T Nation

Developing Mental Toughness


#1

Hey Warriors:

Last week, I was reading this interview with Elite Powerlifter Matt Kroczaleski - http://bit.ly/rUoo4d

Kroc was talking about mental toughness and how this aspect and learned skill has pushed him to superhuman limits.

I was pondering about this lately. How do you develop mental toughness? What are some ways to build up mental toughness?


#2

Mental toughness is a pretty vague notion, but if you're talking about driving yourself relentlessly to a goal, then I've got that by the boatload. All my life, I refused to be a quitter. If I settled on a goal, then I wasn't stopping - period - no matter how unpleasant or prolonged it would be.

Unfortunately, that didn't automatically make me a winner.

Really don't know where it came from. Was I born with it? Or did it develop out of the massive frustration I felt in life? Can't say.

In college, my major was physics. I would not give up, I would get it. Somehow, though, I was flunking courses and barely got the diploma.

I was sick and tired of being a puny weakling and determined to get strong or bust. So I went to gyms and kept lifting and kept lifting and kept lifting. I read the books, paid for training, got blood tests, went to nutritionists. And after 30 years of killing myself, I'm still stuck at beginner's level. The only thing I can say is that if I hadn't trained at all, I'd be even worse.

I have one thing in common with Matt Kroc; I absolutely cannot stand losing. Unfortunately, other people keep beating me, so it's unbearable.

Matt Kroc thinks mental toughness made him a champion. Well, he's partly right. Constant training unleashed his potential. But you need potential in the first place. Persistence will only take you as far as you can go.


#3

Ok..interesting one.

If i have any at all....mine would come from a life in the outdoors where i have had to learn how to deal with harsh environments while tired, cold hungry (and seasick) while trying to do hard things.
Also perhaps it comes from work discipline ..again having to do often highly unpleasant things/deal with critical situations.

I don't know whether i have it or not, what i do have is some mental discipline and perhaps resilience ,which goes back to your other thread about lessons from the arena.
To me a lot of what i would mean by that is things like turning up and doing the job (training ) and working hard despite all the reasons i might not want to eg lack of sleep/tiredness etc.
Equally though that has to be balanced against another idea which if you like is training vs recovery/rest, ideally i would train longer or harder but have to accept that as yet (at 53) i am working and pushing near my limits.


#4

I think what has helped me to build mental toughness, believe it or not, is the infamous James Bond showers (http://bit.ly/rRm3Nl). You have to be tough to endure this during the freezing winter months!

I think mental toughness comes from an inner endurance which I believe comes from mental preparation and tapping into the spritual realm (for me, this would be my personal relationship with God).


#5

Might sound odd but natural childbirth made me realize that I was capable of physically enduring much more than I thought.


#6

for me... it is about sucking it up and doing it. for squats mostly, but for other stuff, too. the times when i think 'i can't be bothered' or 'i'd really rather not' or 'but i'll be embarrassed doing that in front of them' or 'but everyone will look at me' or whatever. just doing the program and ignoring all that. or when i'm doing my squats and having my usual 4 or 5 breaths before doing the last rep or two and this voice in my head starts up about finishing the set already since i've obviously worked hard already. it is just ignoring all that and doing the freaking rep.

i think it gets easier the more you do it. each time you ignore that quitter voice and just pigheadedly do what you know you are supposed to do it gets a little easier. i'm sure it is like quitting smoking or something like that.


#7

This is why men don't have babies ;^)

In the interview, Kroczaleski says the Marine Corps made him develop mental toughness. For the most part, I think it's a trait that you're born with, a natural talent. Sure, anyone can learn to be mentally tough, just like you can learn a language or play an instrument. But only a few ever rise to be virtuosos.

Me? I've got ADD, a mental weakness. I can't concentrate on anything.


#8

I would agree most would be inbred trait, but I did learn to utilize it during the my Army stint on those grueling 20 mile fully packed marches in basic training.

Now it's kinda hit or miss somedays


#9

Mental toughness and confidence go hand in hand.

