Toughness The Navy Way: How the U. S. Naval Academy Teaches Future
Military Officers to Be Mentally Tough.
The United States military has
historically done a very good job of instilling mental toughness
in its people. Military officers in particular require stringent
mental toughness in order to perform and lead to their utmost under
pressure. The U. S. Navy has a time-tested, rigorous system of ingraining
that mental discipline in its Naval officers. This article examines
how this is accomplished, starting at the United States Naval Academy
Mental Toughness The Navy Way
How the U. S. Naval Academy Teaches
Future Military Officers to Be Mentally Tough
An Interview with Rick Seaman,
CEO, Strategy Implementation, Inc.
Bill Cole, MS, MA and Rick Seaman, MBA
This interview was conducted to help people learn
the Navy's methods of instilling mental toughness in future officers.
To do this I contacted Rick Seaman. He attended the U. S. Naval
Academy from 1966 to 1970, graduated and was commissioned as an
Ensign in 1970, and served on active duty for 5 years. Rick was
assigned as Navigator of the USS Halsey (DLG-23), a guided missile
cruiser, in the Tonkin Gulf off the coast of Vietnam during 1970-1971.
Rick holds a BS from the U. S. Naval Academy, an MBA from Stanford
University, and has been in corporate life since 1975. He served
as Director of Strategic Development at Solectron Corporation, twice
winner of the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award,
and is now CEO of Strategy Implementation, Inc., a management consulting
Bill: What is your definition of mental toughness?
Rick: Mental toughness is the ability to persevere in pursuit of
a goal, no matter how long it takes or how much pain is involved.
It is the willpower needed to complete the mission regardless of
Bill: In what over-arching way would you describe the U. S. Naval
Rick: First of all, the Naval Academy is a very unforgiving experience.
Every midshipman (the term used for all students at the Academy)
must meet every requirement to graduate, and there are a lot of
them! There are no escape clauses, no exceptions, no waivers, special
favors, or accommodations for the many hurdles and obstacles between
you and the goal of graduation.
Bill: Why do they do this?
Rick: They want to instill certain attributes required by a Naval
Officer: obedience to orders and directives, self-discipline, and
personal responsibility. It can get pretty extreme. For example,
there was a requirement when I was there (of course, all of my experiences
are over 30 years out of date) to run a mile in under 6 minutes
and 30 seconds. On several occasions midshipmen who had completed
every other requirement (including all of their courses) but had
failed the mile run were held over, and not allowed to graduate
or get their commission, until they completed that run in the specified
amount of time.
Bill: What is "Plebe Year"?
Rick: "Plebe" is the name given to first year students. "Plebe Year"
refers to the Plebe Indoctrination System, the foundation for the
rest of the Academy experience. The goal of the Plebe system is
to begin to instill the attributes I mentioned earlier, and to systematically
weed out those who cannot meet the Academy's requirements. Specifically,
the goal is to instill the drive and commitment, the self-discipline
needed to succeed as an officer.
Bill: How does the Academy go about this?
Rick: In a number of different ways, as you might imagine, but mainly
through inspiration and stress. They start by painting a picture
of the behavior you are expected to demonstrate, using historical
examples and inspirational stories and poems. "A Message to Garcia"
relates the story of an officer during the prelude to the Spanish-American
War. When ordered to carry a message to Garcia, a Cuban rebel leader,
the officer simply responded "Aye, aye, sir!" He didn't ask where
Garcia could be found, how he was supposed to get there, or who
would help him. He did not complain that the task was beyond his
expertise or not his responsibility or too hard. He simply turned
around and completed the mission.
As a Plebe, you are required to memorize the poem "All in the State
of Mind." It contains this verse:
|| If you think you'll lose, you're lost;
||For out in the world you'll find
||Success begins with a fellow's will;
||It's all in the state of mind.
The concepts of determination and willpower in
this poem are augmented by another famous Academy standard: "The
Laws of the Navy". This 22 verse poem, also memorized by Plebes,
contains practical wisdom on how to meet the requirements of the
service, including these lines:
On the strength of one link in the cable,
Dependeth the might of the chain.
Who knows when thou may'st be tested?
So live that thou bearest the strain!
The poem's final stanza speaks to the bedrock
of all military service:
Now these are the Laws of the Navy
And many and mighty are they.
But the hull and the deck and the keel
And the truck of the law is - OBEY.
These sources reinforce the central themes during
Plebe Year: never make excuses, never guess, never give up!
Bill: You were not allowed to make excuses for things that were
outside your control?
Rick: No. In fact, there are only five allowable responses from
a Plebe to a question from an upperclassman:
I'll find out, Sir.
No excuse, Sir.
Bill: Even if there is a valid excuse?
Rick: That's right.
Bill: You have mentioned something called a "come-around". What
Rick: "Come-around" was the slang term for one of the most intense
parts of Plebe Year: the twice-daily, 30 minute indoctrination (read
hazing) sessions. These consisted of interrogations by the upperclassmen
on all aspects of required professional knowledge, and physical
exercise as punishment for incorrect answers.
