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There are days when you’re the hammer, and there are others where you’re the nail. Real physical progress requires dealing often with being the nail, coming to terms with it, and returning for the next session eager to try to change that around.

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Life in today’s world is soft and easy. Gone are many of the hardships of the middle of the last century. Things our parents struggled with – maybe walking to school in the cold and the rain – are long gone, replaced by over protective parents and an ability to buy just about any modern convenience you wish for on credit. We don’t even have to work hard to buy our possessions now – how sad is that?

As life becomes softer, so do we. The problem is that when it comes to getting in shape nothing has changed. Being fit, strong and resilient still requires hard, consistent effort despite the world not being like that anymore.

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen over the last few years has been to isolate oneself in training. Now, bear with me a bit here, but iPods are the work of the Devil. I’m not religious at all, yet I believe this fully. Many years ago I dated a girl whose father was a priest. She explained to me that anything that separated us from our community and isolated us, was the work of the devil. Because the devil doesn’t have to make you evil, only turn you away from God, and anything that isolates you makes you weaker – we are all stronger as a community than we ever will be alone.

But the real problem with iPods is that they stop you from having to motivate yourself. If you are plugged into a permanent source of extrinsic motivation when you train, so that it becomes easier for you, then what happens when you take that motivation away? In many cases what happens is that the voices in their heads are no longer drowned out and when things start to get tough all of a sudden they hear the negative thoughts telling them to slow down, to quit or to give in. A weak mind is the Devil’s Playground opening the way to sloth and gluttony.

This is one of the many reasons why I choose to never allow music in our cave. If you cannot overcome your own inner demons, how will you overcome real stress when confronted with it?

And that’s why I set out to deliberately mess with people when they train with us. Workouts change on the fly to push people past their comfort zones and force them to overcome, improvise and adapt. Challenges are laid out for them that are nearly impossible to beat. Because the first step to overcoming the inner demons, to taking away their playground, is to become much stronger and fitter. As physical fitness and strength increase so does mental toughness. If I can take you from comfortable to so uncomfortable that you want to quit but don’t then every workout after that will be tough, but not as tough as “that” workout. And this is what the Spec Ops community do with their testing protocols. The entire process is designed so that you are taken so far out of your comfort zone they want to see if you”ll succumb to the demons. Commander Dick Couch, a former SEAL team Commander writes:

It shows you just what you are capable of doing. The guy who has been through Hell Week may say, ‘Boy that was hard, but it wasn’t Hell Week hard”

Developing that kind of calm, even in the face of clear adversity and hardship, requires a calmness that is well beyond many. A thirty minute session won’t teach you this. Neither will sixty minutes (although it will get you closer than thirty). Until you’ve hit bottom there is no way to actually develop this. About a year ago I went for a bike ride. At the time it was November in Australia – you’d expect conditions to be warm. On this particular occasion somehow we ended up riding up a very small mountain that even in winter doesn’t get much snow, and subsequently being snowed on. The complications started for us as we kept climbing to the top of the mountain in the snow while wearing only summer cycling kit. Once there we realised how cold and exposed we were and made the decision to descend quickly to avoid complications. But on the way down we were no longer warmed by the action of climbing, and started getting colder and colder with every minute. After a few minutes of descending both of us were shivering so badly we couldn’t ride in a straight line. Five minutes further down and we couldn’t feel our hands. A few kilometres from the end of the descent I had to leave my partner and go get the car solo as she was unable to continue. It took me nearly fifteen minutes to get to the car and return to her. In her hypothermic state she thought I’d only been gone for five minutes. She was so bad that other riders had stopped to shield her and give her body warmth.

It took two days to recover from a ride that was really not that hard. I remember sitting in a cafe at the bottom of the mountain just eating as much hot food as we could find to try to warm up. We shivered for about six hours after, even though we’d showered and put on dry clothes. My hands took about two weeks to get all feeling back. But the advantage of this ride was that during my preparation for Ironman every other ride was easy in comparison. After being hypothermic and unable to control even the use of my brakes being a little tired after a six hour ride wasn’t such a big deal.

I count myself lucky on that ride. Lucky to have not had more serious repercussions and lucky to have been in the right place to have learned that lesson. But not everyone is that lucky. They’ve not been caught in the snow, wet, cold and wearing only lycra shorts and a T-shirt, and haven’t gone through that kind of baptism. Funnily enough, these people are usually the ones you see plugged into their iPods, being motivated by their tunes, so that they can finish their workout. But that noise they’re adding to their mind is only hurting them in the long run. When the shit really hits the fan you’ll find yourself without music or without any kind of motivation other than what you can summon from within. If you’ve always used a crutch to get by, how will you fare when it’s not there? I would guess that you’ll crumple and fail.

I’ve never seen a tough time in my life that had a pumping soundtrack. There’s no music in the middle of a fight when your opponent is a few points up and seemingly invincible. There’s no soundtrack at the 160km mark of the Ironman bike leg. Nor was there one in the middle of university exams. Ultimately, it’s all you when it counts. Don’t get misled by the Devil into learning to cope using anything other than your own mind. Master the inner voices, learn to quieten them, and you’ll find yourself far more successful, both in the gym and out. Develop that unbreakable mindset and stick to Rule #3.

2 thoughts on “The Devil’s Playground

  1. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up in the 1970s -1980s and did not have what we do these days. I’m old school and won’t let my boys play video games. I like my music. I listen to “devil music”… the only time I actually do is when I am running and have my phone/ipod along. Otherwise I play the music in my head. All day out in the yard today I worked hard (it’s 90+ degrees in Houston now). No music…. But by God Judas Priest was playing in my head all day. Music has a time and a place. It is motivating for a lot of people. If I don’t actually have it physically, I still “play it” in my head. I was a hotshot (wildland firefighter) about 13 years ago in California. I pulled overnight/24 hour/ hardcore/ make normal people cry shifts. You know what? I always had that music playing in my head. It’s motivating. Not a crutch. If it can get your shit through to the end who cares?

    1. You’re missing the point. Anyone relying on extrinsic motivation of any kind will ultimately fail because they need some external help to accomplish the task. I can guarantee you that DEVGRU aren’t singing in their heads when they’re on their way to shoot bad guys. Any thought beyond absolute focus on the task at hand in truly stressful situations leads to failure. We are what we repeatedly do – therefore anyone who relies on crutches of any kind in training will ultimately fail when placed under real duress because they’ve learned to use external means to assist them.

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