On the show today, I have Casey Glass, a strength and conditioning coach for a special operations unit, and a guest who has served in the SEAL Teams for 15 years but asked to remain anonymous. We refer to him as “Rick” throughout this episode.
We discuss all about training special operators; in particular, Navy SEALS. We dive into the incredibly unique challenges this population faces and discuss everything ranging from physical preparation to the more recently acknowledged condition known as “Operator Syndrome”, which may be understood as the natural consequences of an extraordinarily high allostatic load; the accumulation of physiological, neural, and neuroendocrine responses resulting from the prolonged chronic stress; and physical demands of a career with the military special forces.
Listen in as Casey and Rick share how an operator needs to train and prepare for the long game to be able to perform at their highest level while managing the effects of Operator Syndrome to the best of their ability.
What You’ll Learn in This Episode:
- [01:51] Casey’s and Rick’s background
- [03:48] Unpacking “Operator Syndrome”
- [11:07] How Casey is intervening to start making change among operators
- [18:32] The typical training program operators undergo
- [31:56] How sleep hygiene factors into the program
- [37:41] Active research on Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) at the moment
- [42:52] What the Physical Readiness Test is lacking
- [49:33] Parting thoughts by Casey and Rick
James Cerbie: We have Casey Glass, and then Rick has requested not to reveal his true name and character. So, we are going to call him Rick for this episode. So, let’s do this, just to kick things off, Casey, can you just give us a quick background on who you are and what you do? And then, Rick, I’ll have you follow up on that with your experiences, and then we can just dive right into the show.
Introducing Casey and “Rick”
Casey Glass: So, I’m a tactical strength and conditioning coach and I work with the Special Operations Unit. Prior to that, I worked in the collegiate setting at the University of Arkansas for a while and Purdue before that.
Rick: I spent 13 years in Special Operations and Naval Special Warfare, just recently separated multiple deployments across the globe, a couple of different training commands. And then I ran into Casey when she got hired on as one of our trainers. And I’ve been working with her for about the past, or working for, listening or not listening to her advice for the past five to six years.
James Cerbie: Excellent. I think one of the reasons we wanted to do this, and I was so excited for this conversation is we haven’t had anybody on and had a good conversation around this topic, which is one that I am personally very intrigued and interested in, because it’s such a special population, a very particular type of human with very unique demands. And when we think about trying to appropriately train the Special Operations World Unit, people, whatever you want to call them, right “operators” is probably the best term.
It’s a really, I think, intellectually engaging conversation about how to best do it, because we were talking about this a little bit off air and we can probably start here, which is we have people on the show a lot, and we’d love to talk about this perfect world environment of, “oh, yeah, you know, we’re going to monitor and track all this stuff and we’re going to have these high days. We’re going to have these low days, and we’re going to make sure we sleep eight plus hours a night.”
It’s all very controlled, where in this world things are not that controlled. We can’t be like, all right, well, we need you to sleep eight hours, and your HIV score this morning wasn’t very good. So, we’re going to need you to not do what you do today.
So, I think an interesting place to start will be, and Casey, maybe you can kick us off on this, is to, can we unpack this term “operator syndrome”? And then I think from there we can dive into more of the integrated performance side of the world.
What Makes Up “Operator Syndrome”?
Casey Glass: Sure. So, an article came out recently in the Journal of Psychiatry and Medicine that was talking about issues that are really specific to operators that are extremely widespread amongst operators. If you guys are talking to each other, I guarantee they have half, at least, of the list of these issues if they’ve been at their unit for a while. And that includes, but is not limited to, TBI, endocrine dysfunction, sleep disturbances, chronic joint pain, depression, anxiety, marital and family dysfunction, memory and cognitive impairments, and more and more and more.
It’s not this laundry list that each operator has one of these things. It’s that when you’ve been in for a while and you’re transitioning out, especially, is when all of these things kind of pile up and hit at once. So, a myriad of issues are facing each operator during their career and after their career for years.
James Cerbie: Yeah, I think potentially one way to describe it is, you have a situation to where I’d like to talk about this convex curve where you take something that acutely may not be an enormous problem, but when we have repeated exposure of this over a long period of time, we end up on the steep part of the curve, and that’s where we start to run into issues. But it’s this gig where it comes with the job and there’s no way of really separating those two things.
So, Rick, if you could chime in, I think be really interesting to hear your perspective on this in terms of the things that you feel like you needed to do as an operator to be at your highest level. And then where can we begin to have a conversation of inserting to try to manage this as best we can without taking away what you guys need to be really good at?
Rick: Yeah, absolutely. The bottom line for what we feel like we need to be at any given moment for our job is just the maximum amount of performance that we can get out of every single different realm inside of the training cycle. So, there’s not really a time where it’s, okay, well, I’ve got this two-month period where I don’t really need to be in shape, or I don’t really need to be practicing my skill. So, it’s not like there is an off season and an on season.
There’s definitely times post deployment where you have a little bit more freedom of schedule, a little bit less training. But another part of being in a community, like a special operations community, is the peer pressure aspect. So, nobody is going to allow themselves, at least no good operators are going to allow themselves, to take six months off from the gym and just focus on recovery. Case in point, when I got out of the teams, I decided to actually start cataloging the list of injuries I had, and you spend some time with a doc, an MRI tube, and I had two torn hip labrums, a torn right shoulder, two sports hernias, and potentially a torn right knee. And it’s, well, when am I ever going to address those things? It’s either I take myself offline for six months or a year, which is not something innately that any of us want to do, or you just push through it and your body learns to adapt in different ways and you just are kicking that can further down the road and then you take the physical aspect of it.
