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Mental Toughness

What is it that makes some able to embrace the suck and push through painful moments of a session but others fail? The quote, “It’s not about the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog” comes to mind when I watch people train. Some people seem to want it more.


Ironically, when things get tough, it’s often not the loud, obnoxious or freaks of nature that you see succeed. Most likely, it is the man/woman who always seems to struggle who can grind out a great performance. Interesting, no?


Are some of us born with more mental toughness than another, or can this skill be built and improved, like other attributes built in a gym?


I’m a big believer in is the discipline in our strength of mind and body should carry over to the rest of our lives.


Discipline, toughness, stubbornness, and perseverance have relevance to every single aspect of our lives. Knowing you have to finish with “The 300” workout can leave you dreading life in general, just as looking at a pile of paperwork can be daunting, stressful and oppressing. Once you start, however you soon realize it’s not as bad as you think. I’m not saying there aren’t things that really do suck, because there are. 


Here are some techniques I use on myself to improve mental toughness:


Get upright

Never touch the snooze. I believe all adults should train early, as that way there is little chance of a missed workout later when new projects drop or meeting requests stack up. Many struggle with getting going first thing. A trick is to get upright as soon as possible. Get vertical with you feet on the floor the rest of your body might just switch on. Without thinking about waking up you should be able to get up. You are developing a habit , even if you are a zombie you should be able to get up. When getting up is a habit then you facilitate getting to your training.



Surprisingly enough it gets under most people’s skin when educators ask you to do something and the answer is a flat, “no” or “I can’t”. There is a reason every lesson or workout is tailored to people who qualified to be there. It may be a stretch, however you can accomplish what is being asked of you.


This reminds me of things that seem dangerous, like spelunking. There is a high-perceived risk; however the real risk is close to zero. While you may be incredibly challenged by a particular technique, your educator has suggested it knowing you can finish. If they believe in you why doubt yourself? Furthermore, if you picked the session, then you Are second-guessing yourself, your ability and your intelligence to decide what you can do. Make and plan and stick to it. 


Use tricks and tools

Sometimes, educators or even you need to come up with ways to do things we know we are capable of without being overbearing, annoying and in some cases like they/we are being lead. One of the best ways to do this is to let yourself or the other person not perceive you are trying to assist at all. 


A good way to develop toughness is a slow introduction to something you’re afraid of, or something you really don’t want to do. This technique breeds coping ability. Once someone has suffered through fifteen minutes of static fear/discomfort they soon learn that they can cope with far more pain than they thought was possible.


Other ways to use this same idea do something small , that you don’t like or are afraid of 100 times. There’s a lot to be said introducing and trying something 100 times and discovering that it’s really not so bad. Used in the right doses they help a person to acclimate to hard work – like the frog in the cool water, increasing in temperature gradually does not jump out. 


There’s something to be said too for long duration testing. The media keeps trying to tell people that short, 10-15 or even 5 minute sessions are great for whatever their problems may be. The problem is that in today’s instant gratification fueled world people can’t focus. A night without food or sleep will fix that. People fool themselves with their physical and mental fitness by doing short, intense activities. To go on a long run or doing something you’re afraid of and learning to cope with your heart rate being elevated for a sustained period has great merit. Learning that you will not be killed from it is a valuable tool in teaching toughness. One thing about training is we have to keep with it. There has to be a substantial volume of it in our lives. It fixes mental/physical issues and seems to work miracles for the mind’s ability to cope with stress and fear.


A military favorite is to lie about training volume. In the army it’s not uncommon to complete a major project per instructions only to be told there is so much more to do. Despite all your best efforts, following instructions and pain you need to start from the beginning somewhere else. Sometimes all that’s needed is just walking to get more supplies to find out you’re done. Maybe you really do need to start all over again. In either case, the next time it happens it won’t be an issue.


Try this same set up in training in two ways. First, by lying about what you’re going to do. Commit to doing four rounds of something and once completed add two more rounds. The alternative is to only detail the section training you are about to do. People will pace themselves if they see a lot of work in front of them. However, if you just write up something short they’ll push hard to get it done. This leads to all manner of complaining and quit propaganda, but we learn to overcome adversity bit by bit. The ability to keep a flexible mindset is important when things go downhill during an life event.


Don’t fall for your own tricks

People are so surrounded with noise in their day-to-day that they struggle to be alone with themselves. These people will speak up – to give themselves a break or maybe to satisfy their need for commotion. If you need noise or a personal soundtrack to get you over the hump you’re going to be SOL during the zombie apocalypses.


Those little tricks you need to be vigilant of – the water break during the warm up (fanning dehydration in the first five minutes), arriving late to skip the warm up (to stay fresh for later in the workout), or starting a conversation (taking a break by entering into a social obligation) – these need to be crushed on the spot by a caring trainer/educator/helper. Learning to work hard and avoid distraction is needed when they have a deadline but the allure of social acceptance/interaction calls.


It’s a process

Maybe the best way to develop toughness is to realize that it doesn’t all happen overnight. No one walks into a gym and squats 400 lbs. the first time, no one writes a master’s thesis when they start college and no one just goes 72 hours without sleep. Learning to embrace the suck, to endure when your body and mind are screaming at you, is not a quick skill to learn. Even accepting ho you truly are can be difficult for some. Slowly, over time we learn to handle the pain and banish the voices unit the only thing that you hear is steady constant breathing.


Lastly, just get it done!


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