One of the most frequently asked questions from the athletes that I work with is how they can become more ‘mentally tough’. Rarely is anyone disappointed to learn that mental toughness is not the Blood + Sweat + Tears + Pain = Glory equation, but something else entirely. Intrigued?
Within my field of Sport Psychology, being mentally tough is all about how we respond when we begin to feel discomfort or when we encounter a challenging obstacle. We don’t need to be Olympians to develop the ability to be mentally tough. Here’s the deal– mental toughness is a skill set that can be practiced and developed so that we can automatically access it when it really counts.
Although there are several factors that contribute to mental toughness, most experts agree that at its core are three characteristics: Willingness, Optimism, and Resilience.
Willingness refers to how inclined we are to endure and to stay in a difficult experience without backing down or giving up. Willingness changes in direct relation to the strength and meaning of our goals. We may be more willing to tolerate a hard effort, for example, if we’re chasing after a PR on race day.
Optimism is a positive belief about a future outcome and bridges the gap between what we’re currently doing (the next interval in a workout for example), and how that relates to achieving our future goal. (Building up to running a 10K in a few months, for example).
Resilience is the ability to ‘correct and redirect’ when things don’t go according to plan, and in my experience is the most important and overarching feature of mental toughness. So leave your ‘No Pain, No Gain’ worries at the door. Think instead about situations where the process is simply too difficult to get through, and we wisely acknowledge that fact and then create and implement a Plan B, C, or D instead.
Science-Backed Strategies to Help Build Mental Toughness
Since we’re all very familiar with the concepts of obstacles and challenges as we navigate our daily lives while living with mental health challenges, I personally use this skill set in both sports and in life in general. Here are some of my favorite techniques that may also prove useful for you to try out in your own athletic and personal mental health situations.
Find a Way, Not an Excuse
Willingness, optimism, and resilience are all influenced by self-talk. Think about how often we negotiate with ourselves in an effort to avoid unpleasantness. Instead, when discomfort or doubt hit, try bringing “I Am” statements to life. “I am willing to keep pushing”, “I am willing to continue in the heat”, etc. On a difficult mental health day, I often bring in the same “I Am” statements, but ones that focus more on nurturing. When starting to feel depressed for example, I may say “I am loveable, I am loving, I am brave”. Likewise, if a goal or plan goes off the rails, I acknowledge this without judgment and redirect myself with a different target or approach. Mental Toughness is involved on all counts here!
Train in Unpleasant Conditions—On Purpose
Crummy weather provides an ideal test for mental toughness, as does running at a time of day that we’d prefer to avoid. Starting at an inconvenient time when you may not feel fresh will train your mind/body to work through uncomfortable situations and can hone willingness, optimism, and resilience and spill over to different types of challenges in life.
Adopt an Acceptance Based Approach to Difficulty
Many psychologists propose that difficulty is life’s way to shape and change us. One runner I work with has chosen to interpret exertion pain as a force that helps her to become who she wants to be (athletically and personally). When she encounters discomfort while training, she says to herself, “Yes, change me,” and yields to the full physical and emotional experience of that moment. Others of us may choose to be resilient over being in pain by accepting that a plan isn’t working for us, and creatively craft a more sustainable one that will bring us success. Mentally tough? Yes indeed.
How you carry your body can impact hormonal production and cognitive functioning. Slouching can actually slow down brain chemistry, while standing tall and open can increase testosterone and cortisol levels, priming the body for maximum output. At your next start line, or rough mental health phase, think tall with a wide stance…Like a Superhero or Warrior.
Repeating positive statements during training and races is proven to improve performance by reducing activity in the fear center of the brain. Choose words or phrases that have particular meaning for you that also serve as a reminder of why you run and/or compete. Some of my own faves are: ‘Relentless’— ‘Glide’— ‘Fearless’— ‘Believe’— ‘Warrior’ – ‘Reach’— ‘Fierce’— ‘Endure’—These same words, by the way, can also be helpful when struggling with a mental health challenge.
Clothing as Costume
There’s power in clothing. Studies have shown that what you wear can impact your performance on both cognitive exams and physical workouts/races. Before your next race, pick workout gear (I vote for Still I Run gear and accessories) in colors and styles that make you feel comfortable, ready, and fierce. Alternately, you may want to choose soft, loose comforting clothes or blankets for times when you deeply need nurturing when challenged by mental health concerns.
When waiting before a race, have some of the things that put you in a strong mood on hand. Photos, quotes, comics, music playlist, gratitude list, etc. Also, be aware of keeping your distance from ‘Energy Zappers’ or people who make you feel drained when you’re around them. Protect your positive energy level (mental toughness) with a vengeance!
Heading into a race, you want to be aware of the different scenarios that you could face. Have a plan ahead of time for what you’ll do if it’s unusually windy for example, or if everyone around you starts fast, or if your legs tire prematurely. Playing out and planning for different scenarios in your mind will save you crucial energy in the heat of the battle. You can avoid having to make decisions when you’re tired and/or discouraged. Additionally, you can just automatically draw upon Your Plan. Likewise, it pays to have our professional mental health resource names and emergency numbers easily available at all times.
Symbols or graphics are interpreted by the brain almost instantaneously and can trigger positive emotions and help to keep you relaxed. Many athletes, for example, like to visualize a lion or a speedy gazelle type of animal in the final laps of a race to prompt them to be ferocious and courageous at the end. One of my favorite techniques is to have a pre-made list of names (written on my arm) of important loved ones in my life and to designate individual miles for each one as I go along. I call up the person’s image in my head and ‘talk with them’ during their designated mile. I keep a similar list of my loved ones in multiple places to refer to at those times when I feel most unlovable.
Connect to your ‘Why’
We’re typically more willing to tolerate discomfort when we know that doing so is tied to a meaningful purpose or long-term goal. Reflect often on the many reasons why you choose to train and/or race, as well as why you’re willing to put in the time, energy and money when it comes to your mental health care.
Consider practicing these mental toughness skills consistently in both training and throughout your day. My hope is that you’ll consider a perspective that is authentic for you and your unique life and training style. Although we all naturally seek the path of least resistance, developing mental toughness can be applied to everything that life throws at us. But no matter what, I know this much for sure:
Collectively, we have pain. It’s big. Together we have courage. It’s bigger. ~ Life is Tough, but We can Do Tough Things ~