Friday, January 9, 2015

Get Used to Feeling Like Crap

Our Krav Maga instructor, a former counter-terrorism special forces operator in the IDF, in a speech about how to succeed in the army, imbibed us with, what I feel, is the most important piece of advice I have ever received, “Get used to feeling like shit. Learn to embrace suffering.”

As I have learned from every one of our instructors, and really every soldier I’ve met thus far, the army is all about learning to become capable in uncomfortable situations. Always being tired. Always being injured. Being dirty, nervous, scared, on edge all the time. The sooner we, as individuals, learn to embrace this state of being, to familiarize ourselves with pain enough to recognize suffering for what it is, temporary, the better soldiers we will become and the easier and more enjoyable our experience will become. The best soldiers are not necessarily the strongest, fastest, or most in shape guys, but rather they are the guys able to suffer and to constantly feel like shit, without quitting, mentally succumbing, or letting it affect their disposition or how they go about their duties.

This is what our pre-army program is all about. We crawl and run in the middle of the night; we do full contact Krav Maga, we rotate guard duty all night, we close our eyes and absorb body blows every workout, and we are never told a schedule so we never know what’s coming. We are constantly on edge, wondering when our mefaked will wake us up and tell us to get into “matav shteim” (pushup position).

This is the most valuable lesson I will take with me from this pre-army program. It’s not the workouts themselves; I have always been a runner, an athlete, and I would have been fine physically in the army, as I have been during our workouts. Rather, it’s learning to cope with being tired, sore, and on edge, to deal with new situations, and to still be mentally present and alert. It’s all about having the right mindset and becoming mentally tough enough to know that you can keep pushing past your breaking point. A lot of our workouts have made me realize that exhaustion and doing well in an army environment are more a function of mental fortitude than actual physical ability.

Crawling is the best example of this. Crawling is purely a function of mental toughness: are you able to let go of that fear, that voice in your head telling you to take it easy, and just say fuck it, and then crawl with reckless abandon? To go as hard as you can? One day we were crawling on really tough terrain (rocks, dirt, and concrete) and I was struggling because each step was too painful. I watched another kid crawl and he was killing it, he was just going so much faster and harder than I was. It was like he was crawling on a mattress. Something in my mind snapped at that moment. I realized that this pain, however uncomfortable, would be fleeting. If I could, like my friend, be mentally tough enough to put my mind elsewhere and just put one foot in front of the other, I would crush it. This awakening allowed me to crawl with a newfound intensity at a higher gear, as I broke free of that voice in my head telling me to stop, slow down and take a break. I have never finished lower than second (out of 25) in any crawling training since. In fact, while at an army base practicing the IDF obstacle course  (we need to complete it in a certain time to graduate basic training), I completed the course with the fastest time in the 6 year history of this pre-army training program, and a time eligible for special forces.

This is why crawling is such a large component of all the “gibushim” (tryouts) for the IDF special forces: they want to see if we can block out the noise and push ourselves as far as we can possibly go; to block out the pain and exhaustion, and do what we need to. How bad do we want to be here?

During a workout when we were in “matav shteim” (pushup position) and our arms started to shake, our commander told us that our bodies shaking just means our mind is trying to trick our bodies into thinking that we can’t go any further, that we have reached our limit because it doesn’t want to have to suffer. As he said “that’s bullshit. You can do this all day once you realize that the pain is all in your mind. There’s nothing about this that will injure you.” Sometimes, our mefaked makes us do pushups on our fists on the cement. At first, this was unbearably painful; I couldn’t do it. My mind told my body it was too painful. After doing it a little longer each time though, I realized that I could endure the pain more and more each time, until it started to feel natural. After our toughest workout to date, we had a competition (with our eyes shut) to see who could stay in fist pushup position on rocks longest without succumbing to the pain. I held out the longest, but as my eyes were shut, I was unaware that I had won…I ended up enduring the pain, body shaking convulsively, for 10 minutes after everyone else had quit.

I still hate doing this, but I know that I can.
And that is a huge difference.

Pushing past those artificial barriers becomes euphoric. You realize that you are capable of enduring so much more than you thought and you realize that each time you do so, mental barriers start falling down one by one.

What a wonderful lesson, not just for my IDF service, but to have with me the rest of my life.

3 Weeks Until I am a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces.

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