Then you start totaling it up with, you know, at times, the stress management piece of the job, the potential TBI from blast trauma or just different training events. And then you start compiling all those things on top of each other at eight, nine, ten, eleven-year mark of a guy’s career. And you can just watch in a lot of people’s cases, the wheels start just falling off of the bus.
Casey Glass: Yeah, and I think we should back up a little bit and explain what compiles the cause, “operator syndrome.” So, Rick mentioned it – TBI. So, most people think of TBI as one big event, a car rolled over, and I banged my head, or I was really close to an explosion. And that does happen.
James Cerbie: Just unpack what TBI is for people who don’t actually know what it means.
What Does “TBI” Stand For?
Casey Glass: So, TBI is a traumatic brain injury and even by the sounds of the term, you hear the word traumatic. So, you think big event, you would definitely know that you went through this event, and you had one, but what we’re learning now, from researching military, it’s not that different from football players and concussions, except they don’t know that they have the concussions because it’s not always from a big blast or it’s not always from hitting your head on something. It’s just repeatedly being around artillery, repeatedly breaching doors. Even though you’re a room away, you’re still really close to those pressure changes. And it’s not a concussion, or as a strength coach, I can get your neck stronger and make you more resilient to that. There is nothing I can do to make you more resilient to blast pressure, after blast pressure, after blast pressure. And you have to practice your explosive skills in entry, so you have no choice but to be subjected to blast after blast after blast. And then compile that with just being chronically in a state of sympathetic dominance or fight or flight because the stress of the job is nonstop.
So now you have this huge amount of allostatic load and no opportunities to recover from it. You’re doing it for 10, 11, 12 plus years without a real break.
James Cerbie: So, this is something that I do not know for sure. So, either of you feel free to chime in here. Rick, maybe you want to take this, but when you’re on deployment, what is a normal schedule for a special operator like yourself?
How much time are we spending on camp? How much time are we spending out on mission, on tasks, etc.?
Why the Schedule of a Special Operator Doesn’t Exist
Rick: The real answer to that is you don’t really have a schedule because things are so different day to day, which is great and exciting while you’re overseas, because no two days look the same. But then you talk about guys that are trying to get into any type of rhythm and get their sleep cycle dialed in, or their operational cycle dialed in. And you could be doing nighttime ops one day, and then daytime operations the next day, and then have a two-day down period that gets interrupted by a quick reaction that needs to happen. It’s just go, go, go. I think that the most that guys are probably averaging sleep wise on a deployment is five, maybe six hours a night, is a good night. A lot of nights you’re out all night long, and then you’ll come back and there’s always something to do back at the camp. And then before you know it, you’ll be pushing 24, 48, 72 hours without getting any sleep and then be expected to remain at the top of your game if you need to go out again.
So, one of the biggest rewards is, is a very single-minded focus of nothing else. I’m not worried about anything else. I’m just worried about doing the job. But what that comes with is, the job dominates everything and there is no set schedule in a given day.
James Cerbie: So, Casey then being on your side of the world where you’re trying to manage more of the performance setting as the coach, where are you trying to intervene right now to best start creating change with the operators? Where’s a good place for us to start having this conversation? Because you mentioned, there’s some things that are unavoidable. We can’t take these things away. So where are some good places to potentially look at, starting from your experience and what you guys have been doing so far.
The Journey to Start Taking Care of Yourself
Casey Glass: So, what we do at our group right now is we have a class, a weeklong class, that’s a combination of tactical information and human performance and health information. So as soon as guys are checking in to join their unit, they’re going to have five to seven hours a day, either in a classroom or in a kitchen doing meal prep, or on the floor with us working on some lifting technique. For our particular group, they’ve had interventions prior, but I can’t speak for other groups.
So, they usually have a 12-week block with a strength coach. They’ll meet with a dietitian a couple times as a group, just getting briefs, and they’ll have an athletic trainer and a physical therapist there. So that kind of begins the journey of starting to take care of yourself to some extent. But it’s really hard to shift the mindset there because they’re used to just being told what to do and run into the ground. So, they’re very hesitant to talk about injuries.
It starts really early on. We’re just begging them to tell us if something hurts so we can help them out. Then they’ll go through that course. And then after that, it’s really up to them to come to us and get as much help as they want to get. So, we’re not organized in the way that a sports team is where you have a certain training time, and everybody comes in and we know who’s coming in and what they’re dealing with.
The onus is completely on the operator, if they’re going to use the resources we provide or if they’re going to get resources somewhere else. So, we function a lot as consultants and we try to educate at the front, let them know what we do, how we can help them when they’re local and when they’re remote. And, I mean, it either lands or it doesn’t land. And luckily for strength and conditioning, that’s normally the part that sticks, but not so much the staying in touch with the psyche.
So, the stress management piece isn’t very good. The majority of my job as a strength coach is to get them to train less and to train smarter, and to go see the dietitian and make sure that they’re feeling enough, and to go see the psych and make sure that their mental skills are on point, but also that they’re prepared for what’s coming down the pipeline.
The Progression of Baselining
Rick: One of the things that I think the community is doing a little bit better of a job at, but definitely still some room for improvement is baselining guys when they come into the pipeline across a couple of different factors. I think the first time that I was told I needed to get a TBI baseline was in 2012, and I had already been involved in two major blast incidents overseas on deployment. I’m definitely not the only guy that’s had that same experience.
