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Mental Toughness – What is it & How can we ‘Learn’ It?

28 February 2013

“The most important game you will ever play will happen on the 4 inch ‘field’ between your ears”

That is something one of my all-time favourite coaches used to say back in Highschool, even though it has been years since I have seen him those words are have always stuck with me.

In lifting, CrossFit (or life) our mind can be your biggest enemy or our greatest ally – its up to us – and often it can be the deciding factor between a poor performance and a great one.

Mental toughness, like any other skill in life, can be learned and must be practiced/reinforced if we don’t want to lose it. What sucks about mental toughness however is that it can’t really be taught to us by a coach or training partner. It is something we have to develop ourselves and it doesn’t happen overnight; its an ongoing process

So how do we go about ‘developing’ it?

Self-Belief

Our beliefs act as ‘filters’ for our brain and they can control what info we process by determining what we consider important and what we ignore.  “Knowing” we can do something is one of the first steps to accomplishing it, while “knowing we can’t” is a belief that often precedes failure. Obviously this isn’t always the case, (sometimes we fail even when we believed we had it);  but our beliefs can be self-fulfilling and too often we unintentionally put mental limitations

The moment we think ‘ I can’t do this* or ‘I’m not strong enough to do that” our focus shifts to exactly what it is we don’t want to do, and as a result we’re more likely to end up doing just that.

Our own self-talk and personal beliefs play a huge role in our success rate, and if we can reprogram our brains to expect the outcomes we want & believe in our ability to attain them we are two-steps ahead of anyone who believes they can’t (even if they are the ‘better athlete’ on paper). That being said, two things to keep in mind

  • 1) You have to actually have confidence in these beliefs (i.e. you can’t just ‘say them’, the words are meaningless if they are empty)
  • 2) These beliefs have to be within reason (it doesn’t matter how strongly I ‘believe’ I can fly, if I try to jump from a high object the only place I’m going is down).

Motivation/Determination

Another key trait that sets the certain athletes apart is their determination; the insatiable desire and internalized motivation to succeed as well as their ability AND willingness to give 100%.

This is more than simply ‘wanting to win’, we all want to win (or at least do well) and no one I know enters a competition thinking “wow I really hope I sh!t the bed on this workout”.

What really matters though is how badly we want it and how much we are willing to sacrifice to get us there. Think about the last time you really really wanted something and try to remember what that felt like.

Karen

‘Karen’ at Raincity Athletics

I know for me if I REALLY want something I feel as though my entire body is electrically charged/amped up, it’s all I can think about, I want it so bad it almost hurts or aches and I’m willing to put myself through a hell of lot to get it.

And sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t (we can’t win all the time); but if its worth having its worth fighting for . We’re all going to end up on our asses at some point or another (sometimes literally), what matters is whether we can get back up and try again.

Composure Under Pressure

Working out and performing optimally is one thing when we are in our comfort zones,  because all of our attention/effort can be directed towards the task at hand.

But Take us out of that comfort zone…

e.g. a different gym, higher stakes  or a new skill

…and suddenly it can be a whole new ball game.

The Inverted ‘U’ of Optimal Arousal

This is something I learned about in my favourite Class at University (Psychology of Sport) and it was all about the relationship between our athletic performance and how much pressure we feel to perform.

Too little pressure may cause us to underperform because we’re not “fired up” enough to push that extra bit. On the other hand, however,  too much perceived pressure increases our risk of ‘choking’ or ‘freezing’ because there is so much “on the line”.

In the middle however, there is an ‘optimal level’ of pressure that provides enough incentive to perform but not so much as to make us nervous or flustered.

Inverted U

So…there is an ‘optimal amount’ of pressure under which we deliver our best performances; but we can’t always control how much pressure we are under, now what?

As a general rule when placed in a high pressure/stress environment we are likely to exhibit our ‘dominant responses’.  I.E.  our ability to perform skills we feel confident about will likely improve, but that our execution of skills we are less comfortable with may do the opposite. so the more we practice something the greater our chances of excelling are.

But sometimes we will need to do things we’re not comfortable with in competition, which is why its important as an athlete to learn what state of mind you perform best in (angry, focused, happy etc) and figure out some mental or physical cues that can help “snap” you into that mindset.

Resiliency

So far I’ve talked about importance of

  • a) self- belief
  • b) motivation & determination, and
  • c) composure under pressure

But sometimes that isn’t enough, or something goes wrong, we lose focus and experience a thorough ass-kicking. What then?

The fourth and final pillar of Mental Toughness is resiliency, i.e. the ability to completely screw up (a lift, a workout or an entire competition) and bounce back from it.  We learn more about ourselves as athletes and individuals from losing than we do winning; which means that in order to succeed we have to be willing to accept the possibility that we will likely fail (more than once) first.

I want to Cry

Its easy to start to question ourselves right before (or during) a competition

“am I ready?”  “what if my ‘Goat’ comes up in a  WOD’ or “I should have trained harder” 

but this isn’t the time for self doubt. At this point we can’t change what we have (or haven’t) done, all we can do is focus on what we will do from now on in.

Give 100% in your training and mental preparation leading up to the competition, step onto the floor ready to leave it all out there and walk away from each WOD knowing you did the best you could do and were as prepared as you could have been. Don’t self-handicap or allow yourself an easy out before you even step into the competition. Thoughts like “I didn’t do as well as I wanted but I haven’t trained as hard as I could” or “I might have done better had I applied myself more” is a safety net. If the safety net is there you are more likely to let yourself fall into it. Take the safety net away, train hard, go hard and enter each workout ready to do whatever it takes to reach the outcome you want. Whether or not you achieve it you will know you did everything in your power to reach that goal and can then refocus all your attention on the next task rather than waste time and energy thinking about what ‘might have been’.

Author: Taryn Haggerstone

Taryn is one of the lead coaches at Raincity Athletics. She regularly competes in both CrossFit and Olympic Weightlifting (at Regional and National levels) when she's not blogging, or helping our RAthletes Find their Fit. Checkout her full bio for more.

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