How BASE Jumper & Former SEAL Team Six Member Andy Stumpf Optimizes His Mind & Body For Peak Performance

I believe that the most impactful tool humans have access to is leadership, and what better way to lead than to set the example that you would like to see from others. In the pursuit of doing so, you will constantly be faced with challenges and choices that you can either have the discipline to attack and work your way through or at some point in your life look back upon and regret that you did not attack and work your way through.

As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body For Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andy Stumpf.

Andy was born and raised in Northern California. From the age of 11 he knew that he wanted to become a Navy SEAL, and it became the single driving force in his life. He enlisted in the Navy while still a Junior in high school, entering military service in 1996. After completing boot camp he began the most grueling training program in the US Military — Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL, known as BUD/s. Nearly 90% of all candidates are unsuccessful in completing the six-month program. Andy graduated and began his SEAL career attached to SEAL Team Five, in Coronado California.

In 2002 he screened for and joined the most elite counterterrorism unit in the military, SEAL Team Six. This unit is tasked with conducting the nation’s most critical missions, many of which have become the focus of Hollywood movies and books. While on a combat deployment an Iraqi insurgent shot Andy at close range with an AK-47. Doctors told him it would be years, if ever, before he recovered the use of his leg and returned to full active duty.

In 2006, Andy returned to the Naval Special Warfare Center as the Leading Petty Officer for 2nd Phase BUD/s training. While completing his two year instructor tour, in charge of 13 senior SEAL instructors and 600 students, Andy submitted his package to become a commissioned officer. In 2008, he became the first E-6 selection commissioned through the Limited Duty Officer Program in the history of Naval Special Warfare. Upon commissioning, he joined SEAL Team Three and completed his final combat tour to Afghanistan.

Throughout his 17-year career, Andy executed hundreds of combat operations throughout the world in support of the Global War on Terror. He was medically retired in June of 2013. His awards and decorations include 5 Bronze Star Medals (Four with Valor), the Purple Heart, the Joint Service Commendation Medal, The Navy and Marine Corp Commendation Medal with Valor, Three Navy and Marine Corp Achievement Medals, Two Combat Action Ribbons, and the presidential Unit Citation.

Although no longer wearing a uniform, Andy continues to fight for the SEAL community and their families. In 2015 he set two World Records after jumping from 36,500 feet and flying over 18 miles in a wingsuit in an effort to raise 1 Million Dollars for the Navy SEAL Foundation. Andy is a sponsored skydiver and BASE jumper, constantly traveling the world creating content for his sponsors.

His business experience includes managing corporate development and licensing, as well as Charitable Initiatives for a global fitness brand, focusing on strategic relationships and sponsorship opportunities with Fortune 500 Brands. In addition to his management experience, Andy became the company pilot, accruing 3500 hours of flight time, earning his Airline Transportation Pilot’s license, as well as type certifications in Gulfstream G-IV and Citation 525 series aircraft.

Post military, Andy founded a consulting firm dedicated to ensuring that the lessons learned from over a decade of sustained combat are retained, refined, and utilized by leaders in the business world. He has traveled the world interfacing with Fortune 500 organizations, as well as Federal, State, and local entities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I would consider my upbringing a very standard middle-class story. I was born and raised in Santa Cruz, California, spending most of my free time in and around the water. My father was a brick mason, and my mother did administrative work for a variety of tech companies. There was nothing of note in my academic “career,” and I played Waterpolo and baseball while in high school, and participated in junior lifeguard programs each summer. “Average” is the only accurate description to everything that I have listed. I was never at the top or bottom of the bell curve, I consistently found myself in the middle. I left Santa Cruz at the age of 18 when I entered Navy boot camp, and have returned infrequently since.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high-level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.

I am often at a loss when asked this question because I have a difficult time determining exactly where the motivation came from. My initial journey into the military was likely not what my parents had hoped for, but they never stood in my way. They both came from military families, and my father served in Vietnam, but neither spoke of the military, or military service as something they hoped I would pursue. I think that my initial inspiration to become a SEAL came from the little I knew of the SEAL community itself. I remember the day that my father first mentioned SEALs to me, and from that moment it became a gravitational force in my life. I don’t know if it was due to the idea of exclusivity, the difficulty of making it through the training, the conceptual nature of the job, or a combination of all those things, but it became the single driving force in my life at the age of 11. Once I entered the community I was surrounded by exceptional people, and the inspiration was present daily. Post military I was afforded the opportunity to pursue passions I had been unable to due to time commitments while serving, and in the course of doing so sought out experts in every field that I had an interest. Watching and interacting with those who are at the apex of their sport or ability has always been fascinating to me, and I have attempted to surround myself with as many of those people as possible.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

My parents set my moral compass, and it has served me well throughout my entire life. They instilled in me the value of hard work and work ethic. They always supported me when I stood my ground on my beliefs, and they gave me the opportunity to make mistakes and fail. My parents constantly encourage me to be myself, and not try to model my beliefs and behaviors from someone else. The odds of me being successful in my chosen career path were exceptionally small, and I received nothing but constant support and encouragement from them.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

Early in my SEAL career, I was involved in a “confrontation” at a drinking establishment in Tuscon. I was underage at the time, surrounded by peers that I looked up to, and had just received my SEAL Trident. I felt bulletproof, and I acted like it. I made some decisions that night that nearly ended my career before it had the chance to begin. I also allowed behavior from my peers that I should not have, but because of the pedestal, I put them on I said nothing and fell in step. I found myself standing in front of my Commanding Officer attempting to explain my choices and behavior and realized that there was no explanation for either. I had failed the people around me, and I had failed myself. Instead of ending my career, the Commanding Officer told me to cut the Trident patch off of my uniform, something that I had just sewn on weeks before. He did not allow me to wear the patch for six months, and any mistake from me during that time period would have been my exit from the community. It was arguable the best thing that has ever happened to me. Since that day I have viewed my actions and responsibilities as just that, mine, and mine alone. I will not tolerate behavior that I know to be wrong, regardless of who I am with. If I need to say something, I do. If I need to take action, I do. No one is bulletproof and above reproach from their actions, regardless of how high speed you think you are. The earlier you can learn that lesson, the better.