So, your TBI baseline is not a true TBI baseline if it’s happening five, six years into your career. Same thing with some of the other things where the right way to do it is probably as soon as guys get into the pipeline, you just got to get a baseline on a bunch of different factors. You know, I’m definitely not an expert in this realm, but TBI would be one of them. Your testosterone level will be another one. Your blood work could be another one, so that you can really start to tailor treatment for guys.
And then hopefully, if this is a repetitive baselining, you can see trends and help guys keep them from walking themselves off of a cliff.
James Cerbie: So, that’s surprising. So, in terms of when someone shows up on day one, like you’re talking about, Casey, and we’re going to try to find these baselines.
So, I would have thought that there is a comprehensive blood panel where we’re looking at hormones, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, to at least have some idea of where we, when we walk through the door. So, we have something to compare back to with time. And so that’s not happening right now. The TBI thing, it sounds like it is beginning to be implemented. But in terms of a more comprehensive look at the organism, we’re still not there yet.
Casey Glass: Exactly. The blood panel thing is, it’s an ongoing battle, but I don’t know if or when we’ll ever get there at this rate. It’s probably a very, very long road. And I’m sure it was a long road to even get to this point with the TBI baselining, because they only recently even realized what was happening to operators and what was causing these issues, because the symptoms often don’t show up until way later, way after the event, or even years after they get out of special operations.
The only thing that we do, and this is relatively new, is we’re supposed to be able to do an annual fitness test. We do a survey so we can gather some information on their habits, and they will report injuries, pain, things like that. We’ll do a movement screen. But with their schedules, I don’t know that I’ve ever hit anybody in back-to-back years, had the same operator be able to come in and actually do that test because then at least we can notice some red flags.
Even on the survey itself, surveys are surprisingly powerful. If they rate high in pain, they also rate low in hours of sleep. Most guys will check a lot of boxes. My knee hurts, my back hurts, my shoulders hurt. “Do you want follow-up with sports medicine?” “No,” because they’re not going to spend the time. They’re going to put that time towards their job.
James Cerbie: So, there’s two things here: one, the bloodwork thing is astonishing to me because that’s such easy, low hanging fruit. That kind of blows my mind, to be honest. But, in terms of getting these touch points, it is really interesting that I can understand why it’s established the way it is. But for the operator to have to take the onus and to want to walk in the door, and then ask for help out, I would imagine that with that community and that type of person, because mental toughness is obviously going to be an enormous aspect of that job.
It seems very difficult for me to grasp that they’re going to want to willingly raise their hand and ask for help. And a lot of these situations. Is that a pretty accurate guess?
The Reality and Effects of Operators Asking for Help
Rick: I think that’s very accurate. A lot of it comes from the desire to not want to let your brothers down. So if I’m in a platoon and I take a dig or I do something in the weight room or on a training site, and I mess my shoulder up, if I take myself off line, the reality of that is, and you can talk about right versus wrong and social pressure and whatnot, but the reality is, if I remove myself from my platoon, I’ve just damaged that platoon’s capability because I’m going to have some type of qualifications that are innate that that platoon needs.
Maybe I’m a sniper, maybe I’m a breacher, maybe I’m a comms guy, maybe I’m a medic. And a platoon has to have so many qualifications to deploy, and each guy carries multiple qualifications. So, if I remove myself from a platoon, I just screwed that platoon over, in a sense of qualifications. And then guys just genially love the job, and nobody wants to miss out on the opportunity to go on a good deployment with their best buddies.
Casey Glass: And then on top of that, if you were to pull yourself out due to an issue, you might not get to go back on your same platoon when you’re healthy again, depending on how long the issue takes to resolve, you might be shifted to an entirely new group of people you don’t even know.
James Cerbie: Yeah, this is all really fascinating because it’s a world that I’ve been intrigued by for a very long time, but just frankly, don’t know anything about, very naive. And, Rick, maybe you can jump in here. What does training look like? What’s a normal few days on the teams? What does that training actually look like? Both in terms of, I can imagine you’re going to have the things you need to do every single day, get on the range, etc.
When you guys go to the weight room, what does that even look like? I’m just going to go throw down with my buddies and do whatever? Do you have somebody like Casey who’s sending you a program, something to follow? What does that actually look like?
What Training as an Operator Actually Looks Like
Rick: Your training program, as far as your physical training program, is really what we would call a shooter’s choice. So, if I want to utilize Casey or any of the other staff to write me a program, then that’s great, and they’re there for it, and they’ll write me the best program that they can, and then I’ll follow that. Or maybe I won’t follow that, depending upon, not only my desire to follow it, but also if I’m at a land warfare training block for four weeks, they might not have all the equipment that I need to follow some of those different movements.
And even if they did, I might not have time in my schedule or energy to fit that stuff in. Most guys in our shoes know enough about working out to be dangerous. So, you know, my own personal experience was I didn’t utilize anybody from Casey’s staff for about the first four years, until kind of the wheels kept started falling off the bus a little bit with, my hips started acting up, some shoulder impingement issues, then it was, all right, I’m going to swallow my pride for a little bit and then go and see if I can get pieced together.
But we definitely have this, and I think part of it is the training pipeline itself. So, if you roll back the pipeline, at least in our community and every community selection pipeline is different, but in a special operations community, no matter which branch it is, selection is meant to be just that. It’s meant to be a selection. There’s no smart training, physical training that happens in selection. Log PT is not smart training. Log PT has one motive, and that’s to weed out people that shouldn’t be a part of this community.
So, you’ve got six months of that, in at least for our side of the house, you’ve got six months of training where it’s just a straight selection pipeline, where you’re just grinding it out every single day. And then if you make it through that, you’ve got another six months of what they call SEAL qualification training, which is still a grind, but it’s more towards a skill set. So, you’ll go to a land warfare block of training for two weeks and then you’ll go to an assault block of training for three weeks and a Marine or a maritime operations block for a couple of weeks.
