“Thrive in the Chaos”: SAS Survival Tactics For Dads

Luke BenedictusBy Luke Benedictus.
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With his shaven head and arms the size of ham hocks, Kevin Toonen looks like a very tough customer. This isn’t a case of appearances proving deceptive either.

During his 18 years in the military, Toonen not only served in the Australian Special Forces, he eventually wound up as their high-performance coach. In the process, he trained the country’s top soldiers to redefine their limits of physical and mental endurance.

Yet Toonen – who’s now program director at Sydney gym, 98 Riley St – also has a three-and-a-half-year-old son. While his day-job requires him to be a stern physical taskmaster, his attitude towards fatherhood is relaxed.

“Every father is different and there’s no handbook,” Toonen says. “People put too much expectation on themselves at the start.”

But soldiers in the Special Forces are used to a challenge. Serving in the elite unit develops resilience, mental aptitude and emotional intelligence – qualities that can also prove handy on the parental battlefield.

“Serving in the Special Forces I experienced years and years of sleep deprivation,” Toonen says. “You never get enough sleep. But if you understand what happens to people during sleep dep’ and you’re aware of the effects, then you can take steps to level yourself out.”

The effects of tiredness, he suggests, are a bit like being drunk. “You’re less logical and you’re a bit high in terms of your emotions – they can spike up real quick.”

As a result, when Toonen is tired he’ll modify his behaviour to limit the impact. “I’ll put less expectations on what I need from other people,” he says. “And I tend not to talk too much because I know that means I’ll keep a lid on myself and stay on more of an even keel.

SAS Tip: Had another bad night? Take it easy, stay mindful of the effects and moderate your demands both on yourself and others. During the early stages of parenthood, Toonen suggests, simply accept that certain things will take a backseat for a while.

In the last five days of Special Forces training the average soldier will lose 10-15kg. Starvation, lack of sleep and insane tests of physical endurance are all part of the deal. “We train in those high-stress conditions in order to set a base level of what you can handle,” Toonen says.

In order to withstand these ordeals, Special Forces soldiers become masters of mental resilience. Positive self-talk can serve as a handy tool to hang in there when you’re thrust into a very dark place.

“Whatever you say to yourself is true,” Toonen says. “So if you’re tired and you’re hurting and you can’t go on – this is true. But if you say, ‘OK, I’m exhausted but I’m enjoying myself – this is what I signed up for. Then you can continue on.”

SAS Tip: The early weeks of fatherhood are brutal. But try to stay upbeat. Remind yourself that things will improve and this is just a passing phase. Accentuate the positive and don’t dwell on the fact that you’ve only had three hours sleep. This isn’t the time to start tracking your sleep on your FitBit.

Special Forces soldiers are routinely hurled into crazy situations where they must stay calm and deliver under pressure. The stakes are invariably life or death. To avoid getting overwhelmed, they’re trained to adopt a solution-focused mentality that zooms in on the most immediate problem to hand.

“You learn to focus on what you can achieve,” Toonen says. “When we’re in a difficult situation, you’re not thinking ‘Gee, this is stressful!” It’s like, ‘OK, so here’s the problem. Now what’s the solution?’

SAS Tip: So you’re in a parenting hell-hole, trying to negotiate with a raging toddler at the end of a very long day. At times like these it’s easy for your inner monologue to get bleak and fatalistic. But instead of bemoaning the cluster-fuck your domestic life has become, concentrate on the most pressing task. Can you gently wrestle your hysterical child into the pushchair? Great. Secure the fastener? Done. Right then, what’s next….

How do you make a tough situation more manageable? You break it down into bite-sized objectives that you can realistically achieve, Toonen explains.

“Say you’re fighting in combat, you need to ask yourself: ‘Can I improve my position by 1 per cent? Can I make myself any more comfortable? Can I dig myself into a deeper hole? Is there a way to get out of the sun?”

You’ll invariably find some way to upgrade your situation. Then seek an additional way to improve your situation by another 1 per cent.

This simple tactic of finding marginal gains can help you to keep inching forwards. Effectively it’s “keep calm and carry on” in action.

SAS Tip: Small goals can save your sanity and keep things ticking along. Facing a long-haul flight with a teething child on your lap? Instead of freaking out at the enormity of the trip, focus on breaking it down into 15-minute chunks. Take baby steps (literally) and celebrate any minor victory. The woman sat next to you is hopefully wearing noise-cancelling headphones anyway.

Special Forces soldiers never tackle any mission half-cocked. Contingency plans are drafted and escape routes mapped out. High-tech weaponry is triple-checked. Parachute jumps are mentally rehearsed.

Yes, surprises are inevitable and plans will change on the hoof. But the soldiers will be ready for the challenge

“A lot of stress comes from not being prepared,” Toonen says. “Think about an exam or an important meeting at work. If you’re not prepared that’s stressful. But if you’re done everything you can to prepare and realise that you can only affect what you can physically do and mentally think about, well, that’s it.”

SAS Tip: Leaving the house with your toddler? Make sure you remember the baby wipes. And spare nappies. Plus a change of clothes, snacks, the sippy cup and whatever else you think you need. Shit happens (often literally). You don’t want to be caught unaware.

Qualifying for the Special Forces requires intense self-discipline. So you’d expect these elite soldiers to lead strictly regimented lives. In fact, SAS soldiers are more likely to be open-minded thinkers than rigid control freaks.

“We have to live in some sort of weird chaos for so long,” Toonen says. “And we’ve found that you can’t plan on everything. You start to understand that as soon as we walk out the door, chances are your plan will change. So sure you know your end-goal, but you appreciate that you can get there 100 different ways.”

SAS Tip: As a dad you need to become a nimble tactician. Flexibility is your friend. Small children are driven by random whims that rarely acknowledge timetables or logic. When your kid refuses to cooperate with your plan, Toonen suggests you ask yourself questions. “Is it going to matter in a couple of minutes?” The answer is probably no. Ask yourself: ‘Does he really need to do it? Or am I just doing it because I’ve just decided that’s the way it is.’ If he wants to do some colouring in instead of going to the park, it doesn’t really matter.”

As a dad, you often have to go with the flow or end up gnawing off your kneecaps with frustration. “If you try and force the template of your old life onto your new life – that’s never going to work. Ever,” Toonen says. “You’ve got to find a new way to thrive in the chaos.”