Piloting Your Body/Mind Machine

About a year after the start of the Iraq war, I found myself on foot, moving through the streets of Baghdad at about zero dark thirty. I was in the northeastern area, referred to as Sadr City. The enemy owned the city, and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were everywhere. That night, we had to leave our vehicles several blocks away from the target building because we knew it was full of enemy combatants. As I exited the vehicle, I remember looking down at my feet and seeing what appeared to be an IED with wires hanging out; I was straddling it! We began to move toward the target, and as I snuck through the destroyed streets, I walked right up to a group of Iraqis sitting beside a fire burning in a barrel. Although I was equipped with body armor, lasers, and conventional weapons, they didn’t seem to be at all alarmed that I was there. They just stared at me. At this time in the war, we had no idea who was an enemy or who was harmless. It’s easy to believe that everyone you encounter, especially at zero dark thirty, will attack you, and everyone is a threat. Somehow I didn’t feel that way, but what I did feel was a sense of déjà vu. I felt as if I had been there before and that I already knew the outcome. I didn’t as much think it as feel it. I experienced a deep sense of calm and certainty. What was happening?

Before I deployed on this mission, I spent time with the group that had come back, and they not only covered tactics but also told stories of what it was like. I wanted to know what the streets looked like, what they smelled like, and what I would experience. Remember, when we are facing the unknown, our minds tend to fill that void by awfulizing. My fellow Special Operators told me that it was fairly common for the locals, who had no electricity, to huddle around a fire pit to stay warm and protect their neighborhoods. I had seen this situation hundreds of times in my mind; I had experienced it over and over, so I knew how I would react to it.

At the center of the feeling of calm and certainty was that remarkable organ, that “cockpit” for all my thoughts, emotions, fears, actions, and reactions—my brain.


The human brain makes up only about 2 percent of our total weight, but it consumes almost a quarter of our energy. Most people allow it to operate on autopilot, without deliberate intent. Our chassis affects the performance of our brain, but it is not the only influence. By controlling how we think and what we think, we control the destiny of our lives. We bring our A (alpha) game to every situation because we are in control and have a choice; we are the cause of the effect, not the effect that was caused.

By controlling how we think and what we think, we control the destiny of our lives.

Mind over Muscle

In 2004 clinical physiologist Guang Yue wanted to know if visualizing was enough to increase strength without actually performing an exercise. He devised an experiment with two tests and divided the subjects into four groups, two groups per test. The first test involved finger strength. One group tried to strengthen their finger muscles by doing finger exercises; the other group only visualized doing the exercises. The second test involved arm strength. One group attempted to increase arm strength through visualization alone, while the other group did nothing at all. The experiment ran for 12 weeks, five days a week for 15 minutes a day.

The group that did the finger exercises saw an improvement of 53 percent in finger strength, but the exciting finding was that the groups that visualized doing the exercises saw a 35 percent improvement in finger strength and a 13.5 percent improvement in arm strength! Imagine that! Well, as a kid who idolized Arnold Schwarzenegger, I did imagine that, and so did Arnold.

In his book The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Schwarzenegger said: “I also used a lot of visualization in biceps training. In my mind, I saw my biceps as mountains, enormously huge, and I pictured myself lifting tremendous amounts of weight with these superhuman masses of muscle.” It was as if his mind was willing his muscles to grow stronger and bigger. Arnold was onto something. All bodybuilders understand that to maximize growth, you must focus your mind’s eye on the specific muscle and be “inside it” to engage it fully. What’s interesting is that neuroscientists have found that the same neuron circuits fire in the brain when performing an action and merely visualizing performing the action.

In my mind, I saw my biceps as mountains.


The power of the mind is also evident in the phenomenon of the “placebo effect,” in which people expecting a beneficial effect experience that effect after taking a placebo, a substance or treatment designed to have no therapeutic value, such as sugar pills or saline injections. Placebos work on symptoms that are modulated by the brain, like the perception of pain. Visualizations of living a clean and healthy life, eating well, exercising, being in nature, and other positive habits have also been shown to improve the placebo effect. We believe it works, so it works.


Humans are the only animal that can imagine, react emotionally, and create a state of mind. We can awfulize, get scared of the future, and even get depressed, or we can focus our thoughts on the potential we have and get excited and exhilarated for the future. We have the ability to control our emotions and our state of mind.

