Paul McCullough and Adam La Reau: “People perform better when they are better”

We have to get ahead of mental health issues — we can’t wait until something goes wrong or something bad happens. We see this every day. As a society we wait for tragedies to occur before we take any preventative measures. It takes something like a line of duty death, a school shooting, or a major incident, […]

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We have to get ahead of mental health issues — we can’t wait until something goes wrong or something bad happens. We see this every day. As a society we wait for tragedies to occur before we take any preventative measures. It takes something like a line of duty death, a school shooting, or a major incident, before anyone looks at addressing the issue and that’s not the prudent thing to do. Whether you’re an administrator, a community leader, or an individual, you have to start taking care of yourself and your community before something tragic happens. As an organization, O2X focuses on putting a bunch of tools in people’s tool boxes. We need to start looking at mental health from a wider lens that includes all areas of performance.

As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Paul McCullough and Adam La Reau.

Paul McCullough is a co-founder of O2X Human Performance, a company that provides world-class training and education for tactical athletes and top tier organizations. As a founder of O2X, Paul covers business development and strategy for all O2X offerings.

Prior to creating O2X, Paul served eleven years in the U.S. military as a Navy SEAL. He spent his career with SEAL Team Eight and Naval Special Warfare Development Group. Throughout his service, Paul conducted numerous combat deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and other contingency operations around the globe. Paul left the Navy as a Chief Petty Officer and started O2X to follow his passion for entrepreneurship and human performance. He currently lives in New England with his wife and kids.

Adam La Reau is a co-founder of O2X Human Performance, a company that provides world class training and education for tactical athletes and top tier organizations.

Prior to creating O2X, Adam was a former Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy who began his career as a Midshipman at the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA) in Kings Point, New York. After graduating and earning his commission in 2002, he became the first U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Midshipman to report directly to — and successfully complete — the U.S. Navy’s Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. His efforts helped develop a pipeline for future U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Midshipman to pursue goals of serving their country as U.S. Navy SEALs.

After successfully completing BUD/S and advanced training, Adam spent his career with East Coast based SEAL Teams. Over the next decade, Adam conducted numerous combat deployments in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and other contingency operations around the globe.

Having left active duty in August 2013, Adam attended the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and received a Master of Public Administration. Following his passions, he created a non-profit called ‘One Summit’ to help build resilience in children with cancer that has helped hundreds of children, spread to three major cities, and results are being utilized in post-traumatic growth studies.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thanks for having us and for talking about a topic that needs more attention.

The two of us have worked together for a long time; most recently as the co-founders of O2X Human

Performance, but before that serving together in the SEAL teams. As we both looked to transition out of our military careers at about the same time, going into business together seemed like a good next step and service to others was how we wanted to find purpose after taking off the uniform. Well, that or open a brewery. We decided to table the latter…for now.

In the military, as part of the Special Operations community, we had access to some of the best resources in the world and focused on training the way we wanted to perform. That’s how we initially realized the importance of putting all those tools and resources together in a cohesive, relatable way. So, we created O2X in that image. We wanted to provide others with the same education on performance we had and go a step further to offer an experience we wish we’d had as well. The issues plaguing the Special Operations community were equally prevalent across lots of tactical populations — fire, police, conventional military; indeed, much of the general population, and we knew these were problems we had to help solve.

If you look at tactical athletes: the significant mental health issues and PTS/D that permeate fire departments, law enforcement agencies, and military units are staggering. Because of the severity of the job-related risks, these people have to do everything they can to proactively combat the issues they face. Not only do they need to be healthy and fit, but they also must optimize mental and physical performance and build resilience so they can continue to get better every day.

This is where O2X comes into play. It’s crucial that we place equal attention on optimizing each pillar of performance from nutrition and conditioning to sleep, stress management, and resilience. To do that, we break the pillars into three main categories: EAT, SWEAT, and THRIVE. Our mission is maximizing human performance through training and education; and, we designed our science-backed EAT SWEAT THRIVE methodology to do just that. Our goals are to see people who come through O2X programs finish their careers as strong as they started.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

Even with that statistic, people don’t realize how common mental health issues are. We work with first responders where the statistics are even more staggering than the general population. The stigma around mental health is something we see daily. These groups are the ones who are running towards traumatic events to keep others safe, they are basically signing up for having to handle post-traumatic stress.

Within the departments we work with, every individual has a different background and can be triggered by different situations. For example, in our workshops we hear about trucks being called to scenes where children are in danger, and for some of the firefighters who have young kids at home, that can be a trigger. Seeing a child in danger could really affect them and make them think of their own kids, so they have to learn how to process through those calls and be proactive about building resilience to get ahead of the potential stress calls could cause.

People know that physical training can curb physical injuries, they don’t always prioritize mental readiness and building resilience as a preventative measure. This is why education around mental health is a key component to breaking down the stigma, and why the O2X program has been successful at destigmatizing mental health within the departments we work.

