point, you can go a little bit back towards 80/20. So, I’ll say this, on the second part of that is, eat what you like. I always tell people that the double fudge brownie, a small portion is better than an entire tray of low-fat, sugar-free brownies, alright. So, make, satisfy yourself, and what I usually tell the students and the operators here is lump all your junk food. So your fast food, your desserts, your alcohol, lump that all into the 20 percent as well. So, if you, if you like your double IPAs and your wine, then you go for that…(AG: eat a salad) And a salad! That’s the exact, exactly just like that. So do what you like, just try to control, think about a week-long process of, “All right, where’s my junk food, where’s my booze, where’s my fast food, and, you know, how am I going to manage that all into my 20 percent?”
AG: And not everyone’s, you know, do you have advice for someone who, they didn’t eat a salad, they got drunk, and they had a cheeseburger, and then they’re feeling bad about that? It’s like what, what do you suggest to get back on the wagon again, to get back in the mindset?
JR: Great question, and it’s all about establishing healthy habits. So, if you have the habit of drinking a lot and very frequently, then you’re probably also going to have the habit of going out and eating the cheeseburgers, or the pizza, or the tacos late night. We’re in San Diego, so it’s, it’s California burritos here. I know it, I understand it. So I would say just getting back into that routine the next day, of, “All right, yesterday was yesterday, today’s today, and I need to get back into my fitness routine.” It’s funny when you read about habits that people who are more fit, people who exercise more, you know, people who make their bed, if you’ve heard that from one of our former leaders here. When you make your bed in the morning, that everything else just trickles down.
AG: Start the day doing something that’s productive so that the rest of the day follows from there. (JR: Exactly, exactly) Is there, is there a Navy SEAL and SWCC equivalent of making your bed first thing in the morning? Is there a nutrition equivalent of that?
JR: Oh, man, that’s a good, that’s a very fair question. I would say drinking water. I think we, the first thing we typically do in the morning is we go to the bathroom, and we wake up dehydrated. So I’d say start the day hydrated. There it is, start the day hydrated. Your brain cells need water, your muscle cells and so you can think more clearly, you can listen to your body a little bit more clearly in terms of your hunger and satiety when you are hydrated.
AG: That’s really interesting because I’d say a very large percentage of us start the day with coffee, a diuretic essentially, so maybe like chug a glass of water before you have that coffee? [JR: Exactly.] All right, I like that. So, we’ve, we’ve gone, you know, big picture down to some of the, the smaller, sweat the small stuff kind of details of this. Let’s bring it back to the plan. If I’m looking at this for the first time, and I’m trying to map out how I’m going to attack, you know, my journey to the Special Warfare community, what would you recommend I look at first and then, you know, how to map it out?
JR: So, the first step would be some form of self-assessment, and I think the easiest thing you can do is just write down what you eat and what you drink, because I feel that we are in autopilot when it comes to nutrition most of the day, that we don’t realize we’re grabbing this snack or grabbing that snack, or at the end of the day, we don’t realize that we maybe over consumed on this product, maybe under-consumed on this product or under-consumed water. So, I’d say that first step is just the self-assessment, the awareness of, “Alright, what am I actually putting into my body?” Cause you can go online and download a diet program, but it may not be specific to you. “What are one to three aspects I can focus on today or tomorrow morning that will improve what I do?” It might be drinking more water, it might be not skipping a meal. There’s 100 different things we could look at, but the self-awareness is probably that first step.
AG: How often do you find that people are surprised once they do start tracking? I’d imagine it’s a very high percentage.
JR: Very high percentage, yeah, 9 out of 10. In fact, there’s some studies, this is more on the weight loss side, but just simply tracking their calories and not having any input from a dietician, that alone, people lose weight. So, you can become more fit simply by becoming more aware, as I said, of what you’re putting into your body or what you’re not putting into your body.
AG: That indicates a lot of mindless activity going on, so it’s all about mindfulness… (JR: Exactly, yes) Well, I know one of the things that you wanted to make sure we addressed is, you know, there’s, there’s a plethora of information out there. There’s a lot of data, there’s a lot of research, there’s a lot of websites and apps, and you, you know, your goal is to make sure that people have a simple, have simple explanations and ways of attacking their health and nutrition. What would you kind of dispel it down to for some takeaways?
JR: Great question, and we touched on this when we were discussing protein a little bit, but if you think about that big plate, again, your breakfast, your lunch, your dinner, all your snacks, and about a third of that plate should be protein. Well, about another third of that should be vegetables, and so I would say that most Americans, including athletes, including Naval Special Warfare operators, don’t consume enough vegetables. So make a third of that plate vegetables. And then make the other third of that plate your carbohydrates, your starches, your starchy vegetables. So, potatoes are a starch, peas, corn and carrots are starches, not vegetables. And just kind of think about that third, third and third with your healthy fats spread around. And then if you need to gain weight or lose weight, we can modify that a little bit. If your goal is to gain weight, maybe the carbohydrates is a little bit bigger portion. If you need to lose weight, maybe the vegetables becomes a little bit bigger portion. But that would be a great starting place, is thinking about, again, what you’re putting into your body, what foods are going on that plate and just having an honest, you know, gut check moment of, “All right, well, what does my plate look like today? What is that pie graph look like?” And then, “What are some steps I can take to make sure that I tweak that pie chart to look a little bit more like that one-third, one-third, one-third?” I’d say probably most of the students, we think about half of it is probably the protein, and about another third is our starches, and then maybe that last little sliver is our vegetables.
AG: Are there any trends? I know you said that it’s an individual thing, and then everybody at every stage along the training process and wherever they are in life has to look at it, but are there any trends that are just ridiculous that right now? You know, it changes every year, but…
JR: It does. So, again, what is appropriate for somebody who is diabetic or somebody who’s overweight or even somebody who is a Special Operations Forces operator, may not be appropriate for a student. So, if I’m looking at something like intermittent fasting, for example, which is a very popular trend, where it’s eight hours of eating and 16 hours of not eating, I would say that is not appropriate for a student coming into this pipeline because you’re just going to be grossly under-fueled. When you get to a point in your career where you maybe will have to go out on a three-day hump, and you don’t have access to food, well, then maybe use some intermittent fasting along your training pipeline to get your body used to not eating would be absolutely appropriate. But when you get to Prep, when you get to Coronado, you’re going to get three squares a day, and during certain parts, you’ll get that forth meal or snack, so get used to that regiment. Feed your body, because you’re going to need to burn through those calories. So, that would, that would be the one right now that I would say would not be appropriate for students coming in.
AG: So, hydration is important. We understand that. I think that’s widely known and maybe something we can all focus on more, but is there a certain amount that we should be focusing on, is it a percentage of body weight? How do you look at that?
JR: Yes, exactly, and we like to say get at bare minimum half your body weight in ounces, and so that’s if you have a low training day, and you’re not really sweating or burning a lot, but that can go all the way up to three-quarters of your body weight. And for incredibly intense days or for those of you who are in the Midwest or the east coast, where it’s really hot and humid, then maybe even your body weight, in ounces. So, if you’re 200 pounds, you should be drinking about 100 ounces of fluids per day. And it is definitely a relative amount. You know, there are people who will say, “Well, you should drink eight glasses,” some people say you should drink a gallon. Well, a gallon is 128 ounces, so for most 180 to 200-pound students coming in, that’s probably a pretty good range, a good estimate. I would also say we should talk about electrolytes and the sodium and the potassium, and that if it is hot and humid, you need to make sure you’re getting some form of essentially salt into that water. And it might be water and salty food; it could be a sports drink. Some people will talk about hyponatremia, which is too little sodium in the blood. We don’t see that here. In my two and a half years here and in talking to the medical providers who’ve been here long, longer than I have, I don’t know that we’ve seen any cases of hyponatremia, but we’ve absolutely seen plenty of cases of heat illness and dehydration. So, if you’re thirsty, you should drink, and you should probably drink a little bit beyond your thirst. You know, thirst is a really good regulator. I would say just drink slightly beyond your thirst, get half your body weight to three-quarters of your body weight in ounces of fluid per day, and then make sure that when you are exercising, getting some sodium especially, in one form or another.
AG: Should anyone be worried about over-hydration?
JR: And over-hydration would be that hyponatremia. It’s, I’d say, in the population coming in here, it’s probably pretty rare. You have to be drinking for like four or five hours. Where it can become a threat would be people who are running marathons who finish in that five to six-hour range and have been drinking water every aid station. But like I said, you know, if we’re going to put our money down on something, I’m going to put my money down on somebody being dehydrated in this population, than somebody being over-hydrated. So, you don’t ever, you may not need to go over one ounce per pound of body weight. That might put you at that risk for over-hydration or hyponatremia, but half to three-quarters per pound is good.
AG: While we’re talking about amounts, when it comes to advice about, you know, shifting to eating a whole food diet can be a little challenging for somebody who hasn’t done it before or maybe who hasn’t cooked for themselves before. Are there any kind of little tips that you’ve learned along the way for the daily consumption, you know, especially as someone on the go? What would you recommend?
JR: One of my go-tos is trail mix, and if you find a Whole Foods type of store where they have the bulk section, you can make your own trail mix. And nuts and seeds and dried fruit, and you can get different varieties of that. Do one that’s almonds and tart cherries. I love tart cherries, I love tart cherry juice. So trail mix, things like hardboiled eggs, I think are incredibly easy. And then as some of the different energy bars that are whole food bars, if you want to get adventurous, you can go on Pinterest, for example, and look up homemade energy bar recipes. So, I would say those things, trail mix, hardboiled eggs, homemade energy bars. And then there’s 1,000 different recipes for like overnight oats or homemade oatmeal’s, where you can put in almond butter. One of the favorites of the students here that we do a little cooking class when they get to qualification training. And pumpkin pie oatmeal is one of the favorites, where you put some canned pumpkin, some dark chocolate chips, a little bit of honey, sea salt and the oats, and it’s five minutes and delicious.
AG: That sounds great. I love that. Yeah, I’ve heard a lot about that lately. Is there anywhere people can go to find out more about this? I mean I think there’s, you, I think you have a lot more to share.
JR: Well, I know where, the SEALSWCC.com website is constantly being revamped, and, you know, I’m working on some different pieces, getting some more nutrition education to go along with all the great training information that’s already present. So, I keep coming back to that.
AG: I just want to thank you, Justin, for being here. This has been so interesting. I feel like we could talk for days about it. Maybe we’ll have you back again sometime…Part two.
JR: Absolutely, I appreciate your time, and best of luck to everyone out there for, with their training.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWCC.com, and join us again for the next NSW podcast
SWCC are special boat operators who conduct covert missions from the water, at night or under fire. Learn more about these unique warriors in this episode. For additional info check out www.SEALSWCC.com
The only easy day was yesterday. (Intro)
A crucial part of any Naval Special Warfare mission is the covert insertion and extraction of operators, especially at night or under fire.
The team responsible for this, SWCC, or Special Warfare Combatant-craft crewmen, are trained extensively in how to pilot and maintain special boats and their weapons. They are physically fit, highly motivated, combat-focused, and responsive in high-stress situations. They frequently work with the Navy SEALs.
Today we speak with Bill, the SWCC Instructor of the Year who is also responsible for the first block of SWCC training, called Basic Crewman Selection. Let’s get started.
AG: Well, first, I’d like to thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. I know you’re a pretty busy guy.
B: Oh, you’re welcome.
AG: If you could start by introducing yourself and letting the audience know, you know, what you, who you are and a little about what you do.
B: Yes, I’m Petty Officer First Class Bill. I’m an instructor here at the SWCC Schoolhouse, specifically our selection phase, which we call BCS, stands for Basic Crewmen Selection.