But all that time, you’re still expected to keep your physical fitness up and then you’re just working those long hours. And then you get to a team and it’s, hey, guess what, guys? The real work just started. Now, your work up cycle is for real. It’s an 18-month work up cycle and then you deploy for six months. And then throughout your career, you just repeat that cycle, 18-month workup, six-month deployment.
So, it takes you all over the place. It takes you to various training locations throughout the states. And you work long hours, and you try to get your PT in where you can. And then you go on deployment and it’s the same thing. You work long hours, and you try to get your PT in where you can.
James Cerbie: What takes place during the workup period?
Rick: So, the main part of workup is called, Unit Level Training. And my last job in the military actually ran Unit Level Training for the West Coast SEAL team. So, I’m really familiar with this stuff. But it’s your core foundational blocks that a platoon needs to deploy. And that’s going to be the same, whether you’re talking Navy specific special operations or Army specific special operations. There’s going to be some core blocks of training that guys have to go through.
You know, you’ve got your land warfare block of training. That’s a lot of desert training. You’re running around in high heat in various terrain night and day, 18, 20-hour workdays, and that’s a four-week block. Then you’ve got about eight weeks of assault training where you’re learning how to clear houses properly, individually, and that as a unit. And then you have special operations in urban conditions, which is learning how to clear a city with your platoon.
And then you’ve got your maritime operations where you’re doing over the beach, you’re doing ship takedowns. And the one common thread throughout all of this is, it’s fantastic training. It’s a lot of fun. And you’re working 18-hour days is about the average. And then on top of that, guys are trying to get their PT in whenever they can. So, from a smart training perspective, probably, definitely not the best way to tackle things, but from a mental toughness, slash, what the world is going to be like when you get overseas, it’s a very good snapshot of the things that you’re going to do overseas and the demands that you’re going to put on your body overseas.
Casey Glass: Also, the time constraints– they have all these skills that need to build on top of one another. And they’ve got a certain amount of time to do it in so that they meet the deadlines for that cycle and can get deployed on time.
James Cerbie: Got it. Yeah. I mean, smart training, I think is an interesting term because it’s at a certain level, right, we have to make sure that you’re prepared for game day. And so, whatever is going to prepare you the best for game day, and what that actually looks like is probably the smartest thing that we can do for you otherwise as a disservice, that individual to not prepare them that way. So, I think the question I want to come back to then is, I always like to try to think about low hanging fruit. Big fan of the Pareto Principle. What are the twenty percent of inputs that can give me 80 percent of my outputs? Right, because I don’t need to change everything.
I need to find a couple of key pieces where I can influence, and then I’m going to get a pretty large output from that. From both of your experiences so far, where do you all feel the best place to intervene in terms of helping the operators manage? And we talked a little bit about this off-air in terms of managing the fire, because we can’t put the fire out that is there. So, what’s the best way forward for us in terms of helping to manage these fires, that we can improve longevity, help them stay healthy while at the same time not detracting from the fact that they need to be able to perform at a very high level.
How to Improve Health While Still Performing at a High Level
Casey Glass: So, I’ll start on my end. One of the things that we really push as an entire staff, not just the strength staff is, we call it building your cave, so finding moments where you can rest and recover, and that usually just looks like I’ll have to do some breathing drills, work out. So maybe we’re accumulating eight minutes of calm time, if even, or on the car ride home, or when they’re local, they can hit up some float pods, massage chairs and things like that.
Really push them to spend a little bit of time just relaxing so they can get out of that fight or flight mode. The other thing is just using a non-linear style of periodization, because training is going to interrupt that. So, if you just have a handful of the basics that you know how to do, and we’ve got implements for you to be able to do those things at every training site. We’ll send them with you on deployment, just get it in when you can get it in and you’re feeling good.
And if you’re not feeling great, then trying to get the guys to scale back instead of thinking that they need to push and do the workout exactly as written. So, a big help has been, you know, we use a training app to program our workouts so they can take it on the road with them, but they can edit it on their end. So, we’re trying to get them to take ownership. We’ll give them the bones, the template, the best-case scenario.
And we want them to really take advantage of that, make it their own, change the lift variation if they want to cut the sets and reps down, if they want to.
James Cerbie: Yeah, for sure. I would imagine something that I’ve played with in the past and had some success with is right, because in my setting things are to be far more controlled in terms of the people that we work with. So, it’s easier for me to write out, oh, here’s this 12-to-16-week block of training, and we’re going to do this on these days. And we can obviously move stuff around, but it doesn’t need that degree of flexibility because you lift on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
And then we’re going to condition on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. Right. It’s very clean. But in this situation, it’s almost like you would be better off writing a lump sum of workouts. You’re sending them essentially 20, 30 or 40 workouts. And it’s, hey, you’re just going to essentially work through these at your own pace when you can do them. On days where you feel good, choose from this list, on days where you’re feeling a little rundown, choose from this list. We’ve played around with stuff like that before and had some success or people that have just an all over the place, unpredictable schedule.
Casey Glass: This concept of open-ended workouts. So, they might even have a selection of what they do for conditioning that varies. They can move the days over as they want so that we can see whatever changes they’re making. And then we also want them to fill out their daily survey, so we see their readiness score, and I can check on him. So, if they’re having issues, I can message them and just change the plan, or make sure that they are being flexible with the plan for their needs and not just trying to push through when they should be taking a break.
