The Top 10 Reasons Why People Fail at Special Ops

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Future Special Forces Assessment and Selection candidates ruck at Fort Hood.
Future Special Forces Assessment and Selection candidates march with their individual ruck and some extra equipment during team day at Fort Hood, Texas, March 6, 2031. (Sgt. William White/14th Public Affairs Detachment)

I love getting email questions that require me to think and recall some of my experiences to share. These questions are from a future special operations forces candidate, who asks a simple question, "Why is the attrition rate so high?"

 Here are his specifics:

I was curious, Stew; why are the attrition rates for SOF so high? It seems that to get into any SOF training program, you have to pass a physical examination to show you can handle training, academic tests and reach a pretty high level of fitness. Therefore; all those who start should technically be able to complete the course. But, of course, most end up quitting. 

Through what means do trainees feel that the course isn't for them? Or is it that people believe the workload isn't worth the reward? Is it naive to think that because you only meet the minimums that you cannot succeed in the course? Is it more of a solid success-​​driven mentality requirement?

I have tried to define mental toughness in many ways, but it is critical to your success in any of these programs. You have to understand that the physical challenge gets so overwhelming that you have to dig deep into your "how much you want it" pocket to find fuel when the tank is empty. It does not matter how great a runner, swimmer, lifter, shooter, etc., you are if you are not tough mentally.

In my personal experience and after talking with recent graduates as well as failures from various SOF (BUD/​S, EOD, Ranger, Army SF, RECON, AFPJ) and SWAT training programs, I have developed the following list of 10 reasons why people do not make it through SOF training:

You're Not a Good Runner

Face it: You have to be a good runner, with a solid foundation of long-distance and fast-paced running, no matter your size. I have seen 220-plus-pound men who run three miles in 18 minutes and sub-200-pound men fail.

If you cannot run well, you will typically be the first to leave typically, either by failing to keep up or sustaining an overuse injury that is caused by not being prepared physically to run. I list this one near the top, because almost every graduate I talk to comes back and says, "I wish I had run more; it is a running man's game."

A Marine swims 1,400 meters during a squad competition.
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Ben Putnam, a rifleman with 1st Battalion, 3d Marines, conducts the 1,400-meter swim event during the 3d Marine Division Squad Competition on Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Japan, Jan. 3, 2022. (Lance Cpl. Jonathan Willcox/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Your Swimming Skills Are Lacking

You do not have to be a world-class swimmer to ace even the toughest spec-ops swimming programs, including Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/​S) and Air Force Pararescue (AFPJ). You, though, have to be in good swimming condition, have solid technique and be comfortable in the water. Failing to swim well typically keeps you from getting into spec-ops training, but it's one of the less likely events to fail during training. Now the swimming skills -- that is a different story.

You Did Not Prepare Properly for Rucking 

If you are training for the Army and Marines, you will be rucking. Special ops are the same. Even at BUD/​S, which used to start rucking during land warfare (3rd phase), are rucking in every phase to prepare their graduates for future rucks in mountainous and sandy regions of the world. 

So start rucking if you have not started yet. Finding how to wear your ruck and pace yourself for longer distances is as critical as conditioning yourself for endless rucking days. Most people who fail rucks did not practice rucking or had weak legs and core strength to carry the ruck at a passing pace.

You Lack Muscle Stamina or Endurance

It is great to be strong, but having the ability to move your body weight countless times up and down, over and under objects comes with specific training. High-repetition calisthenics is needed more than heavy weight training. I am not saying you should not lift. You should do both, but with a focus on muscle stamina, not one-rep max lifts.

You Sustained an Injury

Injuries happen sometimes because of a lack of preparation for running, rucking, swimming or carrying boats or​ logs. Sometimes, it is an accident that could happen to anyone. Sometimes, it was not meant to be. 

Injuries happen to the best candidates. If you have performed well before becoming injured, you will likely be rolled and allowed to heal and join the next class. However, if you are borderline failing or failed a few events (eventually passing) over the course of training and you get injured, you will likely be kicked out of training.

A Marine rifleman is on patrol during a mountain training exercise.
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Garry Cornell, rifleman, Golf Company, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, patrols during a mountain training exercise on Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, Bridgeport, California, Oct. 16, 2020. (Lance Cpl. Colton Brownlee/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Your Tactical Skills Are Not Strong

Some find it difficult to do proper ocean, land navigation or underwater navigation and fail tactical training tests. There are several academic tests one must take when navigating land, ocean and sub-​​surface (SCUBA), as well as combat medical courses, dive physics, weapons system nomenclature and more. 

All are stressful, and many are oral or​ performance tests under duress. The academic tests also can be tough for someone who is a poor student, and the tactical tests can be stressful when placed under the clock and you have to perform to a certain standard.

You Lack Confidence in the Water

Like I said earlier, you do not have to be an All-​​American swimmer, but you can't be scared of water or unable to move comfortably in any situation. Drown​​proofing, life​​saving, underwater knot tying, SCUBA and underwater swimming are just a few skills a maritime special-ops candidate must obtain. These claim many candidates statistically, and they're probably one of the biggest deterrents why some people choose not to attempt spec-ops programs that involve underwater operations.

You Can't Overcome Your Fear

If you are a student at a special-ops school, you will be forced to deal with many of your fears. Many people fear cold, wet and dark water, forcing them either to conquer it or succumb to it. I remember our first night swim (bogeyman swim, they called it). We had quitters that night, and they were not even wet yet. 

I never liked jumping out of airplanes and was nearly ill before every jump. Many others and I shared the same feeling and somehow dealt with it until it became more natural to us and actually felt weird landing in an airplane. What is your fear?

A Marine drill instructor instructs a recruit to yell cadence during a log drill exercise.
A drill instructor with Golf Company, 2nd Recruit Training Battalion, instructs a recruit to yell cadence during a log drill exercise at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, July 29, 2019. (Pfc. Cristian Torres/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

You Can't Deal with Instructors' Mind Games

Instructors usually will make every pass/​fail event one of the toughest events that no one ever passes. Having an instructor critique you constantly and make you pay physically for any errors or indiscretions is stressful and can get under your skin if you cannot handle negative feedback. You will be told you are the worst student ever, and it is up to you how to process that and come back stronger.

Physical Discomfort Beats You

This last one is borderline mental and physical. Sometimes, the thought of being cold or wet or both can cause people to quit while still dry. Sometimes, you just cannot handle being cold, wet, sandy and tired anymore and just want to call it quits. This one is part mind ​​game and part physical pain and​ discomfort. Spending days uncomfortable and tired either will make you stronger and appreciate those nice warm nights under a blanket, or they will break you mentally so you lose focus and cannot continue.

As you can see, there are many reasons why people do not graduate from spec-ops programs. There are many more than these I just listed, like not being a team player or mature enough to handle high levels of stress. Though pre-​​screening has advanced over the past few decades, the real test is the actual training course. 

Testing to get to the training never will ensure someone gets through the training. Though all special-ops recruiters are getting better at picking those candidates who have the highest potential for success, there is no test to date that can measure their heart and will. 

The spec-ops training course will do that.

​​Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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