For example, since we were in the Class of 1970, we were required
to do 70 repetitions of various exercises for each mistake, i.e.,
70 push-ups, 70 sit-ups, etc. This usually went on past the point
of exhaustion, to reinforce the point that you don't quit just because
you are tired or uncomfortable. The whole idea was to induce stress,
and then teach you to continue to try, to function and think under
stress. The upperclassmen I dealt with were very good at inducing
stress by using the many tools at their disposal!
Bill: What were some of those tools?
Rick: They started with the things you were required to memorize
and be able to recite at any time. The poems I mentioned earlier
were contained in little blue book titled "Reef Points". It contained
218 pages of information on the history and mission of the Academy,
technical details of Navy ships and aircraft, famous sayings, and
a section on traditions and trivia. You were responsible for knowing
all of it, and memorizing at lot of it. Your copy of "Reef Points"
was required to be on your person any time you were out of your
Then there were Plebe Rates. Every plebe was expected to be able
to recite from memory all of the following: the number of days until
the Army/Navy football game, Christmas vacation, the Second Class
Ring Dance, and First Class Graduation; the names and ranks of the
four Officers of the Watch and the uniform of the day; the names
of the movies showing in Annapolis and the results of any Navy sporting
event; the menu for the next meal; and finally, the highlights of
the front and sports pages of that day's newspaper. Failure to recite
any of these would generate a "come around."
The stress and pressure tended to escalate at the "come around"
as fatigue set in and your performance began to deteriorate. Sometimes
they would switch from physical exercise to "uniform races," where
you had 3 minutes to go back to your room, change from your athletic
gear into a complete uniform, and return to the upperclassman's
room, only to go back to your room for another type uniform, and
so on. It sounds simple, but when you are already exhausted, it
becomes difficult because you lose your coordination. And, of course,
if you are late or the uniform is not correct in every way, you
earn another "come around"!
Bill: Did this ever get out of control?
Rick: Usually not, but it did seem that most of us had a specific
upperclassman who took a very special interest in us personally.
If this special attention got out of hand, it led to the upperclassman
trying to "run you out," i.e., force you to resign.
Bill: Did this ever happen to you?
Rick: I must admit, I came pretty close once. After a long period
of extra attention from one Second Classman (Junior) I was caught
outside my room without my copy of "Reef Points". The guy went nuts!
He ordered me to bring 70 copies of "Reef Points" to his room at
the evening "come around". The only way to do that was to talk 70
of my classmates into surrendering their copy, thereby making them
vulnerable to additional punishments. Because of classes and mandatory
athletics, I was unable to collect the required number. He said
"OK, now you have to bring me 140 copies by tomorrow morning. If
you fail again, you will need to produce 210 by evening meal. We
will keep going this way until you meet the requirement, even if
it means producing the "Reef Points" from every member of your class!"
Since we had about 1,000 people in the class at that point, it seemed
The only way I got through it was teamwork. The other Plebes in
my company, knowing how serious this was getting, agreed to fan
out throughout the dormitory and help me collect the required number
by the next morning. With their help I was able to meet that goal.
It's a good thing they were there for me, because I don't know what
I would have done without their help.
By the way, I think this part of the system has changed over the
last 30 years, and the physical hazing has been replaced by even
tougher mental and academic stress.
Bill: What was the goal of the "come around" system?
Rick: The goal of the "come around" was to put the plebe under a
great deal of stress, then get inside his head and see what he was
made of, to see if he could take it, to weed out weak people. For
example, the upperclassman were always more interested in taking
you to your point of exhaustion and seeing whether or not you quit
than they were in the actual number of pushups you did.
Bill: What were some of the other ways the system produced stress?
Rick: Of course academics at the Academy were very demanding. When
I was there you were only allowed 6 electives in 4 years, and the
required curriculum was mainly science, math, and engineering. At
Navy you could not cut a class or drop a class, and if you failed
a course during your senior year, regardless of your overall average,
you did not graduate.
Performance measurement was a religion. Virtually every aspect of
your existence was measured and compared to your classmates, including
physical fitness, academic performance, and professional development.
Test scores from boxing, wrestling, swimming, and gymnastics were
combined with academic grades and performance evaluations from summer
professional training in the fleet to produce a class ranking.
Your class rank determined which assignments would be open to you
upon graduation, so it mattered a lot.
They also stressed accountability. If my memory serves me, they
checked to ensure we were where we were supposed to be (class, formation,
etc.) on 14 separate occasions each day!
Bill: Why did you put up with all of this stress?
Rick: We were focused on the goal of graduating and becoming a Naval
Officer. With that in mind, all of the stress-producing aspects
of the Academy were just obstacles between us and the goal. And
obstacles can be overcome.
Bill: Why did the Academy want to put you under so much stress?