AG: So, what does it mean to be an instructor here?
B: An instructor, what that means here is that we are the primary role of, of conducting evolutions for the students and anything and everything that’s required for the students to get through our, our schoolhouse.
AG: Very nice. And I think you, you left out something in your introduction. You’re not just any instructor. You’re the Instructor of the Year?
B: Yes, I was fortunate enough to be, to be awarded the Instructor of the Year. I got a lot of help from a lot of guys previous to get that award.
AG: What does that mean?
B: Well, what those qualities would mean to me personally is that you are the example for what you would want a candidate to become. So, anything ranging from character and competence, what we always hit for, our students, that’s what we’re looking for, so we’re demonstrating that ourselves with our personal leadership, team ability, with how we are physically, on evolutions, our personal fitness, our knowledge, everything that we want out of the students that we are demonstrating that ourselves.
AG: Okay. How did you decide to go SWCC? Where did that come from, the motivation?
B: I decided to go SWCC about ten years ago when it was actually through a YouTube video, showing the capabilities and everything going on with the Riverine aspect of SWCC. I saw that video, I was interested in the military before, kind of just cruising through, looking at different Special Operations positions, and that’s what I was into, and I saw that one, and I was immediately hooked.
AG: Awesome. I think we should pause for a second to let anyone listening know where we’re sitting cause they’re probably going to be hearing some sounds around here. Can you tell us what we’re looking at over here?
B: Yeah, so right now, we’re sitting at what we call here Pier Four in the Slab. It’s a, it’s a main spot that we conduct a lot of our training here at the Basic Crewman Selection phase of the SWCC Schoolhouse, where they do many different physical activities, they start their underways here, and they perform countless swims down here, so if, if anyone chooses to go the SWCC route, they would be spending many hours where we’re currently sitting.
AG: Nice. Well, before we start talking about what actually happens when you go SWCC, I want to just start by asking you if someone’s interested in going that direction, what do you think the best first step is?
B: The best first step to become a, if you’re interested in becoming a SWCC, is first looking up all the open source information out there on what a SWCC means, what does it mean to become a SWCC, because the first step is making sure that that’s what you really want to do. It’s a great job, and there’s, there, and there’s a lot of good things about it, but you first need to know what it is and why you want to do it, and then you start getting into the details of precise things you need to do to prepare.
AG: So, to get to that stage, what, what is the course like that people have to go through?
B: The first course would be the physical preparation. So, actually on the SEAL/SWCC website, there’s an extensive amount of information on what physical standards someone should be at to be properly prepared, and that’s where you would first want to look to see the running times you should have, swimming, push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, general body calisthenics that someone should be at so that they have a good shot at making it through.
AG: Okay, and can you describe that it’s a 7-week course?
B: BCS is a 7-week course.
AG: Okay, so could you walk us through that course?
B: So, when someone comes to training, when they start BCS, the first week is a large amount of different physical evolutions that we test their personal grit, their team ability, and it has a small amount of classroom instruction revolving around coastal navigation. So, there’s a lot of different physical evolutions based off things such as running, push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, there’s a lot of swimming, there is a lot of team building exercises with, with small boats that they all have to maneuver together, hold together, do different relay races that force a lot of teamwork.
AG: Is that, before we move on to the next phase, personal grit, that’s an interesting phrase.
B: Grit would be a huge factor for our selection course, not the only one, but it is a primary factor, and the entire course is both developing and testing grit. So, it’s a combination of we’re selecting those with enough grit, and we are developing grit at the same time. So, that is throughout, and it changes on how we do it, and week one is mainly through those physical evolutions with a small amount of classroom instruction.
AG: Okay, and then the next?
B: Then the next two weeks, week two and three, are similar; however, it changes into less on the physical. We start introducing more classroom time because there is a large amount of academic learning they need to know before we get underway on the, on the boats, so we have to start from square one on everything to do with navigation, the fundamentals of the craft that they’re going to be on and basic seamanship. So, we get into that on weeks two and three, while at the same time still having the, the physical grit side, but now they have the academic side as well, and…
AG: And you bring up a point, which is that they haven’t even touched a boat yet at this point.
B: Not yet, not yet.
AG: Even though the boats are the main objective, but you got to get through this before you can, (B: Correct) okay.
B: Correct, so they have quite a bit of, they have a steep learning curve to even get to that point, so we don’t just jump immediately onto it. Then when we get to week four, is our underway week. we also have physical test gates, so it’s less about grit building on this week, and it’s more about performance. So, we’re going to be executing everything we’ve learned, and you’re also going to have to execute your, your physical performance on this week, so both. We start getting underway, start doing all the basic underways, mainly revolving around navigation, but we also do anchoring, towing, hull inspections, some other fundamental seamanship skills. At the end of that week, then week five is our, is our crucible week. We have the Tour…(AG: Crucible week?) Yes, so…
AG: Why’s it called that?
B: It’s not called the crucible week, so it is called the Tour. Week five has the Tour, and what I meant by that is that, that is what Basic Crewman Selection is leading up to. So, the first four weeks is all leading up to the week of the Tour, where they put together everything that they’ve been learning, and we call it a day in the life of a boat guy. So, it’s three days of minimal sleep, testing them on everything they’ve been learning and a huge amount of physical activity. So, they’re going to be wet, cold, tired and tested for three days straight.
AG: Talk about grit, geez.
B: So, once they get through that week, there’s a phase line within BCS, so that’s when the students get their brown shirts. They transition from white shirts to brown shirts, and then that’s a symbolic transition that they have been selected for, for further training. So, they’ve made it through our Tour, and those students have demonstrated the capability and grit to transition into the next phase of training. It is still…
AG: So, if anyone happens to be walking around Coronado and sees a bunch of guys go by in brown shirts, that means they have?
B: They know that they made it through the Tour. Then we transition to week six, and week six is when we start getting into more advanced skills, still fundamental, and we get into basic driving. Up to this point, the students haven’t been driving at all. All they’ve been doing is the navigational side, learning the fundamentals of what an engine is and everything else. So, we start off the week with teaching about maintenance on crafts, official maintenance and how to drive the craft. We start off with the smallest craft we have in our inventory. It’s a small rubber craft where it is called a CRRC, Combat Rubber Raiding Craft, and it uses a small 55-horsepower outboard motor, so we put that on the back of the small craft, and they practice basic maneuvering, driving straight, doing different turns, mooring up onto the side of other boats or piers, and the fundamentals there with driving. That’s how this week goes. It’s different underways, a lot more classroom now. The PTs go into more of on the minimal side. They’re always going to PT for their entire SWCC career.
B: Then we’re transitioning into week seven, and that’s the last week of Basic Crewman Selection, and during this week, we, we cumulate everything they’ve learned, and we do what’s called an FTX, and that’s a Final Training Exercise. So, they get taught some basic mission planning, they know how to drive these small CRRCs, and we give them a mission, and they go ahead and execute this mission under instructor surveillance, and we grade them, and that is the culmination of everything that they’ve done in BCS. So, they get to see and execute what all their hard work has led to.
AG: Wow. And of all these stages, would you say there are one or two where you lose the most amount of people?
B: Absolutely. So, we lose the most people during week one and week five. So, week one being the first week of BCS, it’s a shock to a lot of candidates that come through, and it’s a, it’s a steep curve for many people, and then we also leave, lose a significant amount during the Tour, where they go three days straight, and they’re on minimal sleep, cold, wet and tired the entire time.
AG: So, what would your advice be for someone knowing that? You know, you’re on the other side now. You can see what holds people back.
B: My advice would be starting from the time that you want to become a SWCC developing grit within yourself. So, there’s great information out there publically, open source, they can just check out right on the SEAL/SWCC website on what they should be doing to physically prepare, and you need to immediately start working towards those targets, and if you hit those targets, exceed those targets. Never be satisfied, and every single day, be building a habit of grit, and they can do that indirectly even though they don’t have these exact tools just through their lifestyle. When they’re working out, are they truly pushing themselves, or do they listen to that little voice in their head that, you know, tells them that they want to stop or slow down and do that? Are they, do they set themselves at rigid schedule, or are they letting themselves just wake up every day in the morning whenever they want to? Are they doing everything they can to start having a lifestyle of grit is what I would suggest to anyone that wanted to become a, become a SWCC.
AG: Lifestyle of grit, I like it. What did you do to, to get to this place? How did you prepare before you, when you decided you wanted to go that direction?
B: Ten years ago, there wasn’t a SEAL/SWCC website with as much information. Wikipedia had the, the entrance scores required. I was working at the time, so I would wake up before work to go use the pool every day and, and just work out twice a day until I came in. I would, I had quite a big deficit to do with things like pull-ups and other upper body physical because I grew up playing soccer, so that was where I had the biggest improvement that I had to make. The running, I had to mainly just maintain. At the time, I was a decent runner, so I was still working on it. However, the swimming and the upper body strength, I had a lot of work to do, so that’s where I devoted most of my attention to try to become the best overall possible.
AG: That’s good to point out to people that might think that, because they’re not the best swimmer right now, there’s no reason they couldn’t get there, (B: No, absolutely not) or any other form of physical…
B: Absolutely not. If there’s enough time, and there’s information out there that if this is what you want to do, you, anyone out there could, through enough personal effort, become ready, if you haven’t ever swam before, there’s great information on there on how to swim. They need to learn the combat sidestroke and practice it every day until they feel good enough at it and then do it a standard amount for the workout templates that are out there, maybe three times a day. If they, if they didn’t run very much growing up, then they need to work on that, and usually what’s much different for people is being comfortable in the water. I grew up on the West Coast, California, so I was able to go into the ocean pretty often, you know, so I had an advantage of being slightly more comfortable in the water than someone that’s never been in the water before. So, that is, if they don’t have access to the ocean, they absolutely need to get in the pool as much as possible and just get comfortable in the water, and that’s by spending more time out in the water.
AG: And it also sounds like you don’t necessarily have to know how to drive a boat to…
B: No, so fundamental math skills, it is needed for navigation, so if you frontload that, meaning, you know, if you graduated high school eight years ago, and you haven’t touched math in a while, being able to do everything on paper, not use a calculator, long division, decimal, multiplication, those basic skills, you know, you just need to brush up on real quick, but everything else we will, we will teach you here what to do with navigation, with the boats, with engines, with communication radios. The training is extensive when they get here, and as long as they’re willing to pay attention in class and do their homework, they will have ample opportunity to perform at their required needs.
AG: Do you think your job is pretty cool?
B: Yeah, I do.
AG: It looks cool from the outside in.
B: Yeah, so I mean just what we were saying before with how many jobs out there get to show up each day, work out for a while and then, you know, essentially practice being a team. So, it’s, you feel like you’re in a team each day where you show up, work out and then just refine your skillsets, and it’s, it’s great each day.
AG: What about when you’re actually on a mission of some sort?
B: What do you mean by that?
AG: Could you walk us through what that is like, just a little bit of the highlights? I know you can’t talk about all of it, but…
B: It could drastically change depending on what type of mission you’re on, and, you know, with the mobility piece, you know, it’s rewarding to, to know that you’re being part of this bigger system of making sure that the objective is met, you know, taking guys where they need to go, bringing them back if they got in trouble, and it turns into what we would call a hot extract where, you know, you need to make sure to lay down, suppressive fire and get them out of there fast. And there’s a lot of different opportunities for SWCC. It’s, it’s hard to explain. The fundamental aspect there is with the, with the small crafts, with taking people where they need to go, doing surveillance with the crafts or anything else that’s needed. We also, pride ourselves on just being experts in mobility, so if we need to do it in other vehicles such as Humvees, we will. Anything that we need to do to help out, we will.
