We asked our coaches and experts for their best mental toughness tips. Pick the one that speaks to you and get to work.
Mental toughness: The ability to persevere through tough times, tough workouts, and tough diets. It’s that mental edge that helps you cope better, be more consistent, more focused, more in control, and more confident.
What’s your best advice when it comes to mental toughness?
Let’s talk about diet and mental toughness. Wait, diet? Yeah, diet. You know, the part of the fitness equation that turns the most calloused lifter into a little girl in a Disney princess T-shirt.
See, training is easy. Not easy to do, but easy to stick with for hardcore lifters. Why? Because we love it. Grinding away under the iron or lying in a puddle of sweat after metcon is rewarding and fun and part of who we are.
But diet? Ew. Just the word makes people think of deprivation, bland foods, and, well, basically not getting to do what we want to do. Does your princess shirt have Belle, Cinderella, or Elsa on it?
And “diet” isn’t just one hour a day. It’s all damn day long – 24/7/365. It’s easy to get worked up for a monster set of deadlifts. It’s not as easy to get excited about NOT eating something we really want to eat. Nutrition is where mental toughness is really put to the test. Why? Because sometimes NOT doing something is much more mentally tough than doing something.
So how do you boost dietary mental toughness? Well, a lot of people will tell you to focus on the outcome: being healthy, seeing your abs, whatever. But that’s hard to fathom in the moment, like when you’re looking at your chicken breast and dry baked potato as your buddy or spouse is biting into a Chili’s Big Mouth Burger.
That’s when the voices start talking to you. You know the ones: “Hey, you deserve a cheat meal.” “Life is meaningless without Doritos.” “You’re going to die anyway.” “You can get back on track tomorrow.” “You’re supposed eat big after a workout, right?”
Those voices are a form of rationalization, an ego defense mechanism that helps you justify bad choices. And those voices can be LOUD when it comes to food because we’re often riddled with very real physical and psychological addictions to shitty foods.
The first step is to recognize the rationalization mechanism. Catch yourself in the act of doing it. It’s kinda hard to keep doing something that’s been named and defined in a freshman psychology textbook. Makes you feel kinda lame for falling into that trap.
The second step can take many forms, but here’s what works for me: anger. I get a little pissed off at myself. I remind myself that I’m not weak-willed. I think back to my fat-boy days when I was diagnosed as obese. I’m not that excuse-making pansy anymore, am I?
I remind myself that all I have to do is NOT put some crappy food into my mouth and swallow it. I can replace it with something almost as good that supports my goals. Hey, if I can do Dan John’s half-hour deadlift challenge, then surely I can resist a cookie, right?
The good news is, once you’ve been “clean” for a while with your diet, those loud voices soften into whispers and then pretty much disappear.
“Wait, so your advice is to yell at yourself and call yourself a pussy?” Yeah, kinda. Sometimes you just have to sack up and kick some ass. More often than not, that ass is your own.
What I mean by this is simple: you can’t have an infinite number of monkeys typing on an infinite number of typewriters in your head. To engage in something difficult, you need to sweep the brain clear of all the traffic, the noise, and accumulated crap.
I suggest two things: shark habits and pirate maps. The name “shark habits” comes from Robb Wolf. When it comes to getting stuff done, this means “one bite and it’s gone.”
Anything that’s binary in my life (off/on or yes/no) I take the advice of the legendary coach Lou Holtz and “Do it now.” Call it DIN. This and the idea of shark bites have been lifesavers for me. I have a shopping list, a menu, and a weekly chores list that frees my brain up from the day to day clutter. I own 16 shirts in the same color and style, as well as six pairs of the exact same jeans and shoes. Call me, I answer the phone. If I open my emails, I answer them. Invite me to a wedding and I RSVP. One bite.
So when I walk into the gym and it’s a high-rep day of some kind, my brain doesn’t start typing with the monkeys. I don’t “suddenly remember” anything. I don’t need to turn to my phone to deal with something. If my head is clear, I can focus on the task.
“Pirate maps” are Pat Flynn’s idea of the daily habits that make you great. A pirate map is simple: go to St. John’s island, find the white coconut tree, step six feet to the west, and dig down. There’s the treasure. The map to fitness, health, longevity, and performance is stacking up enough “good days” to find that treasure.
For mental toughness, you need to link nights of great sleep back to back. You need to drink water and eat your protein. You need to have your shoes on, your socks pulled up, appropriate clothes and all the simple things taken care of before you can challenge yourself.
Here’s my pirate map. Notice a good day begins the night before:
- Pre-sleep ritual: Make coffee for the morning. Take supplements. Make tomorrow’s to-do list (from Robb Wolf).
