“Every set back is a set up for a comeback.” —Tommy Amaker, Men’s Basketball Coach at Harvard University
As someone who cares about their fitness and holds themselves to the highest standards, you put a lot into your training. You carefully program your workouts to ensure you’re getting stronger and fitter. You are meticulous about what you put into your body and you invest hard-earned money in the highest quality supplements.
Despite all this effort, what if you found out you were ignoring the number one factor impacting your performance?
Mental toughness is a largely neglected trait that has a powerful role in our physical and professional success.
One reason mental toughness takes a back burner is that people don’t truly understand what it is. Before we get into ways to increase mental toughness, let’s clarify what it is NOT:
An inherent quality—most people think you’ve either got it or you don’t. In reality, it’s possible to grow your mental strength in the same way you build up your muscles through training.
A common trait—many people overestimate themselves. The truth is your average person has never had their true limits challenged. They have little idea of how they would perform in a make or break it situation.
Can be built through punishment. Many uninformed coaches think mental toughness is built by punishing athletes with brutal conditioning workouts. It’s true that hard workouts may show you can handle adversity, but true mental strength goes much further than being able to endure physical pain.
So, what exactly is mental toughness?
When you are mentally strong, you have a psychological edge that allows you to be more consistent than your peers at remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure. You believe you can achieve your goals and are able to overcome distractions, particularly bad performances.
The cool thing about mental toughness is that it can be cultivated. You can develop your mental muscle, tuning in to bad habits and learning new ones to replace them. By intentionally building your mental strength, it’s possible to become more self-disciplined, improve your grit, nurture your perseverance, and make it easier to get going when the going gets tough.
Developing mental toughness falls into two categories:
Actions that help you lay the ground work for success. These are things like goal setting, patience, and consistency.
Longer term habits that can actually change the architecture of your brain, making you more mentally strong in the same way that weight training builds the strength of your muscles.
This article will cover both, starting with the immediate actions you can put in place today and finishing up with the longer range habits you should add to your arsenal. If you can check all of the items off this mental toughness checklist, you’ll set yourself up for success in any endeavor you try.
#1: Keep A Wide Perspective
It’s easy to get tunnel vision on little annoyances, social slights, and minor problems, but being mentally strong lets you rise above these insignificant obstacles and keep your eyes on the prize of what you need to accomplish.
#2: Establish Consistency
Mental strength isn’t something that you magically acquire. You build it through practice and effort, day after day. Obstacles come up and difficulties arise, but by being relentless with your practice, you overcome roadblocks to reach your goal. Evaluating how consistent you are is important: A simple trick is to track your consistency by writing down the time spent working towards your goal and then tallying up your efforts every week or month. What you’ll find is that the hours logged in mindful effort = success in terms of pounds lost, weight lifted, or work completed.
#3: Set SMART Goals
Goal setting is closely linked to motivation because it provides a target for your efforts. You know where you’re going and you have a road map for getting there. The acronym SMART stands for:
Specific—Goals should be unique to you, the individual, and based on what lights your fire.
Measurable—Goals should be recorded in writing and quantifiable (e.g. how many pounds of fat you want to lose, or how much you want to increase your lower body strength as measured by a back squat).
Attainable—Goals need to be doable (for example, giving up bread for a day is usually doable) AND maintainable (giving up bread for the rest of your life is less realistic).
Realistic: Goals need to be attainable even if obstacles come up. Although theoretically possible, losing 30 pounds in 3 months is not realistic.
Time Bound: “Some time in the future” never comes. Time-bound goals encourage success and allow you to break your goal in smaller realistic chunks
#4: Use The Ten Minute Rule
Mental toughness isn’t glamorous. A lot of times it’s a grind. It’s about showing up, doing the work, going home, and then showing up the next day and doing the same thing again—over and over. In this situation, getting started is often the hardest part. Enter the ten minute rule—it’s a strategy for keeping with the program even when your motivation is lagging.
It works like this: Say you’ve committed to working out daily after work, but you are exhausted and all you want to do is bag it and get dinner with friends. Tell yourself to work out for 10 minutes and if your mind is still fighting your body after the 10 minutes are up, give yourself permission to quit. Ninety-five percent of the time, once you get your body moving, you’ll be able to push through to the end. The reality is that the few occasions when you do quit are the times your body and brain probably need the rest.
#5: Cultivate Emotional Stability
Life gets tricky and there are bound to be setbacks in anything you try. People who are mentally weak suffer a deep emotional dive when things go wrong and they are unable to talk themselves out of it, dooming their chance of success. If you can maintain objectivity when the pressure is on it’s possible to avoid having negative, internal feelings overwhelm your ability to troubleshoot so that you avoid costly mistakes. Staying centered and objective allows you to deliver the same level of performance regardless of what you’re feeling inside.
#6: Be Patient
Being enthusiastic can be an asset but it can also be a thorn in your side when making change. This couldn’t be truer when it comes to changing your body. We expect to see immediate results when we are being virtuous and hit our workouts and follow our eating plans. A few days without measurable results and most people throw in the towel in unrestrained misery. The reality is that it takes time for the body to adapt. Fat loss results tend to take weeks to appear, while muscle development takes months. The successful people are the ones who show up, do the work, and view everything as a work in progress.
