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Mental 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 at Annapolis.    2714 words.
The Mental Game Coach, Peak Performance Playbook

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 firm.

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 obstacles.

Bill: In what over-arching way would you describe the U. S. Naval Academy experience?

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:


Yes, Sir.

No, Sir.

Aye-aye, Sir.

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 is that?

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 room.

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 impossible.

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 place.

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 Stockdale.

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

  1. Excellence in small, unimportant things leads to excellence in big, important things.
  2. Don't guess; know for sure. If you don't know, find out.
  3. Work hard on problems. If they persist, work harder. Never give up.
  4. Endure pain and discomfort in order to succeed.
  5. Take pride in overcoming difficulties. The greater the difficulty, the greater the pride.
  6. 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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Midshipmen at Naval Academy
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