“Yes, Navy SEALs need to be badass, but one of the keys to that is thinking like The Little Engine That Could,” Eric Barker writes in his new book, “Barking Up the Wrong Tree.”
That might sound like a ridiculous assertion: Seriously? You’re underwater in scuba gear with your instructor tying your air hose in knots, 100% certain that you’re going to die, and a key to success is telling yourself, You can do it?
That’s what Barker – who runs a popular blog by the same name as the book – is saying.
He writes that, after 9/11, the military needed more SEALs, but for obvious reasons, didn’t want to lower their standards. Ultimately, they developed a mental-toughness program in which BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training) candidates learned to develop essential skills, including positive self-talk.
In fact, Barker writes, when the Navy started teaching candidates to use positive self-talk, in conjunction with the other skills, BUD/S passing rates improved almost 10%.
The History Channel documentary “The Brain” (you can watch a clip here) explores how positive self-talk can help BUD/S candidates’ chances of success. According to the documentary, the average person says between 300 and 1,000 words to themselves every single minute.
If these words are positive instead of negative, they help override the fear signal coming from a part of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala kicks into gear during threatening situations like “pool comp,” the underwater exercise described above.
Barker gives examples of negative self-talk – “I’m just not cut out for this” or “I’ve never been any good at these things – and of positive self talk – “I just need to keep working at it” or “I just need better tips on form.”
If the second set of thoughts becomes your default, Barker says, you’re more likely to succeed at whatever you’re trying to accomplish.
Note that you’re not telling yourself, “everything is okay.”
Instead, as Eric Potterat, the former head psychologist for the US Navy Seals, previously told Business Insider, it’s about managing your destructive thoughts when you’re in a stressful situation. When you catch yourself catastrophizing – deciding you’re going to perform terribly and there’s nothing you can do about it – ask yourself if there’s anything you can do about it.