8 Things I Learned in Special Forces (Which you can apply to everyday life)

Let’s be honest, I’ve watched Predator starring Arnold Schwarzenegger at least 147 times…

…at least!

While it’s a great movie, it’s typical Hollywood and there’s many, many things wrong with the movie in regards to how things actually are within a Special Forces unit and the missions we undertake.

So it got me thinking about some of the most important lessons I learned while in the Army. 

Here are 10 things I learned in Special Forces

1. Self-Reliance

After completing Commando Selection and the Reinforcement Cycle to receive my green beret, I was pretty confident. I’d been through a lot and came out the other side a stronger, more resilient individual…

…and I needed to be.

Nobody in the unit was going to hold my hand every step of the way to ensure I was ‘OK’. When I received my green beret I was expected to perform immediately. I was expected to be able to get the job done at a high level without supervision. My teammates were relying on me.

If a situation was challenging, I didn’t automatically run to someone for support to fix it. I dug in and attempted to work it out for myself and often I was successful.

It would appear that very few people nowadays make the effort to try and work out problems for themselves and find solutions. People are all too quick to give up and run off to find help without giving themselves the chance to learn and grow.

Yes, it may take you a little longer to work out the problem, but giving yourself the opportunity to succeed in challenging tasks will pay off 10x fold in momentum, confidence, pride and persistence.

It will build your character with attributes and your mind with knowledge. Don’t automatically look for the easy way out and give your problems to others to fix. Begin to build your self-reliance by giving yourself the chance to learn and succeed. You will be genuinely surprised at what you can accomplish.

2. Controlled Aggression

I like this saying a lot. There’s a HUGE difference between aggression and controlled aggression.

Aggression is uncontrolled and reactive. It shows low emotional intelligence and is hard to direct and utilise in a positive manner. It’s a negative emotion, which people often don’t consciously choose to employ.

Controlled aggression, however, is managed and directed. The individual consciously chooses to employ this tactic by utilising its power and directing it where and when they need it. It’s a positive emotion.

Within Commandos I was taught controlled aggression early on. With everything we were required to undertake, i.e. parachuting, live fire training, helicopter underwater emergency training, room floor combat, demolitions and combat – just to name a few – we needed to be aggressive. Aggressive to get over fears, hurdles and setbacks but controlled to employ intelligent thinking, problem-solving and teamwork.

Utilise controlled aggression to get fired up for a task you may be nervous or anxious about. Harness the energy to complete a task, but remain clear-headed, emotionally intelligent and in control.

3. Situational Awareness

Situational Awareness is the ability to identify, process and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening in your immediate vicinity.

More simply, it is recognising what is going on around you.

Situational Awareness is a key attribute in Special Forces training. It’s probably the number one attribute potential candidates are assessed on throughout the Selection process.

And for good reason…

Commando’s mainly utilise live fire training to prepare accurately for operational deployments. During this training, we conduct ‘run throughs’ within the room floor combat range all with live rounds. We engage targets in a 360-degree arc and fire rounds within inches of our team members. All this is conducted in visually restrictive S10 respirators or gas masks.

Start developing your situational awareness now. Be diligent about what’s happening around you. Process the information that’s being presented to you and see things before they happen.

Even if you can’t prevent problems from occurring, good situational awareness will provide you with a sense of control, a sense of awareness and calmness that will allow you to overcome any setbacks quickly and move forward.

If you combine your knowledge of situational awareness with emotional intelligence, you will develop a cool, calm and focused mindset willing and able to react in a positive manner to the environment around you.

4. Sometimes you’ll look like an idiot

During my sniper course we were conducting practice stalks in which we had to locate the enemy, find a hiding position and set up before taking a shot. It was a stressful time during the course and I managed to make it even harder for myself.

The senior instructor, or SI, was talking to one of the students about the scope on the rifle and how it functioned internally. He was describing how moving the outside elevation and lateral dials of the scope affected the position of the crosshairs within the scope and, therefore, where your barrel pointed and your bullet impacted the target.

I was pretty tired at this point and only got the end of the conversation. I blurted out…

“So the bullet leaves the barrel of the rifle already having been adjusted to hit the target?”

