Training with Navy Seals, and the Krav Maga Black Belt test

Five years ago, I put on some excess weight and wanted to do something rousing and encouraging to burn it off. Motivated by a Groupon post, I purchased a fitness boot camp class. I was on my way.

At least that’s what I thought. What I’d actually purchased was a Groupon for a dance class.

There I was, with an extra 20 lbs. around my gut, lost and alone in a whirlwind of tutus and ballet shoes. At 42 years old, there’s not a more humbling moment than showing up to take a class with a roomful of ballerinas. If laughter is indeed the best medicine, I was well medicated for the journey ahead of me. Without having to say a word, both the owner of the studio and I knew I was in the wrong place.

And so I began my search again, this time landing at Elite Martial Arts, a studio only ten minutes from my condo. Fueled by what I experienced on that first, introductory class, I signed up for an entire year. It was exhilarating to have discovered this form of exercise with an inspiring group of people.

I poured my heart, soul, sweat and tears into this hobby, which eventually became a way of life. Five years after I gave up a potential dance career and found martial arts, I got my Black Belt in Krav Maga. Yes, others have done it quicker, but at 47, this was a personal high.

Training with Navy Seals, and the Krav Maga Black Belt test

Spurred by this event and driven with a desire to do even more, I took on Sealfit, an integrated functional fitness program based on the Navy SEAL Hell Week. Sealfit is designed to not only increase physical strength and resilience, but also mental toughness and capacity. I was 47 years old.

What an experience.

Why are you here? I have no idea what time it is. 1am, 2am? There I stood, deep in the California desert, cold and dripping wet from ice baths I’d doused myself in. A Navy Seal is standing over me, demanding of me: “Powell, why are you here?”

Coach James was the soft spoken one. He was always calm – so calm it was intimidating as hell. With chaos engulfing us, he remained unfazed, unbothered, almost placid. But he wanted his answer – the real answer – and I knew he would see through any inauthentic, guarded or counterfeit answer. Despite my exhaustion, my confusion, and my nerves, I welcomed the break as I had just done 75 burpees in a row when Coach James approached me.

The full answer would make for a long story, one that would take me all night to properly explain. This wasn’t the time for a heart-to-heart, bartender-worthy, deep-secret soul purge. I knew he’d want me to cut to the chase.

“I know I can be better,” I finally responded. “I’m not living my purpose.”

He countered quickly. “What is your purpose, Powell?” With that, the pressure on me mounted.

“I don’t know, Coach,” I answered honestly. “But it’s not what I’m doing. I can have better personal relationships, a more fulfilling career. 2017 was rough and I need to get unstuck. I read the Unbeatable Mind and it resonated with me, so I signed up for 20X.”

His reply was kind, albeit short. “Okay. Good. We’ve all been there.” And then he walked away. And there was no time to think about or reflect on that brief interaction because we were right back to it, doing 85, 86, 115 burpees in a single round.

Once upon a time, as a kid from a small town and a family of humble beginnings, the idea of changing one’s life might have seemed impossible, a pipe dream. But what I’ve come to learn over the years is that it doesn’t matter if the glass is half full or half empty – it’s fillable either way. What’s important is that you do the things you’re scared to do, and you might just teach yourself some valuable things along the way.

Looking back over these events now that a few months have passed, there were five key take-aways that will stay with me forever.

  1. Find your purpose and take action

It sounds harsh, but I often find super positive people to not be very realistic. I think it’s because there’s usually not a plan in place – they think all you need to do is be positive and good things will happen. While I don’t disagree with the premise of positivity and an optimistic outlook, one needs to take action toward making positive things happen. Visualize yourself doing the things you need to do to be successful, and then visualize yourself winning.  Positive self-talk is crucial to success. Repeat affirmations like, “I am the strongest.” At Sealfit, they had us repeat this all the time. They challenged us with “If you’re not the strongest, who will be?” They recognized the power of positive self-encouragement.

Before each Krav Maga class, I would look at the rack of belts on the wall, from white to black. I would pause and focus on the black belt, knowing without doubt or disbelief that I would get there. After all, a black belt is a white belt that didn’t quit.

For me, considering my purpose in life was difficult, so I can appreciate those who struggle with this internal question. I only knew what it was not – it was not walking through the side door, it was not sitting at my desk not interacting with people, it was not talking endlessly with unappreciated people who expected an unreasonable amount of work completed in an unreasonable amount of time. It wasn’t having arguments with peers and friends about trivial things in life.

This hamster-wheel way of living changed after completing Sealfit and obtaining my Black Belt – I got a new job and advanced my career, and am infinitely happier and more confident. I’m respected in my office, amongst my peers, and thrive in my personal relationships.

Always move forward.  Focusing on past mistakes is unproductive, so own them, learn from them, and then move on.

  1. There are no excuses

Making excuses will get you nowhere. It’s unproductive to blame others. It’s best to take control – if something goes wrong at work or at home, set about fixing it, and then work on preventing it from happening again. And then move on.

Think you don’t have time? I’m calling BS. Here’s a tip: start tracking how much time you waste on unproductive tasks. Wake up early, and start knocking things off your to-do list. If something goes wrong – and it’s likely to – take responsibility if it’s your fault. Your life is your own, so be responsible for it.

