How to Increase Your Mental Toughness for Physical Tests


It’s no mystery—success in high attrition rate selection programs and challenging physical events comes down to physical and mental preparation. Acing these tests also requires a high state of motivation, self-confidence, and most importantly, discipline. How to build upon these intangibles is a tough question to answer. Here are some recommendations to prepare for the toughest of goals set in your future.

Mental Preparation or Academics?

Don’t confuse mental preparation for academic preparation. Often students get these confused. Mental toughness and academic preparation are two different things.

Military special ops program classroom time teaches the principles students have to understand; such as math, physics, anatomy, and memorizing nomenclature of all types of gear and procedures.

Being a good academic student is a necessary requirement for many military and special ops programs, while mental preparation is more about your mental toughness that you have created over a life time of trials, successes, and failures.

Self-confidence is built by enduring and excelling at both the mental and academic rigor in preparation for your selection program.

Army psychologist David Grossman refers to these life events as “stress inoculations” that help you build the needed resiliency in life as well as the ability to beat high attrition rate events.

People often ask how long they should train for such special ops professions and the answer really is “all your life” prior to joining the military and screening. This means, all your school life, sports life, training hours, and staying motivated throughout the ups and downs.

The Motivation Evolution

Every motivation to do something challenging started with a seed. It’s that seed that gives initial confidence to challenge yourself.

It is through your initial inspiration and motivation that you start your journey to complete selection (or any goal for that matter). This could be anything from a poster, a movie, words spoken to you, or you know someone who graduated a challenging program that most people think is impossible and would not dare attempt it for a myriad of reasons or excuses. 

However, this inspirational seed has to grow in strength and become self-motivation. There will be days when you do not have the motivation or energy to train for your goal.

This is when your habits of never quitting, working hard consistently through tiredness, and just pushing yourself with persistence have created enough DISCIPLINE in your life to go train anyway. Discipline wins!

Building Discipline and Mental Toughness

The most common questions don’t have to do the difficult classroom work, but how to train the mind to be tougher? How do you find the “fuel when the tank is empty.”

How do you build mental toughness? Here is a list of helpful tools to better enable you to push through the events when you have nothing left and it is cold, dark, wet, miserable and you are alone with your thoughts:

Performance Cues and Subliminal Triggers – This is probably the most powerful of all the methods because as with self-talk, these cues can be imagined and spoken when needed.

There are also very powerful subliminal triggers you may have not considered. Just meeting and talking to people who have achieved your dream or goal will help you build the type of mindset that turns the impossible into possible. There is a quote by Marie Wilson, “You cannot BE what you cannot see.” Though she used this to describe the lack of female mentors in such positions as politics (President), STEM careers, or even female heroines in movies. It applies to all of us with regard to goal setting and achievement.

If you have not seen, heard, or experienced people like yourself attending and graduating high attrition rate selection programs, the chances that your brain will make the necessary developments to push yourself in that direction. Unless you are a true pioneer and you get after it just to become the FIRST to ever do something. Most of us are not pioneers. However, here are some powerful cues and triggers:

  • Seeing graduation and imagining it is you receiving the diploma can be a powerful trigger when needed.
  • Performance cue - Remembering previous successes on what was your greatest day ever. 
  • Remember that feeling scoring the winning shot or making the highest grade in the class.
  • “Game time!” or “Let’s do this!” Or something that elicits a response to your performance the moment when needed the most are examples of performance cues.
  • Do NOT forget your WHY or the years of hard training required to get to where you are right now - prepared to make a decision to keep going forward.

Positive Self Talk – “DO NOT listen to yourself, TALK to yourself.” And this has to be a positive, never quit mentality or your personal motivation will slide and words like “quit, can’t, or never” start to creep into your vocabulary. 

Compete Mode – Beast Mode, Game face, or whatever you want to call it - your ability to take each event at your selection and make it a competition against others, a different team, or even yourself will enable you to NEVER think about quitting. Too many people get into survival mode when they enter the challenge and just want to finish or just pass the standard. The mentality you need to succeed in special ops selection programs is “exceeding the standard – IS the standard.”  No minimum standards should be your goal.

Pushing yourself to win or come within the top 10% of the class in at least ONE event that day is the mindset you need going into the event, regardless of the outcome. That winning focus is a game changer in no matter what you do in life.

Finally - You also have to realize when going through selection that you are enduring the TEST.  It is your entrance exam to your dream. The selection is NOT how the community you seek and life in the Teams is all about.  If you say the SEAL Teams or Special Forces ODA, or other Spec Ops Unit was not for you while you are in the middle of selection, HOW DO YOU KNOW?  The selection is NOTHING like the job. Selection will prepare you however.  The recommendation is to suck up the selection, achieve the goal you set out to accomplish years ago, and you will be well-prepared for the next step of making the Team.

Recommended Reading of Related Articles Triggers, Cues, Impact Motivation, Endurance, Longevity

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