James Cerbie: Got it. And then, Rick, from your end, as more of the end user of this, how has your experience been? Where do you think a good place to intervene to help the largest number of people to get the biggest ROI is?
Rick: I’m probably a terrible person to ask this, because I really like the grind.
James Cerbie: Everybody does. Yeah. You’re not going to be in that life if you don’t love the grind.
Rick: Yeah, I think that you guys were kind of hitting it on the head where it’s the best thing that we could probably do is a mindset shift from what actually good physical training looks like. And I’m not talking about the skill training, the land warfare, whatnot. I’m talking about the gym time. And I think part of it is cultural and part of it is probably indoctrination where you go through this year long pipeline just to get into the community, and you’re just getting crushed the entire time.
And when you leave that pipeline, I mean, you’re bulletproof, man. There’s nothing on earth that is going to slow you down. Five hundred 8 count bodybuilders, no big deal. You want me to go run a marathon? No big deal. And we all get that set in our mind of, that’s what I need to be like. I need to be in that shape at any given time and it’s just not sustainable. So, I remember the first time that Casey wrote me a program.
I remember thinking there was something wrong because my first workout, I could physically walk out of the gym under my own power, and I wasn’t crawling or covered in sweat. This can’t be a good program. So probably the mindset shift from our own side of what is smart programing? What does that look like? And a lot of that just comes back to knowledge and resources that we can get from our staff.
We try to get the guys comfortable with auto regulation so they can still follow what’s written and it will automatically adjust for them. It’s really hard to get them to not use percentages and use RPE instead. But I would think as a strength coach, those are the best two tools that I can offer you so that you still have agency over what you’re doing, and you still feel like you’re pushing it, but you’re not going outside the boundaries of overreaching into overtraining.
Rick: In our defense RPE, doesn’t sound anywhere near as cool as a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound max back squat?
James Cerbie: Yeah, I would imagine it would be really hard to get a good RPE because I feel like I’m never going to put anything over a six or a seven.
Casey Glass: Exactly. I’ve never seen a 10. If I see a nine, it’s because they slept two hours. It is really interesting. All of the workouts, they’ll kind of rank them all the same RPE. In having programed them, I know that’s not true. We program some high lows for you, so it’s kind of comical. Very few people are willing to check higher than a seven, and if they are, they’re either not sleeping, or you found a realistic person.
James Cerbie: Have you played around with any type of tech that can make it more objective? An example would be, and granted, this is not realistic because you’re not going to be able to have these all over the world for these guys as they’re traveling. Right. But you can give somebody a question mark set, and I can use a VBT to have it cutoff in terms of, all right, well, if you’re not moving at this velocity, then we’re done for the day. It’s a way to take it out of that subjective, you gave me question marks, then fuck yeah, let’s go.
I’m not going to stop, but if I have something objective that’s not going to lie to them, that’s real data. That’s when this happens, you are done.
Why Education is the Key to Velocity-Based Training
Casey Glass: So, we have velocity-based training in our local facility. We definitely don’t have it everywhere. We have a hundred, to a hundred and fifty different guys every day coming through the facility. So, you don’t have the opportunity to educate everybody on how to use it and they have to want to use it. But that is the ideal, and that’s what I use with sports in season with great success, so, I wish they could put it in their pocket or put in their suitcase and take it with them. But we’re just not there yet.
James Cerbie: Yeah, that’s where we just have an issue with the implementation and execution, because the I would imagine that’s one of the biggest things is figuring out a way to make it as objective as possible to remove the subjective, just because you’re dealing with a population that, as we’ve I think, established here, they want to work hard, they like to work hard, and they’re not going to not work hard. That’s not an option.
Casey Glass: And that’s where the education piece is so huge. It’s so much more important, the conversation that I have with the operator than how I coach him, during the one session he’s actually in town. If he can just take away a couple nuggets of information that help him, heal back that belief that I shouldn’t be able to walk at the end of every workout, then we’ve had some success.
James Cerbie: That can be an awkward conversation, sometimes. That’s a hard one to win over.
Casey Glass: It takes time. You lay the groundwork and you just keep harping on them and they’ll figure it out eventually. But unfortunately, it’s usually not until after their first deployment.
James Cerbie: And then sleep is obviously a huge component here. And it’s another variable that is not really totally within your control. What does that conversation look like? I would imagine they are fully aware that sleep matters. It is really important. But in terms of actually getting that implemented to where we’re trying to get more high-quality sleep, what does that even look like?
Understanding Sleep and the Importance of Sleep Hygiene
Casey Glass: So, a lot of the guys purchase their own wearables, and there’s lots of different brands of wearables. So, I’ll just take a look at what’s on their wrist and open the conversation that way, ask them about their sleep, see if they’re paying attention to it. That’s been the biggest change. If guys have a wearable, then they are going to see the reality of what they’re doing to themselves and then maybe change some things. Either that or they’re just going to flat out compete against the wearable, like how in the tank can I be and then how hard can I put out?
So, I definitely have to educate them on that as soon as I see it on their wrist. But we try to get them to just claim the time that they can. If you are able to go to sleep at a decent hour, take advantage of it so that you can get a little rest today knowing you don’t know what’s coming the next 48 hours. And we talk about sleep hygiene because they’re constantly traveling. So, they have to make sure that they’ve got whatever implements they need to block out their space, eye masks, whatever they can control a little bit will go a long way but sleep hygiene, and then just get good sleep when you can versus burning the candle on both ends.
