Would you want your son to experience this?
On a cool Friday afternoon in San Diego, CA, 36 high school lacrosse players (9th - 12th) were leisurely stretching out on a well-manicured grassy knoll 300 yards from the Pacific Ocean.
This was the group's final day of tryouts for the JV and Varsity lacrosse team. The participants were told to show up with a t-shirt and running shoes and to be prepared for a 3-hour workout.
Halfway through their stretching routine, two other former Navy SEAL Instructors and I emerged from of our cars and walked over to greet them. This was no ordinary greeting.
Here's how the next four hours unfolded for the group:
Activity: Introduction and (Dis)orientation
With bullhorn in hand, we told the group that the original plan had changed. The 3-hour workout had been extended to a 24-hour Hell Night where they would be tested with a series of mental and physical challenges that would last until the next day. This was not true, but we had to get the athletes off-balance.
Teens today have very little flexibility in their schedules. They are often told exactly where to go and what to do. We wanted to see how they would react when their highly-regimented schedules were disrupted.
To maintain this critical element of surprise, the full details of the plan were not shared ahead of time. This was the only way to achieve an authentic reaction and experience. The value was in the abrupt realization that they were "not in Kansas anymore".
We, along with the coaching staff, were there to observe the group's fitness, leadership, and grit in the face of adversity.
We conducted a safety brief and offered every athlete ample opportunity to opt-out of the training. This was a voluntary event. Once underway, any athlete could drop from training at any time by requesting a D.O.R. (Drop on Request).
Learning Objective: Dealing with Stress and Incomplete Information
One of our primary objectives was to put the athletes in uncomfortable situations to see how they reacted. They were supposed to be confused, unsettled, and disoriented. Our goal was to create tension and unrest in the ranks. In life, these boys will encounter times when they're not sure what to do. They can't tap on their phones. They can't call mom and ask if it's okay. They can't have a sidebar with their friends to see what they think. They have to make a decision on their own. Do they want to participate or not? Commit or Quit? Everyone was in.
Concept: Swim Buddies
We told the athletes that they always had to be within 3-feet of another teammate (a swim buddy). If they were caught without a swim buddy, everyone would pay (hello pushups).
Learning Objectives: Team over Self-Preservation
Many teens have a hard time putting someone else's welfare before their own - even a teammate. They can be self-absorbed and live in an insular world of "me, me, me". When faced with stress, this "self-preservation" instinct is amplified. This happens in sports (and life) all the time. When things aren't going well, teens often default to self-preservation mode. What can I do to deflect blame? This is the exact moment that we don't want them to focus on themselves - but rather on the team. After a few hundred pushups, the athletes finally got it. "Oh, before I run over there on my own, I better find a friend to come with me - or we will all pay. Team before me."
Task: T-Shirt Project
We summoned the class leader to the front for an offline conversation. We gave him explicit, detailed instructions: (1) Have every athlete take off their t-shirt and fold it neatly, (2) stack t-shirts in one pile, (3) distribute new t-shirts to athletes, (4) make sure sizes were allocated appropriately, (5) each new t-shirt was to have student's last name written on front and back, (6) names had to be legible and big enough to see from a distance, etc. We asked the class leader if he had any questions about his task. He responded no. Then, we issued one last directive - the entire evolution had to be done in 3 minutes. Go!
Learning Objective: Following Directions Under Stress, Unrealistic Expectations
At the end of a game, athletes are tired - mentally and physically. When the coach gathers everyone into a huddle and issues 3 different play options depending on what the other team shows defensively, it's important that the athletes can listen, process, and execute under pressure. By creating a similar environment, the leaders were pushed to sharpen their listening and communication skills.
This task was intentionally unrealistic. There was no way the leader could organize, prioritize, and execute these orders in the time allotted. This was part of the plan. We wanted to see how the leader and the group would react when they failed. Did they whine, complain, roll their eyes, and give up? Or did they brush it off and move on. Life is not fair. The officials will miss calls. Players will miss easy shots. Ground balls will be lost. There are many factors out of our control. How the group "reacted" under the circumstances is what we cared about.
