Mental Toughness Underlies Passion for Sailing

By MC3 Richard Miller, CNSWC Public Affairs

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Capt. Keith Davids competes in the 2011 Chesapeake Bay Laser Masters Championship. (Photo by Jon Deutsch)

Blue waters, steady winds, and the smell of salt in the air are all part of the distinct atmosphere of life at sea. At nearly any bar in a Navy town, old Sailors gather to talk about their time in the service and the memories they have from travelling the world. While most people who serve in the Navy only make it to sea in the line of duty, one man has excelled as a sailor in his spare time as well.

During his career as a Navy SEAL, Captain Keith Davids has consistently functioned at an elite level. This success has transferred to another large part of his life: competitive sailing. In July 2015, Davids won the gold medal in the Masters’ Division of the Laser World Championships in Kingston, Ontario. Lasers are a kind of Olympic-class sail boat known for their standardized features, preventing competitors from having any unfair advantage over those around them.

“The mental toughness of being a SEAL has helped me compete again at a national and international level,” said Davids.

Davids, who has been sailing since he was a child, put his hobby on the backburner through the first half of his military career. Once he began competing again he quickly started matching the success he achieved sailing in his youth.

“The first time I sailed I was probably eight years old,” said Davids. “I started competing when I was 9 and was a youth national champion by 13.”

Winning the Laser World Championship is just one of Davids’ numerous accomplishments since returning to the sport. He finished fourth in the 2008 Olympic trials, although he acknowledges the difficulty of balancing high-level competition with a career as a SEAL.

“Realistically, to be an Olympian you have to be in it one hundred percent and with my career in the Navy that’s not possible,” said Davids.

Despite not being able to invest as much time into the sport as a lot of his peers, Davids still managed to win the national championships and credits his success to his military training while also acknowledging the impact the sport had on his career.

“Competitive sailing set me up to succeed in the SEAL community,” said Davids. “I certainly understand winds, which helps me with parachuting and sniping. I understand tides and currents, which helps me with combat swimming and small boat navigation.”

The work ethic and self-reliance needed to excel in an individual sport can transfer into team settings.

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Capt. Keith Davids competes in the 2011 Chesapeake Bay Laser Masters Championship. (Photo by Jon Deutsch)

“Racing a Laser is an individual sport, but being an effective member of the team also means being a good individual and requires individual effort and upholding your role on the team,” said Davids. “To be a good SEAL, it’s not enough to be a good member of the team. You also have to do a lot of individual work to make sure that you can contribute to the team effort.”

Sailing helps Davids stay productive during his off time and maintain a constant level of mental sharpness.

“Sailing for me is a hobby and passion, but it also keeps me grounded,” said Davids. “It gives me balance in my life. It’s also a way for me to continue to compete and keep me focused and on edge. It keeps me from slipping into complacency.”

Competing as a child taught Davids how to handle failure and overcome adversity, a skill essential for passing the grueling training to become a SEAL.

“To be truly great at anything requires a lot of sacrifice,” said Davids. “It requires failing. It requires being defeated along the way. You can’t really be a champion until you go through the process of winning, then losing, then bouncing back.”

BUD/s students often come from accomplished backgrounds. Like Davids, many were star athletes who were used to being on top their entire life before entering the Navy. The training pipeline levels the playing field and forces students to rely more on their mental ability, since they can’t make it on raw talent alone.

“A true champion can win repeatedly and when it matters, when the stakes are high,” said Davids. “That distinguishes real champions from guys who are talented and maybe don’t have the mental toughness.”

Even though he is a world champion, Davids says he has a long way to go.

“The people who remain humble, even when they’re at the top of their game, continue to learn,” said Davids.

Davids continues to train and brush up on his skills by challenging his peers.

“Train with someone better than you and they’ll push you,” said Davids. “The net result is both people get better.”

Along with training with talented peers, seeking the guidance and wisdom of someone more experienced helps Davids succeed.

“I have a wonderful mentor who taught me to sail,” said Davids. “He’s 92 years old and still winning races. He’s an inspiration to me. If I’m doing that into my later years, I’ll be happy.”

After his career in the Navy comes to an end, Davids still plans to use the skills he learned while serving to continue getting better every day and follow in the footsteps of his mentor.

“The great thing about sailing, unlike most sports, is you can compete at a high level even as you get older,” said Davids. “I hope to do it the rest of my life.”

The main thing that keeps Davids motivated with his hobby and career is his love for what he is doing.

“Without the passion, you won’t persevere,” said Davids.

While Davids has a lot to say about what helps him succeed as a sailor and a SEAL, the views he holds about success can apply to all aspects of life. No matter what curveballs life throws, only an individual can determine whether or not they overcome it. Some may falter while others, like Davids, learn to rise to the occasion.

“Every day life gives us a challenge,” said Davids. “How we decide to interpret that challenge ultimately decides our outlook on life.”

Capt. Davids is currently in a pre-deployment workup to lead joint special operations forward.

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