That’s a tough change in this community because it’s hard to wind down. So, guys will be out till one, two o’clock in the morning training. They don’t go straight to bed. They’re going to eat some junk food. They’re probably going to drink, unfortunately, and they’re going to sit around trying to wind down. So, then they’re not going to go to bed until four.
So, trying to get them to understand how important sleep is in, and pitch it to them in terms of their performance, both cognitive and physical. It’s the only way you can hopefully talk them into doing it. But they’ve got to come to that conclusion on their own.
Rick: And from the training side of the house when I was running training, it’s very deliberately mapped into the schedule where there’s blocks where guys are just not going to get sleep. So, there’s weeks where we call them field training exercises where your kind of culminating exercises from a block of training, where you’re putting everything together and it’s just, you know, a five-day period of just a grind.
22-hour days. Sometimes 24-hour days. And I’ll have conversations with people or read the after-action reviews that we get. I feel like I could have done a much better job if we just could have got some sleep. Well yes, of course you could have done a much better job, if you would have just got some sleep, but it’s very deliberately put into the training so that people understand, one, what it feels like to operate with a lack of sleep, but two, to understand where the limit is because everybody has their limit of, I can push to this point, and then it’s just a downward spiral right away.
So, what Casey saying is spot on, which is, I think guys are doing it better now than they have in the past. But again, like she said, there’s the social pressures of when we get back from training. We just did some fun stuff. I want to talk about me taking a digger out in the desert and smacking my face against the ground and people laughing at me. And I want to talk about the mistakes that I made. So, we end up burning the midnight oil and kind of burn the candle at both ends from time to time.
But guys are getting better at understanding that they have to get some sleep in when they can. It’s just it’s so sporadic that there’s no way you guys are going to get scheduled sleep.
Casey Glass: Let me paint this picture for you. One o’clock in the morning, I was out observing training. We go back to the camp and everybody’s sitting around having a conversation. And I’m talking to a guy and he’s got a bowl of Lucky Charms and a Coors Light.
James Cerbie: Nice.
Casey Glass: And I went to bed at two and he was still awake. So, that’s pretty normal.
James Cerbie: Well, is this going to take time physiologically to come down from any of that sort of experience and training? I’m not going to walk off from doing that and 30 minutes later be in my bed, okay, cool. I’m tired and ready to go. Hormones are flying. That’s going to take some time to circulate out neurologically. There’s going to be a little bit of a half-life, some type of thing there.
But the thing with sleep, and this is what I always like to tell people when they ask about it, is if sleep wasn’t one hundred percent essential for some reason, it would have fallen off over the course of evolution because it would have been an outrageously enormous advantage if person A doesn’t have to sleep and person B does have to sleep, I can double my output.
So, I would have been selected for over the course of natural selection.
Rick: The sad reality of sleep as well is when you look at the laundry list of things that are associated with operator syndrome. Sleep is a compounder for every single one of those things. So, if I don’t get an adequate amount of sleep and I do have some issues from traumatic brain injuries, they’re going to get worse. If I have stress in my life and I don’t get enough sleep, that stress is going to continue to compile.
Casey Glass: And if I have brain inflammation, then eating a bowl Lucky Charms as my post evolution meal is not ideal.
James Cerbie: So, I do have a question on that. Did he pour the Coors Light onto the Lucky Charms?
Casey Glass: Not that I saw, but it’s possible.
James Cerbie: That would’ve been a move.
Rick: If the night would have crept on, yes, that would be exactly what would happen.
James Cerbie: I’m trying to think of the next place to go here, because it’s such an incredibly interesting conversation, because it’s so much of a management question. It’s not clean cut. We can’t just build this perfect schedule that people are going to fall into and follow. It’s, how can I manage this fire as best as I possibly can to keep these people operating at the highest level imaginable? So, I am curious; do we have active research going in terms of the TBI, the brain information and these other aspects, in terms of, I’m not super familiar with the literature, right? But I know that there are people that are asking these questions and starting to look into them in terms of what sort of exoticness things can we use to help manage this better?
Are you guys familiar with what that landscape with that world might look like right now?
How Research into Treatment is a lot Less Progressed Than You Might Think
Casey Glass: There’s some military research going on. There’s a lot of foundations that support special operators that are providing funds for research and just trying to get the word out and doing the best they can on the back end to help guys recover from TBI. But what the military can do while they’re in right now, and while it’s happening, they’re not getting checked often enough. So, on our nutrition piece, we try to get guys to go ahead and front load with supplementation that would reduce neuro inflammation.
That’s the only thing we can really do. Preventively, guys do where blast monitor, so they’re collecting that data to see what kind of blasts exposure that guys are getting repetitively. But all of those things are in the early stages.
Rick: Part of the issue, too, is there’s a very defined list of treatments that a person inside the military can and can’t receive from the military. And all those treatments have gone through a very long, lengthy, tedious review from whether it’s special operations from the SOCOM side of the House. If it’s not special operations from the large DOD side of the house, then any new treatment that might come up, they have to get vetted through these programs before they’re allowed to actually get used on an operator, which there’s probably some good that comes to that because you’re weeding out maybe some things that might not be healthy in the long run.
But what it does is it takes a very long time for the military to adopt any emerging trends that could treat some of these underlying issues. So, a lot of times what happens? These guys just go out into town and either pay for it on their own dime or one of the foundations that’s out there for military members and go seek support that way.
Casey Glass: The military does sponsor some brain treatment centers, but because they’re military sponsored, they still have to work under those limitations.
Rick: Those places typically are not at capacity to treat everybody that’s in the military, not even everybody that’s in special operations. So, I know guys that as they were getting out, were supposed to go to some of those clinics and, they couldn’t even get a spot for six months, a year. And by that time, they’re out of the military and down the road.
