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Navy SEAL trainer helps teams find strength in stressful moments

John McGuire has brought Navy SEAL training to college baskebtall. (Photo Courtesy of Rush the Court)

Navy Seals

The toughest team always wins.

The visiting Virginia Commonwealth Rams have the ball under their own basket with 9.8 seconds to go, moments after a free throw from Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon tied the game at 56.

“C'mon, you guys, you can do this,” former Navy SEAL John McGuire thought as he sat directly behind VCU's bench. “Focus.”

Rams point guard Rob Brandenburg brings the ball past halfcourt, cuts to his right and passes to shooting guard Treveon Graham above the top of the key. Graham launches a three-pointer from nearly 30 feet away, snapping the net with just three seconds remaining. The Cavaliers miss a final-second heave.

Just like McGuire taught them.

McGuire, who rode on the Rams' bus to Charlottesville and gave the pregame speech, has worked with coach Shaka Smart's team since just after the Final Four run in 2011. The former sniper instructor now runs SEAL Team Physical Training, a Richmond, Virginia, business that focuses on fitness and team-building exercises, including for athletic teams. Smart found out about SEAL Team PT through word of mouth and called McGuire in November 2010, asking about his philosophies on teamwork and building leaders. “I think he liked what he heard,” McGuire said.

Since beginning work with VCU, SEAL Team PT has worked with nine Division I men's basketball programs, along with college football, lacrosse, women's basketball and baseball teams. Last offseason, McGuire personally worked with VCU, Toledo and Illinois.

Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

McGuire prides himself on taking people out of their comfort zones with his drills, many of them taken from his Navy SEAL training. Working on an unfamiliar task levels the playing field. It forces the people taking part to work together, lead, be confident and communicate. Players are usually divided into teams for their tasks, which can include anything from push-ups and running to carrying a sandbag or rowing a boat together. Given the limited time constraints afforded McGuire by NCAA rules – sometimes his training sessions are as short as three one-hour sessions within a week – cultivating chemistry and rapport is at the top of his task list.

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“It only takes one person to lose and everybody to win,” Rockets coach Tod Kowalczyk said, echoing a lesson that's stuck with him from the two years he's worked with SEAL Team PT, a lesson that also applies on the hardwood. McGuire has a more stark outlook about winning: “For Navy SEALs, whether we win or lose means whether we live or die.”

Difficult doesn't always mean impossible.”

The first word Illinois junior center Nnanna Egwu and Toledo junior guard Julius “Juice” Brown both used to describe what they were expecting was “tough.” Tough is what they got, too. For Egwu, it was running while carrying a sandbag over his head. For Brown, it was working in the pool, which is hard enough without having to account for and lead three teammates.

Egwu was in awe of what the SEAL training entailed, even as he realized he only got a taste of what the elite forces face: “What we did was probably about 1/100th of what they go through, so we had a very, very, very, very easy part of what they go through. So I have a lot of respect for what they go through and what they do to honor our country and fight for us and give us the freedoms we have today.”

When he leads teams in training, McGuire imparts one of the symbolic things he learned as a SEAL: the “Hoo yah” chant. The decades-old war cry is one of the iconic things associated with the SEALs, and it's something the Toledo team took to heart. During their SEAL Team PT training, Kowalczyk gave the Rockets gray T-shirts with the slogan in dark blue across the back. “We were honored to have those because our coach told us, 'Not anyone can get these T-shirts,'” Brown said. “You have to earn them. So after we got the T-shirts, we felt like we did something.”

You've got to be willing to sacrifice the most.”

McGuire is in awe of the coaches he works with – Illinois' John Groce, VCU's Smart and Toledo's Kowalczyk – and says he learns as much about leadership from them as they do from him. “I have a big focus on leadership because the most physically fit basketball team is not going to win the national championship unless they work as a team to communicate and do everything,” McGuire said. “There's a whole lot that goes into a win.”

Groce turned over his team to McGuire at the beginning of their offseason training, despite having nine new players on his roster. Smart can be seen in VCU's highlight video of the training, taking part right alongside his players. Kowalczyk, who found out about SEAL Team PT through Smart, said the leadership, communication and mental toughness he and his team learned reflects on the basketball court. McGuire, who has trained for many life-and-death situations, says those skills he trains others for manifest when it matters most.

“When the game is down to five or six seconds left on the clock and you're two points behind, I think that's where our training really comes in,” McGuire said. “I'm not talking about the biggest biceps, I'm talking about emotionally, physically, how convicted you are with the other stuff. I think the toughest team always wins.”

Kenny Ocker (@kennyocker) is a Rush the Court national columnist.

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