How To Think Like an SAS Super Soldier

It takes just three steps.

David Amerland
4 min readMar 9, 2018

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Not too long ago I was talking to an SAS sniper about his training as part of my writing The Sniper Mind. I couldn’t help but mention that in a firefight all sorts of hell must break loose, bullets flying from all directions, voices, noise. I commented just how hard it must be to make sense of it all and make a critical decision.

“Well,” he replied coolly, “it’s a little like this. You pick a target and shoot at it until it goes down. Then you pick another.”

“you struggle to understand what’s going to kill you and what is just a distraction you can ignore”

I am going to let you ponder his answer for a minute because in his apparent simplicity he managed to pack a world of mental and physical training and blow my mind, in the process. To understand what I mean consider the image below from the multiplayer of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.

I am not suggesting here for a moment that war, especially the kind of highly fluid, incredibly dangerous and very important kind of war operatives like the SAS sniper I was talking to find themselves in, is like a multiplayer game I play whenever I want to take my mind elsewhere. What I am suggesting (and it’s an important point to understand) is that the screen capture of the image that shows all sorts of mayhem happening at once, accurately captures the conceptual feeling of a firefight for an untrained civilian like me. I stress the word conceptual because I have never been in a firefight. I can only imagine from simulated virtual reality and video games the kind of mental confusion that occurs as the brain tries to sort out all the information flooding in and apportion some kind of value to each fluid, evolving element so that it can be prioritized in terms of contextual importance. Which is a nice way of saying that you struggle to understand what’s going to kill you and what is just a distraction you can ignore for now.

If all that sounds like the kind of thing that could make your brain freeze up as it tries to process it all, consider that I haven’t even got to the additional elements represented by fear, fatigue, physical discomfort, shouted commands and the voices of friends conveying information.

The Special Air Service (SAS) recruitment process is notoriously difficult with 90% of recruits failing Selection and a further attrition rate amongst those who pass and are ‘badged’ takes place in the probationary period.

“Picking a target and shooting at it until it goes down,” in that context is suddenly transformed into a superhuman feat of concentration, psychological control and mental dexterity. So how is it done? What is it that can help us become a little more focused and capable without jacking in our jobs and running off to join the army?

A stronger question, of course, would be what’s stopping us from being that good ourselves? Several everyday things as it turns out.

Multitasking for one. We think we can multitask, because our brain is designed to create a single, seamless narrative from many different activities, but each time it switches tasks it does so with a time lag (called attentional blink, by neuroscientists).

Without a real commitment to discover our physical limits and some effort to go beyond them we find it hard to become the best version of ourselves.

Lack of focus. While we start each day with some idea of what we want to accomplish we end up going through it governed by circumstances. We have no overriding goal which means we have no sense of purpose. As a result it is easy to become distracted, confused and feel rudderless. Helpless in shaping the direction of our life.

Lack of training. Sure, we may not have signed up to become super-soldiers or take part in firefights but that doesn’t mean we should be willing to accept ourselves just as we are. Without a real commitment to discover our physical limits and some effort to go beyond them we find it hard to become the best version of ourselves.

These three steps are far from comprehensive but by applying them in our life, methodically and with clear intent to raise our game to a new level we will experience the kind of ability to sort through the ‘noise’ that surrounds and prioritize. Picking a target and going at it until it is done, then becomes the obvious thing to do.

My latest book: The Sniper Mind: Eliminate Fear, Deal with Uncertainty, and Make Better Decisions is a neuroscientific study into how to apply practical steps for better decision making.

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