Habit Builds the Discipline to Create Mental Toughness Interview with Stew Smith, CSCS USN SEAL

Habit Builds the Discipline to Create Mental Toughness Interview with Stew Smith, CSCS USN SEAL

This month we’ve been talking about physical and mental benefits that are associated with fitness. Whether it be forming habits, finding motivation, or creating self-discipline, we’re trying to cover all our bases so we can help you truly succeed in and enjoy your fitness journey.

Continuing that vein today, we managed to grab a few minutes with Stew Smith, Navy SEAL, fitness author, and a certified strength and conditioning specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He trains and prepares a lot of First Responders and the military Elite as they seek a career and service like he has! If there’s anyone who knows a lot about fitness and mental toughness, it’s Stew! 

So, let’s get started!

Bill: Hi Stew! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us! Before we jump into our topic of mental toughness, can you share with me a little bit about what you've been doing for the past few months? We follow you on social media, and it seems like you've been pretty active! What's been going on with you?

Stew Smith, CSCS USN SEAL: Hey Bill! Thanks for doing this! Nothing really new, just a lot of working out and writing about it; that's what I do! I have a program where I train kids for free, so they give me great ideas to come up with for writing and programming, and I figure if I'm going to write about training, I should be training! I have no shortage of people to train whenever I say it's a free program. It's just a lot of fun with these young men and women, give me hope for the future. They are out here hard at 6 am before school or before work just getting it done, and then eventually, they will ship out and go do great things; I really admire them!

Bill: Obviously, many of us admire the discipline and the skill and commitment that it takes to become a Navy SEAL. What ultimately inspired you to walk that walk into the path of becoming a Navy SEAL yourself?

Stew Smith, CSCS USN SEAL: Well, I was at the Naval Academy for 4 years, and I had a series of failures that occurred, right up front, I failed a fitness test, when I first got there, I didn't quite fail any academic courses, but I was really close on a couple of them like complete chemistry. I didn't make the football team, too, so that was like three back-to-back very hard hits right from the start. It makes you think like, hmm, maybe I picked the wrong school to go to. But I wound up learning a few things from a couple of really good upperclassmen and senior enlisted leaders that showed me a few things. I was able to pass the next fitness test, I didn’t play football, but I played rugby. I met all these great people on the Rugby team that were going to Seal training and going to be Marines going to do all these great things, and iron sharpens iron. I’m telling you, I saw how they were getting through the academy, they would work out in the morning, then go to class all day, then go to rugby practice, after rugby practice, they would stop by and swim and then go eat dinner and study until midnight. That was how they got through year after year after year, making good grades and being physical animals. So, I was like, OK, that’s what I have to do. So, I just started doing their system. The next thing you know, I am doing pretty well; I’m making progress. I got to meet a bunch of people who were trying out for Seal training, and I liked those guys. They became my friends. It was an evolution, originally, I wanted to be a pilot, but the more I worked and got to meet some active-duty seals stationed there, and I learned about that job, I was drawn to it. Eventually, I focused on becoming a seal for the last 3 years. So my first year at the academy was a lot of growing up and trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I have a kid now who is 18 and going to be a freshman in college, and I tell him if you don’t change your mind two or three times, you’re not even trying. Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers at 18!

Bill: I have a son as well and can certainly agree with you on that; it sounds like it was an evolution and quite a journey.

Stew Smith, CSCS USN SEAL: Yes, the next part of that journey was training specifically to not only get to the training but to get through the training. I just started creating habits! In my mind, habits will lead to discipline, and discipline will lead to mental toughness. That was how becoming a navy seal all started for me. 

Bill: That is a great transition; you have written several articles on the concept of mental toughness. What exactly is mental toughness? How would you define it?

