15 January 2015


Daniel Gallan

Captain Thomas Chaby, an active US Navy SEAL with over 25 years’ experience, talks to CONQA Sport about chaos. What is chaos? How can we manage it? Is it subjective, and if so, how can we compare it across different professions?


In sport, hyperbole is thrown around with such ease and comfort that we start to forget what the words we use actually mean. Yes, some players are in fact “great” or “legends”, but we tend to overuse these words and many others. “Unbelievable”, “disastrous”, “shambolic”, these are the tools of journalists, commentators and pundits alike. They are the gloss on the language we use to describe the games we love.

One word that has always resonated with us is “chaos”. A football defensive line could be in chaos. A dressing room with major egos and a manager out of his depth could be in chaos. When Lance Armstrong admitted to doping, it’s fair to say that the cycling world was thrown into chaos.

But the word itself is filled with subjectivity. As such it becomes hard to break down. A mother trying to get her kids to school on time knows all about chaos, but then again so does a soldier dodging bullets in a war torn land. Are the two comparable?

“Chaos can take on a different context for each individual, but ultimately it is a dynamic that pulls you out of your comfort zone,” says Capt. Chaby. “It is a subjective thing.”

For the Captain, being shot at is not chaotic. He admits that when he has had bullets fly at him (and it has happened more times than he would have liked), his heart rate is only slightly quicker than when he has to give a presentation in front of a crowd. His experience has conditioned him to be comfortable (as comfortable as one can be) in the face of such a life threatening situation.

Athletes have, through their experience, been conditioned to handle highly stressful situations in front of millions of people. One wrong move can alter not only their lives, but the lives of those passionate millions. Someone not conditioned to handle that would surely falter in the face of such a highly chaotic situation as he or she would be as far out of their comfort zone as being on a battlefield. We’ve seen incredibly talented athletes buckle under the immense weight of chaos. Supremely talented golfer Jean van de Velde’s meltdown at the 1999 Open Championship is a perfect example of this.

But if chaos is subjective, and we all experience it in our own unique way, how can you manage it? Capt. Chaby points out that it is not the chaos that is managed, but rather your response to the chaos.

“You manage your own systems. When you gain mastery over your own internal response to the unknown, then we’re talking about game changing responses. You look at athletes that have trained their entire lives for a particular moment. I can look in their eyes and I can tell whether or not they’re in that place where they are going to excel or not.”

CONQA: What situations are chaotic for you?

Capt. Chaby: For me a chaotic situation is when a plan goes sideways. Maybe our force gets broken up into multiple sections or we lose communication at the worst moments and the situation isn’t exactly what we had anticipated. You put all that together and that’s chaos. I’ll then have to think at the snap of a finger but the repercussions of my decisions could be life or death.

CONQA: Why is change so daunting? Change by its very definition means a step in to the unknown. Is change challenging because we can’t account for what is going to happen?

Capt. Chaby: I think so. That’s a good way to put it. When you’ve trained to do something, you’re comfortable with the condition you’re in. An athlete making an important shot is as comfortable as I am when bullets are flying over my head. Was I comfortable 25 years ago? No! Hearing bullets was daunting. But now through my experience I’m comfortable. Because I realise there is nothing I can do about that gun fire and for me it’s either aimed at me and it’s going to hit me or it’s not. All I can ensure is I have the appropriate cover and that I’m responding tactically in the best way.

CONQA: Does accepting the fact that you can’t account for the things you don’t know help in dealing with chaos and change?

Capt. Chaby: That’s the one thing we do in training. I don’t care what you do to me or what happens to me. The only thing that matters is how I respond to what happens to me. So I don’t think about what’s going to happen and get all caught up in thinking, “oh my gosh, I can’t deal with this!” I look at it like, “OK. This is what happened, what can I do?”

CONQA: As a leader, either on a battlefield or a sports field, how do you convince your team that your way of responding to a situation is the correct one?

Capt. Chaby: In our world we have a principle called ‘Teamability’. Most people think that in the military there is a leader and he is in charge. That’s not how it works. Everyone has a role and voice and you never know who is going to have the best answer. People have to trust that the best answer might come from the most junior guy. The buy-in is at such a high level because of our years of training together. We never discount anybody. ‘Teamability’ really empowers the overall team and that’s the key.

CONQA: Do you feel that when there is a failure in management, either in business or in a sports team, it is due to a failure in ‘Teamability’?

Capt. Chaby: In the military, our own level of accountability is unmatched. You’d be hard pressed to find a team that would be so candid and accept personal accountability at the level that our guys do. There is no such thing as the perfect job but when you sit on our debriefs and hear how critical each guy is of his own performance, and then hear the other guys support that guy; you just see an unbelievably tight team. The level of bickering in the military is nowhere near the level I saw when I was playing sports. If sports teams adopted the same philosophy as our guys, you wouldn’t have the ego and self-esteem factor that can be detrimental to the team’s goal.


Captain Thomas Chaby Executive Officer: Naval Special Warfare Command (US Navy SEALS) will be speaking at our Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on the 2nd and 3rd of September 2015. He will be discussing what it takes to manage your own emotions in the face of chaotic situations and how the sports world can learn from his.