David Goggins grew up in Indiana and had a very unhappy childhood. He was bullied by his peers and had an abusive, often violent father. He also suffered from a stammer and had learning problems at school.
He joined the Air Force after graduation, but eventually left and gained a lot of weight – he ultimately weighed more than 135 kg. After leaving the Air Force, he settled for a job as a cockroach exterminator at a cemetery.
One day after work, he sat down on the couch with a box of donuts in one hand and a milkshake in the other. He started watching a documentary about the grueling training that the navy SEALs undergo. He had not gone for as much as a jog in years, but seeing these men killing themselves for the honor of wearing the uniform awoke something inside of him. He decided to roll up his sleeves and change his life: he would become a SEAL as well.
“I was the meanest and cruelest bully towards myself,” he says of this time in his life. “Looking at myself in the mirror I saw a pathetic person, weak and mean. I was not proud of any aspect of myself.”
Only then did Goggins realize what he had become. Since then, he often undergoes this kind of brutal self-examination, a process he calls "live autopsy".
“You can't hide behind the lies you tell yourself for long. If you're fat, admit it and then work hard to change."
Goggins asked for help from six personal trainers who laughed after him when he said he wanted to get back into shape. But then he found one that accepted the challenge. Goggins lost all the weight had gained over the years in just three months. His diet consisted almost entirely of chicken breasts, fruit and lots of water, and he trained five hours a day. He got himself into good enough shape that he felt he could apply to be a SEAL, and formally started the process of becoming a recruit.
It’s a battle
“The more the instructors tried to make me collapse the more I smiled and got up again,” he recalls of his time in training. In the end Goggins made it: he became a Navy SEAL and remained one for 14 years. After leaving the service, he used the mental strength he had acquired in the army to participate in an ultramarathon, an Ironman triathlon and various other endurance trials. He established a Guinness world record for the most pull ups in 24 hours, completing 4030 in 17 hours.
Last year, he got on a Versaclimber and climbed for a height equivalent to that of Everest, simply by leveraging his mental strength, along with a few other tricks he had learned over the years. Here are some of those tricks.
The cookie jar
The cookie jar Goggins visualizes contains no sweets. “In my jar there are the failures and victories of my life.” In critical moments, he calms down, takes a deep breath, finds his lucidity and "opens" the jar. There he finds all the difficulties he has faced and overcome, all his victories and successes, and all the failures from which he has risen. This helps him gain perspective in the moment, and helps remind him of everything he is capable of.
The comfort zone
Goggins hates running. Running doesn't make him feel free and light, his legs just hurt. But in the end he learned that to be mentally strong he must get out of his comfort zone.
“I learned as a child that the mind has great power and allows you to overcome almost every obstacle. And so now I run precisely because I don't like it, because I want to face the obstacles that I find myself facing.
When I go out I don't even look at the weather or forecasts: if it rains or it's cold it doesn't matter, I go out and run. I overcome the obstacle.”
The Rocky mentality
During his challenge with pull ups, Goggins listened to the Rocky soundtrack for 17 hours. “Apollo just beat him up, he landed him and he goes to the corner with his arms up, thinking that Rocky will give up. Mickey yells at him to stay down but Rocky gets back on his feet. Apollo looks at him in disbelief, he does not understand how it is possible that Rocky does not accept defeat and is able to rise again. This is the winning mentality. That Rocky song of two and a half minutes gave me the charge for 17 hours.”
"I attended 50 ultra-endurance events. The purpose of some was to raise funds for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. They are the real heroes, the soldiers who have not returned home. They were ready to sacrifice everything they had, including their lives. This is the right mentality. I want to exploit every ounce of my body's potential, to give myself all. I am convinced that when you have died your spirit will continue to live to think of all those things you have not accomplished in life.”
You have to distract your brain
Goggins is religious but God is not the main motivator in his fitness challenges. His mental techniques in endurance are based on science. According to academics, these techniques work because what counts most in an exercise in resistance is perceived effort. If the effort seems minimal you can go on. If it looks huge, instead, you stop. It seems obvious but it is essential to be aware of this mental mechanism because if you can change the perception of effort, at that point your performance changes. Whatever you do to distract the brain from the effort allows the body to move forward. Music is a great way to get distracted but there are others. From various tests the researchers for example found that:
Charging yourself mentally or motivating yourself mentally lengthens increases resistance by 18% in a cycling test.
Smiling helps runners resist 2.8% more than when they grit their teeth.
Cyclists who are shown a smiling face can resist 12% more time than those with a sad face.
These are instant tactics, meaning they work right now and you can use them right now. But there are many others that act more deeply and have longer term effect. The secret is to find the ones that work for you.