Written by Dan Pronk
I think it’s fair to say that service with Special Forces changes a person, and that the process of profound change commences on the selection course. Reflecting on the selection course that I underwent more than a decade ago now I can see that it was a pivotal point in my life both personally and professionally. I had entered the Australian Army aged 23 on a scholarship to study medicine after a failed attempt at a career in professional triathlon, and I first became aware of Special Forces a year later through my brother who had successfully completed selection for the Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR). From the moment I got a glimpse at what that unit did, and met some of the blokes involved I was hooked, I had to be a part of it. As it transpires it would take me a further seven years to be allowed to attempt SASR selection, and I would spend the five years subsequent to that serving with Australian Special Operations, including four tours of Afghanistan. I am not the same person now that I was when I stepped up for selection all those years ago, my service has changed me. I can see now that the process of change for me truly began on the SASR selection course, and the following are the two key lessons that I took away from that three gruelling weeks.
1. Persistence is key
Calvin Coolidge sums up eloquently what I’m trying to convey here with the following quote:
Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
From the outside there is a perception that Special Forces soldiers are a superhuman species endowed with physical and psychological attributes out of the reach of the average person. While I accept that there are some exceptionally genetically gifted individuals amongst SF units worldwide, in my experience for the most part SF is made up of average guys and girls with above average persistence. I know this because I am one of them. I stand 175cm tall, weight 70-odd kilograms on a heavy day, and I was the smallest officer on my selection course by a decent amount. When I toed the starting line of the course I had spent a mere 18 months in uniform, having spent the six years of my army career previous to that in medical school, and then working as a junior doctor in civilian hospitals to gain experience before my first posting to an army unit. I lined up on selection next to 40 officers who all had significantly more experience than I did, and yet I was among the 5 officers who successfully completed the course that year and were considered suitable for ongoing training with the unit. I don’t offer this information for self-promotion, simply to illustrate that the sole factor that led to my success on selection, as well as my subsequent time with SF, was persistence. I had first enquired about SASR selection in early 2002, however was not accepted onto the course until mid-2008. Many would have been disheartened by this and potentially quit on the dream, however for some reason I was not wired that way. I viewed this as the perfect opportunity to prepare myself physically and psychologically for the course, and set about a seven-year training program towards the objective. I used that time to learn everything I could about the unit and its selection process, and then busied myself with activities that I felt would make me better suited for service with Special Forces.
Mental aptitude and learning ability were fundamental, and I figured I had that one covered through the process of medical schooling that I already had underway. Fitness was an obvious requirement so I started logging hundreds of kilometres of pack marching and running, as well as thousands of push-ups and chin-ups. I’d read that languages were an advantage so I signed up for Arabic language night school and thrashed away at that for three years, reaching an intermediate level in the spoken and written language. Scuba diving seemed relevant so I joined a dive club and started logging hours underwater; rock climbing looked like a useful skill so I started to spend weekends away scaling local cliffs. Shooting proficiency was a must so I joined a gun club and began putting thousands of rounds downrange from both handguns and rifles alike. The irony was that I never used my Arabic language skills during my military service, never did a single military dive, never had cause to rock climb in a military capacity, and didn’t fire a single round from my handgun in anger during my service. All those hours of training were not lost however for what I was developing was the discipline of persistence, so much so that by the time I eventually got to the start line of selection my mental resolve had been strengthened to the point whereby there was no way I was going to quit. Barring injury or forced removal from the course I was convinced that I would be there at the completion of the three weeks and it would be up to the unit to decide my suitability. Once the course was underway I watched as soldiers smarter, fitter, stronger, more experienced, and more naturally talented than I quit at an astonishing rate. 160 candidates very quickly atrophied to half that number, and then to 36 over the three week course. Throughout the entire course I was never the top candidate in any activity, and I failed my initial timed 20 kilometre pack march, being required to re-test on the activity before achieving a pass. Toward the final days of the course my body was racked with infection and began to fail me, but my mind stayed strong and allowed me to persist. When all was said and done I was mentally and physically exhausted and broken, however simply by persisting I was lucky enough to find myself among the 15% of starters that year who finished the course and were deemed suitable for ongoing training with SASR. Persistence truly was key.