Casey Glass: And a lot of the foundations, as I learned recently, are pretty full as well. So, if anybody listening wants to donate to any of these TBI funds, please do so, so that they can grow their staff and help more operators.
James Cerbie: This is where the bloodwork thing comes back full circle for me, because having friends in that world who are very good at, if we want to call it athlete blood chemistry, guys like Dr. Ben House, Dr. Tommy Wood. Dr. Tommy would be fantastic to actually bring into this conversation because he’s a neuroscience researcher. We just know that if we get the blood work, if we can dive into the blood chemistry, the hormone panels, understand what’s happening there, then there are things that we can do from a nutrition and supplement standpoint that can help.
And it’s just a matter of being able to see that data, have somebody who can analyze that data and say, here’s the protocol we should follow to help best manage and deal with this thing that the paper is telling us we need to do. That’s still just blows my mind, that’s not an option for this population.
Casey Glass: Yeah, when you’re working in a big bureaucratic machine, there’s a lot of convincing to do, and everybody has so many things they’ve got to sign off on before it’s safe for them, for their jobs, for their position to implement something new.
Rick: And there’s the funding aspect of it, too. Yeah, that stuff is great, and it really is great. I’ve had a lot of blood work done over the last year and it’s really helped me out. But it’s expensive. And if you’re taking and allocating that money in so calm, or the military to do those different blood work panels, that is coming out of some other part of the budget, whether that’s a training budget, whether that’s in equipping budget. And that kind of drives decision making, too, because at the end of the day, we have a job to do.
And if it comes between a bloodwork panel and a piece of kit that’s going to enable us to go overseas and do our job more effectively, the default is probably going to be the piece of kit, the gear, the training to go overseas and do the job.
James Cerbie: Yeah, without question. So, one other question I should have asked early on that I didn’t, I just thought of right now is, Rick, you’re talking about that year long period of having to go through this. Right, we need to figure out who’s the right person to stay on board and be on the teams, and we need to weed out everybody else. And there are obviously going to be qualifications along that path physically. Once you’re in, are there any physical tests or baselines that come up that need to be seen routinely, or is it more just you guys self-regulate that within the teams? And obviously no one’s going to let themselves just slouch off entirely. But I’m trying to think in our world when we have athletes. I’m trying to think, okay, I have strength metrics I care about; I have power metrics I care about; I have endurance metrics I care about. Movement metrics are harder, but we can figure some of that stuff out. So, I’m trying to look at all these different attributes to have a really clear picture of what’s going on. Is that something that’s happening or what does that even look like?
Why the Physical Readiness Test is Good Aerobic Conditioning, but Not Indicative of Baseline Strength
Rick: So, there is, but it’s very, very genetic. It’s called the physical readiness test. And it’s not a soft specific test. It’s a, at least in the Navy, it’s a Navy specific test. In the Marines, they have a Marine specific test. But it’s not a true regulator of how in shape you need to be in the teams. I could probably take two years off a training and go out and pass a PRT, no problem. So, what our community started to do was they started to implement, and I think with the right intention in mind, a test, and Casey can definitely step in here and speak more smartly to it.
That was designed to be more of a SEAL specific type test of fitness, not necessarily for weeding guys out, but for a baseline of, hey, where you are. But my two cents on that test was good intentions, very poorly executed. One of the tests was deadlift test. And I think to max it out, you had to do two or two and a half times your body weight for five reps. Hey, which is great, but never once overseas have I ever had to grab a bar on and off and deadlift two and a half times my body weight.
And the other flip side to that is there’s people in the teams that deadlift a lot, and the people on the teams that don’t. And then you’re asking them to come over there and do a max deadlift in front of their buddies. And if they haven’t done it, and they don’t have good form, and they haven’t built those necessary muscles up, they’re still going to yank and jerk on that bar until they get there four or five reps up. So, Casey can probably speak a little bit better to that, But I think that test’s intention was to be a good baseline, but I think the execution of it left a lot to be wanted.
Casey Glass: So, it’s actually changed because guys were getting hurt doing the deadlift because they don’t like to listen to the extreme coaches. And we say, no, don’t do that, put the bar down, go lighter. So, it’s a very safe test, but it’s indicative of good aerobic conditioning, but not indicative of the baseline strength that you would want. And it’s also not specific. There’s not a ruck in there, but you have to balance the testing period with the fact that their time is very limited.
So, we try to keep the tests down to only a few hours, and we really just use it. That’s the test that I was talking about earlier that we use for catching any red flags. If somebody is doing way worse than they did two years ago and there’s something going on that they’re not telling us, then we need to get to the bottom of it. It’s not a true readiness test at this point. In training, the most physical thing that guys are going to have to do is they’re going to have to pick up another guy.
So, when we’re programing for them as strength coaches, we’re programing based on the actual tactical evolutions. We have certain strength baselines that we might want you to hit on a bar, but the goal is to be able to do that down man carry. So, the work that you’re doing in the weight room is meant to prepare you to start training that down man carry so that you can execute that down man carry when the time comes.
Rick: I think specifically, probably the majority of the military, but definitely, the motivation and the desire to train and stay in shape is not the issue. The issue is more of a, am I training smart, which, you know, for 14 years, 15 years, I was definitely not training smart. In my mind. I was training smart. So, it’s not so much a motivation to stay in shape thing. It’s really how do I stay healthy with the ability to perform my job for a 20-year career, for a 30-year career. But I think we’re just very short sighted. When I say we, I mean us as the operator.
