Casey tells me about a group with whom he recently spent some time training. The mentality in this group was different; they were hand picked SF guys from across different units, together because of their super-aggressive “meat eater” tendencies. I ask him what it was like. “We pressed each other to excel,” he says. “Everything is recorded. You fuck up that day, you’re gonna get your feelings hurt. Everyone puts it out there and you see the level across that whole unit climb a little higher. The training gets harder; everything increases with it.”
I ask him: in this high-stakes, competitive, alpha-male environment, what does it look like to keep your cool?
“Like I told you, I’m not a yeller or a very loud person,” he emphasizes, “but to be aggressive, own the room, and be confident? I can do that.”
Just like a fighter who walks into a new gym and sizes everyone up, Casey reports that he is constantly doing the same thing, even though others are not aware that he’s doing it.
“I just know that when I walk into a room, I’ll be good. I do my room assessment, and that means I’m looking for people I might have issues with. Who could physically pose a threat. So, usually, everywhere I go I know I would have no issue just because of that mindset: I’m prepared and ready. Several scenarios have already played out through my mind. It’s really not a matter of being more dominant as much as it is of being more prepared.”
I laugh, and tell him that apex predators probably look at the world in the same way; he walks around like a lion sizing up the scene and deciding who he’s going to eat for lunch—and who, if anyone, could make him their lunch.
Casey laughs, too. “Yeah, that’s been something that’s been laced up since I was very young. But lately it’s become more focused; more concentrated.”
As strange as it may sound coming from me, I can completely relate. I look at the world in the exact same way. Maybe that’s why I feel at home in the world of boxing; I’m surrounded by other humans with similarly primal instincts. I ask Casey to solve the nature or nurture debate: are people like him born or made?
“Some people are just naturally gifted when it comes to sports. When you pair that with good work ethic and good training, they become monsters, because they are sharpening skills that are already natural to them.” I think of some of my favorite boxers like Canelo Alvarez, Floyd Mayweather, and Manny Pacquiao; all born fighters, but athletes who have lived lives of anything but complacency, working harder than anyone else to hone innate capacities. With his experience in both combat sports and actual combat, Casey has observed the same: “The more natural athlete with the same work ethic and training opportunities ends up edging out that guy who wasn’t a natural, but who had all the same training and direction.” Still, there are always exceptions to every rule: “I’ve seen people from both sides be super high performers, and execute when needed.”
Equally important, according to Casey, is a common, hard-charging personality type which reinforces these physical and mental capacities. He notes the differences he observes between the level of competition between the civilians and military servicemembers with whom he trains at his BJJ gym. No matter what, he says, the military rolls are always tougher than they would be on the civilian side. He attributes this not to matters of physical fitness or aptitude, but once again to mindset:
“Military people have generally trained or experienced combat jobs where they’re always finding the threshold of what they’re capable of, and then it’s getting pushed. Training in extreme temperatures, taking on physical challenges; if you have a battle buddy next to you doing the same thing, you’re gonna push each other a little bit further.”
The habit of finding the edge of your capacity and then stretching that boundary is far more common in the military community, he explains: “Most civilians I know don’t volunteer for that. There are some extreme sport enthusiasts who look for adrenaline, or ultra-marathon runners, but that’s only one aspect or facet of their life where they are pushing to that threshold and then breaking through it. Serving in military combat arms, on different missions, you are going to find your threshold across that whole spectrum: mentally, physically, and even intellectually if you’re trying to solve problems in innovative ways.”
He names one group of civilians who do understand his mindset: combat sport athletes.
“I don’t think there’s anything other than combat sports that humans can do to push their mental levels in the same way that SOF training does,” he says.
I ask him what makes combat sports training unique to any other challenging endeavor. He attributes the difference to the “stress and thresholds” that combat fighters have to take on.
“The mats don’t lie,” he says.
I think of the gym where Casey’s father is a coach. It’s a world-class boxing facility, where the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the world trains for his own fights. Money is literally no object for its namesake owner, and it could be home to every luxury known to mankind. Still, aside from the sponsorship logos displayed on the heavy bags and banners, it is indistinguishable from any other neighborhood gym in America. The mats—or the ring, or the cage—don’t lie, like Casey said. Perhaps a secret to this fighter’s success lies in adherence to the training practices of his humble inner-city roots. The floors of the gym could be paved in gold, and it wouldn’t make any difference when the fight starts. The only thing that matters is who prevails in combat.
The word “humility” gets thrown around quite a bit in the SOF community. Many servicemembers who go on to become speakers, consultants, and coaches will tell you that humility is a critical element of performance; I’ve seen it time and again. Still, even when working hand in hand with them as a writer and editor, I’ve as yet failed to put my finger on exactly why it is so critical.
But looking at the fight world, and what I know about boxing, I see the parallel that helps me understand. This fighter keeps his gym old school because, as Casey said, “the mats don’t lie.” Perform or don’t perform; hype has nothing to do with it. In fact, one SEAL I know puts it, it’s never a good plan to “read your own press.” If a fighter believes their own hype, they risk starting to believe that it will carry them in the ring. That’s a dangerous belief to hold when you’re training to confront someone who’s hungry to take your title, undefeated record, or life.
Staying humble keeps you hungry, and when you’re hungry, you don’t take shortcuts. You have to earn it every day. If it’s a formula that works for the world’s greatest boxer and the most elite warfighters the Army produces, we should all be paying attention.
Casey shares what this looks like in his mind.
“On any given day, the best dude will get his ass whooped. You can be confident and even cocky, but the most confident person in the world can get hit in the face the wrong way and go to sleep. So everybody goes to the mat, the ring, or whatever their fight is, knowing that they can lose. They’ll hype themselves up in their mind, visualize the win, know everything that both they and their opponent will do, bust still understand deep in their mind that they can lose. It is always a possibility, and that fear of losing probably pushes them the hardest.”
Casey’s analogies take shape into a formula that starts to look something like this:
(Preparation + Visualization + Emotional Control + Tactical Advantage) * (Fear of Losing) = Success in Combat
He works through a scenario which illustrates these principles, describing what it feels like to him to be stacked on a door about to enter an enemy compound.
“If I’m stacked on a door, about to go in, I’m going to slow down my breathing and then mentally go through all the things I have to carry out when I go in. Mentally, I go into that room winning. Losing is possible, but I’m not thinking about it. I’ve run through the negative things that could happen, and I’ve already put a positive spin on them because I know how I am going to react. I have faith in my training and equipment, and even when I’m first man to the door, with all those factors combined, I’m still relatively safe. Even if there’s a guy inside that room with a gun pointed at the door, everything combined on my side stacks the odds in my favor.”
Bold, confident statement. But he’s prepared, visualized success, and controlled his stress response with breathing. He knows his superior equipment and training give him a tactical advantage. And all of the above is amplified by the deep understanding, afforded by humility, that all things considered, losing is still always a possibility. It keeps that fire going, and ensures that he always brings the A game.
“Did Coach teach you to think like this?” I ask Casey.
“It didn’t get too deep,” Casey tells me. “He’d say stuff like, ‘there’s nothing to it but to do it.’ Execute or make excuses.”