And the Oscar for Best Skill-Improvement Method Goes to…


If “Zero Dark Thirty” wins the Oscar for best picture on Sunday (it’s got my vote), many will praise the movie’s gritty realism, particularly when it comes to the re-creation of the climactic raid on Bin Laden’s compound. We’ll be told how the filmmakers took pains to get everything exactly right about the Navy SEALs: their methods, their top-secret weapons, the techniques and teamwork that make them the best-performing soldiers on the planet.

But the filmmakers missed one thing. Which happens to be the most important part of the story.

The reps.

To watch the movie, you’d think the SEALs were encountering Bin Laden’s compound for the first time on the night of the raid. But in truth, they’d already experienced it, dozens and dozens of times, in training.

As this new article shows, the SEALs prepared for the raid by spending weeks training on full-scale mockups of Bin Laden’s compound — first in Harvey Point, North Carolina, then in Nevada — mockups that replicated the layout right down to every doorway, every gate, every wall.

Think about that. Day after day in combat gear, on a full-scale replica, going through every possible scenario: What if the compound is booby-trapped? What if they’re armed? What if the Pakistani troops show up? What if the helicopter goes down?  (In fact, as it turned out, one of the helicopters did go down.) When the time came, they ran the mission perfectly, because they’d built the right brains for the job.

I’d venture to guess that the filmmakers chose not to show the training for artistic reasons. After all, repetition seems kinda boring and pedestrian. But the genius of the SEALs is that they understand that the exact opposite is true. Repetition is badass.

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10 Responses to “And the Oscar for Best Skill-Improvement Method Goes to…”

  1. Jerry says:

    Actually, they didn’t get everything right. The scene where the seal screams “Breacher” never happened. Seals would never scream that when gaining entrance. It’s about stealth.

  2. Nathan says:

    Reminds me of the Clint Eastwood movie “Bird:Charlie Parker” The movie glorified Parkers drug use but never showed how much he really practiced.

  3. Trevor says:

    “Good coaching relies on repetition. Forget all the non-sense about
    training programmes to keep players happy. The argument that they must be stimulated by constant variety may come across as progressive or enlightened, but it is a dangerous evasion of priorities. In any
    physical activity, effective practice requires repeated execution of the skill involved. Why do you think the greatest golfers who have lived have devoted endless hours to striking the same shots over and over again? Yes, I know golf, where the ball always sits to be struck, is so different from football that technical comparisons are foolish. But the link is the need to concentrate on refining technique to the point where difficult skills become a matter of habit. When footballers complain about dullness of repetitive passing exercises, it is usually not monotony they resent, but hard work. David Beckham is Britain’s finest striker of a football not because of a God-given talent but because he practices with a relentless application that the vast majority of less gifted players wouldn’t contemplate. Practice may not make you perfect, but it will definitely make you better and any player working with me on
    the training ground will hear me preach the virtues of repetition–repeatedly.”
    Sir Alex Ferguson: Manchester United
    Messiah Method; Michael Zigarelli; Page 194

  4. Jonathan says:

    Great reminder. Our perception of skill is constantly being warped by media. SEALs appear to be these super-human, talent machines. When in reality, they are humans who do a TON of deliberate practice. And our man Daniel Coyle here always reminds us what it really takes. Thanks!

  5. djcoyle says:

    I love that quote. Sir Alex is The Dude.

    Thanks, Trevor.

  6. Mack says:

    So you’re saying that having a training montage with an inspirational power ballad playing in the background wouldn’t have been a good artistic choice? The 80’s disagree.

  7. Trevor,
    Golfers need to do that normally due to what they do teach is so complicated. spending time on the range trying to master a two directional flow of the upper body and lower body can only lead to inconsistency.

    Once as I did define what is needed to do which is different than what PGA teachers you can apply deep practice, spend less time practice the swing and spend more time applying the skill.
    The main difference is one you get better with playing golf the other one will hold you back. and require endless hours on the range.

  8. “Silver Linings Playbook” get my vote. Wait! It’s chock full of myelin building behavior. Probably shows more actual rehearsal than Zero Dark Thirty. At least in the dance episodes. Then consider the changes going on in behavior of the characters as they work on building new circuits. Or ponder how thick the myelin sheath must be for Robert De Niro’s character, for good or ill.

  9. djcoyle says:

    Hey Bill, That’s a great point, and insight. I especially love how they portrayed the dance stuff in that movie — it wasn’t like they suddenly became brilliant, but they got better realistically, which you barely ever see. Thanks.

  10. Derrick says:

    This is a good site. But if you believe that the movie shows anywhere near how it “really” happened…God help us. The movie was propaganda. We never even saw the guy’s body remember? Then all the guys that supposedly raided the compound got killed, remembe? (mainstream even reported it)

    So everyone that knows what actually happened is dead. More war propaganda, plain and simple.

    Hollywood and the government working together to show us how it REALLY happened, RIGHT! I’ve got 10 bridges for sale, one for each of you.

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