Concept: Specific Instructions
Yes, the t-shirt instructions were intentionally specific. We wanted to see who could listen to and execute the plan? Or, who was too worried about how cold it was to pay attention? Needless to say, the outcome was a mess. T-shirts were on backward, no names on the back of shirts, illegible writing, and the lineup was not in height order.
Learning Objective: Clear Communication and Attention to Detail
There was no way the leader could execute this plan alone. He had to find other leaders to help. He had to communicate what he wanted to be done clearly - in sufficient detail - and under great stress. Was the leader able to detach from the chaos, take a deep breath, find a team of helpers, communicate the tasks, and move on? In sports, business, and life, attention-to-detail is very important. This evolution tested their ability to process small details while cold and confused.
Concept: No Walking Rule
The athletes were told that under no circumstances would they ever "walk" during our time together (unless injured). They were instructed to jog, shuffle, or run wherever they went.
Learning Objective: Hustle and Moving with a Purpose
Walking signals laziness and indifference. In my opinion, so do sliders and untied shoelaces. If an athlete is called off the field for a substitution, his body language speaks volumes. The best players sprint off the field with maximum effort. Would these athletes display enthusiasm, motivation, and grit - or would they feel sorry for themselves?
Event: KIMS (Keep-In-Mind) Sniper Memory Game
The group was broken down into nine, 4-man fire teams. We set up a blue tarp with 30 unrelated objects placed in random order. Each team had 30-seconds to memorize everything they could on the tarp. The team that remembered most items was the winner.
Learning Objective: Mental aptitude while tired, wet, cold
Athletes need to focus and execute no matter the weather, score, crowds, stakes, or circumstances. This activity trained the athletes to put aside their physical discomfort in order to perform a mental task. Some teams approached this with a divide-and-conquer strategy while others chose to let each individual do the best they could on their own. These types of split-second decisions and strategic thinking were what we were looking for.
Concept: Bathroom Time
As the night wore on, it got colder and colder. The athletes looked for any excuse to get a reprieve from the elements. They were putting out. Their prize? More bathroom time.
Learning Objective: Team Bonding
You might think that jamming 30+ bodies in a handicapped bathroom stall sounds miserable. You'd be right unless you were a 14-17-year-old boy hanging out with his friends and anywhere but the cold beach. We listened to what went on through the concrete wall. There was trash-talking, jokes, jabs, athletes negotiating for "hand dryer" time, and others running hot water on their hands in the sink. This is called bonding. This is called creating memories. This is called shared suffering that translates into deeper and stronger bonds among teammates. This is something they will not forget.
Task: Animal Calls
We blindfolded each athlete and whispered a specific animal name in their ear (e.g. cat, dog, cow, wolf, etc.). Once the game began, the only noise they could make was their specific animal noise. The object was to cluck, moo, and woof their way into finding their other blindfolded partner. It looked like a cross between Wild Kingdom and a zombie apocalypse. Once each athlete connected with their partner, it was off to the bathroom for more downtime.
Learning Objective: Communication, Listening Skills, Humor
When things are looking bleak, athletes that can bring a sense of levity to the situation are valuable. When the team is stressed out - the last thing they need is MORE stress. Sometimes it takes someone to crack a joke, or dance, or make fun of someone or themselves just to break the pattern. We saw this come to life during this evolution. As dumb as it sounds, the athletes were all smiles when they found their animal partner. We hope they take this lesson into the locker room, huddle, or classroom when appropriate.
Task: Physical Training
We asked for volunteers to lead the group in an exercise. It was interesting to see who raised their hands. We tried pushups, jumping jacks, flutter kicks, squat thrusts and a few others. The volunteer had to "lead" the group through the exercise. This required him to stand tall, take command, and communicate clearly. He was responsible for issuing a "preparatory command", specific counting instructions, an appropriate cadence to the movements, and for the movements to be in perfect unison. If the group messed up, the blame fell at the feet of the leader - every time.