Stew Smith, CSCS USN SEAL: It’s a really good question because it's so broad. I break it down into two different types of mental toughness. First of all, we all have a source of mental toughness whether we know it or not, and it is in life-or-death situations our body our mind is equipped to survive no matter what that situation is, and that is something we all have! So, people ask, are you born with it or, do you have to cultivate it? Well, the second one you have to cultivate, but the first one, we are all born with. In a life or death situation, where we could cut off our arm to survive or crawl on two broken legs for a mile to get to someone to help us. There are a lot of crazy stories out there about the human survival machine that we really are when we are faced with a truly dire situation.

The other one is cultivated by your initial motivations. What is motivating you to do something? What is resonating with your heart and soul that makes you want to get up early, train hard and study hard and work hard for a particular goal? So, it all starts with motivation. You're not going to be motivated 24/7, 7 days a week, 365 days! It just doesn’t happen. You’re gonna wake up tired one morning; you just don’t feel like doing anything. While you are motivated, you have to build up some habits, and the habits are what is going to help you on those days when you are little less motivated. You know, at 6 am, you should be working out to make it work in your schedule because your schedule is crazy. Otherwise, you are going to miss that workout, and you won’t be able to fit it in later in the day. So you can play these games in your head, I know I’m gonna feel better if I work out, and that is brought on when you create that good habit. Then those habits have to keep on coming, and you have to keep doing them no matter what. Then that becomes discipline. When you are disciplined, you no longer have to rely on motivation; you no longer have to rely on those habits because it just becomes part of you. But you build it through this progression. You don't get mentally tough this way by doing a gut check workout over the course of a couple of hours. You get mentally tough by waking up and getting out of bed when you are probably the most comfortable you have ever been, and then you go jump into a cold swimming pool when you just don’t feel like getting wet. So, you are doing these things even when you don’t feel like it, and that is when you start seeing progress. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning, and I have these workouts that I run, and I just don’t feel like doing it. But I will turn those around in my head and say I am going to go workout today just because I don’t feel like it. I get mad at myself. In a nutshell, it kind of evolves when you do it every day by doing something a little tougher than the day before. When you really see it working for you is when you don’t feel like doing anything, and you are not motivated, but you do it anyway. That is when your habits have formed into discipline, and discipline has made mental toughness.

Bill: So that plays naturally into my next question. You talked about the stages mental toughness, how it starts with habits, and how they form and then discipline kicks in. What advice would you give to somebody on how to initiate a habit? What is the first step?

Stew Smith, CSCS USN SEAL: You know, people say that to reach a goal, there's two habits involved: You need to start a good habit, but you need to break a bad habit too. There are two habits you have to deal with no matter what your goal is. Whenever we first get started, and we are inspired to do something. If you are really inspired, like darn, I am going to join this gym, and I’m going to lose 50 pounds. That moment of inspiration and motivation is pretty high, but then two to three days later, you are like, this is not as fun as I thought it would be, this is a little harder than I thought it would be, I’m not seeing the progress that I thought I’d see in a week. You have to turn off all of those little things in your head and just start creating a habit, and it doesn't have to be a lot! I think a lot of people start off biting off more than they can really chew at first because they're so motivated, they're just going to basically overdo it to hurt themselves or just burn themselves out. If you just start nice and steady and build a time habit. That is really the hardest one, the habit of time; if you have a crazy schedule, there is usually a place in the day you fit it in. Whether that’s 30 minutes of less sleep or during a lunch break, there are these little blocks of time where you can start creating those good habits that you need. And you're breaking a bad habit by not hitting snooze 3 times, waking up at the right time, and finding a placeholder in your day.

Bill: It also sounds like another piece I hear you saying is that when we are in that point of motivation, we set some really big goals like we are going to run a marathon instead of starting with something small. It sounds like you feel it is important to start with something realistic goals. Can you talk about that a little?

