We caught up with SAS: Who Dares Wins’ Ollie Ollerton about mental wealth, mindfulness and the perils of the Scottish coastline.
You know the drill now: 25 recruits get put through a punishing series of tasks designed to break them mentally, akin to the SAS selection process, all under the watchful eye of four SAS gurus Ant Middleton, Ollie Ollerton, Jason Fox and Mark Billingham. Here, Ollerton reveals how this year’s location can be particularly brutal, the stresses of strains for both recruits and instructors, and how he is replacing the ‘chaos’ of military life.
The latest SAS Who Dares Wins is back! The latest series is suitably brutal, did you enjoy making it?
I absolutely love it and I think the timing of it this year is a great thing. It used to be shown on TV in October, whereas now it’s being shown in January, a time when people typically tend to struggle, or when they’re setting their own challenges. It’s good timing, and hopefully the exploits of this year’s recruits can inspire people to tackle their own challenges head on.
Who Dares Wins has become a huge success. Did you expect that when you filmed the first series?
No. The first time I realised how big the show had become was in the last series. When we filmed the first one, though, we all thought it would be a one-hit wonder. We thought it might appeal to military wannabes, a specific crowd. However, when we saw the first edit, we realised how powerful it might be. We saw how it focused on the mental health of the recruits and how they were dealing with things we all deal with on a daily basis. The show has gathered momentum with each series and it seems to be getting even more powerful.
When it first started, the emphasis seemed to be on the physical challenge, whereas now it’s definitely more mental…
That is what the special forces is all about. A lot of people can do the physical element, but if you’re not mentally prepared as well then you’ll fail. When I went through selection, I thought I’d made a huge mistake at the start. I thought I’d made the wrong decision. There were people bigger and stronger than me. Yet when I got under way and started passing people, I grew in confidence. I would say 80% of the selection process is mental.
Is mental fortitude something you can develop?
It’s within us all. Your life experience and upbringing has an influence. If you’ve faced tough situations you will already have been on a mental journey. If you’ve lived something of a sheltered life you might not yet have built the mental tools you need to overcome difficulties in your life.
What can we expect in the new series? A lot of it seems to be on the sea…
A lot of this series involves water, but then a lot of us have spent a lot of time on the water while serving in the SAS. It opens up more opportunities for mental and physical challenges. Water is a huge component to life in the special forces. We try and use it as means to unlock potential.
The series is hard on the recruits, but is it also hard on you as instructors?
This series hit us really hard actually and I was so ready to leave that place by the end. The course we set up for the recruits is really dynamic and it’s the series that we really wanted to do, but things can change in a heartbeat. It’s reality, there are no scripts and the candidates do get hit really hard. It’s very draining. We don’t know them or their back stories. When we uncover them, you’re absorbing the pain they’ve gone through. It does affect you. You have to come away from it and offload it. Some of the stories are really harsh. You wonder how you would be in their situation. We take things for granted. People go through things in war, but for many people their war is at home or growing up. I wanted war, conflict… but for many, these situations are cast upon them not through choice. Plus, we stay up late, it’s hard work, it’s cold and it’s in tough conditions. In Scotland you get four seasons in one day.
The candidates all have issues they need to tackle… how hard is it for people to confront things?
It strips them down, gets rid of the façade. We all pretend to be someone, that’s everyday life. Look at our social media feeds, we put all our energy into being someone we’re not. You don’t have the opportunity to do that in the show, so you leave with your raw character. That’s hard.
Scotland is the birthplace of the SAS. What memories do you have of being tested to your max in your own training?
Every memory of the selection process is brutal, not just Scotland! But a lot of my training was up there. I was based there when I went on my first post when I joined the Royal Marines. I went to Desert Storm from there, and again for my Northern Ireland tour. It’s a harsh place. It’s cold, wet, painful.
Is there anything we’ve seen on the show that you wouldn’t do? What are your weaknesses?
I put myself in their shoes. I don’t enjoy doing a lot of the things we have to do but I’ve grown comfortable with the heights, the running, though it’s brutal. A lot of them haven’t done anything like the stuff we make them do. The beastings, the road work, descending from cliff tops… we’ve become comfortable with things like that over time but if you’re doing things for the first time… the beastings in particular are hard, I think ‘Jesus Christ’, I wonder how I would have handled that. When I was doing it, I had to do these things to pass my selection, but these guys aren’t joining the forces, they’re doing it off their own back. That’s amazing.
All of the instructors have suffered with mental health problems… how big a problem is that post-military? You seem to have found peace on a spiritual journey?
It has been a long process, one that’s taken 10 years. There has been a lot of soul searching. I didn’t seek help and there was too much drinking. It wasn’t until I cut away all the external negatives that I got to the real issues. I saw a spiritual psychologist who showed me the power of investing in yourself, looking after your mental state and dealing with what’s in your head. Trauma gets locked away and unless you deal with it, it will always be a problem. For me, it’s an ongoing journey. We’re so focused on our body and aesthetics and unfortunately people need to concentrate on their minds. Most people will get mental health issues at some point, and you need to deal with it.
Has the show helped you? You’ve written a book too, was that cathartic?
The show helped give me a purpose. And when you piece your life together in a book you go on a journey through all your highs and lows, and that hit me hard. I spent two and a half days in a box room for the audio book and got lost in the stories. But both things have helped me hugely. Putting it on paper and on screen has been good for me. Being with the lads again in the show, and knowing that the show can inspire the people who take part and those who watch it… as well as us as instructors, I love it.
You talk a lot about the difficulty in returning to normality after the ‘chaos’ of war – how do you cope now?
I’ve found a lot of purpose. Break Point is a project designed to help other people, and that has also given me a real purpose. The transition from military to civilian is about purpose, so you need to engage with something you’re passionate about. I’m now busier than I’ve ever been and the happiest I’ve ever been.
Can the military do more to help people transition back into civilian life?
It’s hard because we live in a blame culture. My journey, I could have had more help but I wouldn’t have listened. I can’t sit back and say no one helped me, but I didn’t help myself. We have to take ownership and responsibility for ourselves. We need to do more for ourselves. I didn’t do it and wasn’t prepared to listen, so I can’t blame anyone. Everyone is to blame for their own situation, you need to be prepared to deal with stuff. People might not be able to control suffering from something like PTSD, but they can seek help, or decide to do something about drinking or doing drugs. It’s easy to blame, but you have to look at yourself.
What are your tips for mindfulness?
I have a routine and I go through a process. I meditate for 20 minutes when I get up, then exercise. I then spend an hour on the computer, which means I’ve done loads before other people get up. Mindfulness is simply focused attention, clearing the bullshit and mind chatter. We have 70,000 thoughts in our head each day, so I try to focus on things I want to focus on.
You’re all obviously still very fit. How often do you go the gym?
I try and get to the gym most days. It’s important for me. It releases endorphins, which ultimately help us all live longer and happier. People say they haven’t got time. Nonsense, looking after yourself should be your work, and your most important job. Look after yourself and you’ll be better at work and with your family. You need a release, even if it’s a walk in the morning or taking the dog for a walk.
To help develop your own mental and physical strength, download the Battle Ready 360 app, available now: https://battleready360.co.uk
Ollie Ollerton’s Top 10 Tracks
1. Stompbox – The Gemists
2. Firestarter – The Prodigy
3. Galvanize – The Chemical Brothers
4. Propane Nightmares – Pendulum
5. Born Slippy – Underworld
6. Final Hit – Leftfield
7. Painkiller – Freestylers
8. Golddust – Dj Fresh
9. Dem Na Like Me – The Gemists
10. Eyes Closed – Netsky
For more playlists, check out our music section here.