Recently I finished reading a book titled The Operator by retired US Navy SEAL, Robert O’Neill. For those unfamiliar with Robert O’Neill, his resume looks like this: Former United States Navy Sailor, former US Navy SEAL, served on SEAL Team Two, SEAL Team Four, and in 2004 joined the elite Navy Special Warfare Development Group, also known as SEAL Team Six.

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During his time in the SEALs, Robert O’Neill served in over 400 missions, including the mission with the SEAL Team that resulted in the death of Osama Bin Laden. At the time of his retirement from the military, Mr. O’Neill had risen to senior chief special warfare operator. Included in his 52 decorations are: Two Silver Stars, four Bronze Star with Valor, Joint Service Commendation Medal with Valor, three Presidential Unit Citations, and two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals with Valor.

Perhaps like you, sometimes I read a book for entertainment, but more often than not, I am looking for something that I can apply to either my family life, work life, or my life of weights, strength, and power. This book is packed full of lessons that can be applied to all three.

Although the book details Mr. O’Neill’s life, it is also paints a larger overall picture of what the experience is like to try out for and, ultimately, to operate as a US Navy SEAL. In telling these stories, Mr. O’Neill elaborates on the life lessons that come from a highly disciplined way of life.

In The Operator, Mr. O’Neill talks about the stress applied to the aspiring SEALs as they attempt to graduate from BUDS (Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL School). The application of stress by the SEAL instructors is injected into all areas of BUDS training. It is a constant, as the larger purpose of its application is to teach the applicants how to recognize stress and thus learn to eliminate it from one's life altogether. He also disaggregates three major entities: Stress, danger, and fear. At first blush and to the untrained civilian reader, one looks at stress, danger, and fear as synonymous with one another; branches from the same family tree so to speak. What Mr. O’Neill does is break these three independent items down with regard to their value and importance, or lack thereof.


Ret. Army Special Forces, Rich Auxer

Danger, he says is important and has tremendous value. It serves to identify that there is a real threat to you. Real threat in his world means something that can end your life, the life of other Navy SEALS, and innocents in the area.

Fear, he states, also has its value, as fear helps you to think more clearly. When in a situation where you have identified danger, the fear you feel helps provide you with the crystal clear, rapid thinking required to respond. He delves into the difference between reacting versus responding, but that is a story for another time.

Lastly, after talking about the merits and value of danger and fear, he discusses stress. Stress, he states, is a self-made item and unlike identifying danger or feeling fear, stress has absolutely no value whatsoever. To paraphrase, Mr. O’Neill says the following:

“In life, all stress is self-induced stress. It is what you do to yourself, it is in your mind, stress is a choice. Stress is a bag of bricks. You can wake up in the morning and it is laying right there. You can pick it up first thing in the morning, throw it over your shoulder and let it ruin your day, carry it around with you and ruin everyone else’s day, but with stress at any time you can put it down and forget about it and you should because it is doing you absolutely no good and it is in your mind. You only feel the amount of stress you allow yourself to feel.”

This information is utilitarian to us both in our lives in general and in our gym lives as strength athletes. As a gym owner and a powerlifter with a couple decades of meets under my belt, and as someone who works with new to the game lifters, this take on stress — that bag of bricks Robert O’Neill so vividly describes — is something we as lifters often choose to pick up and carry around with us come meet time.

I recall my very first WPC World meet in 2000. Although many, many years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday. During one of the days during the almost weeklong meet, I was sitting at a breakfast table after weigh-ins in some huge hotel in Vegas. In my mind’s eye I can recall seeing these huge and powerful looking lifters who had traveled from all over the world to compete. They were sitting in groups at different tables throughout this same restaurant. At each table, these massive lifters were speaking their native language to other massive lifters at that table. It was that moment when I, the big fish who had been competing in small ponds, came to the realization that nobody flies halfway around the world to lose. The moment filled me with stress. I was sitting there, holding this proverbial huge bag of bricks in my booth, waiting for my breakfast to arrive — breakfast I was no longer hungry for.

As I wallowed in stress, a calm came over me as the words of Ernie Frantz, my mentor and the namesake of the legendary Frantz Gym and Frantz Powerteam, came back to me. Ernie had said on more than one occasion, “As a competitor, you need to worry about only one person and that person is you.”

You are competing to complete 9 successful attempts. Your openers are written in ink as it is your last and heaviest warm-up, but it is done on the platform. Your second attempt is written in pencil, as based on your opener, you might increase or decrease it a little depending on all the variables that come with meet day and their impact on the targeted third attempt. Your third attempt, based on how the second attempt went, it is the absolute sheer heaviest lift that you can successfully complete.

The key being successful completion, which could mean perhaps leaving a little bit on the platform as you don’t want to have your best attempt being your second. Also, Ernie spoke often about titles and world meets back when they were the largest of events. Those meets he would state, are about the win. Federation level powerlifting and personal records come and go, but a title is a snapshot of your life now trapped in the amber that is the history of the great sport of powerlifting.

After reflecting on Ernie’s thoughts, I again looked at the tables of lifters all around me. I still saw the big 275 pounders and 308 pounders, but this time with the clarity to realize that I am competing in the 100K category so they were not my concern. As far as the tables with 100K lifters speaking German, Russian, etc., they most likely flew in from these countries and spent many, many hours on a plane, are dehydrated, and suffer from jet lag and the stiffness one gets from sitting for an eight to twelve-hour flight. Suddenly, that bag of bricks — that self-induced stress — became non-existent. My appetite began to return and my concentration was once again on the task of nine attempts and doing the best I could do with the variables I could control.

In hindsight, and after juxtaposing my personal experience with Mr. O’Neill’s explanation, it became evident that stress is a self-induced phenomenon. We have all felt it. I had always looked at stress as being caused by a situation or an event. I had never honed in on the fact that I was causing the stress.

