We all know that our physical capacity is something we should improve on a regular basis, but many don’t realize that building mental toughness is every bit as critical. Simply put, if two people are equally prepared physically, the one with greater mental toughness will prevail every time. Even more important, when the unexpected comes – the challenges and adversities of life that we can’t anticipate – mindset is often the difference between failure and success, or even survival….
In our first article on mental training, we’re going to begin with an overview of the concept of mental toughness: what it is, why it is crucial not only to athletic success but to all other areas of life, and some proven ways you can improve yours. In future articles, we’ll then go on to look at these techniques in greater detail, as well as exploring a wide range of other tools so that your mental resilience can be every bit as tough as your body.
There are many ways to define mental toughness, but for the purpose of our articles, we’ll use a succinct but powerful definition. Mental toughness is the ability to maintain constant constructive focus in times of physical and psychological adversity.
There are three elements of this definition that are especially important, so we’ll take a look at them in greater detail before moving on.
The first crucial principle here is that, just like strength or cardiovascular capacity, mental toughness is an ability – that is, it’s a skill that, like any other, can and should be developed. This is important on two levels.
First, mental toughness isn’t something you are just born with, rather the people who excel in this area purposefully cultivated it over time, and you can too. Second, just like training for a sport, the time to develop it is not when you need it, but now. You wouldn’t show up at an Ironman without any training, and mental toughness is exactly the same – you want to train your mental capacity when things are smooth so you will have the skill when the tough challenges arise.
The second principle is constructive focus. It’s easy to focus on our fears or worries, but to maintain realistic but constructive focus under duress is crucial for success in any avenue of life. For true mental toughness, we need the ability not only to focus but to focus on how to deal assertively and positively with the situation – in other words, to master our fears or preoccupations and focus on what will truly serve us in times of challenge.
The third element of true mental toughness is being able to maintain this clarity during both physical and mental challenges. Simply put, some are fine with physical strain but can allow criticism to hinder their focus. Some are good at providing for their family, materially, but struggle to do the same on the psychological front, such as when their children rebel or their spouse asserts a different view. True mental toughness is being able to keep your focus and clarity in all scenarios, not just the “comfortably uncomfortable….”
From the above definition, you can easily see that mental toughness is a skill that impacts literally every area of your life – from athletics to work to family. Your ability to stay constructively focused dramatically impacts the quality not only of your life but also that of the people who depend on you. By learning to stay focused during times of physical and mental stress, you can be a better competitor, a better colleague, a better boss, a better parent, and a better partner.
On top of all this, you’ll also experience radically better health. We all know stress dramatically depletes energy and even suppresses immune function. When you have mental toughness, you know you have the capacity to deal with even the most challenging situations, transforming them from sources of stress into “constructive opportunities.” Ultimately, mental toughness means better health, greater productivity, and more joy for you and for those you love.
Now that you’ve got an idea of what mental toughness is and just how much it can give you, let’s take a look at some simple but proven ways you can build yours. In future articles, we’ll examine each of these in greater detail, but the following will give you a starting point from which to begin or amplify your own mental training.
Zhan zhuang or “pillar standing” is a fundamental part of all of martial arts training for several reasons. In terms of internal arts, zhan zhuang is a powerful way to cultivate qi, build rooting power, and far more. It’s also a great way to build mental toughness that only takes a few feet of floor space and a timer. Stand in horse stance, making sure your posture is correct, slow your breathing, and focus on your dan tien/lower abdomen. Start with five minutes daily, and add a minute each week – in a short time you’ll build serious toughness, focus, and leg strength all in one go.
Cold immersion is a staple of all the long-lived cultures of the world, improving lymphatic flow and circulation, as well as fostering mental clarity and even staving off depression. It’s also a great tool for building mental toughness – in part because it’s safe, fast, and something you can do at home. Fill a tub with cold water and half a bag of ice, and immerse yourself up to the neck. Just like with zhan zhuang, keep your mind calm by keeping your breath slow and deep. Start with three minutes and add a minute each week. When ten is easy, add more ice.
Another great tool for mental toughness is rucking. A fundamental of all branches of the military, rucking is as functional as you could ask for, giving you both stamina and core stability. It will also test your mettle and build mental discipline. Grab a 50lb pack or weight-vest and hit the trail for 10 miles, striving to reduce your time each week. Similar to rucking but even more time-efficient, loaded carries are a great way to achieve many of the same benefits in a shorter period. Again, there’s a reason farmer’s walks and Husafell stone carries are standards of strongman competitions: few things test your determination in such a short a space and time. Grab a heavy sandbag, keg, or a pair of heavy kettlebells and see how many times you can lap the block in 30 minutes, trying to improve your distance each week. For the best of both worlds, include both rucking and loaded carries on a weekly basis, hitting a heavy-carry session during the work-week and a long ruck each weekend.
EMOM Training, or “Every Minute on the Minute,” is another great way to build mental toughness without a ton of time or space. Choose an exercise or two with moderate weight and volume – for example, five heavy sandbag clean and presses, five double kettlebell swings, ten burpees, or ten push-ups and five pull-ups. Then, every minute on the minute, complete the designated reps of your chosen exercise(s). Keep going until you can’t hit all reps and note the time, seeing if you can better your record each week.
The final item on our list is last because it’s often the hardest for people to appreciate, but it is in fact the single best way to improve mental toughness. Simply put, meditation builds the mental focus that will take all your training to the next level, as well as contributing to every other aspect of your life. Want better focus at work? Better communication with your partner? Quicker learning? Less stress? Meditation can give you all of these and more. Of course, learning to meditate takes time, but the basics are simple: choose a focus (.e.g., your breath, a word, a simple image like a candle or geometric symbol), sit quietly, and direct your mind to that focus. When you mind wanders, acknowledge it and draw it back. Start with 10 minutes and slowly increase to 30 – you’ll build all the above benefits, along with greater self-knowledge, which is yet another valuable component to true mental toughness.
In Our Next Article…
Now that we’ve covered the basics, in our future articles we’ll go into greater detail on how you can bring the same skill to building mental toughness that you do to all other aspects of training. We’ll examine each of the above tools at greater length, as well as exploring other aspects of mental training, such as the power of positivity, how you can better motivate yourself, and how to better motivate others, including clients. Until then, stay focused and stay tough….