AG: That’s interesting, not just boats.
B: So, that’s the primary piece, it’s the boats, but we are flexible to adjust to whatever is currently needed.
AG: How do you select someone after the 7-week process, like what, you know, say someone gets through the whole thing, is there a reason you might still not want them on your team?
B: Yes. So, we, we break it down very simple that we select on character and competence. So, what we mean by that is first with the character is things such as does he have good integrity? Is he a good team player? How is his grit? Can we trust him? Is he going to be a good teammate with us later on? Then competence, and that’s all about performance, and BCS, that is, how do they do on our evolutions? Can they run fast enough, swim enough, do enough pull ups, do fast enough time in the obstacle course, are they, are they passing all the whatever they’re thrown at during the Tour, and then in addition to that, the academic side for the SWCC training, can they pass our academic test, we do different chart tests in the classroom, and are they learning what we require them to learn, so those are the…
AG: But it’s probably important to pause and say that you’re teaching them everything.
B: We are teaching them.
AG: So, so it shouldn’t be intimidating. It’s more like when you get here, pay attention.
B: Right. If they are doing their side, we prepare them with everything they need to know, and we pride ourselves on being excellent instructors in the classroom and adjusting to the individual student’s need with helping out with them as much as possible. So, we don’t expect anyone to come here being experts in navigations or knowing the, the inner workings of an engine. We’ll get them there. However, they need to do their side, their homework, and this needs to be their life while they’re in BCS, and student, candidates that have that mentality that they’re all in, and they, this is their, their current dream at the time, and they will succeed if they are willing to, to learn everything they need to learn and have the grit on physical evolutions.
AG: So, one of the things on your website, it says they need to be morally, mentally and physically qualified. And I think we’ve talked about mentally and physically quite a bit, but what does morally qualified mean?
B: Morally qualified has to do with the character I was talking about with character and competence, so one big one’s integrity, so we have a lot of responsibility and trust in our job with what mission set we are expected to perform overseas, so we need to be able to trust a candidate coming through that they’re going to be part of this small team, a boat crew, for example, will have anywhere from three to five people on it, and that’s not very many people, so each person’s going to have a large amount of responsibility and require a large amount of trust. So, we need to know that they’re going to do the right thing when no one’s looking. That’s what we say. So, no matter what, they, you know, they will earn our trust, and they’ll always do the right thing, and that’s the easiest way instead of going down into all the different possible situations with the integrity. Can we trust them when no one’s looking?
AG: Yeah. That’s powerful. We pretty much covered what it means to be mentally prepared, but do you have anything, I feel like that’s an important subject to make sure we…
B: Right, mentally prepared is there, will be different activities or evolutions that they had not seen or did not prepare exactly for here. Besides the fundamentals of you know that you’re going to experience running, you know that you’re going to have to swim, do the obstacles, push-ups, sit-ups, different activities with boats, you know that that’s coming, but there’s going to be something that, that comes at, you weren’t exactly ready for, and at that moment is when you’re truly tested that you need to be shortsighted and just know that you can get through it, and it might feel overwhelming at the time, but just push through.
B: You know, you go through a lot of work on a mission and execute the mission as a SWCC, and you, everything goes smoothly, comes back, not too eventful. However, in the time where you’re needed the most, there will be a very stressful situation where you got to have a lot of mental fortitude to know that you’re going into a real bad situation, and you got a high chance that it’s not going to go well, and you got to stay focused and make sure you do your part to get them out of there. Otherwise, it could be catastrophic for whoever you’re working with, then in turn, for yourself.
AG: I called this a job earlier. It seems like that’s the wrong word for it.
B: Well, I would say any, any job that is very involved would be, you know, you could classify it as more of a, of a lifestyle. People that want to become champions in whatever they pursue are completely immersed in what they’re doing, and everybody else is, so it adjusts the culture of what you’re in. You’re working with a group of people that this and their family is basically the only two things they got, so they, they try as hard as they can, and, you know, it definitely goes more towards the lifestyle side of things.
AG: What’s your favorite part of what you do?
B: Well, that’s, that’s a hard question to answer, but I couldn’t really say any one particular thing so that the whole package is what’s enjoyable. Right now, I’ve been an instructor for almost three years now, so I’ve really enjoyed being part of this process, and it just morphs over time. So, when I go back to a boat team because I’m not at a boat team right now, I’m going to be working with guys that I was part of them going through selection, so my experience will be, you know, more rewarding as time goes on that I both get to do the job, and I’ve been part their career path, and it just keeps on building on itself. Is great being part of that.
B: I like the day-to-day aspect, and I think that that’s important for people to remember that, that just the fact of training, for example, is great, where, say you were returning at night, practicing with night vision, that you show up later on in the day. You get to go train and shoot guns and everything else that people would probably pay money to do, and that’s what we’re getting paid to do and then...
AG: A lot of people pay to do the things…
B: Right, so, of course, you know, the missions are good, and that’s, that’s what we all want to do, and it’s important to remember, too, that we get to enjoy the regular day-to-day as well because if you’re just thinking about the mission, that can be pretty draining, so we’re always training for the mission, but you got to learn how to enjoy both training and the mission when it comes.
AG: All about the journey?
AG: What else do you want to talk about? What do you think is important for people to know?
B: I think it’s important for people to know and to, for the, you know, to become a SWCC, is when you get here is to be shortsighted, not in a bad way, meaning when the days get really hard to just focus on the current now, and can you keep on going right now, and when it feels overwhelming, and let’s say, for example, you’re not a gifted runner, and you’re struggling on a run. Can you take one more step? Can you push yourself a little bit harder? And most people will find that they do have a little bit more in the tank, and if they start on that right now, then they’ll be in a good place months later when they get to here, or when they’re really cold at nighttime. Are you so cold that you absolutely need to be warmed up right now, meaning are you at a health risk, or is just very uncomfortable? And it will most likely just be that you are uncomfortable, and I am not suggesting for people to get themselves cold. That is something that they need to just deal with when they have to. However…
AG: You can’t train for that is what you’re saying.
B: No, there’s no reason to be trained for that, so they just need to practice PTing, physical training is what I mean by that, working out as hard as they can, finding a quality program, and there’s templates on the SEAL/SWCC website, and learning how to swim and just being more regimented because they’re going to be one, entering into the military, and two, within a very quick time period in a military selection course. So, depending on what they did before enlisting, that’s going to be a massive culture change and during a selection course, so start becoming more regimented and hold yourself to high expectations through the day with everything you do.
AG: So, everybody’s had that feeling when they’re, when they’re working out or doing something challenging where, you know, like you said, it’s, “Can I take that next step?” and I think, I don’t know if everybody does this, but I feel like there’s sort of a voice that talks to you. Do you, do you have that? Is there something that goes through your head?
B: Well, I think for me personally, I can’t speak for other people, but it’ll be more of doubt or anxiety if I’m doing something that I really don’t like, and I think that this will be a good point to bring up that, that if you are doing something challenging, let’s say a long run, for example, and you, you gave in a little bit, and it’s important to not beat yourself up about that, meaning if you’re in this training progress, and you’re trying to get much more physically fit, you’re hearing that you should ignore that voice, and you don’t. Well, you don’t want to go down the path of feeling like, “Oh, no, now I can’t accomplish this.” I think it’s better to have small targets and constantly, the constant improvement method I think is best. So, instead of if you’ve been doing nothing, all of a sudden trying to match an ultra marathon runner, that’s not feasible, but the, constant micro improvements every day will help that, that voice in your head, and it’s never going to go away. So, it’s about knowing yourself, knowing what type of personal anxiety or stress will happen to you at different points and just being much more self-aware each day. So, if you go through a day and feel like you didn’t accomplish what you wanted, have a little reflection time and think about why you didn’t, what you can do better next time.
AG: Everyone has those moments, right, and what you’re saying is if you don’t get through it this time, don’t double down on that, you know, just get back up and…
B: Right, just always learn from it. Always learn from your mistakes. Everyone’s going to have mistakes, everyone’s going to have those weak moments, but how do you learn from them, how do you improve, and if you’re constantly improving and have less of those, in six months from now, then you would be far, much more far along in your personal grit you could say or fortitude or capability of, of withstanding different challenges.
AG: Since you became a SWCC, has that affected your personal life?
B: Absolutely, I do believe it’s improved. So, right now, after being a SWCC for about ten years, I feel capable of much more in my life’s challenges, whatever it may be, so I feel more capable of personal challenges now. Not only am I SWCC, I try to excel as much as I can in that, I’m also going to school on the side on top of this fulltime job. I have a family, I try to do my best to be a good husband and a father there, and I feel much more capable of accomplishing all of those challenges, and, and I attribute that a lot to the different stressors and everything that I’ve developed a lot more grit through this job.
AG: So, you’ve gotten through the 7-week course, you’ve been successful, you’ve been selected. What’s next?
B: Well, not quite. So, next, they got two additional phases of training before they are pinned as a SWCC operator. (AG: not done yet.) They’ve made a major milestone in the process. Getting that brown shirt is huge, and then they have two more phases that are each seven weeks. The next one is BCT, which stands for Basic Crewman Training, and that’s where they learn the fundamentals of weapons, shooting. They start their process of shoot, move, communicate, where they learn more about engines, getting into the finer details. After that, the next 7-week block is Crewman Qualification Training, which we just abbreviate CQT. And in CQT is really where they start running in their training, meaning they start driving the 30-foot RHIB, they start shooting out on the boats, they start using radios, they, and they end up at the very end being able to do a much more realistic final training exercise in culminating all the skills, executing it themselves on that 30-foot craft. And once they’re all done with that, that is when they will be pinned a SWCC and have the graduation ceremony.
AG: And, and after graduation, walk us through what, what is happening now? What, what’s the next step? Like how do you feel, what’s going on?
B: Well, the next step is you, you would report to a boat team and start your journey there, but more on the feeling part is it’s a very special, great feeling of pride knowing that you look back and reflect on all the hard work you’ve done, whether it be a year or longer of, of preparation for this accomplishment, and it’s something that no one could ever take away from you. So, you know yourself that through your own dedication and hard work, you’re achieved something great where you’ll look back and realize how many people did not accomplish it through whatever reason it might have been, and that’s something that that will stick with you for the rest of your life.
AG: And do you start working up right away or?
B: It’ll change for different people, but you will, you will show up to your perspective boat team, and you’ll get inoculated in that, that team culture where you will still be a, you know, you’ll be a new guy, and you’ll have a lot to learn and a steep learning curve, and the job never ends with the learning, and the effort never ends. It’s just you’re, you’re continuing on your journey, and you’re getting closer to being able to deploy and do your job real world. When you’re pinned as a SWCC, you’re not quite a, self-sufficient boat operator yet. You’re, you got a lot to learn before you’re, before you’re ready to deploy as a boat guy. However, you have validated that you’ve done what it takes to become a SWCC, and you instantly are part of that, that team, and everyone brings you in, and everybody knows that you got what it takes to be here.
AG: And it seems to me like you guys, you really support each other. (B: Absolutely) You want, I mean it’s more than the average workplace in terms of support goes.
B: Well, yeah, so everybody knows that you’ve been through that selection course, and it brings an instant bond to each other. So, if you go to a different boat team or around different boat guys that you’ve never met, you have an instant bond with them, and, you know, you gravitate towards them if you’re in a group of people that are a blend of boat guys and not boat guys. Of course, the boat guys are going to come together and want to talk and hear, you know, their past history of what they’ve done at the teams or different things, and that’s another special thing that, you know, that you only get through going through this selection course.
AG: And what’s the first mission feel like?