We have the ability to control our emotions and our state of mind.

If our bodies are our chassis, our state of mind is our engine, and our emotions are the fuel that drives us. Our mind is our cockpit. It is the command center for all that we do. Beyond that, it’s unique in that it serves as a simulator in which we can practice and a time machine in which we can travel.

Science fiction is an excellent indicator of the potential for human imagination and visualizing the future. The comic Dick Tracy, which debuted in 1931, had its main character using a two-way wrist communication device. Years later, that character’s communication device inspired Martin Cooper at Motorola to invent the first cell phone. Today we have smartphones that enable us to video chat, access all public information the world has to offer, navigate, and even monitor our home from across the globe. After visiting the 1964 New York World’s Fair, science fiction author Isaac Asimov predicted the rise of cars with robot brains; today we have self-driving vehicles.1

Our minds operate in past, present, and future. They can go on or off autopilot (where we spend a lot of time). We allow our minds to jump between the past, present, and future without having our hands “on the wheel.” But to deal with fear, manufacture motivation, and maximize success, you must have a deliberate plan and tools to control and shape your mind.

Training Your Mind

Exploring mind training is like spelunking into caves where no one has ever been. It’s a little scary, but also intriguing. We control the limitations to our own change and success; we just need enough faith and curiosity to start exploring.

Imagine sitting in the cockpit of your favorite sports car and looking down at the gauges and controls on the panel, designed to monitor and race this vehicle to its maximum potential. I use the race car analogy to make mind training more tangible and applicable to different aspects of your life. There are specific tools for you to use. These include intent, the chassis, state of mind, offensive first strike language, visualization, our senses, and breathing. These are all precheck items we need to describe and prepare before our mind-training evolution.

Intent: Start with the End in Mind

Before we start, we must understand the intent of what we are doing: what is the outcome that we seek? As a leader, when I state a leader’s intent, I include the purpose, key tasks, and end state. It gives subordinates enough context to act independently, that is, to exercise initiative when unanticipated opportunities or constraints arise or when the plan they are executing is no longer relevant. The purpose gives a broader understanding of their efforts against big-picture objectives, such as eliminating a terrorist threat, or in business, gaining market share by making a product more competitive. It gives a strong sense of why they are doing what they are doing; it gives clear intent. How do you articulate that purpose?

The second part of a leader’s intent incorporates key tasks. These are the critical actions that must be done along the way. The last and most critical part, the end state, explains what success looks like—it’s a clear mental picture of victory. As a leader, delegation isn’t about making assignments. It’s about sharing an intended outcome.

As a leader, delegation isn’t about making assignments, it’s about sharing an intended outcome.

Understanding the intent also triggers our reticular activating system (RAS) and sets it up to filter inputs according to what we seek to do. Down the road, our RAS will pull the pieces together in ways that we never imagined. It will assemble information in the context of what our end state is.

Chassis: Get Your Body Ready

Before we climb into the cockpit simulator to start mind training, we should take inventory of the state of our chassis. To prepare, it helps to generate a DOSE (dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins) and modify your state of mind. You can do this by exercising, being in nature, healthy eating, and getting good sleep.

State of Mind: Keep Positive

Our state of mind can dictate the outcome of our lives. When I plan for my goals, I always make it a point to be in a positive state of mind. If I’m planning to write my next book, I think about all the positive outcomes—the successful business transaction, the satisfied readers, the completion of a long-contemplated task—which then gets me into an excited and curious state of mind prior to putting pen to paper. You should never plan the future in a negative state of mind unless that is your intent. If you do, you will bring that emotion with you into the future, and that emotion will attach itself to the future event. But what may be considered a “negative” emotion can sometimes be useful. For example, for combat, I trained to be aggressive and very deliberate. Sometimes before going into a meeting to give a very unpopular order, I would get into a very stoic, stern, and decisive state of mind. If opposed, I had the right state of mind to quash the opposition.

