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Learning To Fail

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When I originally left University I wanted to be a Royal Marine Officer. I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps and I wanted to do something worthwhile, action-packed, and hard. I suppose I wanted, most of all, to show just how tough I was.

Marine officer selection is split into two parts. First of all you go to Lympstone Commando Training Centre (CTC) in Devon for a 3 day Potential Officer Course (POC). This consists of a fully-packed itinerary of physical tests, mental tests, presentations and a host of other things to see if you have what they are looking for. The second part of selection, if you pass the first, is a 3 day trip to the Admiralty Interview Board (AIB) where the Navy get their hands on you with some written tests and leadership tests. If you pass both stages you would make a shortlist and, depending on how many people are on that shortlist, be put onto the next available training course if you’re considered good enough.

It’s the toughest selection course in the world (apparently) and I wanted some of that. You get a leaflet explaining a suggested training course to get in shape for the selection and for months that was my bible. I can’t remember how many times I patched up my blistered feet after running in army boots, but when the POC came along I felt ready. But boy was I not.

On the first day you get a gym test, the highlight of which is the RMFA (Royal Marine Fitness Assessment) which consists of press-ups, sit-ups, burpees (a squat thrust with standing up in the middle), pull ups and sprinting (if memory serves me). Unknown to me was that they beast the hell out of you first (beasting is almost as bad as it sounds) so you’re knackered, then they put you through the RMFA. If you fail that, you’re going home. I just managed to pass.

The next highlight was being introduced to the assault course and carrying a telegraph pole around with you all morning. After lunch you do a presentation and then the endurance course (running 10 miles across country including underwater tunnels and similar energy sapping tasks). A formation run back to camp finished that off, and by this stage you are absolutely wasted. Every part of your body tells you to lie down and die, but it’s a mental battle and you can keep going. There are a few more discussion exercises and some swimming, but that’s basically it. Amazingly, I passed. Not many of us from the group did but I felt great. You’ll never know how hard something like that is unless you do it and I had a real sense of achievement (I still do).

A few weeks later I attended the AIB and felt as though I was already in. I was cocky and felt as though I had done the hard part and this was just a formality. In retrospect I didn’t really apply myself to the leadership tasks I was set (such as getting a group of people across a chasm using a few bits of wood and a steel drum). It was my own fault for getting ahead of myself and I failed. I was however invited to come back a year later.

After doing an MSc to kill time (no, really, I couldn’t find anything better to do), I was ready to rock. I was fitter, stronger, faster and there was no way on earth I was going to fail. I’d done the POC before and knew exactly what it took to pass. And I knew exactly what was expected of me at the AIB, so no hanging back this time. No problem.

But shortly after arriving at Lympstone I noticed I had a little bit of a cold. I felt fine though, just a bit of a sniffle. The RMFA was no problem this time and managed to easily pass it (I almost fainted the first time but managed to stay conscious). However the morning of the second day wasn’t so good. I’d had the runs the night before and started day two by throwing up (I just put it down to nerves). I managed to hang in there through the assault course, telegraph pole carrying and cutting my knuckles doing press-ups on the frozen ground. But by the afternoon run I was starting to flag. I was with the pack until the run back to camp but then my legs started to give up the ghost. I would run at my normal pace for a few yards, then my lungs would seem to stop working, I’d drop to almost walking pace, feel a bit better and then try to speed up again. My body was wrecked and I got pulled into the back of a wagon after a couple of miles. I was gutted.

I knew I’d failed and I wasn’t impressed. In the final one-on-one with the officer running the course I got no sympathy (although I didn’t expect any) and was told that I’d failed and, now that I was too old, not to bother coming back. Suddenly, after two years of training for the one thing in life I really wanted to do, I had that dream snatched away and I had nobody to blame but myself. I was thoroughly ill for a couple of weeks afterwards (the flu apparently) but that was no consolation.

Up until that point I’d drifted through my life, passing exams with flying colours, passing my driving test first time, and achieving everything I wanted without trying too hard. It had been plain sailing. And now I’d failed at something that really mattered. I had to pick my life up and decide what else I wanted to do with it. I needed to “start again from my beginnings” and it was damn hard. I was bitter and twisted for a while.

But, looking back, failing was the best thing that ever happened to me. It stopped me taking things for granted. It made me realise that not everything was going to go my way and I was going to have to learn to deal with it. It stopped me drifting and made me act for a purpose all the time. But above all, it made me sit back and think about what the hell I wanted to do with my life. How I chose software development I’ll never know.

I did learn a few other things from the POC, however. One is that people who think they’re “hard” or tough, are most often not in the grand scheme of things. The Marine physical training staff are some of the toughest bastards I could ever imagine – they don’t feel pain and if there were three of you with baseball bats and one of them, I’d still bet on them. Another is that southerners are not jessies (a common assumption is that people from the south of England are soft). There were quite a few southerners on both my courses and I can assure you that they didn’t mind getting their feet wet or having their faces buried in the mud. Thirdly, I learned that big, muscle-bound meatheads, aren’t as tough as they seem. At the start of my first POC I was in awe at the size and shape of some of these guys on the course, and was amazed to see most of these guys drop out fairly quickly. Finally, if you think I’m arrogant now, you should have seen me before then – I was truly terrible.