The instructor looked at me blankly for a minute and then burst out laughing along with the other 4–5 students within earshot.

With my question, I had implied that the bullet could in fact change direction later on down the trajectory path in mid-air. Basically, an act of God!

I chastised myself. I was tired and wasn’t having the best day (or couple of weeks for that matter) and this simply topped it off. I was embarrassed for a while, took the laughter on the chin, got over it and moved on.

If you make a mistake and look like an idiot, own it, learn from it, let it go and move on. Most likely, everybody else will too.

5. Bad times always come to an end

I remember years ago watching a documentary about an adventure racer. This dude was almost 40 years old and was killing it on the adventure racing circuit and winning most of the events he entered.

These events are brutal, with 4–5 days of constantly being on the move. Racing over 100s of kilometres of terrain and water, hiking, abseiling, kayaking, running and navigating to the finish line.

The one thing this guy said that has always stuck with me is: “Young people who I race against and quit, don’t seem to realise that the hard times are always going to end.”

I never truly understood his statement until I joined the Army, and particularly Commandos. I went through some pretty challenging times within the Army, but this guy on the documentary was right. They always ended.

I remember one time in Afghanistan while we were conducting an observation mission. I was sitting in my sniper hide with my mate observing an area. The day was brutally hot as usual and, because of the terrain and situation, I couldn’t change positions with my mate. I was tasked with looking through the spotting scope the entire day with no rest.

All 14 hours of it.

But, like all shitty situations, it finally came to an end. It always will.

6. Trainability

This is another crucial element of being a Commando. It’s also why Commando’s selection is called the Commando Selection and Training Course. You’re not just tested on your toughness and your ability to keep going when you’re tired, hungry, cold and wet. You’re also tested on your ability to learn new information quickly, retain that information, then recall it and apply it when you’re tired, hungry, cold and wet.

Being able to do this is a great confidence builder and allows the soldier to learn many, many skills which they will be required to employ time and time again while serving within Commandos. It could be months or even years before you’re required to recall information and those skills taught, then utilise them for a task.

Some people have a natural aptitude for this ability, but the majority of us have to work at it. You can actually train yourself to develop this skill. How? By getting out of your comfort zone consistently to experience, learn and develop new skills and acquire new information. The more you do this and the more you test yourself, the more confidence you’ll gain and the better you’ll become at it.

7. Breathe

When we are exposed to a stressful or dangerous situation, our brain lets us know about it, and quickly. Our bodies are flooded with stress response hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.

Our bodies will respond to this release of hormones with a series of physical signs. Our heart beats rapidly, our breathing becomes shallow, our palms start to sweat and our hands shake, our pupils dilate and our bodies tense up. This is a primal response to stress in order to ready our bodies for the freeze, posture, fight-or-flight reaction.

As this arousal response happens and our bodies react to stress and the subsequent release of these hormones throughout our bodies, we find it hard to focus and think clearly and with clarity through the situation.

What we must do is breathe. Breathing deeply a number of times will allow you to begin calming yourself and focusing on the situation at hand. You will be able to stabilise your brain and start thinking clearly again.

You very rarely, if ever, have to act immediately in an emergency or stressful situation. Take the time to take a few deep breaths. This will calm you and enable you to make more effective decisions, be less reactive and allow you to deal with, or survive, the situation as best you can.

8. Humour

While serving overseas within Commandos, I learned how humour could be taken to another level. A disturbingly darker level.

We used to play rock, paper, scissors to see who would lose their legs on that particular deployment. Pretty morbid I know, but it was a humorous way to pass the time.

And it certainly didn’t stop at rock, paper, scissors. There were charts and scoreboards, pictures and artwork. All morbid and tasteless and very disturbing to an outsider. But it worked. It helped to distract from the stressful situation and relieve tension. It was funny, disgusting and liberating.

When you’re in a challenging or stressful situation, try and find the lighter side if possible. It certainly doesn’t have to be morbid or tasteless like a bunch of soldiers, but it may just ease the tension and hopefully allow you to get through a particularly tough situation with a smile.