Advice To The Young Tactical Athlete: The Things I Know Now That I Wish I Knew Then…

By Ben H., US Army Special Operations

As I begin to wind down a 20-something year career among hard men doing hard things, I frequently find myself reflecting on things that I know now that I wish I knew at the start. If I could go back and mentor myself as an 18 year-old tactical athlete, there are 12 pieces of advice I’d pass along. I offer them here as a way of mentoring all of those who follow:


1. Treat yourself as a professional athlete. Make fitness a daily professional habit just like other critical professional habits, including managing your time, taking care of your kit, and developing your mind. Not only will you perform better training every day, but you’ll also find it easier to sustain the fitness to achieve your goals (selection, doing amazing things, surviving and thriving in combat).


2. Take responsibility for your own fitness. Being a professional means taking responsibility for your second most important piece of “kit”: your body and its fitness. Learn the what, how, and why as opposed to just blindly following someone else’s plan. Too many people follow blindly either because they’re lazy or because they just don’t know better, and they don’t achieve what they’re capable of as a result. Taking responsibility is particularly important in order to be able to manage the burden of constant fitness – a huge challenge for the professional tactical athlete.


3. Focus on function and fitness – not looks. Avoid the “get big, get cut” siren – something most of us have seen: the guys who deploy and decide to spend “off” time in the gym bodybuilding rather than on functional training for performance outside the gym. Gym numbers don’t mean anything if they don’t transfer to outside performance. Moreover, carrying non-functional bulk, injury-free, becomes a burden over time – one that can be avoided.


4. Work on tactical athleticism: the ability to move with your fighting load over, around, and through whatever obstacles and challenges your environment throws at you. The ability to move well is a skill. To move efficiently – i.e., quickly and with a minimum of energy exerted – means practice and lots of it, in whatever terrain you’ll find yourself in (wilderness, rural, urban).
Once you’ve started building a base of functional fitness, make sure you get out and apply it. It doesn’t matter if you can lead your local “box” in kipping pull-ups, sprints, and burpees, if you can’t get yourself and your kit over a wall, move under duress, and engage your enemies with precision even when breathing hard.


5. Train joint mobility and stability from the beginning. Focus on mobility for your ankles, hip, and thoracic spine, and on stability for your knees, lumbar spine, and shoulders. Most of us just do this, if at all, as we start to progress in age and abuse, but it is critical throughout your career for three reasons. First, you can’t perform at your best if your joints aren’t working correctly. Second, mobility and stability are critical in avoiding and bouncing back from injury (which is inevitable). Finally, mobility and stability are particularly important in order to be able to manage the burden of constant fitness.


6. Build and maintain your mental fitness. While the first several pieces of advice focus on physical fitness, your most important piece of “kit” is actually your mind. Mental fitness is key to getting the most out of it. Mental fitness at an elite level is something that can and must be trained, and that can be lost if it isn’t maintained; in other words, mental fitness doesn’t “just happen.”


7. Make eating right a habit. You simply cannot perform at an elite level for any length of time, physically and mentally, while eating junk. Period. You don’t need to make it complicated, but focus on eating lean meats, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and drinking lots of water. Minimize your intake of simple carbs (simple refined sugars, as well as potatoes, rice, and bread products). If it helps (and it does for most of us), allot yourself one cheat day per week.


8. Make rest a habit, too – both in terms of daily sleep and in terms of periodic planned unloading. In terms of sleep, our military culture perpetuates the myth that tactical athletes can perform well consistently despite a lack of sleep. That myth flies in the face of facts, which show that we all perform at a higher level with consistent, disciplined rest – 6-8 hours per night (depending on the particular athlete). Just as important as regular sleep is planned unloading, one of the keys to helping you to maintain a high level of fitness throughout a long career. Constant fitness is a burden for professional athletes, and periodically giving your body a planned break is the only way the majority of us can maintain it.


9. Assess & attack your weaknesses. Routinely make time to honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses and address the weaknesses while sustaining the strengths. Far too many tactical athletes aren’t honest with themselves, playing to their strengths only, and never achieving their potential as a result. As part of this, make strength itself a strength, and never get too far from it in your programming.


10. Never get completely comfortable: challenge yourself – daily, weekly, monthly, and annually. Don’t get comfortable. Make it a point to try things you can fail at, and to test yourself. It’s out on that fringe where you’ll really learn and grow. Don’t do this randomly (which can be counterproductive); do it regularly as part of your schedule and programming.


11. Plan on playing hurt. Fact: do this long enough and you will get hurt. Just look at the “silverbacks” in your organization for living proof of this phenomenon. When you do get hurt, though, don’t just quit training (something too many people do). Be as diligent with your recovery as with your day-to-day training. Moreover, use injury recovery time to focus on building up your weaknesses, and on dealing intelligently with the aches and pains.


12. Have a foundation: faith, patriotism, etc. If you don’t have a foundation, you will crash hard at some point. For me, that foundation is faith. For others, it’s patriotism. For others, it can be spite or hate. Find what drives you, through success and defeat, through disappointment and despair, through injury and adversity, and anchor yourself to that.


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