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When the Going Gets Tough

10 Practical Ways to Build Your Mental Toughness (plus quotes!)

By on June 19, 2019

In a previous article, What is Mental Toughness?, I explained that mental toughness is an umbrella term that is defined more by what it allows people to do rather than its characteristic features.  When most people use the term, they are simply describing someone who responds well to stress or adversity and can be relied upon to produce consistent results regardless of the circumstances   

But where does this mysterious capacity come from?  Is it something that you are just born with or that is developed early in life?  Or can it be trained?  As with every other psychological attribute imaginable, mental toughness has been shown to be influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. 

Qualitative research with elite athletes, as well as the coaches and sport psychologists who work with them, reveals widespread agreement among these experts that mental toughness can be enhanced through training.  The general public seems to be on board with this idea, as evidenced by the seemingly endless supply of articles, blogs, videos, workshops, and webinars that promise to help you cultivate this elusive quality – for a fee. 

In this article, I am going to do you the service of sorting through the muck of thinly veiled marketing ploys to offer 10 actionable strategies that can help you improve your mental toughness.  The quotes are a bonus. 

1. Connect with purpose

He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. 
~Friedrich Nietzsche~

The path to performance excellence is an arduous one, requiring persistent effort over very long periods of time.  Forward progress is often painstakingly slow. When results and rewards are not forthcoming, you might begin to ask yourself: Why am I putting myself through this? Whether you call it a vision, a personal philosophy, or a mission statement, you need to have an answer to this question – one that can sustain you over the long haul, through all the ups and downs. As Simon Sinek puts it, you have to Find Your Why.

2. Assume responsibility

The price of greatness is responsibility.
~Winston Churchill~

Take complete responsibility for your performance and your life.  Do not allow yourself to complain, make excuses, or blame others, and never, ever play the victim role.  You are the one at the helm of your life. The seas may be calm or choppy, but the ship doesn’t steer itself.  Hold yourself accountable for your choices each and every day.  Make use of the power of social pressure by forming an accountability group with peers, teammates, and colleagues who can be trusted to deliver candid feedback and challenge each other.

3. Act the part

I said I was the greatest even before I knew I was.
~Muhammad Ali~

Act as if you have already achieved your vision and expect others to respond to you accordingly.  If there are stark discrepancies between your image of yourself and reality, reality will be quick to let you know.  Pay attention to the feedback. What are the obstacles to being who you want to be right now? Begin to address these obstacles systematically.  I am not talking about “faking it til you make it” or “power posing.” I am talking about imagining exactly who it is you want to be and then trying to fully embody that image in the present moment.

4. Get uncomfortable

You have to learn how to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
~Lou Piniella~

When it comes to specific strategies for developing mental toughness, trial by fire is at the top of the list.  It’s pretty simple, really. If you want to learn to be mentally tough, you have to put yourself in situations that require you to be mentally tough. In the pool world, we call it “getting in the grease.”  There really is no substitute for repeatedly putting yourself in precisely the situations that make those palms sweat. The more you do it, the more you become desensitized to it. Performing while stressed becomes your new norm rather than something that is feared.

5. Keep showing up

A blue collar work ethic married to indomitable will. It is literally that simple.
~Christopher Sommer~

On some level, mental toughness comes down to consistency.  Can you deliver consistent results no matter what the context or circumstances?  You can’t rely on motivation alone. Motivation ebbs and flows. To be able to deliver when your motivation is low, when you are not at your best, or when circumstances are not ideal, you need to practice and train under those conditions.  Turn your daily routine and training regimen into a religious observance or spiritual practice. Missing practice or workouts should be considered heresy against your own personal philosophy.

6. Push your limits

Today I will do what others won’t so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.
~Jerry Rice~

What you think are your limits are not your limits. The Navy SEALS have what is called the 40% rule:  When your mind is telling you you’re done…you’re really only 40% done. In order to discover your true limits, you have to be willing to tolerate some failure and pain.  Begin to seek out failure – whether physical failure or performance failure.  Always set goals that are beyond your previous best.  Obviously, there is a fine line where pushing yourself too far can become dangerous (e.g. summit fever).  But few people ever get near that line.