We attribute our ability to destigmatize issues surrounding mental health to a few things. First, we approach it in a really relatable way and by sharing some stories of our own and of people with whom we have worked. Second, we tackle mental health from a performance standpoint and one that focuses on developing skills necessary for career longevity. You have to take care of yourself if you want to take care of others as a part of your job.

This is critical for first responders to learn and understand, and something we approach head-on in our work with tactical athletes. We look at mental health from the lens of optimizing performance. This normalizes the issue and opens the door to giving people concrete, actionable ways to make small, incremental changes that lead to major lifestyle improvements.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

O2X has been really successful at destigmatizing mental health issues in tactical populations because of our unique educational approach and personal experiences. We build strong communities, we share stories, and we provide education. Those three things are key to why our approach at O2X is helping destigmatize mental health issues.

As a company focused on optimizing career longevity, we frame our discussions about mental health around performance. We teach people that what’s ‘between the ears’ is as important, if not more important, to maximizing performance than physical conditioning. And, we highlight the fact that you can’t wait until something bad happens, you have to focus on preventative measures. We talk about prehabilitation and warm ups for your body, and you have to do the same proactive work for your mind.

The biggest thing we are doing is actually talking about mental health and digging into the hard conversations that a lot of people try to avoid. As a team, O2X is a collection of incredible individuals who have performed at elite levels in nearly every arena. Whether it’s wins and losses at the highest level of athletics or successes and failures as professionals, everyone on our team shares their own stories to help show people that opening up about your struggles makes you a better teammate, a better leader, a better warrior.

People think, “If it’s important to this team of people that has performed at the highest levels, and they’re saying talking about these issues is important for them to be good for their families and for their professions, then it’s okay for me to talk about too.” By taking our own armor off and sharing our stories, we normalize the issues and show how critical it is to take care of each other. To us, true power and strength is when people open up and are less guarded about their own problems and challenges.

As leaders of elite teams and in our work with top tier organizations, we believe that when people ask for help when they need it, there’s no stigma. If anything, setting down the sword and shield to get the help you need makes you a stronger teammate and a better warrior.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

One of our O2X resilience specialists says, “when you sign up for a job like being a firefighter or Special Operator, you’re signing up for post-traumatic stress.” And, following our own service, we understood the truth in that statement.

We served together for most of our time in the teams and after 9/11 we encountered a lot of challenges

and hardships. And, we wished we had more education and training — not only on building resilience, but also on optimizing performance. We realized there was a lot of information out there, but we were weeding through fact versus fiction and that’s what ultimately motivated us to create O2X. We wanted to build an organization that provided science-backed, comprehensive training and education using the latest, cutting-edge research.

We have experienced the loss of a lot of teammates and friends, and we wanted to be able to take our challenges and those hardships and turn them into something positive. With that goal in mind, we saw an imperative need to help tactical athletes manage the daily mental and physical demands of their jobs so they could finish their careers as strong as they started — ultimately, that’s what shaped O2X from an idea into a reality.

We see the drastic amount of cardiac events, orthopedic injuries, cancer rates and behavioral health issues throughout these units, but we recognized that with the right resources a lot of those risks are preventable. We really listen to and get to know the culture of the tactical communities we work with, and that’s a critical part of being able to create positive change. Through our human performance training and education, we empower to finish their careers as strong as they started. Our nation’s heroes deserve this, and we make it our priority at O2X.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

We have to get ahead of mental health issues — we can’t wait until something goes wrong or something bad happens. We see this every day. As a society we wait for tragedies to occur before we take any preventative measures. It takes something like a line of duty death, a school shooting, or a major incident, before anyone looks at addressing the issue and that’s not the prudent thing to do.

Whether you’re an administrator, a community leader, or an individual, you have to start taking care of yourself and your community before something tragic happens. As an organization, O2X focuses on putting a bunch of tools in people’s tool boxes. We need to start looking at mental health from a wider lens that includes all areas of performance.

It’s hard to be mentally strong if you’re not getting an adequate amount of sleep or your energy level is low because you’re not eating properly. People perform better when they are better.

We have to start looking at mental health from a wide lens and tackling the issues through a comprehensive approach. We need to strengthen every pillar of human performance — nutrition, conditioning, stress management, sleep, and resilience. And, we need to create a strong sense of community at home, at work, and as a society. A critical piece of building resilience and overcoming adversity is surrounding yourself with people who support you.

We all have to practice taking our armor off, sharing our own struggles and stories, and seeing the courage in vulnerability so we can become better teammates, better leaders, and better warriors.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

1) Planning ahead is critical to managing stress and staying focused on what’s important. With just a little bit of preparation, we can focus our energy on what matters most, our families and our work. For

us, that preparation comes directly from our O2X EAT SWEAT THRIVE methodology. At O2X, we like to say, “Mindfulness is like the gym for your brain” and “you can’t out-work a bad fork.” Ultimately, to reach our full potential we recognize that we have to look at the whole picture of health and wellness.