Timing is also important. It’s generally not a good idea to do something that may release a lot of negative energy right before doing something that requires positive energy. What do I mean? Suppose I go to the Department of Motor Vehicles and wait in line for two hours, only to find out that they lost my paperwork and I would have to come back the next day—that would impair my state of mind. I wouldn’t want to go home and start mentally rehearsing my next speaking engagement just then. If I did rehearse my speech that way, my default emotion might very well be anger, which would show on stage.

Language: The First Strike

Language is key to our success because language creates visual images and thus creates or stimulates thoughts. We must control it to control our outcomes.

Some people have difficulty being their own best coach. They often think that what they say to themselves is a lie; they don’t feel authentic. Obviously, this is one of those self-fulfilling loops that’s easy to get in and will sabotage our evolution and progress in life. During this self-talk time, it may be helpful to speak in the third person, the way I was taught to do in Officer Candidate School (OCS)—“Hiner can run a four-minute mile. Easy!” Imagine coaching someone you have a lot of faith in, but who doesn’t have a lot of faith in herself—yet! Coach yourself with language that you would use if you were coaching someone else, putting as much of a positive spin as possible so as not to perpetuate self-doubts. Language is a tool you use to facilitate change, to get you where you want to go.

Visualization: In Sight, It Must Be Right

The brain receives as much as two-thirds of its information from sight, dominating the senses. In fact, neurons dedicated to visual processing take up as much as 30 percent of the cortex. Visualization is more than just a lens with which to record the world; it provides an almost instant understanding. Imagine a pink elephant juggling bowling pins, wearing a black vest, smiling, and looking at you while standing on a ball. You’ve never physically seen this image before, but your mind just did, guided by words. Visualization can create experiences that the mind doesn’t distinguish much from “real experiences.” If you visualize yourself doing a task, it will create mental pathways that, over time, will help enable you to achieve it.

Senses: Passing the Smell Test and Others

When mind training, we must bring our senses to bear to maximize the benefits. Although sight brings the most information to the brain, smell is unique in its own way. Smell bypasses the thalamus and goes straight to the limbic brain via the olfactory nerve. This “lizard” brain is connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, and plays a significant role in our mood, memory, behavior, and emotions. We’ve all experienced how a smell can instantly take us back to an emotion-laden memory. The smell of gun oil or explosives is comforting and satisfying to me, the same way the scent of horse manure might evoke happiness in a horse lover—something most people may not understand. The scent of a fighting gym is like home to some, and utterly disgusting to others. Every time I smell leather and fresh-cut grass, it brings me right back to playing baseball as a young kid, dreaming of becoming a Major League ballplayer.

Breathing: Take Your Breath Away

Although we breathe continually all day every day, it’s one of the most overlooked tools that we have to help change our state of mind and overall wellness. There is much to be explored with breathing, but the main thing to understand is how breath effects physicality, and ultimately our mood. Here I will focus on two broad forms of breathing, deliberate diaphragm and hyperventilation breathing. If we want to calm down and engage our parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of the sympathetic fight-or-flight system), we breathe deeply while engaging our diaphragm. I use the simple technique, the “4×4 method,” breathing deeply in through the nose with a four-count, and then out through the mouth with a four-count. The stomach goes out, forcing the diaphragm to contract, and the chest remains still; this is often called stomach breathing and deep breathing. It’s a little awkward in the Western world because a flat stomach is desirable, so we naturally hold our stomach in and breathe shallow through our chest, not our stomach. Breathing shallow through our chest, which most people do all day, can actually engage our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight). During mind training, it helps to engage my sympathetic nervous system to spark enough anxiety to help snap me into focus. Generally speaking, I do this by hyperventilating for a short period, which manipulates the level of CO2 in the bloodstream and ultimately triggers the sympathetic response. It’s an inverse cause and effect and gets me a little hyped up.


During predeployment training, a SEAL Team will repeat all the training they have done in the past to sharpen their skills in all forms of warfare. Before every block of training, like Close Quarter Battle (CQB), I would set a goal to be the best shooter and outperform everyone. The rivalry between officers and enlisted SEALs is a constant and acts as a healthy way of keeping the bar high on standards and performance. On the weekend, or several days before starting the particular training, I would begin mental rehearsals to clear the cobwebs and get a head start on refreshing my skills. Most skills you learn are perishable, and over time they diminish, so it’s important to always revisit and sharpen them.

