“The body must be vigorous to obey the soul. The weaker the body, the more it commands; the stronger the body, the more it obeys.”
-Jean Jacques Rousseau
Recently athletes have been asking me about mental toughness, specifically how they can develop it. The great news is that if you are a member of a gym and are currently endeavoring to increase your strength and fitness you are headed in the right direction. If you want to increase your mental toughness but aren’t interested in increasing your strength and fitness I recommend you first slap yourself, then find a friend that is interested and follow them into the gym.
Mental toughness is a highly sought after “intangible”. It is not something we can touch, yet we feel its presence and its absence. Difficult to define, it is nonetheless easy to recognize in individuals that possess it. It is something most people want (and in my current line of work I would venture to say all people want) yet it is explained in widely disparate terms that are relative to an individual’s life experiences and goals.
I think the best way to define mental toughness in terms to which everyone can relate is by thinking of it as one’s character in action. It is the closest personification possible of one’s “ideal self”. The most effective, practical, and successful way to build it is through hard physical training.
The Marine Corps has been highly successful in this area. A great example is their rope training. At the Mountain Warfare Training Center I sent thousands of Marines, with full packs and all their gear, rappelling down hundreds of feet of shear cliff walls. They continue to do this not only because they must be able to do a cliff assault but also for the massive carryover it has towards toughening them up. Every Marine stands at least 3” taller and and gains 20 more pounds of muscle the second their feet touch terrafirma. That new found confidence transcends rappelling and is highly influential in the execution of their various missions.
Ancient societies with a strong martial culture recognized the value of building a mentally strong warrior. They did it by physical means. The Spartans accomplished it with their Agoge. During the first and second centuries A.D., the Romans toughened up their legionnaires with 18.5 mile forced marches in full gear, and brutal physical training regimens. The Samurai of feudal Japan trained extensively in unarmed combat. Armies during renaissance Europe saw the advantages that tough physical training bestowed upon the practitioner and strenuous gymnastics training started to become wide spread. Through out history successful militaries studied and practiced not only martial skills, but also participated in highly strenuous physical skills designed to make them strong and tough. Today, the Marine Corps continues in this tradition with its physical culture. Likewise, coaches everywhere strive to do the same with their programing for their athletes.
The mentally tough, in both civilian and military organizations, do four things well, that, if they were weak, they would fail at, miserably.
They live in the present and build for the future. Yesterday is gone. They recognize that the past can only influence their future to the extent that they let it. They are ready and willing to start over again. And again. And again. It may mean that they have to do more work, that they are rebuilding. It may mean that they have to get ready for a herculean task that looms ever closer on their horizon. All of that requires physical endurance and strength. The stronger one is the less taxing on the body are the tasks demanded of it.
They always have a goal towards which they are striving. Those that are mentally tough never settle. Each goal achieved is simply a stepping stone to the next, larger, more difficult one. One’s physicality becomes an asset. While it is impossible to control the curve balls life seems to throw one’s way, always at the most inopportune times, one can control how physically prepared they are to deal with it. Everything is easier the stronger and more fit one is. Working on a project longer than expected, traveling further than planned, doing the work of others, all of it is easier to accomplish when the body is bullet proof.
They can suffer well. I don’t mean not crying when they stub their toe. I mean they can truly, suffer. They can go 2 days without sleep when needed. They can go all day without eating and they can get up early and work nonstop. They can shoulder the responsibility of accomplishing a task while keeping a positive mental attitude and ensuring the well being of others before their own. They can do this because they know that their body will not fail them. Their back feels strong, their legs are steady, and their shoulders are broad.
They wake their bear occasionally. Man versus man, man versus nature, man versus himself. Those are the three classic literary conflicts for a reason! The need to compete is innate in every human. The more successful one becomes the more challenges for which one looks. Be it against one’s self, against a trail or a ski slope, or against a workout partner during the morning’s WOD, the fitter one is the more one is self assured. Seldom do people try that in which they lack confidence. Physical strength steadies the hand.
There it is: live in the present, have a goal, suffer well, wake the bear. Please remember that each is rooted deeply in the bedrock of physical strength and endurance. In order to be mentally strong one must have a solid physical base upon which one can build the foundation of one’s character.
On my last deployment to Iraq I prayed a lot. I did countless vehicle patrols in IED infested waste lands. I prayed a ton. I prayed that my family would find comfort in God if something happened to me. And I prayed that if it was my time that I would die a good death. I prayed that I wouldn’t die a passive victim to an undetected bomb that sent a molten chunk of metal through my chest. I prayed that I wouldn’t freeze up and die a coward. Believe it or not, that is for what I prayed the most. To die a good death, saving someone or doing something heroic. I didn’t want to let my family and Marines down. And it wasn’t until I learned that God didn’t answer prayers in that manner that I found comfort in prayer. God wasn’t going to just snap his fingers and say, “OK, Robby is safe today, but this other poor bastard has to go”. I finally realized that everyday I was alive God granted me another opportunity to be as brave and heroic as I dared. And that is where I found great comfort – in opportunity. Opportunities to be diligent. To be tough. To be thorough. To be patient. To be kind. To be the best Marine I could be.
People often ask me how they can improve their mental toughness. Chances to do so abound. Every AMRAP. Every EMOM. Every 1RM. Every WOD for time. One more rep. A little less rest. Fewer water breaks. Sweating more. Standing taller. Sprinting faster. Getting back on the bar sooner. Holding on to the the KB longer. Digging deeper. Grinding further. Pushing harder. In a gym full of iron one is surrounded by opportunities to improve their mental toughness. One needs only to seize them.
You can learn more about mental toughness by watching our “Mental Toughness Series” on our youtube channel. Subscribe to our channel today for weekly training tips and techniques.
Part 3 will be released next week.
LIVE – GET STRONG – WIN