B: Well, that’ll be different for a lot of people depending on what type of mission but it’s a good feeling knowing that what you’re doing is for the country or for that mission set. There’s very few people in the United States that are able to do that, so you’re, you’re being part of history essentially.
B: There’s, there’s a huge amount of important jobs for the country, and this is absolutely not the only one. It’s just that you know that you’re being part of the greater system there in a special way, and you’ve worked very hard to, to do it, so you’re having direct impact, and you’re part of a huge amount of people that are part of that system that aren’t just SWCCs, and it’s good to look back on in your life later on and know that you did that.
AG: And what motivates you?
It’s always good to reflect, and I know 30, 40 years from now when I’m not in this job anymore, I was part of that. So, for example, if you read Vietnam was way before my day, and, you know, there is a lot of great people that helped out that, and then I’m helping out in my current situation here, the current conflicts, and, you know, my life was about more than just myself. And after this job, whatever other job I do whatever it might be, that these experiences can never be taken away.
AG: Incredible, a life about more than just yourself.
AG: Pretend you’re speaking to someone who’s just like thinking about it. In two sentences or three sentences, what would you say to them? Why would they want to join?
B: I would encourage anyone that is interested in being part of the US military of Special Operations with, with small crafts, that like the idea of shooting big guns, driving fast boats, and this is a great career that they can have fun and do important and impactful work along the way.
AG: Love it. Thank you so much for being here. We really appreciate it, and is there, where, so you, you’ve mentioned a couple times, but just to make sure everyone knows using the best place to get information outside of this podcast would be the website?
B: Absolutely. So, that’s the purpose of the SEAL/SWCC website, so we have people dedicated, and that’s their job to provide information, and that is by far better than the way I did it ten years ago and just essentially look up hearsay. So, if I had the opportunity ten years ago to just get it straight from the source, that is what I would’ve done and what I recommend to anyone.
AG: Awesome. Thank you again.
B: You’re welcome.
Training inevitably leads to injury, but with the right guidance you can avoid most issues and recover faster. Our staff physical rehab expert talks about how you can reduce your risk of injury. For more info go to www.SEALSWCC.com.
The only easy day was yesterday. (Intro)
In training, when you push yourself to the limits there is always a risk of injury. In the special operations field this is even further magnified. Today we speak about the fundamentals of fitness and injury prevention with expert Don Kessler, a man from the highest levels of competition. He is on the ground every day helping Special Warfare trainees perform their best and has some solid advice. Let’s get started.
DF: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us and speak about what you do for NSW. First, let’s talk a little bit about you for a minute, 40 plus years of physical fitness background with athletes varying from high school students to Olympians. What do you think uniquely qualifies you for your specialized position that you have at NSW?
DK: Well, I started out as a hospital corpsman after getting my master’s degree in physical education, and this was during the Vietnam time, and I eventually got stationed at the US Naval Academy and working as a hospital corpsman there. I moved into athletic training as my profession, but I had years of experience in the military going into that, and I loved it so much that I decided I was getting out of the military to continue on in athletic training. So, I went through, again, working in high schools, colleges. I worked at the Olympics, I worked with US Soccer, so there were many different variations I went to, and when the time came to retire from college athletics, I didn’t feel like I should stop. And so, I contacted some people in the NSW community that I knew and said, “I think I could be some help or benefit to them,” and they said, “We agree.” They thought that my experiences would be able to help teach some of these people some of the things that we do in athletics but also that we should treat the NSW people as Division 1 or professional athletes.
DF: How does the training that you do now specialize from the typical sports medicine that you’ve seen earlier in your career?
DK: My job in the medical side of BUDS training is that I’m to do the functional rehabilitation. So, we have three physical therapists that work with us that will work with the initial part of an injury, and I’m to functionally get them back into full action. They call it the BRIGS program, taking you from the very simple things of coming out of an injury or post-op and getting you back to able to do the obstacle course. So, that’s what my job is, it’s unique among any of the programs that we have in that I have to know what are the things that they ask of the students, both SEAL and SWCC, to make it through the training. And so, my functional rehabilitation is built towards what do you need to do to pass, or what do you need to do to pass through Hell Week or the tour.
DF: So, it is very similar to a lot of other athletic training, you just, a different kind of endgame, so to speak, in terms of what their capabilities need to be?
DK: It’s, like with any sport, and as I used to tell the students that I would have as athletic training students, that you have to look at the team you’re working with and know what is required of them in each thing and even watch people coach them and decide if I’m going to rehab them, what am I doing specifically for that sport. If it’s a thrower, if it’s a swimmer, if it’s a runner, I need to know specific things I need to do to get them back to full rehabilitation. And so, what I did was spend about two months just watching what they did in training and say, “All right, when I go to do my rehab, these are the things that I’m going to need to incorporate in the functional training to get them back to full 100%.
DF: Is there differences because of the loading that these guys are under a lot of times with heavy packs? It seems like to me that that’s one of the differences between training for a marathon or another body weight endurance sport versus the types of things that these operators do. They carry a lot of gear. Would you say that that’s accurate?
DK: In the, in the early phases of training, the heavy gear is just moved from one place to another. It’s not something that they’re really training with. They will eventually step it up and move it up, and they get later phases, but most of the problems we run into are things that involve endurance, whether it’s a run, whether it’s a swim, whether it’s an obstacle course, and we have to get them ready to be able to handle those and repeat those over and over and over again.
DF: Do you see that the injuries that you typically see are, like you just mentioned, are a result from maybe a too sudden of an increase of exercise volume?
DK: I would say there’s certainly an increase in volume. Some people come in trained too much for it already, and any addition that is made to their training puts them over the edge. The people who are peaking slowly have less problems, and that’s what BUDS prep does, and that’s what BO does, is to try to peak you and bring you along slowly, so most of that works fairly well. Many people come in way over trained and become stale as they say in athletics, and therefore, start on the downslope even though they’re going to slowly start increasing what they had been doing.
DF: So, I think it would be helpful if maybe you kind of unpacked that a little bit, talking about the progression of the scale or intensity. You’re talking kind of about peaking in terms, do you mean condition or wear on the body? Can you maybe unpack that a little bit?
DK: I would say more than anything else from the injury wise, it’s the wear on the body. On the physical therapy side, 60% of the injuries that we see on a daily basis are stress fractures, 60% are stress fractures, and so we have to slowly build them up, and if they do get a stress fracture, we have to again start at ground zero and build that up slowly. So, that’s what I mean by that. With the prep students, they start them doing a little bit of running and try to increase that as time goes along and try to make it go faster. When they get to here, again, in basic orientation, again, it starts a little bit slow, trying to show you what you’re doing and doing it once in a while and then start increasing it as you get into first phase. You will then have everything thrown at you every day, and then when you get to Hell Week, it runs on 24 hours a day. So, it peaks, the progression does. That gives them the ability, if you’re doing this right, to be able to handle that peak, but some people come in too high already, or they try to do extra beyond what is needed to be at that phase, and then it’s too much for them when they add more.
DF: I see what you’re saying. So, is there a difference between what the SWCC recruits are seeing versus the SEAL recruits in this process?
DK: The SWCC and SEAL will start prep together and do everything the same in prep. They will do BO together, and then after BO, they will break off into their branches. The BCT that the SWCC people do will be a little bit modified. They won’t be doing quite the much as, quite as much quantity, but they will still be doing the same things that the SEAL people are doing. So, again, it’s the same exact training. They keep right on up until they break out, and then there’s just a slight variation as to the quantity that’s done.
DF: You’ve mentioned the term BO a couple times. Can you tell us about that, what that is, what that means?
DK: BO is Basic Orientation. So, when the students come from prep in Great Lakes they are, all start out in Basic Orientation, and it’s a slow process of trying to learn what is required of them on a daily basis for their swims, for their runs, for the obstacle course, for their barracks inspection, personal inspection. It’s a watered down advance part of what’s going to happen in Hell Week or the tour or any other phase, and so they slowly as the weeks go by will increase the intensity of what they’re doing and the quantity of what they’re doing.
DF: Okay, let’s roll back maybe a few weeks or months in this kind of process. I’d imagine part of the reason why your voice would be so helpful here is being able to have these recruits hear you before they arrive and go through this orientation process. This is I think the kind of the jewel of being able to talk to you. What do you think these recruits should not do when they’re preparing for their PSTs before they even arrive?
DK: I would have to say it’s almost like getting ready for a track meet. You don’t want to be training for a marathon to be able to do a one-mile race, and the same thing goes with preparing to go to basic training and then to go to prep and then to go to BO. If you’re trying to do the amount quantity wise and the intensity that you’re going to need further down the road, you’re going to break down beforehand. So, it’s important to remember there are requirements to pass the PST. Shoot for what you need to do to be prepared for those requirements and not worry about what you need to do to get through Hell Week in that the amount of mileage you need to put in, the amount of lifting you need to put in or the amount of swimming you need to be in is nowhere near the amount that you’re going to need later, but you need to be able to do well at what you’re going to do at a lower level, but by being prepared to doing something at upper level won’t necessarily make you better and may break you down when you get to that upper level.
DF: I think that’s a really important distinction to make because we’ve talked with a number of people through this process, and there’s a sense of continued reflection on the documents and the guides that have been well-vetted and written for recruits through this process. I think that there’s a tendency, especially coming from a very high performing collegiate background, all these people are athletes, to want to push, want to push, want to be the best, want to be the top, and I’m hearing that continuously don’t push to the point where you’re hitting your limits. Follow the measured approach, the crawl, walk, run approach that’s kind of been echoed by a few different people, so it’s good to hear that from you, too. It seems like the guides that are available for people and the training programs that are available for people are designed for your success. They’re not necessarily for the lowest people on the rung to be able to get through. There is a measured approach for a reason, and it’s not only just to get people in the right condition but to prevent long-term injury.
DK: Absolutely right. The people that I end up seeing for medical treatment are usually those people who’ve pushed too hard. And that’s why I was brought in because they felt that in the past, if you were dropped because of medical reasons, many times you were left by the wayside and never really could get back into what was going on. And they found that many of these people were some of the best athletes that they had, and they just over trained or had a freak accident and got an injury. And what we wanted to do is take that out and say, “Hey, we want people like that. We want people who will push themselves, but let’s give them a framework to work in,” and rather, instead of just going crazy doing a lot to say, “Here’s the measured amount you need to do to get better,” and that’s what we have honed over the years to say, “I know exactly what it takes for you to have a fracture to get back to running full, and I know how many weeks it takes, I know how much intensity I have to do it each one, and if you add more to that, you’re probably going to get injured again.” And I’ve seen it time and time again. As it is with the people who have followed the pattern, and I’ll just say with stress fractures, we’ve dealt with stress fractures. I’ve had 148 guys I’ve used the Altered G, which is gravity assisted running, and of those people, all of them have passed. Only six people were reinjured, which is about 4%, and the history with stress fractures is if you’ve had one, it’s the best predictor of getting another one, and you have a 40% chance of being reinjured if you’ve had a stress fracture. So, we’ve been able to hone that down to about 4%, which is amazing. I’m going off on lectures at colleges and universities to talk about that, to try to help them with what we’re doing, but that’s what we’re saying. We have done this, we have seen this, we have a measured approach as how much to do, and the word we try to get out to you beforehand is don’t wait to get hurt to do this measured amount. Do the measured amount beforehand so we can bring you along gradually through the training throughout the cycle.
DF: So, for the people that don’t have a world-class rehab facility whenever they’re in the earlier stages of training, is there anything you can say to them about comparing the type of pain that’s causing injury versus the pain of, of your muscles burning? Can you speak to that a little bit?
