Young SEAL trainees are introduced to all sorts of physical, mental, and emotional challenges. I fared pretty well at those challenges at BUD/S training. I could run and swim fast, do a lot of pullups, pushups, and flutter kicks, and didn’t particularly mind the cold water.
However, there was one area early on that had my number … the obstacle course.
About half-way or so through the obstacle course my forearms and my grip would get smoked. Then the second half of the obstacle course would become a series of T.V. blooper worthy falls from the obstacles because I simply couldn’t hold on to anything.
As that painfully went on for several obstacle course runs, I began to adjust my strategy. I decided to pace myself. Slow down, I told myself, and that would delay the onset of the muscle fatigue in my forearms and grip.
My Strategy Seemed to Make Things Worse
The first couple of times a trainee goes through the obstacle course at BUD/S there is a little leeway given to them by the instructors. There is a certain amount of technique that needs to be learned so the first time through the course is very much a familiarization run. The second time through the course the trainee is certainly expected to have adjusted to the technique and successfully complete the course. By the third time the expectation is that the trainee completes the course with an acceptable time. I wasn’t there yet.
As I couldn’t seem to get the hang of the obstacle course, things began to take a turn for the worse. I was beginning to attract the attention of the instructors. They were smelling blood in the water and that’s a problem for any SEAL trainee. My confidence was being shaken every time I stepped onto the course, and the instructors stayed close by to further demoralize and attempt to send me on the path of quitting. Such is life at BUD/S training.
One day one of the instructors approached me right before we were set to make another run on the obstacle course. As I was bracing myself for whatever mental, emotional, or physical pain he was about to rain down on me, he asked me a question, “What’s the problem?” I provided the standard trainee to instructor responses, “No excuse,” “I’ll find out,” “I suck,” whatever. Then he shocked me.
He said, “No, really. Tell me what the problem is. Nobody can figure out why you are so bad at the obstacle course and you need to get it right, fast.” I explained the problem with my forearms and grip and told him how I was trying to pace myself to stave off the fatigue. I explained that I was practicing during off hours and just couldn’t seem to get it right.
“No!” he shouted at me. “That’s lactic acid building up in your muscles. You’re giving it time to settle in and wreak havoc on your forearms and grip. It takes about four minutes or so for lactic acid to build up. Be faster than the four minutes. Beat the lactic acid. Attack it, Lt. Doebler. Sitting back gets you nowhere except dead.”
Action as the Default Mode of Operation
I will never forget his response because, among other things, it introduced me fully to the concept of action as the default mode of operation. But it went deeper than that. It’s easy to act when things are going well, when everything is lined up for you and confidence is high. It’s entirely another thing to take that tact when you feel like you are giving your best, but things keep getting worse, as they seemed to be for me on the obstacle course.
I should have been able to complete, and to be honest excel at, the obstacle course challenge by then. I knew the techniques and was certainly fit enough. I was faced with equal sets of circumstances at play. My choices were to continue to pace myself and sit back, or “act.” Like any good SEAL, I refocused myself, said “fuck it,” and went for it. The days of obstacle course ineptitude were gone forever.
It’s strange—the little things you remember that have impact in your life. And make no mistake, the obstacle course at BUD/S training is a little thing. But I’ll never forget it. I’ll never forget the wink the instructor gave me as I easily finished the course that day. And most of all, I’ll never forget telling myself, “That will never happen again. When I’m not sure, when I can go one way or the other, I will always act.”
Errol Doebler is the founder of Ice Cold Leader, a leadership consulting firm. After successful careers as a Navy SEAL Platoon Commander and FBI Special Agent, Errol founded Ice Cold Leader to realize his passion of empowering great leaders and better human beings. Errol provides executive coaching, keynote speaking, and corporate retreats to individuals and teams across the world.