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This Navy SEAL Shows You How to Win at Scrabble and Life

A retired Master Chief reveals secrets of mental toughness


spinner image a diptych showing a scrabble chip and a marine in uniform
AARP Experience Counts Staff (Shutterstock)

​​​In the heat of competition — such as, a professional Scrabble match where every letter counts — nerves can derail competitors. They might even forget a basic word they’ve used all their lives.​

But Scrabble champion Austin Shin, 33, the only player to have won both the US and UK national Scrabble championships, has an ace in his pocket. ​Shin has learned from former Navy SEAL Master Chief Stephen Drum, 49, co-creator of the U.S. Navy’s Warrior Toughness training program. If it’s good enough for combat, it’s good enough for Scrabble.

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For 30 days last summer, Shin and his wife Lindsay, also a Scrabble competitor, worked through Drum's Cold Shower Protocol, available on the app Mental, which is aimed at men and promises to “strengthen your mind.”

​The protocol guides listeners to tolerate 6 to 90 seconds in freezing water to develop mental toughness and control. Drum, a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, narrates audio for each shower session, coaching users through the process, telling stories from his 27 years in uniform, much of it as an elite warrior.

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Here is some of Drum’s advice for Scrabble, combat and life:

Imitate high-stakes moments

Drum argues that his cold shower protocol imitates high-stakes moments, which can happen in competitive Scrabble. “The cold water provides the level of stress, but carefully controlled, so people can experience a level of stress so they have to navigate and use these tools before they have to use them later.”​

​In his final posting as a trainer in the Navy, Drum realized that “being physically ready wasn’t nearly enough” and that a “mind body soul” approach to toughness was needed because “we were facing combat drastically different from the last 20 years.” ​

Create an “on the X” performance statement​​

When things go sideways, or you feel “thrown off your game,” Drum teaches how to maintain poise and focus. He calls it “being on the X,” a term from military doctrines referring to make-or-break moments. ​

​“When you get ambushed on the street, in a gunfight, that’s the X. We all have those on the X moments, not necessarily people shooting at you.” Instead, it might be an important work call or presentation —or a big Scrabble tournament.

​​Listen to your inner world​​

The solution? “Listening to your inner world. Negative thoughts in our head are not helping us.” Once you recognize that you don’t like how you’re feeling—like in that cold shower—you can fill that noise with a performance statement instead. ​​In the Navy, Drum’s performance statement was “Shoot, Move, Communicate.” On a sales call, it might be something like “Eye contact, lip contact, pause, respond,” he said. ​

Create a mission statement ​​

Drum’s professional mission statement is: “I'm a professional. I work to get better every day, even if it's just a little bit. I don't crumble when things get hard and instead, no matter how bad the situation is, I choose to see opportunity in all situations, and I exist to be of service. ”​​Yours will be different, but by summing up your life philosophy, you give yourself a sense of purpose to lean into when the going gets tough.​​

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Use emotions to gather information

​​Drum insists his mission is far greater than helping people like the Shins win Scrabble matches. “It’s very serious—the topic of mental health, and men’s mental health especially, with suicide rates at an all-time high,” he said. ​​He wants men to stop “squashing down, tamping, and ignoring emotions.” Instead, he teaches all people to recognize emotions, and what they do for us—give information.

Learn how to “take a punch”

​​Drum emphasizes how to “take a punch,” whether literal or metaphorical, and to perform under pressure while at the same dealing with the daily grind of ordinary life, be it going out on repeated combat missions or something more mundane.

More on the line​​

Shin, whose day job is working in logistics for a fruit importer, believes that Drum has given him an edge, giving him training and knowledge that are unique among his Scrabble competitors. If time allows, he plans to take a cold shower during a mid-tournament lunch break. ​​He said: “As you get towards the end, there’s more on the line. You miss areas on the Scrabble board where you should have played.”​

​To see Shin putting Drum’s advice into action, watch him compete on Twitch​

 

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