DK: Well, again, looking at most of…DF: Like when to stop I guess…DK: Mostly people have had, are athletes of some sort, whether they’re swimmers or water polo players, ice hockey players. They have an idea from high school training or college training about what I need to do to get in shape, and there is that, you know, soreness when you start getting in shape, but after that, it never should be a real soreness. You should say, “Hey, I got a good workout,” but you never should be getting sore that the next day, “Oh, I don’t think I can do it.” If you’re doing that, and you’re getting more sore each day, then you’re already start over training, and that’s one of the best things that we’re trying to say is that, yes, there should be a breakdown, but there also has to be recovery. You just can’t keep pushing every day although you can do running one day, swimming a day, biking a day, almost like a triathlete and say, “Hey, that will get me there. It gives different parts of my body a chance to take off, but I’m still working towards the end,” and that’s the approach we push with the patients who are already injured, but certainly it’s necessary for the people who are just starting out.
DF: Right. So let’s say you’re earlier, you’re earlier on in this process, maybe you’re six months into training for your PST, and maybe you sustain an ankle injury, or you, you determine that you maybe might have stress fractures. I’d imagine it’s very important and even more so later on in the process to be able to maintain your engine, your cardiovascular capability through an injury. Is there anything you could recommend to people that might be “nursing” an injury early in this process to be able to keep their fitness level up instead of just drowning out?
DK: Absolutely. We always keep the conditioning. When we have somebody who is injured, and again, we’ll use stress fractures as an example because it’s one of the most prevalent injuries that we see, those people even if they are injured and are on crutches, they are working out, and their workout for aerobically will be sitting in the seat and doing an upper body arm bike, or they’ll be swimming. And eventually if they’re off crutches, we may have them biking and changing the speeds and resistance and things like that, so they’re constantly doing aerobic conditioning, and then we will eventually take them along to what the phases of running is concerned. But if they had an upper body injury with swimming say or the obstacle course, again, they’re on the bike, and they’re pedaling away, or if they can run, they will run, so they’re constantly keep their aerobic base going all the time, but we have to work to the specifics to what their injuries are and rehab that injury and then incorporate that into their fitness once they’re capable of doing it.
DF: Yeah, so it seems like a little bit of that can be done with common sense on your own if you’re in the early stages of this training process; do something that you can do and try to keep the intensity level going.
DK: Absolutely, except for the one machine that we have is gravity specific, everything else is something that you could have in the basement of your house, a bicycle, medicine ball, some dumbbells. There is nothing that I use in the rehab that involves anything complicated at all and have stations set up that people will be doing squats, or they’ll be doing lunges, or they’ll be doing hamstring curls. They will be doing planks, they will be doing sit ups, dips, pull ups. There’s constantly things they can do that involve no special equipment at all, and that’s what we try to teach them, is that you don’t need to have big heavy weights of 400 pounds to be able to get through this. You need to move your body weight and be able to push that through what is required of you.
DF: So, maybe if you could be the voice in a young recruits ear who sees these really “macho” characters who are almost beyond super human doing things that people would love to be able to do with their bodies. They’re strong people obviously. There’s a focus on strength that I think maybe is a little misplayed. I think a lot of the most successful candidates are endurance athletes like I’ve heard from other people. Maybe you could maybe summarize a little bit about that kind of philosophy that people have like they need to be the strongest people on the block to be able to make it through this program. Is that true, or maybe you could give us some information there.
DK: I would say the eight years that I’ve been here, there are certainly many SEAL operators who are pretty big, strong, intense but not to the numbers that you see on movies or TV shows now, that the average guy would be able to do what he has to do, is an endurance athlete. And I had an operator one time tell me he needs to be able to carry our heaviest weapon ten miles; he doesn’t have to carry ten weapons one mile. So, they don’t need to be that big and that strong to do it. They have to be big enough and strong enough to move things and move themselves with heavy backpacks and stuff, but the heavier they are themselves, the more chance they have of injury and the more difficulty they will have trying to get over the obstacle course or trying to make 4-mile runs. So, they have to get strength, but, again, more than anything else, they need endurance. The activities they call for and are posed the most strain on are going to be the tour and Hell Week, and it’s difficult to make it through if you’re too big.
DF: So, I guess maybe if you could be the word of wisdom for these young people to kind of instill some discipline into them on maybe self-reflection of what really is needed to get through. What kind of advice would you give to people in terms of taking a look at themselves and seeing what should be, you know, their goals and such in terms of their physical fitness?
DK: I think their goals should be what their PST is first, what do they need to do to pass the PST and do well. Do you need to be really strong, have a heavy bench press or a squat to do it? I don’t think so, and that is the first objective they have, they need to pass that and do well with it, which is going to include speed and endurance and some strength, but it’s not going to be an over amount of any one of those. As they move further down the line in the training, they’re going to ask more of them, and the more of it will be more endurance than it will be strength, so be very careful of not trying to do too much of one, thinking it will carry over into one of the other fields of swimming or endurance running knowing that that is one of the many measures. And so, what happens with push-ups after a while at Hell Week especially? I tell them, “The only time you really need neck exercise is when you get to Hell Week,” The strength that you’re going to need is on the obstacle course, climbing over that, doing the climb up the tower and things like that, and that’s what I put in my training is what, what are parts, some parts of the obstacle course because that’s something I know you’re going to have to do outside. Let’s make sure that you have the strength and the endurance to do it in here, and then I’ll let you go to the obstacle course and do one obstacle. How’d you do with that? And we move them along like that, so, you know, none of it is involved that, “Hey, I need to get your bench press up or your hand clean up,” or anything like that. I don’t do any of that at all. We work on muscles that are not even shown in most strength things. They’re shown mostly in rehab because that’s what’s injured as opposed to your shoulder, gluts, hamstrings, things that people, it’s not glorified, they don’t see it, but when a SEAL breaks down, a SEAL instructor breaks down, those are the things that happen, and we say to him, “Wow, if you had done this way back when, you probably wouldn’t need this shoulder operation as a 30-year old operator,” you know. Pitt was involved in some big studies there, and they looked at all the injuries that the SEALS had, and I saw, well, a lot of these are the same as what these guys are getting in our training. If I show them this now, hopefully, it’ll carry through their career that they’ll do that twice a week and be able to keep from being, you know, inoperable kind of cause we take care of the SEAL and SWCC instructors, too, and the injuries that they have, which are much worse now because they’re inoperable condition are the same exact things that the kids get other than stress fractures. Most of the guys have gotten smart enough to either not run much anymore, or they know exactly how much they need to run to do what they need to do, you know, but that’s, that’s what we look at and see.
DF: Are there any, we mentioned stress fractures, are there any other major issues that you see with people coming “off the street” when they enter into BUDS that you would like to maybe kind of nip in the bud or along the lines in the, in the guide that you would like to address?
DK: I would say shoulder and back are two big things, and the shoulder is rotator cuff. Very few people do much with it. They really only think of it with a throwing injury, but the rotator cuff is very important in all the things that you do because it stabilizes your shoulder before you do any exercise. And it’s not shown in a weight room as an exercise that’s going to make you look big and strong because it’s three tiny little muscles that are underneath the deltoids that nobody sees, but if they go, and they always go first because they’re very small and very weak, then you can’t do anything else, or you’ll dislocate your shoulder, you’ll tear your labrum, and it can all be prevented by doing some rotator cuff exercises, and they are simple exercises. We call them the T, where you take dumbbells, light dumbbells, and lift them in the front and the side and the back, external rotation exercise, where you’re lying on your side and bring your arm up, and one exercise for the supraspinatus, which is called the empty can. And those exercises are done as a preventative thing, but they are the base if you don’t have a good rotator cuff, you have difficulty in the obstacle course, boats overhead, logs overhead, all those things, but also in bench pressing. Every year in football, when springtime will come around, and everybody’s trying to do their maximum weights, I would have football players with shoulder injuries, and most of it was rotator cuff from trying to bench press and build up those muscles but do nothing for the rotator cuff. And I would just back off on how much they were lifting, work on the rotator cuff, and they’d get better, and then we could increase their weights. So, it’s important to keep that as a basis all the time to have a strong rotator cuff. And it’s not more than 15 pounds that’s needed. I mean it’s a very lightweight that anybody can have in their basement to do, four simple exercises for strengthening for that.
The other is the back, one of the most common injuries, not only in our environment but in society in general, and people will want to do all kinds of exercises that involve bending over and twisting and lifting, which are the worst things that you can do for your back. People who have disc injuries, people who have stress fractures of their back are usually from bending over and lifting something without getting your feet underneath you, almost like a squat, to pick it up. And so, if you do those as exercise as prevention, you’re actually doing the worst thing you could do because that’s what injures you. So, it’s more important to do the tiny little muscles that are around the spine that you can strengthen just by doing planks, and you can do a front plank and a side plank and a back plank and all variations. You can do it for time. There are all kinds of ways you can do it, but those strengthen the core muscles around your spine, and then you can start doing sit-ups and extensions, only if your core is strong, and those simple things, which involve 15 pounds at the most and/or your body weight will prevent most of the other injuries that we see.
DF: So, focus a little bit more on some of the less glamorous exercises it seems in support of the bigger body parts and muscle groups. That’s a very good point. I think a lot of people totally miss on. How many times have we seen people in the gym doing curls and doing bench press, and these are the “strong” guys in the gym, and then the next thing you know, right, they’re on crutches or the shoulder is…
DK: So, basically we’ve started kind of from the top, and we’re working our way down by talking what I just did about shoulder and then the core. The next would be your legs, which would be most of the people spend it doing squats or lunges or something that’s going to be working on their quads and do very little for their glutes and their hamstrings. And again, it should be a balance. There should be a balance of the percentage of strength from your quads to your hamstrings, and we see this with problems with hip injuries later on, and again, just like the shoulder, we may see it as a strain of the muscles in the hip, or we may see it as a labral tear, which, again, is cartilage in the hip just like in the shoulder, or we may see it that you may have sciatica and nerve problems, things like that because of poor position now because your quads are so much more dominant than your hamstrings. And so, again, I’ve seen this with all sports throughout high school and college, was the emphasis was on, “I need to have this strong quads,” and, yes, you do, but if the ratio becomes such that you have a 5 to 1 ratio in many cases, let’s say you could squat 500 pounds, I’m sure we could hardly find anybody that could curl 100 pounds with their hamstrings. So, again, that’s why I say it’s a 5 to 1 ratio. And when you workout, I mean when I’m running and doing something explosive, that ratio has to be 1 to 1. If my quad strength is five times what my hamstrings strength is, where do you think the injury is going to happen? And where do we see this in the NFL and baseball? What is the major injury you see that they say, “Oh,” it’s hamstring, and no one understands why, why we have it. Well, I can tell you, if your leg is extending with a 500-pound force, and you only have a 100-pound force to slow it down, to keep it from hyperextending, after a while, it’s either going to fatigue, or it’s going to be overcome by that strength.
So, that’s what we need to think about, is, yes, you need to do the quad work, but remember there’s a balance of front to back, and everything we do. When the shoulders, what I talked about, yes, you can do bench press, but you also have to do the posterior part of your shoulders. Here, yes, you can do squats and lunges, but you have to remember I have to do some hip extension work. I have to do some hamstring curls to try to balance it out and get the ratio better. This can even prevent some things like the runner’s knee because, again, you’re so quad dominated that in a true running form, you should be more glute-dominated. And if we get those stronger and get that explosion, it’s supposed to be the biggest, strongest muscle in your body. Well, there’s a reason for that cause it’s supposed to be one that explodes to drive you forward, and so, you want to strengthen those glutes and strengthen the hamstrings, to balance. If you don’t, you’ll have knee problems, so we see that also.
