Why Your Team Needs a Hell Week

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The Selection

You may be the coach who has 100 kids at a tryout for a roster of 12 or you may be the coach who struggles to get the numbers together to form a team. Regardless of your situation, a selection process can help lay a strong foundation for your culture. How and who you choose for your team will determine the challenges you face throughout the season.

I am not a reality TV guy, but last year, a friend recommended “The Selection: Special Operations Experiment,” a fascinating reality show on the History Channel. The show takes 30 men and women with no military background and puts them through a rigorous selection process run by veterans of the Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and Army Rangers. Special forces all around the world have rigorous training and assessment processes to find the best of the best and in “The Selection,” instructors challenge these 30 people mentally and physically, beyond anything they have ever done before.

The show is fascinating for many different reasons: It gives the viewers an inside look into some of the ways they assess physical and mental toughness, as well as leadership. Some of the tests are truly horrifying and include tear gas, interrogation simulation, and psychological warfare (such as being stuck in tiny boxes), among others. The participants are pushed to their breaking point, but they can pull out of the program at any stage.

It also gives an inside look into why these people want to go through this process— there is no prize money or future job as a member of the Elite Forces. In fact, most of the people—especially those who last into the later stages—seem to have overcome some great life challenge or to be battling something dark in their life, such as the loss of a loved one, substance abuse, sexual abuse, and so on. These people have signed up because they understood the opportunity to be transformed through the experience that the “selection” offers.

Since watching this show, I have become fascinated with the selection process—in particular, that of the Navy SEALs, which were founded on the design of Draper Kauffman, a legendary Navy Demolition Man. While the dropout rate is around 60% for the Navy SEALs—which is low, compared to Delta Force and Army Rangers, which lingers around 90%—the SEALs have one of the strongest—if not the strongest—reputation for their selection program.

One surprising aspect of “The Selection” was the instructor’s behavior. While they were hard and tough, they were still supportive and encouraging at times. Even when people quit or left the program, the instructors always showed them respect. I had always imagined yelling and cursing like in the movie Full Metal Jacket!

Talk with anybody who has made it through the Navy SEALs’ BUD/s selection program and they will tell you it is not the strongest, fittest, or smartest people who survive the program. In her book, Grit, Angela Duckworth’s research revealed similar ideas when she studied cadets in West Point’s BEAST program and Navy SEALs. So, who survived? The grittiest survived! Using a simple “Grit” test, Duckworth was able to predict with near-perfect accuracy who would make it through these selection processes. Grit, as she defines it, is perseverance and passion for long-term goals.

The selection process is not about weeding out the weak but weeding out those who lack the “grit” necessary to be successful, while strengthening their commitment to each other and developing mental toughness and leadership.

However, in most sports programs, our selection process is too often just the opposite—only the most talented survive! In most programs, regardless of the level, we are selecting people in tryouts based upon an assessment of skill or ability. We do not test growth mindset, grit score, mental toughness, character, leadership, or all the other qualities we claim to value in our program.

By applying the principles of the Navy SEALs’ selection process, we could benefit greatly from a selection process or a “Hell Week”. Even if we were to use a Hell Week after we had already selected our team, it would still provide a great number of benefits for the culture of the team.

Before I share, let me be clear; I am not saying we need to hire Navy SEALs to run our tryouts and I am not saying we should ignore skill or talent. In any military selection process, even the most basic training requires a simple standard level of fitness, intelligence, and skill.  We should give great thought as to what our minimum standards should be regarding skill level and character.

The 7 Benefits of a Hell Week

  1. Weeds out the weak. Coaches at the high school and collegiate level often provide off-season training programs for their players to help prepare them for the season ahead. Basic levels of fitness, athleticism, and skill should be required; giving them an off-season training program that will be adequate enough to bring them up to a minimum standard is important. Hell Week will weed out those who are unable or unwilling to put in the work required to meet those standards.

  2. Weeds out the uncommitted. If they are unwilling to push themselves outside their comfort zone and stretch themselves physically and mentally at the start of the season—when players are typically most motivated—then when will they be willing? Typically, this is why the first week of selection programs are the most rigorous—they know it is better to learn whether they are committed or not, as it saves everyone stress and complications down the road.

  3. Strengthens their commitment. Studies have been very clear that the more you sacrifice and invest your time and physical and mental resources to something, the stronger your commitment will be. Not only will a Hell Week weed out the uncommitted, but it will also strengthen the commitment of the others.

  4. Builds relationships and culture. Through physical and mental pain, they will experience intense vulnerability and a deeper connection to each other. They will also learn to rely on each other during the team training exercises.

  5. Improves mental toughness and discipline. Hell Week will stretch and challenge every participant physically, mentally, and emotionally. They will be forced to leave their comfort zone, and the more time they spend being uncomfortable in this type of environment, the more they will crave the benefits of training outside the comfort zone. Feeling themselves growing physically and mentally stronger creates a sense of fulfillment.

  6. Builds leaders. The process presents many opportunities to pass on leadership responsibilities, decision-making, and ownership. As they are pushed to their limits and tested, leaders will rise up because they will depend on each other.

  7. Creates a story. Hell Week will become a rite of passage they will talk about for the rest of their lives. A certain level of pride and self-belief comes from surviving a selection process.

7 Keys to Having a Beneficial Hell Week

  1. Create a safe out. In the Navy SEALs selection process, the cadets honorably ring a bell when they decide to quit. It is important to stress that your team isn’t for everyone—you have high standards and you are working to build something special.

  2. Be encouraging. Don’t go Full Metal Jacket on them! If possible, join in on the activities. Draper Kauffman did everything he asked of his soldiers during his selection process.

  3. “Log PT (Physical Training).” Draper Kauffman used large logs for conditioning that required everyone on the team to pull their weight. Break them into small teams and put them through grueling and creative physical and mental tests.

  4. “It pays to be a winner.” Teams should compete against each other. The winning team should be rewarded by being exempt from the final part of conditioning but should still be required to help the coaches support and encourage those who fall short.

  5. The training doesn’t always need to be sport-specific. Challenge the participants physically and then have them execute skills or tactical play when they are tired and exhausted. While long distance running doesn’t physically prepare basketball players for competition, it can help prepare them mentally.

  6. Decentralize command. Leaders create more leaders. Rotate team leaders and give them responsibility. Communicate instructions through the leaders and give them the challenge of disseminating the information to their teammates and making decisions for the team.

  7. Explain why. Continuously remind the participants that each activity serves a purpose. Make sure they know this is helping them grow physically and mentally, and by choosing to persevere, they are choosing to be part of something truly special.

Call to Action

Whether you run a Hell Week after tryouts or as part of your selection process, be sure that you don’t only select the most talented players. We can’t continue to ignore character and devalue leadership, commitment, work ethic, and responsibility in favor of those who are naturally talented.

As Trevor Ragan from says, “The most important skills are those that are acquired.” Are you selecting those who are the most committed to learning and growing as athletes and as people?

-J.P. Nerbun

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