On the same theme, and to borrow a quote from another legendary figure, author Mark Twain is quoted as saying:
It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog
During the years I spent in Special Forces I had the opportunity to observe the selection process for several units on multiple occasions and there was one thing that rang true course-in and course-out, that being the little guys were generally better represented in successful candidates than the physically bigger blokes. In analysing this observation I’ve come to consider that being average throughout life may indeed be an advantage for the Special Forces selection process. Let me explain.
For a candidate to reach the starting line of a SF selection course they must have already completed a degree of screening to suggest that they meet the minimum criteria to potentially be suitable for service with Special Forces. They all therefore meet a minimum required baseline standard; however there will be a significant degree of difference in the effort an individual has been required to put in to meet that standard. Naturally more gifted and stronger candidates will meet the standard more easily and can often breeze through the pre-selection process. As a generalisation these soldiers will have excelled throughout their lives, being sports stars at school, and oftentimes coming from the elite elements of regular army units such as recon and sniper platoons. They will often have held a high degree of status in the unit they have come from and are likely used to praise and accolades, allowing them to develop a healthy degree of associated ego. Contrast this with the candidate who is not as physically or mentally gifted, and who has had to struggle throughout his life to meet the same standard. This soldier was never the one picked first in gym class, was never the star on their high school sports team, never excelled at school despite their best effort, and has had to grind their entire life to be anything above average. To achieve the minimum standard required to be considered suitable to attempt Special Forces selection these soldiers have generally had to dedicate years of their lives bettering themselves. They are not accustomed to praise and are generally quite used to criticism, oftentimes using it as fuel to strengthen their resolve towards a goal. These are the small dogs that, through persistence, have developed an abnormal amount of fight.
Contrast these two classes of candidates as they get underway in a brutal selection process that is very deliberately characterised by the psychological stress of near constant failure to achieve set tasks, varying levels of verbal abuse, and regular suggestion from Directing Staff that the candidate is not up to the standard required for the unit and should consider quitting the course. Throw in the added cumulative stressors of sleep and food deprivation, and it has been my observation that the big dogs with less fight quit at higher rates for the simple fact the selection environment is so foreign to them and challenging to their ego. They know they can return to their previous unit and back to their familiar role with its relatively high social status. The little dog with lots of fight however is used to this environment, it is simply an extension of what they have experienced their whole lives, so they knuckle down and push forward. Of course there are exceptions to this rule and you unquestionably do see the big dogs with plenty of fight that successfully complete selection and go on to great careers with Special Forces, and these guys are a force to be reckoned with however, in my experience, it’s the smaller more unassuming soldiers that are the ones to back for success.
2. The only competition is yourself yesterday
I grew up with a copy of Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata on the back of our toilet door, and therefore spend dozens of hours of my best thinking time contemplating the poem over my childhood years. One line that is relevant to this article, but that took me until the final days of SASR selection to truly appreciate is as follows:
If you compare yourself with others you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
The very first time in my life where I became above average at anything came in my mid high school years when, for reasons I can’t recall, I started running middle distance on the track. Within months of taking up running I found that I had a temperament well suited to the individual sport, and as such I trained hard and was able to start winning races at a school and regional level, eventually competing at a State level with some success. This love of running led to me taking up triathlon, and by the time I left school I was fixated on a career as a professional triathlete. Looking back on my years competing as a runner and triathlete I can now see, somewhat embarrassingly, that my primary motivation was to beat others. Improvements in my personal best times were always secondary to where that time placed me in the race, and on reflection it is clear that winning races did indeed make me vain, and losing would certainly make me bitter. So much so that I remember deriving pleasure from the misfortune of other athletes, be it a flat tyre on the bike leg of a triathlon, or illness on race day leading to their suboptimal performance. I had absolutely no ability to derive pleasure from someone else’s achievements, and drew my own self-esteem relative to my performance against others. I had no ability to contemplate that the performance of others was completely outside of my control and the thing that I should be solely focused on was self-improvement, which may or may not ultimately lead to beating others. I carried this attitude throughout my late teens, twenties, and it was with this attitude that I lined up at the start of SASR selection as a 31 year-old. The three weeks that followed would forever adjust my way of thinking.