DF: So, in terms of maybe the lower extremities, you know, ankle, knees and such, a lot of that seems to be just volume of training, right, wear and tear, or is there any preventative maintenance that can be done there?
DK: There is preventative maintenance, and, again, if you look at many athletes, from their knees down, they haven’t done anything. They may do some calf raises, you know, and that’s usually common. If they’re straight leg calf raises, then they got a barbell, and their shoulders, or they have leg press, and they put their feet out there, and that’s all they do. And that’s good in most cases, but in reality, it only really helps the gastroc, right, and there are two muscles that are in the lower leg that are combined, and that’s the gastroc and soleus. And the soleus attaches below the knee, and so you actually have to do the exercise bent legged also. So, we teach that, yes, you’re going to do the straight leg, but you also need to be seated with a weight on your thighs and do calf raises that way so you involve the soleus. And the soleus is really the muscle that you use more for running because your knee should be slightly bent as you’re running. You really don’t get to full extension of your leg until at the very last push off, okay, so you need that soleus in there. Most people don’t do that at all and also with their stretching. They don’t do a stretch. They may do the straight-legged stretch, but they won’t do it with a bent knee, and you need to stretch one straight-legged and one bent because, again, there are attachments above and below the knee.
But not only just those because, again, now we’ve overemphasized the back of the leg, we haven’t done anything to the front or the side, and that’s, again, where we see a lot of problems with a stress related problem, is that the anterior portion where your anterior tib is lifts your foot up and toes. Well, when we’re running in soft sand, there’s a lot of that going on, and they have difficulty with boots even lifting that up high enough to get over it, and so they start using that a lot, so you need to do some anterior tib raises. And again, it’s not a lot of weight. It’s 1,000 foot strikes per mile, so you need something you can do a lot of repetitions with. Now, I can’t tell somebody, “Go out and do 1,000 reps of that,” but you need something with resistance, whether it’s your hand, whether it’s a towel, whether it’s a band and get sets of 20, sets of 50 that you’re doing that motion.
And so, we get to the ankle, instability when we are running in soft sand or on the beach, and you step in something, you have to have the ability to be able to handle all the different directions cause your ankle is going to do it. So, that means you have to do an inversion and eversion, and again, if you use your towel, your hand or, again, a resistance band and go through those motions and use your peroneus longus, use your posterior tib muscle. Those are muscles that, again, we don’t require any extra equipment, we don’t require any more time, any more resistance. It’s just a matter of getting those repetitions in. And the last thing I’d say is that one of the exercises I have to do with our stress fracture guys is to just throw a towel out on the floor and curl it up with your feet, just like you’d be curling up with your hands and your toes because the muscles that flex your toes are running up the inside of your leg, and they also support your arch, and so if I strengthen those and get those used to repetitions, that will make it so that I might not have as much difficulty running in soft sand in boots and also prevent plantar fasciitis, too, so I mean there are, you know, we’ve basically gone from the shoulders down, a lot of simple little exercises that balance out things that you’re already doing. Those are the preventative things that we see are neglected, and they end up being the things that get injured.
DF: I think that’s a really good summary. One thing that I think would be helpful if you covered, and my guess is that the reason why a lot of these bigger muscle group movements are predominately focused on and a lot, like you said, football strength, whatever, because they’re, they’re impressive numbers, and they’re measurable, where it’s like a lot more difficult to maybe do some of that type of measurement with like the exercise you mentioned about curling a towel with your feet. What ways can people measure these types of movements really simply? Maybe you could talk to that a little bit.
DK: I’m one who really believes in using objective measurements in the lifting that we do. I want to know exactly how much somebody is lifting and what they need to be as I feel over 46 years of doing this, knowing it takes this amount of strength to be able to prevent that as a rotator cuff. If in an athlete you can’t do 15 pounds, you’re probably going to have problems. So, I know that if I’m starting with five, I know where I need to get to and can make those progressions. And some of these exercises, it’s difficult to do that, and that’s why we ask for repetitions instead, but you can even push that a little bit, and, again, trying to get as objective as possible say with a towel curl exercise. You, again, start out and make it easy, and you’re doing 50 of them, then put a book on it, build it up, and if that gets easy, put your boots on it and pull it in, or put a cement block or something on there that makes it more difficult. But again, with all the lower leg injuries, we are saying, “You are going to do 1,000 foot strikes per mile. During some of this training, you’re going to be running six to ten miles a day, so you need to prepare yourself for that.” Now, again, I’m not asking that you do 1,000 to 6,000, but you need to be doing sets of 20, sets of 30 so that your body at least knows what to do, and you can start strengthening those muscles.
DF: Great. A lot, we talk this being a lot about endurance, a lot about body weight, so, and you’ve mentioned that there’s not a tremendous amount of equipment that’s required for you to be able to hit your PST number and come into BUDS, and we talked about endurance being very important. Can you talk a little bit about footwear? I think there’s some trends out there for barefoot style running shoes and or running barefoot in sand, all this kind of stuff. What…
DK: But they won’t have that option when they get there. They will just be boots. There’s no, and the boots that they get were the ones that everybody’s issued. We can’t even change the style of the boot until after they’re into second phase. So, the footwear that they’re going to wear, I would tell them not to train in that, in that it’ll, it’ll throw off their mechanics, and it’s more important to have good mechanics and run properly, and I would say more, more towards the barefoot in that you’ll have a better style, and then as you add shoes, as you add boots, your body will adapt to that, but I certainly don’t recommend people going barefoot who haven’t run barefoot before. Again, with anything, you add a new exercise, it’s a shock to your body, and, again, I want to add steps of how many repetitions or how many days a week I do that, and it’s a matter of adjusting for your body to the stresses and new stresses that you’re adding to it. So, it’s kind of unique in that I’ve been doing it for about six years watching, you know, these guys run, and we’ve got all these stress fractures. And again, it’s probably best, again, to get them early or to get them up at prep, and I’m not moving to Chicago I can tell you that right now. I moved from New Jersey here 13 years ago, and there was a reason, but, you know, when I was trying to get them ready, they had to be able to pass their 4-mile run or 3-mile run. And so, I knew I not only had to get them back in condition, but they had a definitive line, as you said. It didn’t matter about push-ups, pull ups, sit-ups. They had to pass their 4-mile run. If they didn’t pass it, you know, no matter what we did rehab, they were out, so I’m going like, “How do I make them most efficient?” I know this post stress fracture guys, I know that they’ve got to wear the boots, I know it doesn’t matter if I put an orthotic in it or not, it’s going to be in the ocean, wet and sandy, you know, that’s not going to happen, that I know that they’re going to be running on the beach, high tide or low tide. I know they’re going to be wearing those pants, and I know it’s always a 4-mile run, and I know what the time is, 32 minutes and then 31, then 30. So, how do I know that when I’m teaching them to get back to running I’m making them the most efficient that I can? They’re broken for whatever reason. How do I know that if I do this and make them better they can?
So, at that time, a tour group came through, Alberto Salazar. I don’t know if anybody’s familiar with him at all. Alberto is the coach of the Oregon Project for Nike and has taken US and the world’s best distance runners and worked with them, and Alberto was coming through, and it just was timely that I’m about that same time scratching my head, going, you know, I can get the limp out of somebody, I can make them stronger, but is this the best they can be with what they have? And so, I posed that to him, and I said, “You know, I don’t really know that, and, again, having worked athletics for over 40 years, that a distance coach has ever said, ‘Well, this is the best way to run. You know, this is the most efficient way.’” And he goes, “Well, I coached that.” “We’d never beat the Kenyans if we didn’t take care of everything, including technique and diet and sleep,” I said, “Wow, I’d love to learn it.” He goes, “Come on up and see.” So, I went up to Nike at his invitation, And he, the first thing he did, he sat me in front of a computer and said, “Watch these high speed films,” and then talked me through what they were doing, and then he showed me footplate films of how the foot was landing. And then we went to the treadmill and had Galen Rupp. I don’t know if you know Galen is the ten-time 10,000 meter champ of the US and silver medalist in the 10,000 meters in London and only the second time he ever ran the marathon got the bronze medal in the last Olympics. So, you go, not a bad runner. I guess he’s done something right with him, and he’s coached him since he was in high school. And so, he had Galen on the treadmill and went absolutely, you know, “Here’s what he’s doing, here’s what I’m watching, here’s what I’m coaching, here’s what I’m trying,” and it was like some of the things were just like, “Wow, I’ve never seen that, never known that.” And so, that night, I stayed up there for three nights, I’m a runner myself. I’ve been running for over 50 years and tried, you know, one of the things on myself, you know, and it’s like, “Wow, that feels a lot better,” you know, it’s like, “Wow.” The next day tried, you know, something different, and I kept feeling better with it.
DK: And so, I get back, and I started doing research on the medical side to say, “All right, if I’m more efficient to make me faster, does that make me have less injuries?” and so, started looking at each thing on research wise. I went through about 200 research articles and said when you break them down individually, yes, they do. And so, started putting it together, and so I started teaching my guys who had stress fractures, and the first thing I remembered was an ice hockey player from Brown University had bilateral stress fractures. And you watch him run on the treadmill, and you went, “Oh, my God, he looks like he’s still ice skating,” you know, it’s like one of these all over the place. Had trouble passing his 4-mile run, and so started doing what I call the FASTER program, and he got better. He even said to me, like, “My legs would always get tight as soon as I started running, my shins would, and I don’t feel that at all.” It’s like, “Oh, that was a good sign,” and so eventually he got, got out in running, he ended up passing and going through Hell Week and everything else. He said he knocked three minutes off his 4-mile time and now is on the teams on the east coast, and he’s been there for a couple years cause he’s been doing this for about two and a half years.
And Alberto posed the question to me, what kind of sports background did it come from? I said I had never really looked at that and started looking at it, and as you would think with stress fractures, it was swimmers, water polo players, ice hockey players, and we always used to say it was bone density, and yet we do bone density tests and calcium tests and vitamin D, and everybody would be within normal limits. But you look at these guys and watch them run to evaluate the first time, and you went, “Oh, my gosh. No one’s ever shown you how to run because you didn’t need it to be a good swimmer, and you didn’t need it to be a good ice hockey player, but you’re not a good runner.” So, I found out keeping track again over all this time, over 75% of the guys who got stress fractures are from sports that are non-running sports. And, you know, I already named it. If you were a soccer player, football player, lacrosse player, you could still get it, and most of the time it was from over training. I actually film the guys for 15 seconds from the side and 15 from the back and watch the running mechanics, and then we sit down from the app and go over each of the six things and have had great success with it, and the whole point is, again, not over training. When I start training them back again, I don’t ever let them even do a 4-mile run. They do intervals where they’re doing 30-second intervals, short recovery and do that for three miles maybe, or they’re doing minute intervals that we’re trying to build up their strength and their aerobic capacity but not trying to just do mindless miles, and that’s what I see kids do, is to get ready for the PST or to get ready for the 4-mile run, “I’m going to run 8 to 10 miles a day, and, therefore, it’ll be easier.” Yes, it’ll be easier, but you won’t necessarily be faster because you never worked on the mechanics, and you never worked on the speed and power that you need to do to be faster. If you didn’t use more muscle fibers to go faster, you can’t go faster. I don’t care if you ran 20 miles. You’re not going to be a fast miler if you didn’t do speed work to be that fast, you know, and so that’s what we try to teach.
DF: So, all just, as a wrap up…(DK: It’s much too long!) DF: No no, I think you touched on a very important part…
DK: It’s where I got to rebirth at 68 years old to say, “Wow, you know, this is something that’s untouched. Why, why?”
DF: Yeah, just cause you learned how to run when you were a kid didn’t mean you learned the best way to run.