- Wake up and be grateful (Pat Flynn).
- One-minute meditation (app on iPhone).
- Daily workout: Original Strength and Easy Strength (Tim Anderson); ruck once a week (Mike Provost); hypertrophy and 30/30 as often as appropriate.
- Eat eight different veggies a day (Josh Hillis).
Trainers know that if every client slept nine hours every night, ate protein and veggies at every meal, drank lots of water every day, walked daily and trained appropriately three times a week, then everyone’s fitness dreams would come true.
My final recommendation? Fail. I remind myself of losing by one point, fouling on my best throw, or missing that key lift in a meet. I let the pain pour over me a bit and remind myself: I will NEVER feel like that again. Then, I step up to the equipment and work as hard as I can to never feel like that again.
There’s also a psychological aspect that comes from experience and that can be improved, but the neurological aspect still prevails. People who are naturally more sensitive to dopamine will have more mental toughness as well as a higher level of self-confidence.
Dopamine is in large part responsible for competitiveness, grit, and self-confidence. So those who are naturally more sensitive to it will be great competitors and have more toughness than others. Those who don’t have this high sensitivity will need to maximize dopamine levels as much as possible before a workout or competition. Tyrosine and theanine (as well as nicotine) works well in that regard.
Another aspect that’s important from a neurological perspective is serotonin. Serotonin helps your brain deal with stress and anxiety. Basically, anxiety is an over-activation of your neurons. Your brain is firing on all cylinders. Anxiety is when it’s firing too fast: you feel like everything is sped up, like you’re not in control of your brain or body. Serotonin’s function is to reduce that level of activation to a manageable level. Those with very low levels of serotonin will tend to be a lot more anxious and crash under pressure.
People on a severe diet, especially of the low-carb type, will tend to deplete their serotonin which will make them more prone to anxiety and choking under pressure. Eating carbs in the evening will help.
As far as being a coach and helping your athlete perform better under pressure, it’ll depend on the personality of your athlete. Using the wrong approach can do more harm than good.
If you have an athlete who’s naturally very competitive, confident, and vocal (likes to talk trash, talks loud, wants to be the center of attention) you simply need to light a fire under them and they’ll be unstoppable. These guys go all-out naturally and don’t let go. They respond well to vocal motivation.
If you have an athlete who’s naturally super skilled, explosive, and confident but calm, you really don’t need to do anything. They’re the best under pressure and they always step their game up when there’s competition. They are “gamers.”
If you have someone with a lower level of self-esteem who’s a people pleaser, they’ll need others to think they’re good in order to feel good. These guys put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform because for them it’s not just about doing their best, it’s about earning the respect of others – vital for their well-being.
They’ll need the most positive reinforcement, not motivation. If anything, shouting things like “go kick that guy’s arse” before a fight or “he’s kicking your butt; wake up and show him who’s boss” between rounds will actually kill their performance because it’ll make them either feel too much pressure or feel like they’re letting you down.
If you have someone who’s naturally very anxious, needs to plan everything, always follows a routine, the worst thing you can do is to try to amp them up. They’re already anxious by nature (low serotonin and/or GABA) and trying to fire them up will only speed up their neurons and they’ll get stiff and more likely to lose control and choke.
These people need to follow a plan. So the job of the coach is to prepare them for every eventuality, to set a pre-event/pre-fight routine that’s set in stone. Explain exactly what will happen; intellectualize the process. The more they understand what’s going on, the less they have to worry about the unexpected. That makes them less anxious and will allow them to perform their best.
You can’t force someone to have willpower. You must put them in the best possible situation to take away the obstacles that would decrease their toughness.
I’m talking here about the state of your mind when things turn hellish.
The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that helps make good decisions related to movement and performance. The neurotransmitters, noradrenaline and dopamine, are greatly increased during periods of stress, and they bind to receptors on the prefrontal cortex. This binding impairs the prefrontal cortex’s ability to respond with the precise movement or action that you’d normally do under low-stress conditions. When you’re stressed, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t work as well, causing your performance to plummet.
The toughest people on earth find a “happy place” when they’re under the most duress.
Training yourself to feel grateful in the face of severe stress is one of the most effective ways to overcome it and build mental toughness. The fighter that’s standing in front of a formidable opponent is grateful he’s made it to that level of competition, instead of being overcome by anxiety. The guy that loses one of his arms in an accident is grateful he didn’t lose both. This sort of mindset is difficult to achieve, requiring much practice in meditation and mindfulness, but it’s essential for building mental toughness.
From a practical standpoint, there are two things anyone can do to build mental toughness:
- Practice meditation or mindfulness for at least 15 minutes per day. This is especially important before a stressful event or during the time of day when you have peak anxiety.
