As a little boy, I was scrawny, weak, and prone to illness (much like a certain former president). For a long time, I thought I was just doomed to be pathetic, until my dad took me canoeing. In the mucky, hot, poorly maintained trails and portages of the Boundary Waters in the north woods of Minnesota, I learned that I could be tough, scrappy, and indomitable. I took a brutal pleasure in carrying the heaviest pack I could over long and steep portages, willing my toothpick legs to take one step, then another, then another, until I saw the blue expanse of the next lake peeking through the trees. That was all I had to work with: a willingness to push myself harder than anyone else, to charge headlong into the roughest terrain, and to ignore cold, rain, heat, bugs, and my own internal discomfort.
With the popularity of high-intensity workout programs, military-inspired training, and brutal adventure races, mental toughness is in the spotlight. The gold standard of a hardcore athlete is how much pain they can tolerate. But what about simple, plain old ruggedness? What does it mean to be physically tough, as well as mentally tough? Is it enough to simply be strong, or is there something more to it?
Strong But Weak
I will always remember the day I dropped in on a CrossFit class and went out for the warm-up jog with no shoes on. One of the other guys there, massively strong and musclebound, was shocked and asked me if it hurt or if I was scared of broken glass. I explained that I’d toughened up my feet over the last few years and it didn’t bother me at all. If I was caught shoeless in an emergency, the few seconds I needed to put on shoes could make the difference between life and death. It didn’t matter how fast I could sprint if my feet were too tender to handle the asphalt.
I see that reaction all the time: big guys with lots of muscles who wince as soon as the shoes come off or who insist on wearing gloves whenever they lift weights. They are immensely strong within their particular domain, but have very strict limits on their comfort zone. As soon as they are forced out of it, their performance drops drastically.
Men in particular often confuse toughness with strength, thinking that being strong is automatically the same as being tough, when in fact the two are distinct qualities. As Erwan Le Corre, founder of MovNat, says, “Some people with great muscular strength may lack toughness and easily crumble when circumstances become too challenging. On the other hand, some people with no particularly great muscular strength may be very tough, i.e., capable of overcoming stressful, difficult situations or environments.”
Toughness is the ability to perform well regardless of circumstances. That might mean performing well when you are sick or injured, but it also might mean performing well when your workout gear includes trees and rocks instead of pullup bars and barbells. “Toughness…is the strength, or ability, to withstand adverse conditions,” according to Le Corre.
Being able to do that requires both mental and physical toughness. No amount of mental toughness alone will keep you from freezing in cold temperatures, but if you’ve combined mental training with cold tolerance conditioning, for example, then you’ll fare much better.
Toughness is a Skill
It is a myth that you’re either born tough or you’re not. The truth is, toughness, both mental and physical, can and should be trained and cultivated, just like any other skill. There are certain mental techniques that help you cultivate an indomitable will, patience, and the ability to stay positive and focused no matter how bad things look. There are also certain training techniques you can use to condition your body to withstand discomfort and tolerate environments that would normally cause injury.
Mental toughness boils down to how you respond to stress. Do you start to panic and lose control, or do you zero in on how you are going to overcome the difficulty?
Rachel Cosgrove, co-owner of Results Fitness and a regular contributor to Men’s Fitness, stated in an article on mental toughness, “World-class endurance athletes respond to the stress of a race with a reduction in brain-wave activity that’s similar to meditation. The average person responds to race stress with an increase in brain-wave activity that borders on panic.”
Similarly, the biggest determining factor in whether or not a candidate for the Navy SEALs passes training is his ability to stay cool under stress and avoid falling into that fight-or-flight response most of us drop into when we’re being shot at. Developing ways to counteract the negative response to stress helps us stay in control of our bodies so that we can maintain the high performance needed to do well in any situation. That is real mental toughness.
Another way to look at mental toughness is willpower. When everyone else has decided they are too tired, you decide to keep going. In sports, this is called the second wind, when an athlete determines that they don’t care about their fatigue and decides to push harder despite it. When a football team is behind two touchdowns but picks up the effort anyway, determined to win despite all signs to the contrary, that’s an example of willpower in action. They may still lose, but they are much more likely to make a comeback with this approach.
So, how can you cultivate mental toughness?
One of the best ways to develop mental toughness is to accept small discomforts on a regular basis. Take only cold showers or occasionally fast. In the book Willpower, Dr. Roy Baumeister recounts the training regimen of famed endurance artist David Blaine. Before a stunt — some of which have included being encased in ice for over 63 hours, being suspended over the Thames in a clear plastic box for 44 days, and holding his breath for 17 minutes on live TV — Blaine will start to make up little inconvenient routines for himself to maintain, simply to test his willpower. These are usually small things, like touching every overhanging tree branch on his walk to work, but they get his mind in the habit of exercising will, to do something when it would be inconvenient or uncomfortable.
Examples of this include sticking to an inconvenient diet, living without a car, or shaving with a straight razor.
There’s a lot to be said for simple acclimatization to discomfort as well. The little nicks and bruises you get from training in wild environments can be hugely distracting when you’re just getting started, but if you keep heading back out, you eventually find them little more than useful feedback on positioning and technique.
Most of us have an internal monologue going on in our heads, telling our own story. How this sounds depends on our view of ourselves and external stimuli. If you’ve always been good at schoolwork, you might envision yourself as “smart,” but maybe not “strong” or “charming.”
The thing is, these definitions are mostly arbitrary. Anyone who works hard enough at academics can do well in school, and anyone who trains hard enough can do well in sports. Whether or not we are willing and able to push ourselves hard enough to do well often depends on that internal story.
So, the simple solution is to only accept positive self-talk. This is a common tactic of the super-successful, and is standard fare in such personal development classics as Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, and Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Have a Reason
One of the most powerful motivators in training and life is knowing why you cannot fail. Jack Yee, who writes specifically about mental toughness and has been featured on T-Nation and Mark’s Daily Apple, remembers his time at the famous Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, where he saw not only old school greats like Tom Platz, Lou Ferrigno, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but also a large number of promising amateurs, many of whom had more impressive physiques. However, they rarely lasted long: after one defeat at a competition, they would give up. One discouraging setback was enough to shatter their confidence.
The antidote is to remind yourself why you’re out there in the first place. A common trick I used to use in my running when I was feeling defeated was to imagine that my girlfriend was being threatened by kidnappers and if I didn’t get to her in time, they would kill her. Since my motivation for exercising was to be useful to those I cared about, this worked for me. No matter how beat up I felt, I would always run faster. Another trick for this is to use an iPhone app called “Zombie, Run!” You perform missions related to outrunning zombies — another great motivator!
Mental Toughness Training Summary
- Allow (or seek out) small inconveniences and discomforts in your everyday life. Learn to tolerate them.
- Start to judge your internal monologue, rather than simply accepting it for what it is. Actually listen to what you’re saying and decide if it’s a belief you want to let into your life.
- When you’re feeling tired and talking yourself out of your workout, remind yourself why you’re training. Weigh the importance of the inconvenience against the importance of the why and get out there.