We have an expression I learned early on and live by: “It takes a shooter to lead a shooter,” meaning as a leader, you better be at your best to earn the respect of those you lead. This is why I set the goal to outperform everyone else. If I succeeded, I never said a word. I just let the results speak for themselves. Plus, coming out of the gates a little ahead on each block of training establishes a halo effect that transfers well across many disciplines and builds your team’s confidence in you.

Is There a “G” in “Team”?

When you appear to be a genius at something, people don’t feel threatened or inferior; they just believe you have a God-given talent and have extreme confidence in you. This halo effect goes a long way toward building effective teams. In her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, author Angela Duckworth includes this quote from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: “Our vanity promotes the cult of the genius. For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking. . . . To call someone ‘divine’ means: ‘here there is no need to compete.’”


Different methods of mind training exist, but personally I like to visualize myself in a cockpit where I can see gauges that represent points of performance like speed or heart rate in a run, tools like a steering wheel to adjust direction, and other tangible items I can control and manipulate to respond to different situations. Next I’ll describe two scenarios to show how it works and how to build your own cockpit simulator to train in the past, present, and future. Scenario 1 is a cockpit in the present: you are in the event and controlling focus, minimizing awfulizing, and maximizing performance as you go. Scenario 2 is a simulator “time machine” in which your focus is on a future action. It involves creating the mental pathways you desire when the event does occur.

Scenario 1: An All-Out Run to the Finish

As I’ve described, most days I go out for a run, which I call a “jam.” Typically, I don’t push my limits of speed. Instead, I put myself on autopilot, running at a comfortable pace while focusing on what I’m doing currently or problem solving a particular situation. I’m sure my neighbors think I’m nuts because I talk to myself out loud about whatever I’m working on at the time. For example, if I have an upcoming speaking engagement, I rehearse the concepts. During these sessions, my RAS pushes out a lot of information to me, and I see how all the dots connect. These runs are not just for fitness. I use them to think things through. They’re a form of therapy for me that I love. But I also happen to be very competitive. I love a competition, and it’s really hard for me not to engage when the moment presents itself.

I live in Southern California, and a lot of people here compete in triathlons. They compete around the world and train year-round. I usually go out for an autopilot run, but when I see one of these “tri-guys” in their body tights, weighing in at about a buck fifty, I know the race is on.

I immediately take myself off autopilot and grab the wheel, which is my focus. I’m no longer out there for a therapy session. I’m in the present, and it’s game on! At this point, I imagine my gauges lighting up, just like in a movie when a pilot must snap to attention when something happens in a plane. Immediately, I come up with a plan to win. I know how far I plan to race him (or her). If I know it’s one mile to my turn-off, then I’m in a one-mile race. I’m 30 feet behind him, and I know he knows I’m there because I can feel him pick up his pace. Competitors do not like anyone running up behind them and passing them, especially someone who’s not built like a runner but more like a linebacker, as I am. The performance points in my mind become imaginary gauges and controls, which in turn, direct my focus, effort, speed, explosive exhalations, body limpness, and stride, among others. I systematically switch from gauge to gauge in my mind to monitor all points of performance and to maximize my output.

I start off with a gradual increase in speed, knowing how much distance I have to cover. I know how much effort I have to put in to maintain my speed for that distance. I start to “prebreathe,” meaning I overbreathe deeply, focusing on explosive exhalations rather than inhalations. These exhalations get CO2 out of my system and flood it with oxygen, preparing my body for the assault. When I explode my breath out, I imagine getting all the CO2 out of my lungs, opening up space for the oxygen I need to fuel my legs. In my mind I’m monitoring the gauges and talking to myself, just as I would if I was coaching someone else:

RPMs are up near the red, I’m good, going slightly downhill, longer stride and speed up, the RPMs are dropping, keep it at the red and push it! Explosive breath, relax the body, hands limp, explosive breath, here comes a small hill, overbreathe now, explosive breath, get ready for the hill!

I’m monitoring my body and my opponent. “Hitting the hill, short stride, chop steps, back down on RPMs, explosive breath, now I’m on him!” At this point, I’m breathing deeply, focusing on exploding air out of my lungs. I take the RPMs up in the red by exerting more effort and speeding up to where I can really feel it burning. I take it a little bit higher, right where I know I can hold it for the short distance I have left. Now my language shifts and becomes more aggressive because as a coach to myself, I want to get fired up for the finish line like people do when their racehorse is coming down the stretch. I’m continuously monitoring my gauges, never allowing myself to focus on the discomfort my body is feeling.