Never once did I think to myself, I have to manage this for, you know, for twenty years, over thirteen years, I just thought I need to be at the best physical shape I possibly can be, so I don’t let my teammates down. And the reality is, I was going about that the entirely opposite way and probably doing a lot more damage and not meeting that goal.
James Cerbie: Yeah, because you have to think, how old are you when you first got in?
Rick: I was a little bit older than the majority of guys when they first got in, so I was twenty-five when I first got in and then thirty-eight when I left. Most guys come in somewhere between, you get your occasional eighteen-year-olds, somewhere between eighteen, twenty to twenty-three.
James Cerbie: Yeah, because at that age, you’re not thinking about ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road. That’s nowhere within the universe of your thought at that point in time. But that’s the hard part here, because you don’t start to realize that until you do get older and you have the maturity. But by the time you’re starting to have that realization, we needed to start having some different inputs father back on the timeline.
Casey Glass: It’s really hard to get those young guys to differentiate pain from soreness because they are experiencing pain, but they’re so used to that that it’s normal to them, and they think they’re sore. So, the biggest thing that I learned at this job is you really have to do a good job figuring out what the individual’s baseline beliefs are. Figure out where they are to start, because I guarantee they don’t know the things that we as human performance staff think they know. So, we’ve got to figure out what their beliefs are, how they’re training themselves currently, how they’re eating currently, what are their beliefs surrounding sleep, mental health. And then we can start to build a plan or continue to build conversations until they’re ready to receive a plan from there.
James Cerbie: It seems like the most important variable in this entire thing is the ability to have really good, meaningful conversations, so you can actually get the buy in that you need, because that’s what I think this all comes back to at the end of the day is, can we have conversations that we need to have in a way that get these people to buy in because you’re never going to get someone to do something, they themselves don’t want to do. So, it’s a matter of them being able to make the decision that I should do it this way because I trust in what I’m hearing from the staff.
Casey Glass: And they’re so capable; they’ve proven how capable they are. So, we know they can get the job done. It’s just at what cost. So that’s where the conversations start. We need them to understand that you do pay a high cost on your health as an operator and there are resources in place to help you mitigate that. In the earlier the intervention, the better.
James Cerbie: Awesome. I feel like I could keep having this conversation for the rest of the day, because I am fascinated by this, but we are coming up on an hour, so let’s wrap this up like this. Just from each of you, what is one takeaway if somebody listens to this. What is one thing you want them to take away, walk away from having listen to the podcast? What would you like for it to be?
Parting Thoughts by Casey and Rick
Casey Glass: So, I’ll go first on this one. Specifically, are we talking an operator or somebody in general?
James Cerbie: we can do both. If it’s an operator that happens to listen, or because a lot of people that listen this are going to be coaches, strength coaches, gym owners. And then we obviously have a lot of other people who are just humans. I want to be life proof. They want to train and they like this idea of being a well-rounded athlete.
Casey Glass: So, to everybody, I would say play the long game. Structure your training in a way that you may be starting even slower or regressing to a point that you think is too simple at first because it will pay off in the end. That’s something that I learned as a strength coach when I was in the collegiate realm. Every year with my freshman, I would regress their progression. And I did that for about four or five years until it was so, so different from how I had started training them early in my career.
But the benefits were so much bigger. We were so much healthier; we were so much more athletic. It was so much easier to learn technical lifts because we built such a good foundation. And the same thing applies across the board. Whether you’re training yourself, you’re training, receiving training from a coach or you are a coach, start way back in the progression and play the long game for the sake of the athlete’s health and performance.
Rick: From an operator perspective, I would just say the most important thing that you can do, and the younger you can do this, probably the better, is just lose the ego when it comes to training. So, it’s easy for me to say that my desire to have the best deadlift and the best squat and the best bench that I possibly could or outperform guys in my platoon was solely because I wanted to be the best operator I could be. But there’s a lot of ego that was tied to that as well.
The earlier that guys understand that it’s not about your max reps, that it’s about being able to do your job to the utmost, the better off they’re going to be, because those things, whether it’s outside stressors, whether it’s relational stuff, whether it’s head stuff that might be piling up, whether it’s physical training, any of those things that you just allow to bleed over and you try to manage just all by yourself internally because you don’t want to ask for someone’s expert advice.
It’s going to bleed over to the realm where it’s going to be a detriment to your ability to do your job. And if the most important thing to you is truly is to be there for the guy on your left and right when the time comes, you can’t do that with your ego. Get in the way and allowing you to mask a lot of these issues that guys might have.
James Cerbie: Fantastic. I’ve got nothing to add to either of those points. So, Rick, Casey, thank you so much for chucking off an hour of your day to come in here and talk about this. I would love to get you guys back on to continue the conversation. Maybe the next one, I can try to get out to San Diego, and we can do it more in person. It would be wonderful to go enjoy a little bit of that San Diego weather.
You both have way more sun than I do right now. I’m getting real, real pale out here, but thank you so much. Again, this is fantastic. Everyone listening. I hope that you enjoyed it. Yeah. I want to say is. Thank you.
Rick: Thanks for the opportunity.
Casey Glass: Thanks for having us, James.
James Cerbie: All right, folks. And that is a wrap, thank you for tuning in for another episode of Rebel Performance Radio. You can find all the show notes, relevant links, resources mentioned, all that jazz at our website, jamescerbie.com, or just google rebel performance, we will be the first result. And lastly, I do have one small ask for you. If you enjoyed the episode today, please take 30 seconds to subscribe and leave us a review. Otherwise, thanks a ton for tuning in. Have an amazing week, and we will talk soon. Peace.
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