2) For us, a lot of it starts with nutrition. You know, “You can’t out-work a bad fork.” Fueling properly for performance and longevity comes down to focusing on three things — quality, quantity and timing. We plan ahead when we can and make sure that we get the right amount of nutrient dense, high quality food and we always pack healthy snacks to avoid the energy spikes and crashes. One thing we try to remember is to not have two unhealthy meals in a row, that lets us indulge without any guilt and not feel restricted by a healthy diet, but it keeps us on track so we don’t spiral into unhealthy habits for long periods of time.

3) Sweat is another critical piece of staying healthy, mentally and physically — not just to be fit and active, but also as a preventative measure to mitigate the risk of injury and promote longevity. We prioritize injury prevention in our workouts by doing a full warm up and cool down — we frame each sweat session with a PREPARE and RECOVER protocol. Physical fitness not only increases our health, but it makes us more productive. Exercise has a lot of benefits on mood and productivity, and ultimately being physically fit is ingrained in us. No matter how little time we have in a day, we always do a PREPARE SWEAT RECOVER routine — whether it’s a fifteen-minute bodyweight workout or an hour-long lifting session, we know that anything is better than nothing.

4) In terms of mental preparation, we use breathing as a fundamental part of our THRIVE curriculum and it’s something we practice daily. Breathing is a simple thing that we can’t live without, but as a society, we don’t focus on teaching people how to do it properly or use it as a way to optimize performance. We learned the value of practicing low and slow breathing in the military when we were in high-pressure situations and had to control our stress response. We used breathing as a tool to increase our heart rate variability, activate our parasympathetic nervous system, and relax when we were doing things like jumping out of airplanes or conducting missions overseas. Using low and slow breathing daily is what helps us manage chronic stressors as well as taking tactical pauses throughout the day so we can reset and refocus when we jump from one task to the next.

5) Prioritizing sleep as a tool for performance is another strategy we use to optimize performance and promote health in our own lives. We live in a culture that glorifies overworking ourselves, but the science shows that sleep is crucial to both physical and mental health. At O2X we highlight the importance of sleep and the role it plays in optimizing performance, and we teach people to focus on three things when it comes to creating healthy sleep routines — Habits, Mindset, and Environment.

When it comes to sleep, we create healthy habits like putting our phones down and limiting screen time at least an hour before bed. Our mindset towards sleep is that it is a crucial part of our performance plan — just like physical preparation, we have to prioritize sleep so that we wake up refreshed and fully recovered every day. Because of that, we make sure to create the optimal environments for sleep — keeping our bedrooms cool and dark, we use O2X eye-masks and ear plugs to cut out light and noise if we have to sleep on a plane or in hotel rooms. If you’re not getting the sleep you need to fully recover, you are not setting yourself up for success.

6) Lastly, we embrace practices that build resilience — the ability to encounter adversity and come back stronger every day; not just surviving adversity but thriving in it. And having a growth mindset is central to forging resilience.

A growth mindset requires tapping into our motivation and understanding our purpose; not just setting goals but understanding why those goals are important. Cultivating self-awareness in all that we do. As a team, we see each misstep as an opportunity for growth. Everyone makes mistakes in life, we know we’ve contributed our fair share, but with each mistake comes a chance to learn something and end up armed with more knowledge to avoid making that same mistake again. High performers seek out this type of challenge and opportunity for growth; it’s what makes them stronger. If you practice this mentality with goal setting and daily tasks, it will transfer into the greater tests as well.

At O2X, we talk about training the way you want to perform and using deliberate practice to make you stronger when you can. Like everything we do, optimizing mindsets follows the same theme of small, incremental changes leading to long-term, sustainable improvements. If you handle the small stuff well, the big stuff gets easier too.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

Family, friends, and mentors are our number one source of inspiration. They are what motivate us to keep working towards our goals and the people we look to most when we need support.

Human Performance For Tactical Athletes. The O2X book is a compilation of personal stories, science and research done by our team of specialists, and is the first comprehensive guide to human performance for the tactical athlete. It’s something we reference daily to improve our health and performance both personally and professionally.

The O2X Portal is where we get our daily dose of EAT SWEAT THRIVE. We log onto the Portal to get our healthy recipes, follow our training programs, and do our breathing exercises so we can get better every day.

The O2X team and our specialists are a huge part of the work we do and their passion for helping others fuels us. The team is comprised of Special Operations veterans, Olympic and professional athletes, and over 70 human performance experts who are leaders in their fields and dedicated to helping others rise higher.

The people we work with every day. From first responders to professional athletes and elite organizations, the O2X community is filled with people achieving great things and putting in hard work to get better every day. Their stories of resilience and triumph fuel our work.

Profiles in Resilience from One Summit is another place we look for inspiration as well. Adam founded One Summit, which is a non-profit dedicated to building resilience in kids battling cancer through experiential learning with Navy SEALs, storytelling, and community engagement.

Some of our other favorite books and podcasts are: Endurance by Alfred Lansing, Legacy by James Kerr, Fearless by Eric Blehm, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, Grit by Angela Duckworth, Mindset by Carol Dweck, The Art of Manliness Podcast, Behind the Shield Podcast, Finding Mastery Podcast, and The Tim Ferriss Show.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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