- Wear a heart rate monitor during the stressful event. This applies to any sport, or even a bodybuilder that’s practicing his posing routine. While practicing the sport or event, focus on keeping your mind in a relaxed, grateful place. Over time, your average heart rate will decrease if you’re doing it right because you’ll diminish the sympathetic fight-or-flight response.
Mental toughness comes from training your brain to deflect fear and anxiety, which keeps your heart rate down and your brain sharp.
There are two main pathways to increase mental toughness. One is to do something physical that you’re not used to doing. If you’ve mostly been strength training, there’s no real challenge in lifting anymore. Max effort lifts and high rep work to failure are obviously mentally challenging, but they’re likely too familiar to really boost your mental capacity.
If you’re mainly into strength training, this can mean completing a marathon or a shorter distance race as fast as you possibly can. If you’ve been pushing your strength limits for a long time, pushing your limits with endurance work, will increase your mental toughness. This is hard, but still an “easy” pathway. Because, even though it’s challenging, you’re used to pushing your limits physically.
The other way is to get out of your MENTAL comfort zone. This means doing something you’re really afraid of doing. When you face what you’re most afraid of in life, you’ll grow, and the effect will spill over to other areas. Once you conquer a fear, your inner voice will say: “If I did THAT, I sure as hell can do THIS.” It simply increases your confidence.
One example for me was skydiving. I’d been scared of heights all my life. The thought of jumping out of a plane was ridiculous. It also came with a real risk of actually dying. But I did it and the best part was the jump out of the plane and journey to the ground.
It was awesome! The worst part was the flight and the time prior to it. Because just the thought of doing it was paralyzing, not the actual act of doing it.
Do something that scares the shit out of you and it’ll increase your mental toughness.
Go out of your way to train alongside people with much more training experience and success than you.
Want to learn? Try to find more opportunities to be the dumbest person in a room. Want to throw harder? Get around pitchers who throw hard. Want to get mentally tougher in the gym? Surround yourself with people who’ve lifted heavier and pushed more volume than you.
Those who are the most mentally tough are the ones who know they can trust their preparation. When you’re in a good training environment with solid programming and motivating training partners, you’re going to be much more prepared.
I want to approach this from a different angle. And that is, the underlying reason we end up developing mental toughness in the first place. And that really comes back to one word: meaning.
Meaning manifests in our life due to desire. Because we care deeply about something. Once you take away meaning, then the effort behind something usually fails to exist. If you hate washing clothes and don’t care if you smell like hot dog water, then you’ll likely procrastinate on doing a load of laundry. If you just love the smell of Bounty freshness, then that’s a desire, and it’ll drive you to wash clothes more often.
People don’t often think about these little subtleties in life, but they create the underpinning behind why we do what we do, and when we do it. Meaning determines your priorities, and your priorities determine your level of effort. If something is of great importance, you’ll expend as much effort as needed to attain it. If that requires significant suffering, so be it.
It’s in the process of going through suffering that you develop the mental toughness that was required to see it come to fruition. The person who wants a PhD, and is willing to study for hours every day for years, has attached significant meaning to attaining that. In the process of attaining that PhD, he developed the mental toughness required to see this specific thing happen.
This doctor, for all his willpower to study and ace exams, might love cheeseburgers more than he loves looking good naked. He might like the thought of looking good naked, but the discipline required to attain that may not have as much meaning as being able to eat copious amounts of cheeseburgers every evening.
One desire short circuits the other. And if you’re mentally tough in one area, it may be harder to be mentally tough in others… unless you develop the habits that make each endeavor not-so-tough anymore.
Truly, our desires can make us do what appears to be pure unadulterated insanity to others, all the while making complete sense to us. Yes, there are times when we’re probably closer to the insanity ceiling than others, but those times are dictated by meaning as well. You don’t go knocking on your partners’ window at 4 AM because you heard they were cheating unless that relationship is valuable to you, i.e. it has deep meaning. Clearly it looks insane to everyone else. To you, it makes total sense.
Most of the population sees putting a grand on your back as complete insanity. To the powerlifting community it’s called awesome.
What separates insanity from awesomeness is meaning. And when we find deep meaning for something in our life, we’ll suffer for it. When we’re willing to suffer for something and persevere through what it takes to achieve it, then mental toughness is developed.
Mental toughness arrives in our life due to this cocktail:
- Meaning/Purpose: Something we deeply desire.
- Self Control/Discipline: All of the things needed to be done to achieve it.
- Perseverance: The ability to keep repeating that self-control and discipline.
So what does this all mean? It means mental toughness is the byproduct of fighting for the attainment of something we deeply desire.