Rick: All of this emphasis on stress was done to begin to prepare
you for the stress of making decisions in combat. They continually
made a connection between your performance of seemingly small, trivial,
or meaningless tasks and your preparation to fulfill the requirements
of an officer. The basic idea was: if you are careless or sloppy
with these little things now, you might be careless or sloppy with
big things later, such as multi-million dollar jet fighters or ballistic
missile submarines, or even men's lives.
In addition, success in combat requires tremendous willpower and
an unwillingness to give up, no matter what the odds or previous
failures. That is the reason why these themes are reinforced over
and over again.
Bill: What were the results of all this stress?
Rick: Well, to begin with, 37% of my Plebe class failed to make
it to graduation. I always thought that level of attrition was pretty
high, given how hard it was to get into the Academy in the first
Those of us who made it to the end only did so through desire, an
unwillingness to give up, and in my case, a determination to take
it one day at a time and not be intimidated by the enormity of the
task as I saw it.
Bill: What does all of this have to do with mental toughness?
Rick: Although we did not use that term very much, it is at the
heart of what it takes to succeed at the Naval Academy. Mental toughness,
or discipline, is an acquired habit. It can be taught, and learned,
through repetition. It eventually becomes a way of life. It certainly
did at the Academy. To my mind, the best example of that is Jim
Bill: Jim Stockdale was the famous Navy POW?
Rick: Right, Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale was a Navy pilot
who was shot down over North Vietnam and held as a Prisoner of War
and tortured for over seven years. He was awarded the Congressional
Medal of Honor for his conduct during that time. He once said in
an article that Plebe Year at the Naval Academy was the only thing
that got him through the POW experience. That's mental toughness.
Bill: What motivates people to succeed at the Academy?
Rick: Like many things in life, it's a combination of attractions
and aversions. We wanted to graduate and become Naval Officers,
of course, but we also did not want to quit or be forced out. Every
additional day there was another day of investment on our part.
After a while, it seemed foolish to have put up with so much and
then not complete the process. Fear of failure and the shame that
goes with it were also a big factor. You can leave Harvard because
you did not like it and people will believe you. If you drop out
of the Academy, people will always suspect "you couldn't take it."
Bill: Is what you describe unique to the Naval Academy?
Rick: Oh, no. All of the service academies take the same basic approach
of building character through adapting to stress, although each
one has its own traditions and practices.
Bill: Did your experience as an officer conform to the teaching
and preparation you received at the Academy?
Rick: In most respects it did. The priorities for an officer in
the fleet were quite simple: mission, men, me. In other words, the
mission was always everyone's first concern. For an officer, the
second priority was to ensure the welfare of the men that were assigned
to him, and only then was he to think of his own comfort and preferences.
I'm not suggesting this was always the case in practice, but it
was certainly the ideal. And it rested on the presumption of self-discipline
in the officer. Believe me, in certain situations it is very difficult
to think of someone else's welfare before your own.
Bill: How did the Academy experience change you?
Rick: It had a profound effect that continues to this day, even
though I left there almost 35 years ago. As my family would tell
you, I hate to make excuses, I hate to give up, and I have an almost
obsessive aversion to being late. These traits are not always positive,
depending on the situation and context, but for the most part have
served me very well over the years. But I want to emphasize that
you do not have to attend the Naval Academy or serve in the military
to learn mental toughness. Anyone can learn to commit to a goal
and drive relentlessly toward that goal. It's just that the learning
process at the Academy was a little more, shall we say, focused.
U.S. Naval Academy Principles for Mental Toughness
- Excellence in small, unimportant things leads to excellence
in big, important things.
- Don't guess; know for sure. If you don't know, find out.
- Work hard on problems. If they persist, work harder. Never
- Endure pain and discomfort in order to succeed.
- Take pride in overcoming difficulties. The greater the difficulty,
the greater the pride.
- The more effort you invest in a task, the less likely you are
to abandon that investment and quit.
To learn about coaching services offered by Bill Cole, MS, MA, the
Mental Game Coach, visit www.mentalgamecoach.com/Services.html.
Copyright © 2005
Bill Cole, MS, MA. and Rick Seaman, MBA. All rights reserved.
Bill Cole, MS, MA, a leading authority
on peak performance, mental toughness and coaching, is founder and
CEO of William B. Cole Consultants, a consulting firm that helps
organizations and professionals achieve more success in business,
life and sports. He is a multiple Hall-Of-Fame honoree as an athlete,
coach and school alumnus, an award-winning scholar-athlete, published
book author and articles author, and has coached at the highest
levels of major-league pro sports, big-time college athletics and
corporate America. For a free, extensive article archive, or for
questions and comments visit him at www.MentalGameCoach.com.
Rick Seaman, MBA, is the former CEO of Strategy Implementation,
Inc., a management consulting firm that helped small companies align
their strategy and culture with market conditions. He has a BS from
the U. S. Naval Academy and an MBA from Stanford.
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