DK: And actually the command saw that 100% of the guys that I was working with were passing the 4-mile run. I said, “Well, it’s better than the rest,” and we had guys who weren’t injured and weren’t passing the 4-mile run, and they asked me to work with those guys for a while, and all of them passed, again, just doing simple mechanics and doing shorter distance but faster and a short recovery in between, intervals as such, and, you know, everybody made it. So, again, something that should be pushed earlier to say, “Hey, don’t just go out and do mindless miles. Do some intensity, get some short recovery so that you’re still pushing the heart, and do that intensity again, and you’ll do a lot better than just doing multiple miles of, you know, slow, easy jog,” yeah.
DF: So, in summary, if you had the ear of somebody who’s going to be entering in this process, in 15 seconds, what would be the quick elevator pitch to this kid that’s going to enter the process?
DK: I’d say balance, front to back, quads to hams, shoulder, and endurance. Think of, yes, I need strength, but I need to be able to do it multiple times for a long period of time. And so, it’s more important to have that endurance factor to get through the early part of our training. Later on as they become a SEAL, it becomes specific, but right now, they need to be able to make it through the training, and the training involves endurance.
DF: Are there any resources available to these potential candidates to prevent this type of injury?
DK: Online, there’s the physical training guide, and there are also some rehabilitation exercises that are shown on videos that they should be able to understand and be able to apply all these techniques.
DF: Well, we’re out of time. Thank you so much for joining us. It’s been really, really helpful.
DF: Find out more at SEALSWCC.com, and join us again for the next NSW podcast
People say a lot about SEAL training, but only we can give you the true, updated info. We asked two First Phase staff to debunk the popular myths about BUD/S and tell us how it really is. For more info check out www.SEALSWCC.com.
The only easy day was yesterday. (Intro)
SC: Hello, everyone, I’m Scott Williams, a member of the Navy SEAL and SWCC Scout Team here at Naval Special Warfare Center. I’m here today with Ken, a retired SEAL currently on the training staff at basic training command and an active duty SEAL, Steven, who is also on the training staff. The topic of our discussion today is myth-busting BUD/S, so let’s get right to it.
K: Hi, my name’s Ken. My background is 33 years active duty service, retired in 2016, was hired on about right after retiring to first phase at basic training command, and I’m the deputy OIC [Officer In Charge].
S: Hi, my name’s Steven. I have almost 20 years in of active service and still active, and I’m currently on the training staff at Basic Training Command, BUD/S.
SW: There’s a lot of chatter and written material on the market these days usually produced by ex-SEALs, and it talks about how candidates can prepare for BUD/S. Most of this seems to be from the perspective of guys that went through the SEAL pipeline years ago. Is it the same old BUD/S it used to be?
K: Well, from my perspective of having gone through it 33 years ago, no. It’s more professional, it’s harder because the candidates that are coming our way are better prepared than they ever have been, and what we’re looking for is that mental toughness. The attributes that we’re looking for are, or the traits: grit, integrity, honesty, team before self. Those words were never used when I went through 33 years ago, but they’re used today, and that’s what we’re looking for young men to display those things.
SW: Thanks, Ken. Steven, your perspective?
S: I would absolutely agree. I went through 17 years ago, so half of Ken. It’s absolutely more professional now. Without a doubt, I would, I don’t know if I would say it’s easier or harder, but it’s absolutely more professional. The reason I would say it’s hard is that everything we do in the training pipeline is to elicit a response from the students of what we want to see, and the characteristics that Ken just listed out, you can’t get those from every single class. Every class has their own personality by doing the exact same thing every time, so there’s small changes that are done for a reason to elicit certain responses that we want to see or to encourage certain attributes that we want to put forth.
SW: It seems like there’s a lot of books or videos out there that give you tips or tricks on how to game the system so to speak. Can that be done? Is that realistic?
S: I think it’s hard, especially the way we look at the program now with getting, encouraging those certain attributes. The pipeline is so long that a lot of the tips I would think you see are just for potentially first phase, which is only seven weeks of a over a year long pipeline. If you are using tips or tricks, they might work for a day, a week, two weeks, but with a pipeline being so long and so professional nowadays, that’s going to come out at some point in training in my opinion.
K: Yeah, I would say you can. The young men that come through this program, if they get with the wrong sort, those that have been in the pipeline for a long period of time, never having even completed first phase yet, could lead some astray, like, “Hey, cut this corner doing this way. Cut that corner doing that way.” That’s not what we’re looking for. Can it happen? Yes. Do we want to see it happen? No. We want everybody to experience BUD/S the same way. The kid that gets out of this program who cheated to get through the program, most likely even if he gets through the whole entire over year process, it’s 64 weeks long, he will be found somewhere at SEAL team I don’t care cause he will display that color. Leopards don’t change their spots, so if he cheated from the frontend, it will come out somewhere along the way.
SW: As members of the training staff, how do you evaluate candidates? What, what are you looking for in those guys when they’re out there on the grinder, in the dunes?
K: We’re looking for the individual who will, again, put team before self. So, when you think of log PT or you think of a boat on your head with seven guys underneath it running, we’re looking for the young man that’s going above and beyond. He sees that his partner’s hurting; he picks up that extra weight.
S: For me, the meathead version is I look for guys that will be hard when it’s hard. Things like cheating the system or cutting corners is, is being easy. That’s, that’s not what I’m looking for. As Ken referenced, the hard stuff, log PT, land portages, Hell Week, I’m looking for the young man that will display the characteristics that we’re looking for and be hard, be a good teammate when it’s hard to be a good teammate.
SW: Some of these outside sources have recommended taking things like caffeine pills or other chemical training aids. What do you say about that?
S: On the anything chemical aids, I think a lot of the stuff that’s probably designed for the average guy walking around doing the average job, it’s extremely dangerous to put that in your body in the training pipeline that we conduct because we are, your body’s going to put through stuff that that stuff is not designed to be in your body when you’re doing it, all day long calisthenics and physical activities. We see a lot of young men, unfortunately, that will have glucose issues or overheat, and some of those are attributed to taking something as simple as Monsters. So, anything that is designed to influence your heart rate one way or the other I think is extremely dangerous in a pipeline of this caliber and how intense it is.
SW: Did you say glucose issues?
S: So, you have your insulin in your blood or not enough sugar in your blood, so you’ll have issues, not be able to physically perform, which puts your status in the pipeline at risk because if you’re not performing to the standard, then you can be removed from training.
K: Yeah, I mean every class will see it, and it’s an unfortunate thing. We put in front of these young men nutritionists that give them all the keys to success to physically get through this program on what to eat, what not to eat, when to eat and how much to eat, what to stay away from. Every class, they come in thinking because somebody told them, “Take this supplement. It works. It got me through.” Well, it didn’t. It didn’t get them through, and it’s unfortunate. So, like Steven said, we will be out on evolutions, and you will see young men go down, and when you pull the string on it, there’s something there. They didn’t eat the breakfast they were supposed to eat, they didn’t eat the lunch they were supposed to eat, or they were taking a supplement they shouldn’t be taking.
SW: Now, they get plenty of food when they’re in BUD/S, don’t they?
K: Oh, yeah, probably too much food.
SW: I mean it’s not like during Hell Week, you starve them, right?
K: No, they get to eat four times a day during Hell Week. On top of that, they add in, or we add in, snacks and hydrates, so the young man can get through this thing. And what happens is we’ll set the young man up for failure as well if he’s on a supplement in the first three weeks, and then he gets into Hell Week, and he no longer has that ability to get to whatever he was taking, it comes out real quick, and he crashes, and he’s no longer in the program. So, my advice to anyone is don’t take supplements. Heed our words when we tell you don’t take them.
SW: Part of the mindset that’s been put out there is, is ways you can make your life easier at BUD/S, and the instructors have been described as being pretty tough, and, of course, training is tough, but the suggestion is that they can be bought off by, you know, coffee and donuts at the barracks inspection and so forth. Do you, do you see that happening?
S: I see occasionally during barracks, barracks inspections students leave stuff out purposely, but I don’t know how it’s worked in the past, but I would say in the last at least five years if not more, we treat those as gear drift like you would in any inspection, and you’ll see it the first, maybe the first inspection, where someone’s read something somewhere saying if I leave gifts out or tobacco out that I’ll get an easier time during the inspection, and now those are hits in the inspection, and they failed because of that stuff, and then you’ll see it the one time, and they’ll figure out, “Okay, yeah, that was complete crap that I heard or read, and that absolutely got me in more trouble than trying to put it out in the first place.”
K: Yeah, I can’t add anymore to that other than it’s funny to watch the look on their face when they believed in their hearts after whatever they’ve read that this gift, this offering would make it easier on them. And when they see it go sideways, and it doesn’t work out that way, it changes the behavior.
SW: Along those same lines, some have characterized the instructors at BUD/S as sadistic and violent. Would you say that’s the case?
S: Absolutely not. I would say that, as I alluded to earlier, the staff, every interaction we have with any of the candidates is to elicit a response. It is calculated and done for a reason. That’s why we try to make each class experience going through BUD/S to be exactly the same, but there is small nuances that elicit some of those characteristics we want to see, so can the staff be audibly aggressive or intense in interactions with the candidates? Absolutely, but that is a calculated move done to elicit a certain response to see a performance change or to see a character attribute change. There’s never, the only time staff ever comes anywhere near the students is for safety reasons or something like that. There’s no…It could be, I can see how a student would see cause they’re not behind the curtain, thinking that it’s sadistic, but in actuality, it’s a calculated, calculated method to elicit certain responses.
SW: No beatings behind the dunes and behavior like that?
S: If there are remediation tools that we use, and it is told to the students why this is happening before it happens, what they learned, when there’s discussions afterwards what they learned, and that’s, again, that’s a tool used to elicit certain responses or to promote good behavior vice bad behavior.
K: You know, we can’t speak for the past. I can only go two years back. That’s when I was hired on, and when I say our staff is more professional today than it ever has been before because of things like what Steven just put out there, we look for and we elicit behavioral responses based off of what we do. Now, in the past, had there been potential for instructors with students sadistic behaviors taking place, I can’t speak to that, but I will tell you today for the last two years, that does not happen.
SW: So, just a few years ago, Naval Special Warfare Center created the Instructor Qualification Course, the IQC, to formally professionalize the instructor cadre of all the phases. Have you seen that as a really significant step toward how instructors carry on their duties within first phase?
K: It has definitely helped in a sense of giving the instructor tools to be able to use as he’s in front of the student, student base. It has allowed a more confident instructor to stand before them with better knowledge and is equipped better to handle that student I want to say cohort ’cause it is. It’s about 150 to 200 people. So, from a professional standpoint, yes, it has.
SW: But I think the idea is that, or the impression is out there that BUD/S instructors have the latitude to on a whim decide they’re going to be tougher on the class today. And Steven, you spoke about this earlier, about how every response, every evolution out there is pre-briefed and is not as random as the students may think it is.
S: Just like certain operations are planned months in advance, you also have time sensitive operations that are done hours away from now. That’s almost the exact same thing with the BUD/S training pipeline, at least for First Phase. We have schedules, but if we are not seeing the attributes or the responses that we need to, we will change the schedule. We will add things, take things out, but every time we do that is to elicit a certain response. Every interaction with the student base is for a reason. It’s to have them display to us something that we want to see, and if we’re not seeing that, we can make minor tweaks. But the bottom line is those interactions with the student base are for a reason to elicit certain responses or to have them display certain attributes that we want to see.
SW: So, it’s not just the beatings will continue until morale improves. There’s, there’s an objective to every evolution and even remediation.