If we are talking about something requiring physical/mental toughness its best to tell yourself 1 step at a time till you complete the task at hand or goal you set for yourself.

With mental toughness to worry about, just tell yourself that in the grand scheme of things this is something I have to do. (like discliping a child when it really breaks your heart to do so) And stick with your decision.


#10

For myself, I don't know if I actually have mental toughness or not. But I find it helps if you have a stubborn streak and have aggressive tendencies.


#11

So you're saying that you're stubborn and aggressive? Ahh, I do so love messing with you.


#12

Actually, I was vote most High strung my class as a Senior in High school....Go figure.


#13

"Stubborn and aggressive" is pretty much a synonym for mental toughness.


#14

I challenge everyone to James Bond showers this winter to build up your toughness!


#15

Repeatedly overcoming adversity, year after year, knowing that almost nothing worth doing comes easy.

I can remember my father telling me that I was always looking to take shortcuts-the easy way, when I was younger. It stuck with me and made me think about my choices and avoid the easy way.

Now I take pride in having great disicpline, drive and mental toughness.


#16

i'm not sure about the genetic vs nurture thing...

i think mental toughness CAN be learned. just like learned helplessness (not even trying) can be learned...

something about an elephant.

when the elephant was little it had a chain around its leg and the chain was attached to a peg in the ground.
the little elephant tried to get itself free of the peg - it pulled and pulled as hard as it could.
the peg didn't budge.
the elephant learned it was helpless against the chain and peg.

the little elephant grew up into a big elephant. it doesn't think it can succeed in budging the peg from the ground. of course it could very easily accomplish this. but it has learned to be helpless. to not try.

i like this story because it is kinda like the anti-strength training story. the story to defeat and learned helplessness.

i think mental toughness... comes about via the opposite process. start with something really small and learn success. that success gives you a little confidence to try a bit harder than you would otherwise which brings greater success. and so on.

failure breeds failure. success breeds success.

if you want to train yourself to work really really really hard to accomplish something really hard...
i'd start by training yourself to work moderately hard to accomplish something moderately hard.
or even by training yourself to work just a little bit to accomplish anything at all.


#17

I like the elephant story, but just to show the genetic side: I've always thought that the difference between the successful lifter and the one who makes little progress or flames out and loses interest is pain tollerance. Heavy squats and Deads are brutal. Filling your legs with blood until they burn and cramp is painful. If you can't handle it and don't embrace it you aren't gonna last.


#18

Very good point. That is one thing allot of people miss on all the forums. People talk about doing this program or what micro nutrient profile they need to reach there goals. But they always forget if there not willing to put there nose to the grind stone there not going to reach it. Lets be honest sometimes lifting or any type of physical pursuit is not always fun. When you factor in times of slow progress or lack of, injuries , aches and pains not to mention time and emotional investment. At times it will test your true metal. Like stated above those whom cant handle or embrace it end up no where.


#19

Interesting discussion. I think there are many forms of mental toughness. There's the ability to endure physical pain and discomfort. I think this is where people tend to put mental toughness. I think that most of this can be learned. That is to say that we are probably born with some tolernces but we definitely learn this over time. That is if you want to of course. Some people just don't have any desire to be tested. Other people have a constant need to be tested physically or mentally. But those people are committed to winning or committed to enduring what they want to endure. Anyone can run a century if they want to. Anyone can do a 20 rep squat set. It's just that most people don't have the drive to do so. I was a really good runner in college because I was willing to put in the miles and train regardless of weather, time of day, how I was feeling, etc. I was also able to run with a variety of injuries because I was committed. It's that committedness that people think of when they think mental toughness.

There's also the mental toughness that is associated with doing the right thing. It's about not getting into a shouting match when that jerk cuts you off on the freeway. Or not divorcing your wife (or husband) when things go bad and trying to fix it (not that divorce is never the right thing to do). It's about keeping your cool when your three year old son is screaming his head off as you're carrying him through Disneyland (not that this recently happened to me).

Anyway, just some random thoughts.

james


#20

Childbirth for me was nothing on mental toughness. It's the 20 years after that that required mental toughness and the ability to be relentless imo.