Learning Objective: Leadership and Command Presence
After firing a few volunteers for poor performance, we asked the youngest athlete in the group to take over. At first, the athlete was nervous and unable to speak. He stood there staring into space. With some additional coaching and prompting, he began to lead. Ten minutes later, he was issuing directives in a strong and powerful voice that we had not seen before. He had a transformative moment. He went from youngest in the group to one of the more successful leaders. He rose to the occasion.
Activity: Goodbye Sunshine...
As the sun was about to drop below the horizon, we had the athletes stand and face the sun, link arm-in-arm, and sing the following song, "Goodbye sunshine, hello darkness. Goodbye sunshine, it's time to say goodnight." Over and over and over again. It was a moment of fun, shared misery, and camaraderie. It was not a moment they will soon forget. Some students thought the event was over. Others still thought we would be going for another 20 hours.
Learning Objective: Team Bonding
The goal of this activity was to embed this song and melody into the heads of the team, so that the next time things look grim, they can all break into the "Goodbye Sunshine" song and have a good laugh. This type of mind-meld is invaluable for high-performing teams. No one else on earth will know what they are singing about or why it's so funny. They don't "get it" because they weren't there. It's the ultimate insider knowledge that builds long-lasting friendships.
This evolution was hard. It was mentally exhausting. It was physically taxing. It included long periods of sustained discomfort due to cold temperatures, wind, sand, chafing, water, and darkness.
It required players who didn't quite know each other to make friends - and fast. It required presumptive leaders to prove themselves and reluctant leaders to step into the light.
It built a bond among teammates that will last a lifetime. It created a reference point of discomfort that the group can reflect on when things get tough.
For 98% of these athletes, this will be the toughest physical and mental challenge that they will ever experience in their lives (voluntarily, that is). That's quite a statement. What other teenager can say this?
My guess is that one or two of these guys will go on to become a Marine, Navy SEAL, Green Beret, Force Recon, or some other special forces commando - in which case - they will see this game again.
In today's world, where people get upset because their Starbucks grande latte got 3 pumps instead of 2, this is an invaluable experience.
Instructors: Our 3-person Instructor cadre had nearly 50 years of experience as Navy SEALs. One Instructor was a recently retired and highly-decorated Command Master Chief (SEAL) with 27 years of active duty experience. One Instructor was a 14-year Navy SEAL veteran who is currently a Firefighter, Paramedic, and black belt in jiu-jitsu. And I was a former Navy SEAL Officer, Navy SEAL Instructor, and a current Firefighter, Emergency Medical Technician, College Admissions Counselor, and father of two of the participants in this event. We all spent significant time as real-world Navy SEAL Instructors at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, CA. We all had deep experience proctoring these activities with a wide range of individuals.
Events like this can be risky. What will the athletes think? Will they buy-in? Will anyone get hypothermia? Will anyone get hurt? Will the presumptive leaders live up to their titles? How will the athletes perform? Will anyone quit? Will the team bond? Will this expose weaknesses?
This event was developed and executed to answer these questions - for good or for bad. To get to the truth - because the truth is undefeated.
My goal was to spur a period of post-traumatic growth that these boys would never find in a traditional team-building exercise. Mini-Golf or paintball just wouldn't cut it.
These boys passed this test with flying colors. They should be proud. They answered the call. They proved to themselves and everyone else that they are not quitters.
If you have children who were not fortunate enough to experience this gift, seek out other ways to challenge them mentally and physically. Maybe it's a summer job, backpacking trip or obstacle course race?
Would you like your son or daughter to participate in an event like this?
Why or why not?
I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Author: PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank, etc.
Inside PrepWell Academy, Black teaches students everything they need to know about the college admissions process in a series of expertly-timed, 3-5-minute, weekly training videos starting in 9th grade and continuing through 12th grade [Note: this program can only be joined in 9th or 10th grade]. My specialties include military service academies, ROTC scholarships, Ivy League, and student-athletes.