How A Special Forces Soldier Copes With A Bad Day

Regardless of who you are, where you work or what you do, everyone has or will have a bad day. What really matters is how we deal with it. Learn how a special forces soldier copes with his bad day.

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I’ve had plenty of bad days. Days when things didn’t go my way, days when I made mistakes, upset my colleagues and felt generally crappy. In such an intense high performing environment, allowing bad days to affect your mindset can have significant impact in a short space of time. Confidence falls, pressure becomes an obstacle rather than a driver of performance, and connection with your team falls as constructive conversation becomes challenging and every comment is scrutinised for blame and criticism.

One particularly bad day springs to mind.

My confidence took a hit, my stress levels rose, and I just felt unhappy. I was conducting counter terrorism training and I was inserting with the rest of my team onto the roof of a building via helicopter. We had to abseil down to enter the building via one of the windows. I hooked myself in and went over the edge of the building. I had abseiled many times before. This time, though, I was using a new piece of equipment, but really nothing was any different to the many times I’d done it before. I looked down at the ground and began to drop the 10ft down to my window ledge.

I shot straight past it and hurtled towards the ground at a hell of a speed.

I dropped 60ft, missing my window and stopping only feet from the ground, narrowly avoiding serious injury. I had messed up and squeezed the equipment too hard. In doing so I ruined the training exercise, let down my team, made a fool of myself, failed a test and disappointed myself in the process. How I wished I could go back in time, but I couldn’t. Instead I felt terrible, my confidence was dropping, I started to feel sorry for myself, and self-doubt and self-loathing crept in.

Experience doesn’t always cut it.

At this stage of my career I had years of experience in those high-pressure environments and executing my technical skills perfectly. I’d also had my experience of bad days. Yet getting over this did not happen straight away and that bad feeling lingered. Knowing that I had another day of training and another exercise in less than 24hrs, I had to find a way to make myself feel better and move forward quickly.

Luckily, over my career I had also built up a set of mental and emotional skills that enabled me to adjust my mindset and self-talk to counteract the impact of a bad day. I want to share some of those skills with you. These are not the only way to cope with a bad day, but they helped me:

1. Breathe…
Breathe deep, breathe long. For anyone that’s ever felt stressed, think of how you breathe. It’s short, sharp breaths. When you are calm and relaxed, those breaths are long and deep. So immediately after the moment I started to work on beating my stress response by breathing deep and long. Doing so switches on the Vegas nerve, which switches off the stress response. Beating the stress caused by bad days/experiences is the first battle to win.

2. What I can do differently next time
Not what I did wrong, but what to do next time. Most of the time we let failure define us and bog us down. When you focus on failure your brain picks up on it, switching on your stress response and getting in the way of moving forward and feeling good again. 

I focused on what I could learn from the experience and what I would do differently next time, not what I had done wrong. This thinking meant that I could get straight back up to the roof and try it again. And I wasn’t afraid to ask.

3. What I did do well and what I am normally good at
Negativity can deflate anyone, it’s important to move on quickly and a great way to do that is to talk about the good stuff. In team meetings, even if we had messed up, our first discussion point was what we did well. And I did the same thing.

I turned my thoughts to what I had done well and what I was good at, knowing I had done things like this before and done them well. Even though the list of things I did well was small, I still focused my thinking on them as opposed to what I did wrong. Strongly associated and within my thought process was my strengths.

4. Focus on strength
When you’re inherently good at something you tend to downplay it, telling yourself, “Oh, it was nothing.” But focusing on and finding ways to use your strengths, even if it seems superficial at the time, is a powerful way to re-define the day.

Plus, if you are not playing to your strengths, what are you doing? Focusing on your weaknesses!
Even though it was only a cursory thought, I gave myself the time and space to think about: what I am good at and how I could use those skills and experiences to get me through this moment.

Can you look back on a bad day and spot when & how you used your strengths?

5. Humour in the face of adversity
Humour in the face of adversity is very natural for all military personnel and is instilled throughout training. Although apparently superfluous, humour is extremely important and reduces a hazard by making it seem less serious in the mind of an individual. So naturally I used this as much as I could, supported by the team around me.

6. Use the people around you
Always remember to turn to others. They help give you perspective, add humour and/or love to the situation. In my case I had my team to turn to. Although they did not add love in the traditional sense of the word, they did it in the military way. With humour.

These are just skills and can be learnt by anyone, anytime.

We all have bad days. What really matters is how we deal with it. I was fortunate, I got the opportunity to develop these skills through controlled experiences and real time scenarios, but what I’ve learnt is that these are skills and can be learnt by anyone, anytime. At the very least just remember:

  • Bad days will happen. Allow yourself time to see the situation objectively. Then you can respond with healthy choices that lead to better days ahead.
  • When things aren’t going to plan, it can easily put you in a bad mood. It’s important to remember that it’s only temporary and you can beat it.

If you’re interested in reading how I would manage a similar day now, after training as a resilience coach, then please read this:  

 5 Skills a resilience coach would use to cope with a bad day

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