Andy McNab is the pseudonym of a former SAS operative and best-selling author. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his participation in the Bravo Two Zero patrol during the first Gulf war, when he was held captive for six weeks in Iraq. Here he talks about mental toughness and how to handle pressure.
Be prepared for anything
The SAS selection process is tough. You spend the first month in the Brecon Beacons, where you cover between 15 and 65km in a day. You don’t know the route, how far you’ll be travelling or how long you have – you’re just given a set of checkpoint co-ordinates every day and it’s up to you to navigate yourself there as quickly as possible. It’s an incredible mental and physical test. After a month, your body is breaking down and you’re constantly dosed up on painkillers. If you fail to make any of the checkpoints in time you’re out immediately, so there’s no room to cock up. The full selection process lasts seven months, but most don’t make it through that first month – when I did it we started with 200 people and only 24 made it through.
Don’t overthink it
In a situation like that, the people who think too much about what they’re doing rather than just doing it are the ones who suffer. You have to accept what you’ve got to do and get on with it, which is equally true for endurance events such as ultramarathons and Ironman races. In a way, you’re mentally switching off. Winston Churchill said he had millions of problems in his life, but thankfully they weren’t real because they were all in his head. The mental process is just as important as the physical one.
Always avoid a fight if possible
In a real-life situation you have to be practical and try to avoid the problem. We all watch too much TV and too many films, which make us think every time a hero gets in a fight he’s going to win. Real life isn’t like that. If you get hit in the face by somebody with hands like shovels, you’re going down – simple. You can’t just wipe your lip and adjust your jaw and you’re all good. You’ve got to avoid that by punching first and running, because you don’t really know what you’re up against or what the result will be. If you’re in a corner and you have to fight, you’ve got to be as aggressive as possible and do everything you can to get yourself out.
Practice makes perfect under pressure
The key to handling high-pressure situations is to prepare for them to the point where your actions become automatic. Weapons training is a good example – you do the same drills over and over until you don’t think about them. Then in a real-life situation when, say, you’re firing and your weapon jams, you deal with it without thinking about it.
Detach yourself from fear
During the Vietnam war, there was an American jet pilot who was held in solitary confinement for six years. His captors broke every major bone in his body during interrogation, but he never told them anything. Afterwards, he said the key to getting through it was to accept there was nothing he could do about what was happening, so he let it go and focused on maintaining mental integrity, because that’s what they wanted to break. When I was held captive in Iraq, I focused on detaching myself from fear. If you’ve got no control over it, why worry about it? That’s something anyone can use to conquer their fears.
Andy McNab is an ambassador for Mission 424, a charity adventure challenge run by Help for Heroes. For more information, visit mission424.org.uk