So if you’re wondering why you can’t get shredded, or why your bench has been stuck for the last year, or why you never got very good at playing guitar, you have to ask yourself if these things are truly important to you, or if they just sounded really cool to talk about.
Not a single person that became a Navy SEAL did so only because it sounded cool. Although it does sound cool. They did it because their desire to be one outweighed their desire to give up.
What do you want in life or training, and what are you willing to give up to have it? That’s where your mental toughness is both tested and developed. As poet and novelist Charles Bukowski once said, “Find what you love and let it kill you.”
The phrase “tap out” has slid into the mainstream over the last 25 years or so, but its original meaning has been forgotten, or at least misinterpreted. When you’re training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, one of the most important things you can do is tap.
It’s a fundamental part of the learning experience. In class, you’ll tap over and over again as you figure out what not to do. Tapping out isn’t seen as quitting and it’s not a sign of admitting defeat. It’s a way of saying, “Yep, you got me. Let’s go again and see what happens.”
Tapping is also an ego-check. Think you’re “too hardcore” to tap when you end up in a bad position? It’s amazing how much humble pie you’re able to eat when someone’s radius is crushing your carotid artery. Okay, buddy, enjoy your nap. When you wake up, go research “Judo Gene LeBell and Steven Seagal”, see what kind of company you’re in, and then come back to class with a better attitude (and maybe a new pair of pants).
Show me an elite fighter who’s never tapped. They simply don’t exist. The most dangerous bad-asses on the planet tap out regularly in training because they know that’s how you get better. If you’re practicing and never need to tap, it doesn’t mean you’re an indomitable beast. It means you’re surrounded by less-skilled weaklings who don’t challenge you and you’ll end up a paper tiger.
So how does all this tie back to mental toughness? Simple. People with real grit understand that true success only comes from repeatedly recognizing when you’ve made a wrong turn, owning up to the situation, and then doggedly getting back to work again and again and again.
The (unacceptable) alternative is to be the type of person who hits one obstacle, sees it as insurmountable, and decides reaching the goal isn’t worth a little bit of uncomfortable work.
I’d define a person’s identity as the place from which we find meaning and purpose, not necessarily our background. Two people from vastly different backgrounds might share a similar mental toughness.
Take for example Branch Warren and myself. He admits to having a father who abandoned his family at a young age. My father was available and supportive. Branch grew up often living out of his mom’s car while I lived in a traditional home – mom, dad, and sister. If you’ve ever trained with Branch you know there’s this extra switch that he flips in the gym. My intensity, while above average, doesn’t compete with his.
The ability to persevere under pressure is something we both perhaps share in equal measure. So why do two guys from seemingly opposite backgrounds each possess a level of mental toughness to endure decades of grueling workouts and emotional or physical setbacks?
Again, it boils down to identity. Branch and I might not share the same past, but in some ways we share the same future. Our faith in Jesus is one. Everyone seems to have opinions in bodybuilding. For me, the one solid, unchanging place from which I draw my strength to keep going at times of immense pressure isn’t based on a judging panel, the number of followers on social media, or my performance in the gym. It’s based on the person and work of Jesus and the words he says to those he adopts into his family.
I persevere not out of begrudging submission, but because I know he loves me and I don’t want to squander my God-given talents. Win or lose, I’m good enough according to Jesus. There’s a cool calmness that knowledge brings in the midst of competition.
When I work with clients, both high-level athletes and regular gym goers, I use the following questions every time they start doubting their abilities or are tired and run down:
“If I put a gun to your head right now and told you that the only way I won’t shoot is if you finish this set or cardio session, would you finish it?”
In most cases, the answer is “hell yes I would” and that’s usually enough to make the client (or yourself) realize that maybe he’s acting like a princess and can give the proper effort required to get the result he wants.
The positive version of that question is, “If I put a million dollars in front of you, would you finish the set or cardio session?” That can work, but a lot of athletes get themselves more amped up from negative feelings. Anger, fear, frustration, and basically every powerful emotion will make them push harder.
Also, use competition. This one is hit or miss, but a competitive individual will do a lot more in order to win. I had a client who just couldn’t deadlift 405. He was physically stronger than that, but mentally he was afraid of the weight and would drop it every time before lockout. No matter what I did, he didn’t believe he was capable.
So one day I brought a female friend of mine to his session and said, “This lady’s PR deadlift is 405, and she’s going to train alongside you. I’m going to film this session and post it on social media because I want to show how competition makes lifters better.”
My client turned white and didn’t speak a word through the whole session, but I never saw someone so determined. My female friend pulled 455 that day, while my male client pulled 495.
If people are motivated by competition, they’ll give it their best every time. But if they aren’t it can backfire, so know who you’re working with before trying it.