If you ever listen to pilots when they’re dealing with a flight emergency, they are calm and matter-of-fact, checking off their gauges and going through their procedures just like they did in training. They are not in a panic; they are in control. They don’t focus on dying. They focus on what needs to be done, and they do it with the same precision they mastered in the simulator. In times of extreme stress, we don’t necessarily rise to the occasion; we fall back on our training.

As I fly past the runner, I do it vigorously. I’m running at top speed, and I can feel the runner chasing me, taking the bait. I go through my mental gauges quickly:

Explosive breath, turn up the RPMs in the red, limp arms, long stride, explosive breath, turn it on, put the f***ing hammer down, run motherf***er, run! Hammer down, hammer down, long stride, turn up the RPMs, let it run, let it run!

I’m doing nothing but focusing on keeping up my speed and effort, but right before the end, I have what I call a “nitro button,” a set of trigger words ingrained in me in BUD/S training long ago that give me the boost of emotional energy to take me past my own limitations: “Hammer down, hammer down, HOOYAH, motherf***er!” When I go through this dialogue and finish it with the trigger phrase, I get goosebumps. I reach deep inside and can feel the emotional energy finding another gear that I usually don’t have, pushing me forward. I’m running on pure heart.

If you’ll notice, as I’m doing this, I am constantly focused on my gauges, checking one point of performance after another, making the necessary adjustments to maintain my maximum output, never allowing myself to focus on the discomfort or pain. My language is deliberate and controlled.

Keeping your hands on the steering wheel (focus) is critical to being in the moment and not allowing fear and discomfort to take over. If you’re not focused, they can fill your thoughts and derail your self-talk, and you never get to the “hammer down” push to the summit. Other distractions—the naysayers and fault-finders at work or the cell phone in your teenager’s hand as you try to have a serious parent-to-child discussion—may threaten, but keeping an eye on the gauges helps you stay focused, and others will respond to that focus.

Such focus also helps you manage the waiting times and anxiety before an event, which can often be the worst period of time in the whole sequence, as combat veterans and public speakers alike will tell you. Waiting to go into combat is by far the most stressful part of combat because of the empty void in front of you. It’s easy to lose focus and start to awfulize the future. You begin to visualize the worst-case scenario, creating an Oscar-winning horror movie in your own mind. When you allow your mind to focus on pain or discomfort, it will magnify and grow. That’s when the loss of willpower creeps in and quitting happens.

Scenario 2: Prepping for Close Quarters Battle

Elite athletes understand the power of mental training for future events, but mental training is not just for physical performance. It’s for anyone who wants to improve, reduce the fear of the future, and motivate herself to do whatever it is she wishes to do. It’s a way of practicing an event without physically doing it. This training is how we create the feeling of déjà vu for activities that we haven’t yet done. It makes the future familiar, which reduces our fear and makes us more comfortable with the unknown, which is not really unknown to us after training extensively in a simulator.

In 1977 Natan Sharansky, a computer specialist, was arrested in the USSR for spying and spent nine years in solitary con-finement. A successful chess player all his life, he claimed that chess saved his life while he was in prison. He didn’t have a chess set or a partner. Instead, he played mental chess all those years, against himself. “I might as well use the opportunity to become the world champion,” he quipped. He was released in 1986, and in 1996 he beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Obviously, his mental training during those years paid off.

One of the most challenging and useful skills SEALs train for is CQB. Some of the compounds we secure are as big as a cargo ship or shopping mall, which may take hours, or as small as a one-room shack. The intent of CQB is to clear the structure to capture or kill combatants, get intelligence, seize the ship or structure, and/or save hostages. There are many points of performance involved in CQB, and it’s considered one of the baseline skill sets we have to master as most direct action missions involve entering a structure. How you perfect CQB will determine your success and whether you live or die. Just like the Chief who was shot 27 times, you will fall back on your level of training.

