FORGING MENTAL TOUGHNESS
By: Coach Jake Saenz
A while back we put out an article titled THE DEGREES OF QUITTING which brought forth some interesting ideas on how athletes react to physically challenging efforts. If you haven’t read it yet we suggest doing so as it sets the stage for what we’ll talk about today.
After reading this article, you should be able to identify when you start to succumb to increasing levels of discomfort and utilize a strategy to deal with it.
Remember the context of this discussion is set in a gym environment and specifically addresses high intensity conditioning efforts.
Why training mental toughness is important:
It shields the mind from discomfort
Exposure to discomfort decreases its effect on you. What was once unfamiliar and distracting now becomes commonplace and nothing more than a minor annoyance. You inoculate your body and mind to tolerate higher levels of physical exertion by constantly exposing yourself to it. You are able to think clearer and make better decisions while under extreme physical exertion.
It sets a reference point
Previous events give you a reference point as a basis for comparison. Those never exposed to extreme discomfort will break much sooner than those that have been hardened from exposure time and again. If we expose athletes to extreme discomfort in the gym, then we’ll set them up for success when they operate outside the gym and in the field.
It influences future training
Hard efforts expose vulnerabilities and weaknesses. It shows the chinks in your armor and what you need to improve. Many athletes hide from this knowledge as they lack the humility to expose themselves to something that will make them look or feel weak. Knowing your weaknesses is a powerful tool and greatly supersedes being ignorant of them. By identifying chinks in the gym we are taking the first step to strengthen them.
How can we train it?
Design demanding circuits.
The effort must take the athlete out of their comfort zone by exceeding normal intensity or volume. Easy efforts fail to develop mental toughness and will give the athlete a false sense of it. Easy efforts belong in your training regiment, just not as mental toughness builders.
At the last minute add volume.
A great way to build mental toughness is to add 5-10% in volume (an additional round, 100 meters of running, minute of work, or 5x Reps) when you least want it. Typically we have a mental finish line where we are expecting to stop at a certain point. Pushing beyond this when least expected is a powerful tool.
Train in unfamiliar and uncomfortable environments.
We all get accustomed to training in certain places, with certain people, in certain weather, wearing certain clothes. Changing these usually creates physical and mental discomfort. Try doing a session in pants and boots when it’s summer in Texas; go outside and train when it’s 20 degrees or raining; or find a training partner with a much higher level of fitness who will absolutely crush you in a session. Exposure = growth.
Use unfamiliar tools, exercises, and modes.
We all have preferences and unsurprisingly they lean towards tools / exercises / modes in which we excel. We introduce discomfort by changing them. Use sandbags instead of a well balanced barbell. Use swimming instead of running or riding. Pick the exercises or tools that you like the least, or struggle with, and use those.
Intentionally exceed your sustainable pace.
Although teaching proper pace is a major focus with our athletes, sometimes our more experienced athletes know how to pace themselves so precisely they are no longer challenging themselves. By intentionally going too hard, too early, we can put ourselves in a very uncomfortable place where we have to not only continue to work but to recover as well.
Preparing for the effort
Objectively look ahead to the what and why of your training.
All too often you can roll into a hard conditioning circuit and quit before it gets hard simply due to a poor attitude. Athletes commonly assign a level of intensity to the effort based not on what the programming indicates but on how they feel physically, and mentally, on that particular day. this is influenced by their personal feelings towards the circuit. When it’s something they either like, meaning they excel at it, there’s more buy-in and a higher level of effort. When it utilizes movements they dislike, or are not proficient, we see sub-par effort.
Separate what you want from what you need.
Things you enjoy will not create the discomfort needed to build a stronger mindset regardless of how hard they are. Only by taking yourself out of YOUR comfort zone can you expect growth.
Analyze, then adjust, your attitude in regards to the event.
It’s the only thing you can control, especially if you are working with a coach.
The less you want to do something the more you should do it.
Doing things you don’t want to do, with a physically demanding component, builds mental toughness.
Executing the effort – Keys to success
One rep at a time.
Focus on one rep, round, lap, or minute at a time, do not look at the entirety of the effort, or how much more there is to do. Just focus on what is next, and complete that, then focus on the next obstacle.
Don’t rest in transition.
You don’t need water, you don’t need to sit down. Don’t seek to create gaps unnessarily..
Limit your rest to 5 breaths, no more, no matter what.
What you change is not your rest, but the amount of work you do between the rest.
Recognize that the physical discomfort is temporary.
Unlike an injury, or pain, discomfort does not indicate anything other than you are being mentally weak. Recognize that, and relish the fact that this is how you remove weakness.
Look at yourself from the outside.
Imagine a loved one, mentor, someone you respect, or someone who respects you and think about how they would feel if they could see you or hear your thoughts. Behave as if they were watching you right then and there.
Work until the end.
This may be time, or rounds, or distance. Keep your output high until the very end. Don’t slow down as you approach the finish line but speed up and power through. Don’t execute a half ass rep but the most perfect rep you can do.
Look around you.
You’re not alone. You will be surrounded by others that are experiencing the exact same thing as you are. It never gets easier, you just get faster. Always reflect on this truth, and appreciate its simple power.
Acknowledge how you feel.
There is nothing wrong with being uncomfortable, just don’t let it influence your actions in the gym.
- Train mental fitness, at least once every 3-4 weeks.
- Pick one element that resounds with you and apply it.
- Do things you don’t like.
- Put yourself in uncomfortable places.
- Train in inclement environments and conditions.
- Never stop early, go until you finish, or just beyond.