Mental Toughness

Throughout the world there are many talented and gifted athletes who’s extraordinary ability is comparable to their peers. Often it is not pure athletic ability that separates elite athletes, but rather mental toughness. The mentally tough athletes never seem to succumb to pressure of the game or enormity of the moment. Instead they seem to rise and flourish during these moments. The athletes who are considered “clutch” have an inept ability to perform his or her best at that moment.

Psychologist, sociologist, and many mental health providers have studied resiliency and mental toughness. Why is it that some individuals seem to flourish while others can not handle the pressure? Studies have shown that mental toughness is not solely a trait that an individual is born with. Mental toughness can be a learned, cultivated, and improved, like any other athletic skill. For athletes looking to gain mental toughness that will yield better training and in-game performance the following tips may be helpful.

1. Focus on the Present
Focusing on the present can be a very hard task.  As children we are taught to plan for the future through childhood stories such as the ant and the grasshopper. So how can we stay focused?  The answer sounds simple…by only focusing on taking the next step. Then take the next step and then the next.  Don’t think about what is going to happen in 15 minutes or what happened in the past.  Only focus on the present and taking that next step (the next play, or 100m of a run, or the next putt).

2. Have a Short Memory
Dwelling in the past will not allow for growth. Being upset or thinking about what happened in the past is not productive. The number one job of a pitcher is not to get the hitters out by pitching the ball.  Occasionally, pitchers will give up a home run to the opposing team. A great pitcher that has made a mistake needs to have a short memory. Once the opposing batter has finished running there will be another hitter coming to the plate. The pitcher will need to learn from the mistake and forget the past and move on.  A great pitcher will not dwell on the past mistake or let it bring them down.  They move on.  You must do the same.  Learn to let go and move on quickly so that you can achieve your goal.

3. Stay Positive
Ever notice how athletes seem to respond better during cheering and positive reinforcement during an event. An athlete will run harder when his or her teammates or spectators in the crowd are cheering. The positive cheers motivate the athlete to work harder. Our brains will seek the easy way out and sometimes that means flight – instead of fight.  A warrior who has command of their mind will take control of the situation.  Mentally practicing the ability to drive out the negative and reinforce with the positive is an acquired skill.  You can work on every day with tough physical workouts or being exposed to arduous conditions (swimming in cold water, running in heat).  The easiest and best method is to control your thoughts.

4. Become a Ritual-maniac

Everyone has a ritual.  We get up in the morning around the same time, we watch our favorite TV show or sporting event, We get a cup of coffee or some food and read the newspaper. We arrive to work or school around the same time.  We all have a ritual.  Some rituals are good – some are bad. Top championship athletes also have rituals.  Ray Allen goes to the basketball court every day and shoots 1000 free throws.  Tiger Woods putts for hours and hits 1000′s of golf balls. They all have a ritual that has conditioning them to be tougher than the average athlete.

5. Enjoy the Battle
Many athletes enjoy competition and how it brings the best out of them.  While the competition may seem intense and perhaps challenging there is something to be said for an athlete reaches a new personal best. While many enjoy the reward the process/ journey is what determines an athlete’s success. Enjoy the journey and appreciate the present moment. Over time as you grow accustomed to this thinking you can embrace it on a more holistic manner.  But start out by telling yourself you are enjoying this tough competition

6. Visualize your Future Self
Get a mental picture of how you want to be in your future self.  In order to get through this current tough workout or hardship you have to not only survive – but thrive.  Think of your future self and how it will feel to stand on the podium with a medal draped around your neck.  Think about the cool breeze flowing against your skin and you hearing the crowd cheering in the background.  Use details to create a positively charged emotion that your mind will connect with.

It has been said that if your going through Hell – don’t stop.  So keep on driving through the tough stuff and use this clear mental picture of what you will be and what you will look like at the finish.  Very powerful stuff.

Mental visualization is key.  Before the Championship game – athletes like Michael Jordan rehearse the winning shot, playing it over and over in their mind as they practice and shoot baskets. Michael Jordan pictures himself cutting down the basket from the winning game.  Tiger Woods see’s himself putting on the green jacket at Augusta Nationals.  What do you visualize that you will put in your mind to help carry you through the rough and bumpy road?

7. Hang Around Winners
This concept seems like a no brainer. If you want to get better at basketball do you go play with some first graders?or do you go to the courts where the big boys hang out? Do you head to the gym on a Friday afternoon or do you head out to the local bar?  To get better – you have to workout with (and hang around) those that are at or above a level you want to be at.  To get mentally tough you have to do the same.  Get in an environment where only the tough survive and you will see your mental conditioning rise after the first day. So get tough by getting next to those athletes at the next level.

8. Repeating Affirmations
Mental affirmations are a great method.  Repeating words in your mind to help you focus on a task is an excellent way to cast off the extra chaos. It is harder for negative thoughts to enter your mind while you are chanting “I am a winner”,I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”.  Come up with a few affirmations.  Write them down and use them when your out on your next 5k run or weight workout.  You will be surprised how well they keep you on track, focused and keeping negative thoughts in the far back of your mind.

9. Reading Good Books
You can create discipline by reading every night.  Reading a good book is a form of ritual but it also helps to put great things into your mind.  Most people go to sleep watching all of the violence and negativity the evening news. Try reading 10 pages of a good book every night.  Reading every night will build consistency and ritual in your life. It will also help to build mental muscle that you can use in your next tough workout.

10. Calm Yourself
Have you noticed that the top champions are calm during the toughest of situations?  They have learned to calm themselves through conditioning to be ready for the unexpected.  Wrestlers and mixed martial arts fighters are taught to conserve their energy and stay calm. Wild excessive motion is fatiguing and wasteful. Conserving energy and remaining calm helps preserve optimal performance. Yoga and meditation are excellent methods to calm your mind and body.  Stretching and long distance running are also great exercises.  The key is to find the method that works for you and begin to incorporate that activity into your weekly routine (remember ritual?).

Derived from Brad Mcleod and Leif H. Smith