Being a surgical shooter is one critical piece of the mission. It involves being able to shoot your primary (rifle) and secondary (pistol) weapon in a reasonably close range while moving with extreme accuracy and speed. At times, you may take a headshot while moving in a dark room, right by the head of a noncombatant or hostage, so the difference between success and failure can be inches. We have an expression we live by: “You can’t miss fast enough to win a gunfight,” meaning you must hit your target quickly.

The other huge piece of the mission is the flow through the building, which begins with a perfect two-person room entry, and escalates into an assault force, moving through a large structure as if it was a choreographed dance. With each room entry the scenario changes; you can never predict the size and shape of the rooms, the hazards, the number of combatants you encounter, and more. Flow happens after a team has been training together for a while, and the entire team starts to have one shared consciousness. They begin to move like a single organism, covering all angles, picking up fields of fire, predicting the next moves, and so forth. This is where your RAS and the subconscious mind are active before your conscious mind can cognitively think about the next step. In some sense, these are “instincts,” but instincts that we can build.

During CQB you must dominate the angles; it’s all about the geometry. Whoever wins the angles wins the fight. You know you’re getting into the flow when you see the angles, and you’re able to predict the size, shape, and hazards in the next room so you know where to put yourself, whether you’re in a combat situation or not, after the training. Your RAS brings these calculations to your attention, and you can’t help but see the world through the CQB lens. You can also use a simulator to accelerate this inside-the-cockpit response with deliberate training.

When I climb inside my mental simulator, my intent is to master perfect shooting techniques and economy of motion, so that there are no wasted movements in any aspect of the assault. That applies to my body position when I’m shooting and moving, how I manipulate my weapon, and how I walk or run inside the target building. Every movement needs to be exact, nothing wasted. I want to move in a synchronized flow with the team.


I normally do mind training after working out because I want my body to be energized and the chassis warmed up. If I don’t have time for a full workout, I do shorter exercises, such as shadow boxing, jumping jacks, or breathing exercises, to give myself a quick DOSE to achieve the desired state of mind.

Start with Your Nerves on Alert

Most people think that they should be calm during this training. Not me. I don’t want to be too calm. I want to be in a heightened state to draw my focus tight on what I’m doing. For CQB I want to be in a surgical, steely-eyed alpha state of mind. Not emotional, not amped up like a football player before kickoff, but deliberate and decisive, like a pilot flying through bad weather. Hyperventilation is one quick hack to get my sympathetic nervous system engaged. I lie on my back, breathe deeply and rapidly, 30 to 50 breaths, exhale all of the air out of my lungs, and then hold my breath for as long as I can. I take in a deep breath, hold it for 10 seconds, and repeat the process. I usually do this three times. SEALs learn this and other breathing techniques to be able to endure cold water for long periods.

Wim Hof, a Dutchman who has set numerous Guinness World Records for withstanding extreme temperatures, made the technique famous. When you hyperventilate, you rid your body of CO2 and saturate it with oxygen. When you shift and hold your breath, you go back and forth with low to high CO2. Your body pH goes back and forth as well. This triggers your sympathetic nervous system, so you’re ready for fight or flight. It prepares both my body and my state of mind, the desired state of mind in which I want to be when I conduct the mission because that memory will be the imprint for this mission in the future. Remember, don’t prepare or plan in the wrong state of mind. You may bring negative emotion, such as fear, into the future.

Create a state of mind that works for you and get into that state of mind before you start. Surgical, steely eyed, deliberate, and decisive—like a pilot in a storm—usually works well for high-stress tasks.

“Brace for Impact”

In 2009, US Airways pilot Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) departed from LaGuardia airport in New York in the cockpit of Flight 1549. Shortly after takeoff, the aircraft ran through a flock of Canada geese and lost power in both engines. With no power, Sully had to make a split-second decision not to return to the airport. Instead, he landed in the middle of the Hudson River, safely, with no loss of life. Can you imagine having to make that decision, knowing that so many lives—in the airplane and possibly on the ground—were at stake?

Ric Elias, a front-row passenger who did a TED Talk about the landing, says that the three most unemotional words he has ever heard uttered were Sully saying, “Brace for impact.” Captain Sully and his copilot were calm and matter-of-fact, just as they’d been countless times in the flight simulator. They went through their emergency procedures as they would check off a grocery list—with no emotion, just focus. This is precisely how they had trained, and when the moment presented itself, they didn’t just rise to the occasion, their training kicked into high gear. Being able to perform under pressure is not genetic; it is something we can manufacture and put in place for ourselves. It just takes deliberate effort.

