Mark Divine: An Unbeatable Mind
To become a top Navy SEAL, Mark Divine had to train his mind as much as his body. Now he’s showing athletes how to train their brain for success.
Why have more elite athletes been seeking you out for mental training?
There’s a growing awareness of the importance of training the mind, and there is also some more specific knowledge in how to do it. Since 2007, we started training SEAL candidates. We began developing a very specific methodology to train mental toughness, which for athletes has been predominantly an individual working on visualization and unlocking potential with a sports psychologist. There’s more evidence that top athletes are using it, so more folks want to tap into it.
How do you approach mental training for athletes?
We take a three sphere approach. The sports psychology approach all happens in what I call the “I sphere.” It’s basically working within your own psychology. It’s all about your self perception and internal dialogue. You’re developing emotional control and establishing a positive energy to ward off emotions—like anxiety and anger—that could affect your performance. You’re also tapping into your visual capacity, which is a separate language that needs to be trained.
What is the second sphere?
The second sphere is the “we sphere,” the element of the team. Even if you are the greatest solo athlete ever, you work within the context of a team. Your team might include your family, and/or your coach. Unbeknownst to the athlete, not having a team that can elevate you may be limiting your performance. When an individual comes to us, does it help if they are not with their team, and they get plugged in with a different team? The answer is yes, because it’s all about the awareness of those team dynamics. It’s about how to develop trust, and you can bring that back to your team.
What is the third sphere?
The third sphere are structures. You can have structures that limit performance or structures that unlock performance. When I look at SEAL teams, all three of these elements are at play at a very high level. Individuals that are recruited and are attracted to the SEALs are high performers with a high sense of self worth. Their internal dialogue is incredibly powerful—failure is not an option. The team also has the same element of “No mission is too hard. Together we can accomplish more.” Ego is set aside and checked at the door. So the team takes the individual self and propels it to a higher level of accountability. The SEALs have been able to develop structures that allow the team to train at a high level, and at a very rapid pace. The perceived risk is through the roof because we are training for combat. The training is relentless. When the teams get to the performance date, which is combat, they’ve been there a hundred times before physically and emotionally through structural team training.
How do the three spheres apply to athletes?
We hit on each one of these spheres when we train athletes. You may not be able to train with the same relentlessness as a SEAL, but we can certainly simulate that. We might have six or seven SEAL trainees training underneath a 400-pound log for three hours. We’ll put them in sleep deprivation situations, where they will not get a full night’s sleep and they have to perform under various states where their physical skills don’t matter as much. They have to rely more on emotional skills or even a spiritual place that they didn’t know they had.
Can elite athletes train that hard?
We are becoming much more intolerant to risk. Even in the military, we are heading in that direction. People are much more risk adverse now. It really hampers performance, because it prevents the ability to push the red line. We understood in the field that failure was not an option. That didn’t mean that you couldn’t fail. It meant that pushing the envelope was going to create failure. That was necessary to learn and grow and necessary to figure out how to accomplish the mission. Because if you’re not failing and growing, you’re not trying. Any kind of system or limit, like a highly legal structure such as a professional sports team, it’s going to limit performance. When you have regulations on how many hours you can train, when you can train, and so on, that’s going to limit performance. If you remove those, you would see higher performance out of teams and less reliance on the individual star.
In your books on mental training, you speak about finding your 20x Factor. Could you explain what that means?
It’s a metaphor. As a SEAL, when I went into hell week, it was six days of non-stop training around the clock. It tests you physically, mentally and emotionally like you’ve never been tested before. The day before I went in, I was on the beach with my boat crew. The instructor came up to me and said, “You know Mark, you’re going to do fine. A human being is capable of 20x more than they think they are.” And I thought, “Well, that’s a nice platitude.” But Hell Week taught me that he was correct. More than half my class quit. We started SEAL training with 185 people. We went into Hell Week with about 70, and we came out with about 30. We graduated the class with 19. And Hell Week was the most defining moment. We had no idea whether or not we were going to come out the other side. The only ones who did had the mentality that there was no way we were leaving this unless we were on a stretcher. We were going to be either total broken or dead. There was no quit in us. Those of us who had that attitude, could dial into the shortest arc to success from moment to moment and manage our emotions to focus on success.
What did you learn from that experience?