Stew Smith, CSCS USN SEAL: Yes, goal setting is very important. Obviously, if you're trying to run a marathon, you might want to start off with a 5K and work your way up, so it's just subgoals and if you're trying to lose 50 lbs. try to lose 5 to 10 lbs. a month is a good subgoal. You can check your progress every week to see if you are moving in the right direction. I think big goals need a lot of subgoals. For the guys I deal with and myself, I started off failing fitness tests, so I had to start off figuring out how to pass these fitness tests and not only pass them, I needed to max them to be a part of this elite group I want to be a part of. So, it’s was a journey to where I was passing now; I’m getting 100% on the pull-ups and the pushups and the swim, but that alone took me a year. These aren’t things that are going to come over night. It's just a nice steady journey of progress into building those habits. Eventually, all of that is going to evolve into that discipline and mental toughness. I like to say it is all a progression. Where people screw up is when they try to do a crazy a hard event like a marathon. Some people will say, you know I haven’t really trained for this marathon, and I haven’t really run 10 miles my whole life, but I want to challenge my mental toughness and be able to do a marathon. Well, a lot of people do that, and they don’t really train properly for it, and they wind up hurting themselves, and they can’t run for the next 3 months because they have stress fractures for shin splints or things that are going to keep them away from running. There is this fine line that I always talk about between mental toughness and stupidity. When you are cultivating mental toughness, there is that fine line. If you are in a life-or-death situation, there is no stupidity; you are crawling on two broken legs for a mile. That's a pretty crazy thing to do, but there is nothing to train to do that it is a pure survival instinct. Whereas when you are training and trying to cultivate mental toughness, that line basically goes to where yes you are getting mentally tough and yes you want to push yourself, but if you push yourself to where you are injured, well, you’ve just gone into stupid because now you are going to ruin the next several months of your training program.

I had this guy I told this to, probably six months ago, he went to run this 50-mile race, and he hadn’t even run a marathon yet. I said, don’t do it. You're just going to hurt yourself. You are going to useless for the next 3 months. He didn’t listen to me; he went and did it anyway. He came back mentally tougher, right? But I was running 25 miles a week, nothing crazy, it’s up there, but it’s not world-class level. So, I was running a hundred miles a month, so in the next three months I ran 300 miles, and he ran 26 miles and really couldn’t run at all. So what is better, the guy who can hit 300 miles over the course of a few months and all the mental toughness you build when you do it every single day even when you don’t feel like it, vs. the guy who just did a marathon? It was a gut check but is broken and can’t do anything for the next three months, and now he’s injured and depressed. Riding bike or swimming because he can’t run. That is the difference between the types of mental toughness, and a lot of people play around with the stupid side of mental toughness and wind up either ending their goal because they disqualified themselves to get into a job or they injured themselves, so it significantly delays their time toward achieving their goal journey. Those are some of the problems I see with people who are really pushing hard to achieve really hard challenging goals.

Bill: I think you've given us some good guidance on not only mental toughness but how to build it from the habit stage to forming discipline and some good examples of how the stupid side can get in the way, so to speak. For those who read this or listen, what are your final words on this concept?

Stew Smith, CSCS USN SEAL: Sometimes you just have to check your ego at the door because ego is what gets us for the most part. Especially when you are trying to build mental toughness, and you are straddling the line of mental toughness, overtraining/stupidity, and hurting yourself. It’s a grey area there, and we all kind of skirt it, but at the same time, if you can check your ego at the door and pull back a little bit, sometimes 80% is 100%. So don’t give yourself that all out 100% because something is going to fall off. You are going to break yourself. My biggest thing is to build that habit in nice steady chunks, day after day after day; you will build mental toughness. It doesn’t come at one big gut check you build day after day!

Bill: Thank you so much, Stew. I really appreciate your time today! This has been some great insights and hopefully will help those of us out here in the world that are trying to build those habits and discipline to establish the right level of mental toughness.

Download the free audio of this interview and listen on the TriadXP app...

Stew focuses on fitness testing programs for entrance into military, special operations, police, and fire fighting communities. His passion is tactical fitness, and he has several programs available as in-app workouts that are available to perform on the TriadXP fitness app. You can learn more about Stew on his profile page.

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