So respect to our armed forces. And bring back National Service!

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Creator of John's Background Switcher. Scotsman, footballer, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.

9 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. Things you do for fun Mr C… Always knew you were a little odd, and now I know why! Nice to see you draughted the assistance of Jerry Springer for the heart warming conclusion.

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  2. oddly i did something similar (without the passing exams easily) however after a couple of injuries i decided that the TA SAS (yes it is real) was likely to kill me through injury and that maybe a job indoors might be a better idea (isses with my back, which is now fine) but i’m glad i did it all…. and again after that why computers….

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  3. I was tempted to give them a go at one point but thought better of it – it’s not exactly part-time with those guys… If I remember correctly the selection goes over several months so you need to be pretty lucky to not pick up some nasty injuries. And even more determined. I still can’t work out a connection between the army and computers though 😉

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  4. If i wanted to pass the officer selection course would there be any advice you could help me with?

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  5. I sure do. Get in good shape. If you only follow the fitness guide they give you you’ll probably struggle to make it. Taking the gym tests first: they make you do all the pushups, pullups etc. after they’ve had you sprinting around for half an hour beforehand. So you’re already knackered and then the tests begin. The obstacle course is the same – they sprint you around and make you do loads of pushups before you even get started. And when you do the endurance course they never let you stop moving and throw in plenty of pushups (they love them). So you’ve got to be able to run when you’re already tired, something that is a lot easier when you’ve practised it lots (your body adapts to it with training). I did most of my training runs in army boots. Damn hard work and initially much slower than in trainers, but you can eventually manage to run at the pace of most people in trainers with time. I found my feet got cut up a bit to start with but eventually toughened up. The extra weight of the boots takes some getting used to but encourages you to not lift your feet so much when you run. I also tried to do as little running on roads as possible (dodgy ankles you see), but sand is the best if you live near any beaches. In fact, running up and down sand dunes until you literally drop is excellent training for what they put you through at Lympstone. Both aerobic and anaerobic. Upper body strength is the next one and pullups are a particularly important exercise that most people seem incapable of doing more than a couple of. Follow their training guide if you like (pretty much what I did) but when going running I’d stop every mile or two to do 50 pushups or situps – it does prepare your body for what they make you do. It’s all about breaking up your rhythm and being able to adapt to it. Periodically going for a hard run (mixing up with some sprinting and pushups) and then seeing if I could do the RMFA helped build my confidence. I guess the bottom line is being able to do what they ask when they’ve already beaten you up a bit. So that’s the physical bit. Preparation, preparation and preparation. There’s no shortcuts, just hard graft to get in really good shape. And that’ll only just be enough to make it – you really need to be at the top of your game. The next thing is attitude. Marines tend to be quietly confident types rather than brash Parachute Regiment thug types. They’re looking for a good team attitude, trying to help people along that are struggling, that kind of thing. They know what they’re looking for so just be yourself and if you’re not their type of person there’s not a lot you can do. And definitely don’t be Mr. Cocky git, especially during the discussion exercises. They’re looking for people who can communicate, think logically when knackered or under pressure and stay positive and switched on. Whatever you do though. Don’t quit. It can get pretty hard but it is perfectly achievable to pass the course. When you’re fit enough it’s purely a mental battle. Good luck. That’s a bit of a ramble but some of it should make sense… Any more questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

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  6. If you want some advice on passing officer selection with the RM, then give me an email.
    Currently at uni, but received a scholarship through sixth form, and then busary now.
    Because of the two awards, I’ve done selection twice and experienced the change in the POC.

    cheers,

    tom

    (b2819@hotmail.com)

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  7. Couldnt tell you about the officers course only about the PRMC which is fucking hard. If you do it beware there is a “warm up” before you do the assult course. This warm up makes the most people drop out about 6-8 PRM. you have to be determined todo this but you will be allowed a small standing rest after.

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  8. Sir, i would like to ask you several questions regarding the selection process in AIB. I am looking forward to join in Royal navy as an “Marine Engineer”. Currenly, i live in USA and working for a company called “Black & Veatch” as an Electrical Design Engineer. We do design all kinds of Power Plants including Nuclear Power Plants. However, i am a citizen of Bangladesh and my dad was the Commodore of bangladesh navy. He retired this Feb 2007. It is in my DNA to join in Navy. I completed my B.Sc Degree from USA and now i am willing to join in RN. In that respect, i need your help. Could you plese help me understand and instruct me in order to be selected in AIB. Since you have the experience inAIB, i would highly appreciate your excellent guidance in this field. Thank you and waiting for early reply…

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  9. Just be yourself, try your hardest, don’t hold back and if you’re the right fit for them you’ll pass, if you’re not you’ll fail. It really is as simple as that!

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