7. Rest and recover

In the end, winning is sleeping better.
~Jodie Foster~

Growth has a pretty simple formula.  Stress the system, then adapt. Both parts are essential.  You cannot just continue to push yourself beyond your limits without giving yourself a chance to recover. If you do not rest and recuperate, your body will eventually rebel. The importance of sleep cannot be overstated.  Tissue repair and growth, consolidation of new learning, and maintenance of immune functioning all occur during sleep. Far from being “unproductive,” how you rest and recover plays a huge role in determining how efficient and effective your training will be.

8. Anticipate challenges

We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds.
~Aristotle Onassis~

Not only will the path to excellence be grueling, it will also be littered with obstacles, setbacks, and plain bad luck.  Don’t be caught off guard. Prepare yourself for unlikely but possible scenarios. Brainstorm unfortunate things that could happen… a bad call or bounce at a critical moment… an unexpected equipment failure. Role play or visualize effective responses to as many mishaps as possible. If you have already imagined responding to a particular challenge, you will be less likely to panic when it happens at a critical moment and more likely to respond with a calm, rational approach.  

9. Control your physiology

The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.
~William James~

Cortisol is a helluva drug.  So is adrenaline. The sympathetic nervous system evolved to provide a necessary surge of energy when faced with an immediate challenge such as fleeing a predator or fighting for status, mates, and resources. This is a good thing if you are trying to run from a bear, but not so good if you are trying to putt a golf ball. Fortunately, there are effective evidence-based techniques such as meditation, cognitive reappraisal, rhythmic breathing, and progressive relaxation that can allow you to take control of your physiology so that your mind and body are not so easily hijacked.

10. Enjoy yourself

There’s no fear when you’re having fun.
~Will Thomas~

The pursuit of your performance vision should bring you joy and fulfillment. It should energize you, not deplete you.  Of course, if you learned anything from this discussion, enjoyable does not mean easy. Anything worth doing will involve hard work and sacrifice. But there is a big difference between delaying gratification and making yourself utterly miserable.  In the end, no goal is worth sacrificing your well-being. If you find that your mood is frequently sour, your health declines, or your relationships begin to suffer, it might be a good idea to revisit your purpose. Do you still feel connected to and inspired by your vision?  If not, revise it. If so, renew your resolve.

Summary

If you want to be tougher, be tougher.
~Jocko Willink~

Mental toughness has gone viral, rapidly becoming one of the most recognizable constructs in sport psychology and a centerpiece of mental training programs in settings as diverse as boot camps and C-suites.  

For the ardent seeker of mental toughness, there is no shortage of training programs, though such programs can vary considerably in terms of scope, quality, and cost – with much of it amounting to repackaged motivational speaking. 

In this article I tried to provide a general roadmap for mental toughness training, providing a broad overview of the wide range of relevant factors.  But don’t mistake the map for the terrain.  In the end, you cannot become mentally tough by reading articles or watching videos. 

Elite athletes, coaches, and sport psychologists all converge on the idea that mental toughness, while a trainable quality, is typically acquired only through a long and arduous process and, once acquired, requires ongoing maintenance.   Guess you’d better be getting started then… 

With you in the pursuit, 

Dr. Dave

References and Suggested Reading:

Find Your Why, by Simon Sinek, 2017

The development and maintenance of mental toughness: Perceptions of elite performers, by Connaughton, Wadey, Hanton, and Jones, 2008

The development and maintenance of mental toughness in the world’s best performers, by Connaughton, Hanton, & Jones, 2010

Developing mental toughness: Perceptions of elite female gymnasts, by Thelwell, Such, Weston, Such, & Greenlees, 2010

Developing mental toughness: From research to practice, by Crust & Clough, 2011

Building Mental Toughness: Perceptions of Sport Psychologists, by Weinberg, Freysinger, Mellano, & Brookhouse, 2016

A Meta-Study of Qualitative Research on Mental Toughness Development, by Anthony, Gucciardi, & Gordon, 2016

Dr. Dave Schroerlucke is a mental performance expert helping individuals and teams develop the attitudes, habits, and mental skills that promote optimal performance, particularly within the context of competitive or high-stakes environments. Dr. Dave shares his expertise via blogging, individual coaching, team workshops, and speaking engagements.