In the initial stages of selection I viewed the process as me versus the remainder of the candidates, as if there was a set amount of positions in the unit to fill and I needed to compete for one of them. As candidates started withdrawing from the course in ever increasing numbers I remember drawing great inspiration from the fact, thinking that I had “beaten” them. I vividly remember experiencing joy and encouragement during a brief opportunity to take stock when the course came together as a whole after about the first week and I could see that our candidate numbers had roughly halved. As selection progressed from that point my attitude began to change, and through mutual extreme suffering I began to bond with my fellow candidates. Sometime toward the end of the second week I have a memory of watching a fellow candidate take out his Withdraw at Own Request form and begin to complete it. I pleaded with him not to, explaining that the course was more than half over and he just needed to hang in there until completion. He was mentally defeated and couldn’t be reasoned with, causing me to watch on as he signed himself off the course, crying as he did so. I felt genuinely gutted for the bloke, as for the first time I could truly empathise with what he must have been feeling, knowing the training, dedication, and sacrifice that had gone into getting to that point only to see his dream slip away. During the final sleep and food-deprived week of the course the loss of a candidate from the remaining group was more like the loss of a family member than a competitor, and I began to see clearly that the only competition that was occurring was internal, between my mind and my broken body. On the very last activity of the course my body began to fail me. An infection that had started in a blister on my heel had progressed up my right leg and was starting to poison my blood, causing me to stumble and fall repeatedly under the weight of my own pack and rendering me completely unable to assist with the carrying of the extra equipment that our group had been allocated as we raced towards the final pickup point of the course. I would have been completely physically unable to reach the final truck had it not been for the assistance of my “competitors” dragging me along and assisting with my pack. Had they have held the same attitude that I had carried throughout my life pre-selection they would have left me in a heap on the dirt road and completed the course without me, but they didn’t. It was a truly humbling and enlightening experience that would forever change my view on competition from that period forth. When the end of the course finally arrived I was genuinely pleased for each and every other soldier who had reached the finish line, and my ranking among them, as well as whether or not I would be considered suitable for further service with SASR, were largely inconsequential at the time. I could see clearly at that point that the only competition that had existed throughout the course was between my own mind and body, and I had won, just.
From that time onward I have looked inward rather than outward with regard to my benchmark for improvement and I’ve set about bettering myself from the person I was previously rather than trying to beat the person next to me. On subsequent occasions when my performance has been measured against others in a competitive context I can honestly say that I’ve drawn delight from the performance of others who beat me as I can now truly appreciate the effort and sacrifice that they have invested to reach their level of personal performance.
In summary, the Special Forces selection process fundamentally changed me as a person, and my subsequent service with SF reinforced these changes. I use the example of Special Forces to illustrate the points above; however the principles are equally applicable to any facet of life. In my opinion there is little that cannot be achieved by the average person who is willing to commit, persist, and look inward rather than outward with regard to improvement and benchmarking success. Apply these principles and the rest will look after itself. You only get one go at this life, so if there’s a goal you’ve been thinking about for a while formulate a plan and start chipping away at accomplishing it. Best case you’ll smash it, worst that can happen is that you don’t quite get there, but at the end of the day you won’t die wondering.
Dan Pronk is a former operator with the Australian Special Air Service Regiment. He’s a doctor, a father, and the medical director at TACMED Australia.
To read more of Dan’s motivational philosophies and lessons learned from medicine and the military, check out his eBook titled “Average 70kg D**Khead”