#7: Use Positive Self Talk
It may seem like pop psychology, but research shows that how you conduct your inner monologue has an enormous effect on your success in life. If you beat yourself up, or sink into a mire of negative thinking when you make a mistake or fail at a task, you’re weakening your mental muscle and setting yourself up for future failure.
Instead, research has honed in on tools for getting the most out of self-talk. First, instead of talking to yourself in the first person with the pronoun “I”, speak to yourself the same way you’d speak to a trusted friend. Be kind, supportive, and encouraging, addressing yourself by your name. Doing so creates emotional distance but it also has been shown to stimulate diverse regions of the brain that are involved in self-control and confidence.
Second, use concrete coaching cues to guide your performance. If you’re competing in your first powerlifting meet, tell yourself to stay calm, breathe deep, and focus on technique instead of letting images of failing your lift run through your head.
Third, use positive affirmations. Simple, self-affirming statements like “you are strong,” “you have athletic legs,” “you are the fastest sprinter,” or “you are mentally tough” can improve self-esteem and help you persevere through obstacles. It’s not that we swallow these affirmations whole. Rather, they widen our perspective on our self and help mitigate bad blows. At the least, affirmations shift the focus away from negative thoughts and help us avoid the tunnel vision that threats encourage. Even if we don’t fully believe them, they can create cognitive space and diffuse the negativity that leads to mental weakness.
#8: Envision Success
Motivation is interesting. When we don’t have it, it becomes this elusive thing that we’d do anything to acquire. When we’ve got it, obstacles fall out of our way and we feel like we could conquer the world.
The great thing about motivation is that it is a skill that can improve with training. One way to increase your motivation is to mentally rehearse areas in which you are challenged. Consider if you’ve had the goal of going to the gym in the morning before work as part of a larger goal to lose 10 pounds of fat. Every night you set your alarm at 7 a.m. and every morning you hit the snooze button, sleeping through your workout. Visualizing a successful scenario can help you make it happen.
Take a few moments to imaging the sound of the alarm at 7 a.m. and what it feels like to sit up, get your feet on the floor, and turn off the alarm. Run through all the steps it takes to get you to the gym: Drinking water, going to the bathroom, getting dressed, grabbing your gym bag, getting in the car, driving to the gym, walking through the gym, putting your bag away, starting your warm-up, running through your dynamic stretches, and setting up your first lift of the day.
Why are visualizations so powerful?
Visualizations solidify your commitment to an action. They also impact how your brain approaches a new habit. We know from research that mental imagery is actually a form of practice. By practicing a new skill, sport, or habit, you forge new electrical pathways in the brain, which makes it easier to complete that task the next time you try it. Visualizations also increase levels of endorphins like dopamine that stimulate the reward center of the brain, making us more likely to seek out that feel good sensation we get from completing a goal oriented task.
#9: Develop Mindfulness
You’ve had those days: You’re tired and distracted. You do your workout, raising and lowering the weights as your mind wanders or you obsess over the disagreement you had with your partner. You’re going through the motions, but your performance suffers and you know in your heart that you are better than this.
How to raise your mental strength when your focus is shot and your emotional resources are depleted? Research shows that cultivating that ever popular buzzword, mindfulness, with specific activities can improve attention and pay off in physical performance.
Mindfulness is the state of knowing exactly what you are doing and noticing when your mind wanders. It is improved by using a laser-like focus on a single goal. When people become more mindful through practice, thoughts about the past and the future will vanish as they relax and concentrate on the here and now.
Studies actually show that intense concentration causes changes at the cellular level of the brain, facilitating greater neuronal rewiring, called neuroplasticity. In practical terms, this means that by practicing mindfulness, it becomes easier and your ability to tap into it under pressure improves.
Meditation is the best known tool for training your brain, but you can work on mindfulness in just about any area of your life. It’s as simple as being mindful about proper technique when squatting by focusing on keeping your chest open, squeezing your glutes, and driving through the ground as you power through the sticking point. Practicing mindfulness in eating entails focusing on the aroma of food, taking small bites and chewing them up, and savoring the flavors and textures.
#10: Challenge Yourself With Unpleasant Conditions
Becoming mentally strong doesn’t happen in prime conditions. If you spend every day in your comfort zone, your mental muscle atrophies. Brain pathways fade. Confidence lags. Just like with changing your body requires you to overload it physically, mental strength requires regular training.
The greatest athletes are a perfect example: Michael Jordan was at his best when the game appeared to be lost. He liked to be behind and thrived on the challenge of taking over the game and punishing opponents with is physical and mental will. Some of his most incredible performances occurred when he was ill, injured, or playing in less than optimal conditions.
Seeking out physical and professional challenges will allow you to train your mental muscle and become the best version of yourself. Instead of shying away from the challenge and electing to be average, cultivate your mental toughness to discover your real limits so that you can be your absolute best.