We learned that you needed to razor focus on the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason, to get yourself relentlessly marching towards the success of the mission. Through the process of Hell Week, after 24 hours, our bodies were spent. Traditional wisdom was that your body was going to get weaker and break down. What actually happened, once I got over the initial hump of sleep deprivation, once I told myself screw it—this is the new normal, I started to get stronger. I actually started to develop muscle mass through the Hell Week process. Cognitively, there was no question that I was diminished. But physically and emotionally, I was getting stronger. Once my boat crew and I made that commitment, we dominated the training. The human being is truly capable of 20x more. It may not be in a given performance. But overall, from where you are now, you are capable of 20x more. And when you achieve that, you set a new baseline from where you can accomplish 20x more after that. That’s a new belief system. It’s not a quaint concept. The limiting thoughts of how long our bodies work are completely shattered. You can only be aware of it if you actually experience it. You can only get so much from reading about it.
How do you maintain it?
You have to develop a daily practice where you train the skills of mental toughness and focus on what I call the big four skills
- Breath control
- Positivity, which focuses on internal dialogue control
- Imagery, which is visualization and imagination
- Micro task orientation—what’s the smallest arc to success.
When you train with us, you train these skills as part of a morning and evening routine, as well as spot drills. It turns mental toughness into training.
Can you elaborate on the importance of these four skills? Let’s start with breath control.
I learned about breath control through my martial arts and zen training, Before I joined the SEALs, I was a CPA, cranking away on this career. But my real learning was on the dojo floor, and the zen bench. Through that, I was learning the true power of controlling the breath and controlling the mind. Breath is the link between the body, mind and sprit. First and foremost, when you breathe, you are fueling your body with oxygen. Most athletes don’t appreciate how powerful and important it is to fuel your body with oxygen. We teach people how to slow down their breathing, use their full lung capacity, how to get rid of all their spent air, so they don’t leave any toxic air in their lungs. Breathing is the bridge to controlling the mind. Every mental pattern has a corresponding breath pattern. So if you flip it, and you can start controlling your breath pattern, you can control your mental patterns and your emotional state through your breathing.
How about positivity?
Once we control our breath, we can begin to control our mental state, and that’s what I call positivity. You’re developing the awareness to separate from your thoughts, to distinguish between your ego and the witnessing aspect of yourself. We develop that separation so you can observe the quantity, the quality and directionality of your thoughts. This begins what I call the curation process of your mind. Elite athletes have curated the quantity, the quality and directionality of their thoughts, so that they have a very narrow range of thoughts that are all positively focused on what they can do to win. How do I maintain a positive, energetic momentum in this performance? They are able to develop a very positive mental dialogue and block out negativity. Negativity destroys performance. In training, I talk about the two wolves that live inside us—the courage wolf and the fear wolf. We have to feed the courage wolf and starve the fear wolf. We do this through positive dialogue and mantras. When I was a SEAL, my mantra was “I’m feeling good, I’m looking good, I ought to be in Hollywood.” I’d say it to myself thousands of times a day to block out negativity, so I could focus on what’s next.
How does this lead to imagery?
By curating the thinking mind, the rational analytic mind, it allows us to get into the visual mind. Visual capacity is like another language. If you don’t train visual language, you don’t know how to use it for powerful outcomes. Research shows that visualizing a skill has a major impact on mastering that skill. But it’s also about visualizing the outcome of a performance. It’s similar to a top sports psychologist taking film of an athlete doing everything right and showing it to the athlete over and over again. What it is doing is stimulating a visual language capacity that is there to work toward the athlete’s benefit in ways, quite frankly, that we don’t understand. As SEALs, we didn’t need to know how it worked, just that it did work. We started to train this, and it provided great rewards. SEALs still use this training.
And lastly, what is micro task orientation?
Micro task orientation means what are we focusing on right now? You’ve developed these three big skills, but why? You always want to be able to connect back to the task. Why we are doing it? How it is moving us forward? What it is going to do for us? Some call it micro goals, but it’s really a task orientation. How does this task relate to the mission, and how does the mission link to your overarching purpose? When everything lines up—you see the task, you visualize it, understand how it lines up with your mission, and then breathe into it? You are really going to succeed at it. When you create a daily practice for this, you’re able to drop into a flow state very quickly, and it energizes you. I believe it helps us unlock an enormous amount of potential bottled up inside of us.
To learn more about mental training with Mark Devine, visit unbeatablemind.com.