K: And there’s a curriculum that’s followed almost to a T, but there is the, if you’re not giving us the response that we need to see and that we’re looking to see, we have other tools to make you show us that. It may come off as we’re being sadistic, but we’re not. It’s just physical activity to elicit a response that we want to see.
SW: Now, I’ve heard this around the campus before that BUD/S is to some extent a bit of a mystery. Should it stay a mystery to candidates, or is some of the information out there actually good to have before they get here?
K: Can you give a specific?
SW: Some websites will give out training information, for instance, how to train for BUD/S. Is that worthwhile information to have before it gets here?
K: Sure. Again, the program itself, because of the length of it, and we’ll talk specifically just for first phase at BTC, you can know all the keys to the kingdom; you still have to physically go through it. So, log PT’s coming, you can practice log PT activities if you want. There’s plenty of videos out there showing you how to do it. It’s not the same until it’s game day, and you’ve got six other people on that log trying to do it. Working by yourself is easy. Working as a team, that’s what we’re looking for, is teammates, individuals who will work hard together. So, yes, we don’t mind, get yourself physically ready for this program, but the program itself is tough. You can’t hide from it.
S: I would concur. I don’t know, I don’t know how you would train for BUD/S other than putting in the work. You know there’s going to be running, you know there’s going to be swimming, you know there’s going to be a lot of calisthenics, so I don’t have any problem with anybody trying to get ready for that.
SW: But what is your best advice to a candidate that’s thinking about coming into the SEAL pipeline or getting himself or herself ready?
S: There is going to be growth on the mindset side going through this program, specifically first phase. It is hard to plan on doing some physical growth when you get to this program. You need to show up physically ready to go through the program but also have an open mind that you’re going to grow mentally a lot more than physically here. We’re going to beat you down physically to grow you mentally. What I mean by that is I think students sometimes come, and they want to try to cheat the system on a uniform inspection or a barracks inspection when in actuality what we’re trying to ferret out is I’m only going to give you, I’m not going to give you a gun and a radio and a bunch of other high-speed gear when I haven’t seen if you can take care of just what I’m giving you. So, when we first get here, we just give them a uniform. That’s it. Show me you can take care of this one thing, and then we will move on in the pipeline, as you go through the pipeline, more stuff to take care of, but if you can’t take care of just your uniform, then you’re proving to me that maybe you don’t have the capacity to progress in the pipeline. So, I think if students come here with that mindset of, “Okay, I’m going to make some mistakes. I’m going to prove that I can take care of this one thing myself. I’m not going to cheat it, I’m not going to buy extra, I’m going to prove that I can do this one thing by myself,” then that will make it easier for you as you go through the pipeline to set those good habits of taking care of your stuff, you taking care of your stuff, not someone else, not buying it on town, you taking care of that stuff. That’s what we want to see. So, show up physically ready cause you’re, you’re going to need to. You can’t grow physically in BUD/S. It’s the complete opposite, but on the same hand, show up open-minded that you’re going to make some mistakes, but those mistakes will help you further in the pipeline if you just do the work yourself.
K: But from a physicality piece, back to your, the genesis of your question, so the person who wants to come to this program has to take a PST. And if you pass the PST, or you score within the range we’re looking for, you have the physicality to at least get to Prep [Naval Special Warfare Preparatory School]. And when you go to NSW Prep post boot camp, that’s an 8-week program that does nothing but collegiate level get the human system ready for BUD/S. But you’re only going to be as strong and as good as what you put into it. If you don’t put the work into it even during Prep, and you show up to Coronado day one of NSWO or BO, Basic Orientation, your life gets woken up really quick on, “Oh, my gosh, I probably should’ve put a little bit more into it.” So, I’ll use this analogy of if this is the field you want to get into, and you know that the physicality it takes to do it, make that your craft, hone that, but the system today gives the young person everything they need to be successful here at BUD/S. It’s up to them whether they choose to take that on or not. That gets to the mental aspect of it, which is another component to this, which I would argue is probably about 60 to 70% of first phase. Where are you mentally? Do you have a good anchor for why you’re here? The physicality piece, if you’ve got physicality, you’re going to be okay here, but it’s really the mentality that we’re looking for. Will you keep going and keep going even when you’re exhausted? So, that’s what we’re looking for.
SW: So, the cheats and the shortcuts, they, they start adding up, they start having sort of a cascading effect on your ability to mentally and physically perform when it counts as the pipeline progresses, so you might be able to beat it today, but the fact that you didn’t get that mental lesson cause you shortcut it means that tomorrow it’s going to be even harder.
K: That is correct. There’s another component to this as well, so you have the mental, the physical, but you also have the human dynamics. So, on any given class that comes our way, it’s about 150 young persons that are coming from Prep in Great Lakes. There’s a human dynamic there that has to take place as well. So, I would say for those individuals who are very individualized, you need to learn to be in a team, to work with people. The individual does not fare well here because that is not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for young men, young women that can work as a team.
SW: It reminds me of, you know, the proverbial college star quarterback who gets drafted into the NFL and thinks so much of himself that the rest of his team hates him, and that first season, he ends up falling on his face because he doesn’t have the support of the rest of his team. They don’t want him around no matter how good he is because he’s not a teammate.
K: Correct, but you’ll see that. You’ll see that in this program, the young man who, “It’s all about me, I’m going to worry about me, I’m not going to worry about anybody else,” they don’t do well here, and they either have to change that behavior and realize that it is a team concept that we’re looking for, or they just go away.
S: Everybody has bad days in this pipeline, and if you think, “I’m, I can just do this by myself. I’m never going to have a weak moment,” you are sorely mistaken because we will make sure that you have weak moments, and if you are trying to do this by yourself, and you’re not a good teammate, the team will not be there to carry you along or lift you up or motivate you when you’re at those weak moments. So, everybody’s going to have them. That’s why you have, that is for a reason, so just try to get that response be a good teammate, work as a team. If you are not working as a team, then when you are having one of those weak moments, your team is not going to be there to lift you up.
SW: Let’s talk about the operational relevance. Some people see First Phase as just a big beat down session to weed guys out, and that’s all there is to it. We’ve talked about how some of those suggestions out there may be a little misleading when it comes to, “Here’s some shortcuts. Here’s some cheats,” and we talked about how that cascading effect happens. It ultimately leads, leads to failure, but carry that forward for me, about the lesson learned now about doing it the right way, going through the pipeline and how that translates later on when you put on the uniform, and you’re deployed out in the country, overseas, maybe on a small S&R [Surveillance and Reconnaissance] mission.
K: Well, I would, I’ll start with this. My hardest day in 33 years was not BUD/S. It just wasn’t, but BUD/S set the template for how I could manage sleep deprivation, physical exertion, doing the job that I was doing many a times, and that is almost to a man on the staff that we currently have. It’s funny when you hear them talk cause they will tell the students, “This is not hard compared to what you are going to face in reality going down range or deploying somewhere. We’re going to ask more of you, but you got to be able to get through this before I can ask you more,” if that makes sense.
S: And just to build on what Ken said, as I was talking about doing your first PI [Personnel Inspection], you’re going to make mistakes. Put in the work. It’s going to pay it forward. There are a lot harder times in your career than BUD/S, but BUD/S is on that same path just walking you, getting you stronger, getting you mentally stronger, giving you the tools mentally and physically to be able to push through whatever it is you’re doing that is hard, so you can be hard when it’s hard. I don’t want to go down the line of difference, things, doing this job overseas, but it sets the tone to show you that you’re capable of way more than you think you can, and everything takes practice, and it’s good for BUD/S to, it’s important that you practice being hard. It is going to be harder once you leave the program, period.
SW: The thing that reminded me of deployment and kind of you’re on your own or a very small team is when you mentioned the Personnel Inspection. You know, we give you a piece of gear to take care of. Can you prove that you can take care of that piece of gear? And then later on, you start adding more pieces of gear. One day, you’re out there, and you have your gear, and your teammate has his gear, and there’s no one else to take care of your gear, and I think, when I think about that personnel inspection as the very first lesson in being self-sufficient, taking care of your own stuff, not relying on other people to do it for you, I think it’s one of those things that goes back to, “Well, how do we, how can we game the system on how to get around this?” There’s no gaming the system out there, is there?
S: With a pipeline as long as this is, I don’t, I don’t believe, or it would be extremely difficult to game the whole system. There’s so much that’s built on every day. That’s why they say ‘the only easy day was yesterday,’ and if you’re gaming the system over and over, you’re going to, it’s going to come out. It absolutely will.
K: One simple thing, the helmet. Have students in the past purchased extra helmets, had somebody out in town paint their helmet, put their numbers on their helmet, put their name on their helmet? Yes, that has happened, and we have found them. What are we looking for? We’re looking for the young man that’s, the young person that’s going to sit there and do his own helmet, paint his own helmet, sand his own helmet. Why? Cause he’s shown me that he’s going to take a weapon system later on in his career, and he’ll have it clean, so when I need him on the battlefield with a clean weapon that’s functional, he’s there. There’s no guarantee with the young man that goes out and has somebody else do his helmet that he will be there for me when I need him, so that very simple thing, a helmet. Just do your own helmet.
S: Just to add to what Ken said, mistakes you make on the battlefield do not impact you; they impact your teammates. And that being said, one of the things I tell the students is if you successfully make it through this program, you will be protecting our brothers on the battlefield, and we take this very seriously, so they should take it seriously because mistakes they make are going to affect their teammates, not themselves, and we take it seriously because if you make it through the pipeline, you are going to be protecting us or our brothers on the battlefield. That’s a fact.
SW: I think I saw somebody, I think it was maybe the safety officer, and this was a while back as I was crossing the grinder, had a sign above his door that said, “The enemy thanks you for not training or not giving 100 percent effort today.”
K: I’ve seen that before, yeah.
SW: 100 percent effort is something that you guys really need to see from, from your candidates, and when they don’t give 100 percent effort, what’s the result?
S: I would say I don’t need to see, I’m going to assume that what I’m seeing is 100 percent, and then I’m going to measure that 100 percent against the standard, so whether you give me 100 percent or 70 percent, I don’t care. If you’re having a bad day, I don’t care. I’m going to automatically assume that what I see from you is the best you can do, and then I’m going to measure your best against the standard. If you did not meet the standard, I’m sorry, I told you up front give me your 100 percent. I’m going to assume you’re giving me your 100 percent, and if I, I’m just going to see what you give me, assume that’s your 100 percent and measure it against the standard. And if you don’t meet the standard, then it’s not my fault. I was measuring what you gave me. I’m assuming it’s your 100 percent, so it’s risky I think for students not to give their 100 percent because I’m going to assume every time how you run, your uniform, your room, all the test gates, I’m assuming automatically you’re giving me your 100 percent.
K: It’s a great way to put it. It all circles back to what Steven said in the beginning: the candidates we’re looking for are those that are going to be hard when it’s hard only every day.
S: Be a good teammate when it’s hard to be a good teammate, when you’re tired, the boat’s been on your head all day, but you have to do your part. That is what we are looking for.
K: And we don’t get to see that all the time. There’s what the instructors see from a student, and then there’s what the students do on their own. There are a lot of activities that take place at the end of a workday. You’re judged by your peer group on did you do your part today, even though we were all tired, did you do your collateral duties, or were you the first one to go back to your rack and go to sleep? Everything’s watched from multiple angles, and it all gets laid on the table because we will do a picture of the whole man, the whole person to see what they’re like, and it’s not just what we see, it’s also what their fellow students see.
SW: All right, gentlemen, thanks for joining me. It was very informative. Any last parting shots?
K: Be hard when it’s hard.
CLOSE: Find out more at SEALSWCC.com, and join us again for the next NSW podcast.