Performance under pressure requires training and deliberate effort—and the willingness to fall back on your training when the critical moment arrives.

Entering the Structure

I visualize myself standing at the door of a building waiting for the explosion to breach the door. I say out loud to myself: “Breathe, breathe, breathe.” I do this so that when the time comes, I will instinctively breathe deeply without thinking about it.

People often hold their breath during stressful and strenuous events, but this can be detrimental to performance. I use all of my senses: I imagine the feel of the weapon in my hand, the smell of gun oil, and the sound of me saying my trigger phrase in my mind before entering the structure: “HOOYAH, motherf***er!” Having my real weapon in hand during mind training gives me the feel and the smells to help me condition my mind. The intent is to ensure that when I’m on the “X” all of my senses will trigger the positive state of mind I had during training.

I see myself going through the door and taking my field of fire. I vocalize to myself the important points of performance—“weapon up, down the wall, hands, hands, hands”—so that when I encounter someone, I don’t look at their faces, I look at their hands because the hands hold the weapons. This dialogue controls my focus. I see my body position, walking smoothly on the balls of my feet, like a stalking lion, so that my steps don’t jar my barrel and throw off my shots as I’m moving, and so that I don’t trip over objects on the floor. I can smell the explosives and feel the glass under my feet. I look for details like the hinges of a door to know how it opens. It’s all a very positive experience in my mind’s eye, and I’m breathing deeply, eyes closed, smiling with intensity. I tell myself to breathe deeply, and I actually breathe deeply during the simulation training to make it a habit.

My words are guiding my thoughts and visual images during the whole scenario, so maintaining positive control of focus and language is critical. I see hallways, windows, furniture, doors, door hinges, and unknown people—I talk myself through all of it. I reinforce the positive moves completed in my mind with: “That’s it, keep it up, move fast, scan the room, breathe, breathe, breathe.” I also go through contingencies, such as malfunction drills for my weapon, or if shots are fired, how to react. Just like when the Chief entered the building and was immediately shot, he kept fighting through it and never quit. I go through these scenarios, so when shots are being fired and it’s loud, I don’t slow down, I continue to bring my A game.

This can go on forever. I train, visualizing different buildings, different scenarios. I try to remember the layout of specific buildings I’ve been in and how to clear them in my mind, just like Natan Sharansky running through chess scenarios when he was in solitary confinement. I never practice losing.

Frequently, I listen to music when doing mind training. Music speaks to the soul and helps create the state of mind, so my choice of music varies, depending on the mission. My go-to for combat was AC/DC.

The key is knowing the exact points of performance for the mission, and bringing all your tools to bear on the training. If you do it properly, you can generate the alpha flow state. It’s essential to visualize all the details, so when you do it for real, you get a sense of déjà vu. Familiarity will help inoculate you from fear.


These examples may seem extreme. After all, how many of you are planning to engage in CQB combat in your workplace? Here I’ll try to bring this mind-training regimen home to a much-feared activity that plays out every day in the workplace: public speaking.

As you know, before I started speaking professionally, I was not used to being vulnerable on stage. I realized that the hardest part for me was to “be myself”; to actually speak on stage as if I was simply having a conversation with someone and expressing myself with authenticity. I had to learn to let my personality come out, and not be a stoic “steely-eyed” Navy SEAL. I had to connect with the audience and get rid of my doubts.

One of my main challenges was confidence in my message. Although, intellectually, I knew that my experiences have given me deep and profound lessons to pass on, if something is so familiar to you, it’s easy to think that it’s common knowledge and nothing special. But that was my fear talking, fear of being ridiculed for stating the obvious. I had to remind myself that what was obvious to me was not obvious to them, my audience—and that my intent was to inspire them to change, to touch them, to connect with them, and to bring them an aha moment that would become a seed growing within them.