What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?

Take advantage of the one thing I did not have, limitless information. When I began my journey into the SEAL pipeline there were more unknowns than knowns, this is no longer the case. Research, research, research. Then do something with that knowledge. Prepare yourself. Not knowing what to prepare for is no longer a valid excuse, you have limitless information at your fingertips, use it! The same holds true for everything I have done post-military, access to information, and individuals is no longer impossible.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

The most interesting project that I am currently working on (to me at least), is myself. There is who I want to be, and who I am, and the distance between those two is greater than I want it to be. I travel the world talking about leadership, mentorship, responsibility, goal setting, mental toughness, and resilience. I have room for improvement in each of those areas, and many more, and it is a daily struggle. I think it is easy to point at a physical accomplishment or an exciting project and use that as a metric for success, but I have found for me the pathway to that success starts with improvement in myself. There is no arrival, only the journey.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?

Stress is often viewed negatively; I choose to view it as a performance enhancer. The key to stress is introducing it incrementally over time. You can build your muscles to be stronger by conditioning them, you can do the same with stress. The world record wingsuit jump is a perfect example of this. I did not just put all of my gear on and then jump out of a plane, I dedicated months to slowly and incrementally preparing myself for the event. I broke the jump down into small digestible pieces and worked on them over time. I spend the time to develop comfort with each piece of equipment and each phase of the event. Only after a robust build up and training cycle did I attempt the jump, and when I did, my stress level was very low.

Break large “problems” down into smaller digestible pieces

Train and practice as much as possible

Develop a structured approach, hope is not a good strategy

Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?

I do not use any particular breathing techniques myself, but I have heard many good things about them. Having said that, I do pay attention to my breathing and its impact on my physiology, but I do not have one particular system that I follow over another.

Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?

Often the activities that I am participating in have enough risk to remove distractions and provide clear focus, but for many that will not be the case. I recommend going back to something I have mentioned previously, a structured approach. If your mind is full of thoughts that are not critical to the task at hand your decision-making process will be compromised. If the evolution does not have the gravity to clear your mind from things other than the task at hand, you will need to find a way to do it “manually.” I recommend a sequential approach of acknowledging the thoughts that are occupying your mind, address them for a moment, and then let them go. This is something that will require practice, but the benefit far outweighs the time spend learning how to do it.

How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?

Your body is a machine, treat it like one. If you put diesel in a race car, you should expect poor performance. Machines that function at the highest levels are constantly maintained, tweaked, assessed, modified, and tested. I try to think of my body in the same way. Trust me, I have my peaks and valleys of physical readiness, and I love a good bowl of ice cream as much as the next person, but I try to not make those my norm. I try to maintain a high level of physical readiness, and I will attempt to peak for events or evolutions that require it. The last thought you want to enter your mind before attempting something that may take your life is “am I physically capable of doing this??”

These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?

Habits equate to momentum, and momentum works in both directions. Momentum begins with small movement and builds over time, a concept that is important to remember with your long-term goals. Massive and major changes are extremely difficult, especially over the long term. I always try to take small steps, and then build momentum on those steps, establishing habits that will have impact over the long term.

Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?

Bad habits are tough, and I think the journey there begins with the realization or identification of a bad habit. For some cold turkey works, for others it doesn’t. If you are a cold turkey type of person, objectively sit down and identify the habits that are hindering or hurting you, and stop. If you are less of the cold turkey type, start with the identification portion, and then put together a plan to correct the behavior. Layer small steps on top of small steps until you have achieved your goal.

As a high-performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?

I personally believe the key to finding a state of “flow” is to pursue challenges, things that scare you, and activities that contain the potential for failure. Each person will have a different answer as to what challenges them and scares them, and there is more value in pursuing those things than spending time on what you are already good at. For me, the flow has always been associated with physical activity of some kind, and I seek those activities. Once you realize the value of spending time with your mind in that state you will want to achieve it more and more often, but each of us will need to determine the keys to unlocking for themselves.

Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.

I have never practiced any “dogmatic” or structured form of meditation. Having said that, I suspect I have a mind that is slightly more active than most and I visualize often, which I suppose could be considered a form of meditation.

Many of us are limited by our self talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?

The best advice I have ever been given on this topic is to speak to yourself only in the terms that you would use to speak to someone else that you love. I think most people, myself included, speak to themselves in terms that they would never dream of using with a loved one or a colleague that they care about. I have found it to be a very hard process when it comes to how I manage my own internal dialogue, but it is incredibly important. If you recognize you are being destructive to yourself with your own internal dialogue, ask yourself if you would speak to someone else in those terms. If you wouldn’t, what terms would you use? Would you offer encouragement instead of negative feedback? If so, start to change that dialogue within yourself. Simple, not easy.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I do not consider myself to be a successful person by any metric, and I consider myself to be more flawed than most. I try to be open and honest about my mistakes in the hopes that others can learn from that, and hopefully not have to learn the lessons through their own personal experience.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

I have two:

Be the example


You have two choices, discipline or regret

I believe that the most impactful tool humans have access to is leadership, and what better way to lead than to set the example that you would like to see from others. In the pursuit of doing so, you will constantly be faced with challenges and choices that you can either have the discipline to attack and work your way through or at some point in your life look back upon and regret that you did not attack and work your way through.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Elon Musk, there are few minds like his.

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