There will always be someone better, faster, stronger than you. Learn from them everything you can. Just push on, stay focused, and grow. In Krav Maga, as I was often the oldest person in the room, these were the phrases of encouragement that became a part of my practice, and a part of me.

There are reasons, and there are excuses. Know the difference. Don’t say you’re late for work because of poor weather; you could have checked the forecast and left early. Don’t say you’re challenged by a difficult person in your work life and that’s why you’re doing a less-than-stellar job; you would do well to find common ground. Again, know the differences between reasons and excuses. You’ll soon find they’re mostly excuses.

  1. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

The more you practice and train for uncomfortable situations, the more you’ll be prepared for when things go sideways. Take inspiration from Coach James, who remained calm in the face of chaos. Challenged with the discomfort, distress and pains of 24 men and women, he stayed composed and unruffled.

I should have jumped in the freezing lakes of late September and October to prepare for the ice bath – I had no excuse not to. I live walking distance from Lake Ontario, and have a cottage on a lake in Muskoka – those freezing lakes were literally at my fingertips. I know now that the more you know you can handle, the calmer you will always be.

Expand your comfort zone.  Getting accustomed to doing difficult things just means they become easier, so when it really matters – like facing job loss, illness, or other bumps in the road – you’ll be ready. Life is full of discomfort, but it doesn’t have to take you down with it.

  1. Teamwork

Like our families, we don’t always get to choose our team members. They may not be people we would choose, but we often have to stay with them, even if only for the short term.

Remind yourself you have to be the strongest, the calmest. Lead by example. Build your team – show them they are strong, tell them they are strong. Team building often requires that people go through something difficult together, so they can come out on the other end stronger.

Log PT in Sealfit is a prime example of this – despite our personal feelings or initial judgments of one another, we all had to work together, pull our weight and strength at the same time without complaint or surrender. A 300 lb log isn’t so heavy when six people are working together, lifting it in unison. In the corporate world, and in my personal life where it’s been required, I’ve learned to share with my team what I’ve learned in my training thus far: visualizing the end game, breaking things down into smaller components, working as a team and focusing on the next step of your evolution so you get inspired, not overwhelmed. If you lead by example, remaining calm, unflustered and completely in control, the more confident your team will be in you – and in themselves.

Again, your team is your family. In Sealfit, we could never be more than six feet away from another member. If anyone ventured off on their own, our team as a whole was punished with burpees. After being punished a second time – and trust me, it never happened again – we never found ourselves more than six feet apart from each other.

But teamwork isn’t confined to formally assigned groups or colleagues who collect the same paycheck from the same organization. As an example, Krav Maga is very individual – it’s not a team sport. Krav is an infinitely difficult and uncomfortable sport – the Black Belt test took place over five hours, with only a 20-minute rest, a rotating roster of fresh attackers, and sent me to vomit twice. And although other Krav Maga practitioners began to see me differently because of the prestige of the belt, I always had consistent encouragement and praise.

So you see, your team is a part of you, and you a part of them. Be there for each other.

  1. Day to Day Discipline

There’s no excuse for making excuses. There are no legitimate reasons not to not do what is important every day. Today, I work out every morning before work – even if it’s for a mere 15 minutes – and always have a coffee with my wife before leaving for the day. While work and career are vastly important, good health and a happy marriage weigh far more.

One day last year, my iPhone told me that I spent an average of four hours and 37 minutes of screen time every day. I was shocked and appalled; it needed to change. I could have spent that time working out, learning something new or paying it forward.  The day-to-day discipline of knowing, prioritizing and doing what’s important gives us a feeling of accomplishment. Acknowledging what’s important at the start of the day makes us a winner on a daily basis. Without this kind of discipline, I may never have achieved my Black Belt.

No change of environment or circumstance should steer you off-course, either. In February of 2018, I flew to Thailand for my brother’s wedding, and still took time to train – I participated in Muay Thai (Thai boxing) classes, and when I came home, completed my blue shorts test. All of this was in preparation for my Black Belt and Sealfit. One never takes a vacation from self-improvement. Even when you’re in an exotic space like Thailand.

The next journey?

Be uncommon amongst uncommon people

This phrase resonated with me from the first time I heard David Goggins explain it on his YouTube channel. Be uncommon amongst uncommon people. Consider that.

How uncommon could I be? Could I even consider myself uncommon? Special?

Sealfit, for example, is only offered four times a year, allowing approximately 24 people per class. 30% of those 24 traditionally drop out. It’s uncommon to attempt Sealfit, and even more uncommon to complete it. I did Sealfit because I thought it was difficult to do. It was. And Krav Maga? It’s not a common sport, and for those who decide to take it on, only an average of 3% rise to Black Belt status.

Professionally, a CPA certification is uncommon. A CPA is a long process, with many dropping out along the way. Now, a CPA with an FCCA and CFE? More uncommon still.

The uncommon journey continues for me. And I’ll share with you what I intend on continuing to do, notes I hope you’ll keep for yourself: work harder than anyone else in the room. Don’t quit. Be positive, humble, low maintenance, a team player, and kind.

And kick ass. Life is tough, be tougher.

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