Imagine this: 23-kilometre overnight mountain hikes; laying in the freezing dark ocean for eight hours; 204 kilogram log PT; swimming across a lake holding a 15 kilogram rock; crawling through thorn bushes; endless miles of trail running; thousands of push-ups, pull-ups, air squats, and burpees—and no sleep for 50 hours.
This is the reality of the SEALFIT Kokoro Camp in California. Based on the US Navy SEAL Hell Week, Kokoro (Japanese for “merging the heart and mind in action”) is designed as a crucible experience to forge your warrior spirit and become a better leader, follower, and teammate through the process—the kind that makes everyone better.
“Yes, it is brutal. No, it’s not for everyone,” the SEALFIT website says. “You may not qualify, or make it through the training. Yet, if you’re ready for this challenge… [it will change] your life forever.”
Feeling that life had plateaued, I wanted a unique test. A rite of passage. The type of initiation that’s becoming uncommon in the modern world. Then I saw the movie, Lone Survivor and understood that extreme conditions under duress can teach you more about yourself as a leader than any standard training at the office. So whether you’re a CEO, middle-manager, first responder, journalist, salesperson, entrepreneur, intern or parent, here are six universal lessons I learned at Kokoro to help you with the challenges you face.
1. Your pendulum of choice
We knelt on the sun-drenched “Grinder” — a concrete tennis court that signifies the grinding out of character through arduous Physical Training (PT). Coach Divine, a retired Navy SEAL Commander, founder of SEALFIT and creator of Kokoro explained, “This training is going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your lives. You’ll constantly be on the pendulum between quitting and enduring Kokoro. Like any meaningful goal in life, you’re always faced with that choice—quit or endure.”
2. Hands on hips is a sign of weakness
Within three hours, three teammates had quit. Exhausted, I instinctively placed my hands on my hips. Coach James called this a “weak posture.” If you look tired, it makes your teammates feel tired. So whenever someone placed their hands on hips (usually me), the team was punished with no handed burpees—basically a burpee while keeping your hands in your pockets. It’s not fun. It hurts. And I’ve not put hands on my hips since graduating from Kokoro.
3. Don’t make a decision in the dark
After 10 hours, we were driven to South Ponto Beach, Encinitas. Instructors dressed like Eskimos greeted us with coffee. “Tonight is going to be the worst night of your lives. And we’re not going home until at least four people quit,” smiled Coach Price. “So who wants to quit now, drink coffee and make life easier for everyone?” There were no volunteers. So we were ordered to “Hit the surf!”
Linking arms, we felt the full force of the Pacific. Endless waves crashed loudly and dragged us deeper into the dark water. Occasionally we came out for a hypothermia check. And on two occasions, the instructors said, “It’s over, back in the vans.” But within a few minutes, we’d be back in the ocean.
After eight hours, “surf torture” was over, the full moon had moved to the other side of the horizon, and three more teammates had quit. The lesson was don’t let the chaos and discomfort overwhelm your emotions. Segment your goal into smaller parts—in this case, survive until sunlight. Breathe. Stay in the moment. And trust the process.
4. Teams move mental mountains
Teamwork was a theme at Kokoro. Teams often struggle with constant infighting, blame, and failure, but Kokoro teaches you to wholeheartedly devote yourself to your teammates and the mission while ignoring your own discomfort.
While hiking up the 6,140 feet Palomar Mountain overnight after 36 hours, everyone was hallucinating from sleep deprivation (I saw tigers and Ancient Roman architecture) but our class leader was practically unconscious and ready to jump off the mountain. The team sacrificed their rations and water to bring him back to life. And we made it down the mountain without anyone quitting.
5. Simple self-talk works
Whenever anything sucked (which was usually all the time) Coach James said, “Could be worse.” If someone groaned, Coach Dave said, “If you’re hurting, everyone is hurting,” or “Suffer in silence.” When a competitive challenge was about to start, Coach Darrin told my team, “You will win this race.” (And we did.) Simple self-talk gives perspective, power, and focus.
6. Ego is the enemy
47 hours into Kokoro, Coach Divine instructed us to pick up a log and carry it for an undetermined length of time. The log represented your “Why” for being at Kokoro. Wanting to impress a father figure, I picked up the heaviest log—around 100 pounds (45 kg). Within five seconds I regretted it. Way behind the pace of my teammates, it was the closest I came to quitting. The lesson to know why you’re doing something so you can endure it. Coach Divine said, “Whatever pain you feel now, the pain of regret from being undisciplined in life will far exceed it.”
Steve Costello is a freelance writer, editor, and SEALFIT Kokoro 42 graduate. In a former life, he was a teacher and lawyer. Connect with him via Twitter @SteveWCostello.
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