IF you want to look like an athlete you need to train like one. This is true. However, before you can train like one, you need to begin thinking like one. True strength, the kind of strength that generates life change, always begins between the ears.
Vince Lombardi popularized the term “mental toughness” with his well known quote: “Mental toughness is many things and rather difficult to explain. Its qualities are sacrifice and self-denial. Also, most importantly, it is combined with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s a state of mind – you could call it ‘character in action.’”
Wikipedia defines mental toughness as the following: “Mental toughness - a term commonly used by coaches, sport psychologists, sport commentators, and business leaders – generally describes a collection of attributes that allow a person to persevere through difficult circumstances (such as difficult training or difficult competitive situations in games) and emerge without losing confidence.”
Mental toughness, in other words, is something you NEED if you are going to train, eat, and sleep like an elite athlete. Before you generate any results in the body you must first strengthen the mind. Often times the difference between someone who succeeds in their fitness goals and someone who does not is simply a lack of mental strength, or of grit.
I’m sure you’ve heard this by now- but achieving a fit, lean, functional and healthy athletic physique encompasses much more than just “how you train.” You can do plyometrics and Olympic lifts and sprints day in and day out but until you understand what it truly means to be an athlete MENTALLY as well as physically you’ll never obtain the physique you want.
SO WHAT MAKES AN ATHLETE MENTALLY TOUGH?
It’s great to talk about mental toughness, grit, and perseverance … but what do those things actually look like in the real world? In my opinion, in a word, toughness and grit equal consistency. Mentally tough athletes don’t miss workouts, or skimp on sleep. They don’t abandon their nutritional plans and they don’t shy away from the hard work required to pursue their goals. They are consistent, day in and day out.
For some of you, the concept of being consistent may seem like a challenge. But consistency is developed. It’s not inherent. No one is “born consistent.” It’s something that you can develop, by understanding that you are going to need to have grit, perseverance, and mental toughness in order to do so.
In my experience, the following tips and strategies will help:
DEFINE WHAT MENTAL TOUGHNESS MEANS TO YOU
I’ve given you some definitions of mental toughness, but get specific about being mentally strong as it relates to your unique goals. We all have our own troubles, challenges and struggles to overcome in life, and therefore each person’s “mentally tough” will vary from the next. It could be grinding out one extra rep in the gym, going a week without a slipped up meal, or it could be committing to a full month with NO missed workouts. Whatever it is, be clear about what you’re going after. Mental toughness is an abstract quality, but in the real world it’s tied to concrete actions. You can’t magically think your way to becoming mentally tough, you prove it to yourself by doing something in real life.
FOCUS ON DAILY PHYSICAL WINS
So often we think that mental toughness is about how we respond to extreme situations. How did you perform in the championship game? Can you keep your life together while grieving the death of a family member? Did you bounce back after your business went bankrupt, and so on. There’s no doubt that extreme situations test our courage, perseverance, and mental toughness … but what about everyday circumstances?
Mental toughness is like a muscle. It needs to be worked to grow and develop. If you haven’t pushed yourself in thousands of small ways on a day to day basis, of course you’ll wilt when things get really difficult.
It’s the individual choices that we make on a daily basis that build our “mental toughness muscle,” so the best way to start working on your mental toughness is to begin by making better choices.
Choose to do the tenth rep when it would be easier to just do nine. Choose to take time to food prep rather then watch TV. Get off your butt and get moving even if you don’t “feel” like it. Choose to push yourself just a little bit harder during those sprints. Prove to yourself — in a thousand tiny ways — that you have guts, that you have the willpower, and that you can produce grit and persevere when needed. We all want mental strength, but you can’t think your way to it. It’s your physical actions that prove your mental fortitude.
MENTAL TOUGHNESS IS ABOUT FORMING HABITS
It’s NOT reliant upon motivation. So many people skip workouts with the disclaimer of “oh I wasn’t motivated.” The skip food prep because they “just don’t feel like it.” The thing is, motivation is fickle. Willpower comes and goes. There will be days when you “don’t feel like it”, but that’s where mental toughness comes into play. That’s why it’s so important to get consistent.
Mental toughness isn’t about getting an incredible dose of inspiration or courage from watching some YouTube of your favorite athlete training. It’s about building the daily habits that allow you to stick to a schedule and overcome challenges and distractions without second thought. It’s about getting yourself into a routine that commits you to your training, whether you are “in the mood” or “motivated” or not. Motivation may get you going but habit is what will keep you compliant.
There will be many times, both in the gym, and in life when things happen that are outside of your control. A mentally tough person keeps their emotions in check and doesn’t allow how they “feel’ to necessarily dictate how they act. It’s important to develop a system that will help you focus on the important stuff regardless of how many obstacles life hands you. Making fitness a habit and not an option is what will set you apart.
DON’T LET SETBACKS SET YOU BACK
People who are mentally tough understand that failure is inevitable. There will be times when you slip up, falter, or really struggle with your fitness goals. Whether it’s poorly planned meals, bad training sessions, missed lifts of PRS, or the face dive you did into the ice cream the other night, you are going to have to learn to roll with the punches. Part of being mentally tough is realizing that setbacks only set you back if you allow them to. Part of being able to handle failure with maturity is reliant upon your ability to have a positive outlook, to focus on the lesions to be learned from the failure, instead of the failure itself.
The great thing about mental toughness is that you are not born with it. You don’t have to learn it at a young age. You can commit to implementing mental toughness at any point in your life, because it simply comes from the decision to apply some of the traits I’ve mentioned. Getting your mind right is going to be paramount in your ability to make changes to your physique through hard training and structured nutrition. Most people fail to reach their potential because they simply lack the consistency, discipline, and commitment that comes from being a mentally tough person. Commit to making the mind stronger first, and you’ll find that the work you do in the gym and in the kitchen will be that much easier. Without some measure of “grit”, you’ll never reach your full potential.
Ready to take the next step in building your athletic body? Be sure to check back for the next installment of “Building Your Athletic Body: Insane Training for a Lean Physique”
*Here is a link to the first article in the series if you missed it: Building your Athletic Body: What is an Athlete