Mind Preparation

I started constructing my state of mind, which is one of humility, service, and stewardship toward my audience. “Customer focus,” you might say. It’s not “look at me” time; it’s a time for me to give everything I can give to the audience. I must be sure they want to hear what I have to say, and I need to be at my best to deliver it. After my first few professional speaking engagements following the publication of First, Fast, Fearless, I learned a lot about how I needed to prepare. What I discovered surprised me!

As a SEAL officer, I spoke to rooms of hundreds of people, but I had never spoken to so many people not paying attention! Even worse, some were talking to each other or playing on their phones. The first time this happened, I felt an enormous loss in confidence right there on stage—and when you’ve lost your confidence, 40 minutes on stage in front of a crowd is a lifetime. Anxiety and anger kicked in because I had never experienced this before; it was a surprise for which I hadn’t planned. In the military, this conduct would simply not be tolerated. You would be reprimanded and possibly kicked out of the room. Paying attention is part of your job.

Developing the Habit

I had a lot of work to do in the simulator. It was critical for me to get better without having to go on stage to make mistakes and fumble around. The content and organization weren’t the issues. I needed to work on my delivery. More important, I needed to work on my state of mind. I knew that people who often don’t pay attention can be the ones who need to the most. I knew that no matter what happens in the crowd, I had to bring my best. And I also knew that deep down, they wanted to hear what I had to say.

I called the points of performance that I concentrated on for delivery VEGA (voice, eye contact, gestures, and attitude). I had to excite the audience. I needed to be the cause of the effect, not the effect that was caused! I wasn’t there to mirror them; I needed them to mirror me. I don’t feed off the crowd; they feed off me. We all know what it means to dance as if no one is watching. Now my goal is to speak this way, to let go and be present on stage.


This process of training for a state of mind can be used for any aspect of our lives: interviewing for a job, making a presentation, giving a performance review to an employee, negotiating a promotion or raise, inviting someone on a date, having a difficult conversation, or improving at a sport. It’s critical to have faith in the process, use the tools that you have, and practice perfect points of performance during the session in your mind. You must train with the state of mind you want to have during the event so that you are able to replicate it when the time comes.

Leave the Bad Stuff Behind

This process can even be done on past events. We can revisit them, learn from them, and change our perception of what the events meant and how we currently feel about them—an After Action Review (AAR) of sorts. Before I revisited my memories, I knew that I had to change my state of mind before I reexamined them, so I went for a run. I went back to the past, taking my present state of mind—happy with who I am and accountable for what happens in my life.

When I go back in time, I change my dialogue. I’ve even apologized and asked for forgiveness for things that cannot be changed. I revisit these memories with a positive state of mind. I don’t want to carry my past fears and horrors into the future. What we often call “collateral damage” is not as sterile as it sounds from a distance. There is nothing “collateral” about it when you are up close to it; it is damage. But I choose not to be a victim in life, and I refuse to have negative feelings, memories, and incidents shape my future. I decide to be the cause of the effect, not the effect that was caused.

My deliberate effort to revisit my thoughts and memories in my simulator helped change how I felt about them. I was able to shift my feelings about the past to one of gratitude for all of the experiences that got me to where I am today. The feelings that come from the past are, in some sense, in our control. We can’t change the event, but we can change how we feel about the event.

The simulator in our mind gives us a place to practice situations and responses in any aspect of our lives. The beauty of this training is that we are in control of how we train and ultimately, how we live.

Be the cause of the effect.

Image EXERCISE Image

Reflect on your life and identify what you wish to accomplish and the things that worry you. Establish a deliberate mental process using the principles in this chapter. Set your intentions, control your state of mind, and use first strike language to guide your visualization and see success. Repeat these visualizations as you move toward your goals.


•   By controlling how we think and what we think, we control the destiny of our lives.

•   Neuroscientists have found that the same neuron circuits fire in the brain when we perform an action and when we imagine performing the action.

•   The mind is command center, practice simulator, and time machine—all in one.

•   When training the mind, state your intent, prepare your body, keep positive, use first strike language, visualize, use your senses, and breathe.

•   When revisiting negative aspects of the past, use a current positive mindset. Don’t relive a past negative mindset. You’ll bring the fear right into the present and then on into the future.

•   The simulator in our mind gives us a place to practice situations and responses in any aspect of our lives.

•   Be the cause of the effect. It’s your choice.

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