The U.S. Army Special Forces, commonly known as the Green Berets, are masters of warfare, fitness, endurance, and preparation. Like the U.S. Army Rangers, the U.S. Navy SEALS, or the U.S. Marine Corps Special Operation Raiders, the U.S. Army Special Forces are an elite force with a mission that includes everything from attacks against enemy forces deep behind enemy lines to training foreign military forces to working with allied partners on disaster relief. While the public is often enamored with the sleek weapons, high-tech equipment, stealthy night vision devices, and arduous physical fitness utilized by the Special Forces, their mental preparation techniques — which include breathing and imagery exercises, among other things — can actually be used by professionals at all levels and in all industries with overcoming their daily challenges.
Breathe slow, breathe deep, and clear your mind.
One of the most difficult tasks in the Special Forces to do well is running, skiing, or climbing and then having to shoot a rifle or pistol accurately. During training, it’s not uncommon to sprint 100 yards to the firing line, ready your weapon and then immediately shoot at a target. Obviously, a heaving chest and wobbly arms do not make for an accurate shot. Green Berets are taught to slow their breathing, take several deep breaths, and then clear their minds to focus on the sole task at hand: shooting accurately. This technique can be of great service in the professional world, too. Before talking on the phone with an angry customer, presenting at a conference, or pitching a new customer, try the following: (1) Pause, (2) Focus and slow your breathing, (3) Take several slow deep breathes, (4) Clear your mind, and (5) Focus 100% on the task at hand. This process takes only a few seconds, but endows you with extraordinary control to tackle a complex task with clear mind.
Slow, step-by-step mental rehearsals create mastery.
We all know about the importance of practice and rehearsals from sports, dance, gymnastics, theater, and public speaking. Special Forces rehearse nearly everything — shooting, parachuting, speaking foreign languages, assembling radios — because they know they will encounter situations when time, resources, and security don’t allow for full, complete, and resource intensive rehearsals. This is where mental rehearsals, process in which you clearly imagine what the absolute perfect completion of your task looks like, can be very helpful.
Let’s try one example: imagine the act of hitting a baseball. See yourself walking up to the plate, hearing the soft crunch of gravel under your cleats, faintly smelling the cut grass, and seeing the glint off the top of the catcher’s helmet. Then, you step into the batter’s box, secure your feet, bring the bat back, and glare back at the pitcher. Now you see the pitch — a heater — and whip the bat around for swing for a clean single over the second baseman’s head. This level of detailed imagery, rehearsed over and over in your head, is invaluable for using mental discipline to master complex tasks.
Do the best you can for the next five minutes.
The Green Berets use a grueling three-week assessment and selection process to find the candidates with the correct combination of physical fitness, motivation, and determination to attempt the Special Forces Qualification Course. All together, the Special Forces Selection course, the Qualification Course, language school, and survival school is a nearly two-year intense training session just to achieve the minimum level of proficiency to be considered deployable on a Special Forces “A” Team. During this training period, fear of the unknown, incredible physical pain, and wavering determination can begin to get to even the most motivated candidates.
Rather than worrying about the future, candidates are taught to do “the best you can for the next five minutes.” I remember one grueling hike, a 12-hour slog where we were forced to carry filled sandbags, where I found myself dehydrated, demoralized, and exhausted. Blocking out discouraging thoughts of the hours ahead, I focused on doing the best marching I could for the next five minutes. When those five minutes had passed, I focused on doing well for the next five minutes, and so on and so on. By concentrating only on short periods, I mastered my own exhaustion and ultimately finished the hike. Next time you’re faced with a seemingly impossible task, try focusing on doing the best you can for the next five minutes, then repeat until you cross the finish line.
Put your mind on autopilot.
To ensure the success of their mission and the safety of their team, Special Forces need to be constantly in the present, even in the most trying situations. The best way to do this is to “switch” your mind to autopilot, focusing intently on the present and only the present. Don’t be concerned with what happened in the past or what the future could bring — you must live exclusively in the present. Focus on your surroundings, doing your job well, helping your team, and let go of everything you can’t control. Going on autopilot will help you succeed, regardless of the nature of the challenge in front of you.
Act and look relaxed — even if you don’t feel it.
One of the best ways to manage your own stress is to make sure you project an image of personal calm, serenity, and relaxation, even if you’re tangling with a really difficult situation. The mere act of looking relaxed, confident, and in command of the situation actually helps you control and reduce your stress level. This ability to look relaxed under the most stressful conditions is basically an Olympic contest between Special Forces members and those in other parts of the Special Operations Community. I once watched a U.S. Army Special Operations helicopter pilot fly through mountain valleys of Colorado at night — an extremely harrowing experience — with the same expression he probably had driving his truck to the grocery store. Remember, just the image of control helps relieve stress and injects you with a belief of your actual level of command of a situation.
Each day in our world brings its own trying situations, everything from household chores to work-related tasks. Learning and utilizing these techniques can help you conquer any challenge — whether it’s a speech to an important investor group or a trip with the kids to the shoe store — like a Green Beret would.