Clearly, powerlifting, even at its biggest and most competitive meets, does not come even remotely close to the ultimate life and death stakes faced by the US military in combat. That said, the lessons presented in Robert O’Neill’s book, including the impact and worthlessness of self-induced stress, are of tremendous value to us in the civilian world when applied properly, consistently, and rigorously to both our lives in general and our lives as strength athletes.

Although injuries are prevalent in our world of powerlifting, thankfully there is no real danger (as in, nobody is trying to ambush and kill you). Fear, on the other hand, does exist in powerlifting. Don’t think so? Ask some of the top lifters out there who have sustained catastrophic injuries while ‘under the bar.’ Ask top lifters who have blown apart tendons and ruptured muscles. Ask those lifters once they have recovered from surgery and rehab, and then a year or two later find themselves staring down a fully loaded barbell. Ask those lifters if there is fear in powerlifting.

So, reflecting on Robert O’Neill’s thoughts on fear; fear when competing and in training has extreme value. That fear helps you think clearly. When thinking clearly, you make sure your technique is perfect and you are absolutely and completely engaged both mentally and physically in that attempt, especially after coming back from surgically repaired injuries.

Throughout the book, stress is something that the Navy SEALS and Army Special Forces are trained never to pick up on, as it serves no good and can only lead to panic. With panic comes bad things...really bad things.

So just as fear causes clarity in thought and danger is important to recognize, stress is the only one of the three that is self-made and we, as competitive lifters, should strive to never pick up this bag of bricks as it serves us no good whatsoever.

As humans we are all different. Ernie Frantz never wore stress on his sleeve and maybe that is because he worked at it. Maybe it was programmed that way in his DNA or maybe having been a Korean War veteran, everything was put into perspective when juxtaposed against actual life-threatening dangers faced in combat. To that, I don’t know the answer and for you, that is something you will need to figure out on your own with regard to stress.

Everything is always easier said than done. Eliminate stress. Don’t hoist and carry around that bag of bricks is an easy phrase to say, but something that has to be practiced over and over again just like reps in a set. The SEALs in this book all had to learn how to walk past the metaphorical bag of bricks and, because not owning stress was of such great importance and because that takes so much training to achieve, the totality of their training to make it into the SEALs was deeply steeped in massive amounts of stress. Bags upon bags of bricks dutifully supplied by the SEAL instructors who were themselves SEALs, and who knew the importance of being able to negate stress and eliminate if from the situation.

Reading about individuals who can first identify self-induced stress and who can eliminate that stress is a great learning tool for one's own self-improvement. That said, getting to see and work with this type of individual up close and personal, although rare, is an amazing bonus.

On a daily basis I work at Monster Garage Gym with Rich Auxer, retired United States Army Special Forces (also known as Green Berets). Rich is one of our business partners at Monster Garage Gym and runs the operations during the day. A powerlifter since the 1980s, Rich regularly still bangs out 700 pound pulls even with his (military earned, military provided) titanium shoulder.

So, as a powerlifter, Rich gets powerlifting and understands powerlifters. But as someone who has been in the United States Army Special Forces, and who has been trained to assess, manage and eliminate stress, Rich is just plain old calm. If I had a dollar for every time I was telling Rich that I was about to boot someone from the gym, only to hear Rich calmly and quietly inquire, “Let me talk with them first if you don’t mind,” I would be writing this article from my home in Jamaica somewhere on the beach under a palm tree.

Rich has been awarded multiple, six to be precise, Bronze Stars with Valor for combat. He has seen his share of danger, fear, and stress. I tell you about the Bronze Stars with Valor simply because Rich would never do that.

Rich, his K9 Jasmine, and his band Special Forces brothers

To a fault, Rich plays down his role in the Special Forces, but we all at the gym know and we all recognize and appreciate his calm.

Robert O’Neill states in his book that of those who attempt BUDS, some 85 percent fail. He talks in detail about how the instructors make it so very appealing to just ring the bell and quit. So, for that 15 percent who survive BUDS, learning to eliminate stress is something that was practiced over and over again and has to become a way of life for them.

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As stress in your everyday life at work can have a negative impact on your training and meet prep, being able to compartmentalize stress and negate it is a tool that many of the best athletes employ on an everyday basis. They control what they can control and don’t stress about what they have no control over. In the 1977 docudrama Pumping Iron, Ah-nold talks in an interview segment about what he refers to as “negative forces”; about how not letting in any negative forces as they will destroy your workouts. He cites the example that, if his car is stolen, he would just laugh and have his secretary call an insurance company, as he can’t be bothered with it. Said another way, negative forces equal stress and they have no place in a lifter’s life.

As strength athletes, the physical is only one part of one’s success or lack thereof. The mental aspects of the sport play a tremendous role and stress management means, among other things, cortisol management and the ability to focus on the task at hand. Our Venn diagram of performance includes training, nutrition, hydration, consistency, recuperation, and the proper mindset that involves negating stress — that crushing bag of bricks.

Just like at the meet, you can only control one variable and that variable is you. You are the one in control of creating your own stress, as well as being the one that is negating any and all self-induced stress. Identify that you are the one creating this stress and when stress raises its ugly head, chop that thing off and eliminate it altogether. Ultimately, we want to reach that point where we do not create stress, thus having nothing to eliminate.

Lastly, I wanted to take a moment to thank the active and retired members of the United States Military; the warriors and defenders of our American way of life as detailed in The Operator. Guys like Rich Auxer who are high speed, low drag, and off the radar rarely, if ever, get the recognition they truly deserve. Thank you for your service.

Ever Onward.

Header image credit: zabelin ©