One of the topics we are covering in my Applied Sport Psychology class last week and this week is mental toughness in sports. And let me tell you, it could not have come at a better time!
Mental toughness is defined as having the natural or developed psychological edge that allows you to:
- Generally cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competiton, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer
- Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure
You know what’s interesting? Mental toughness can be inherent or developed. Just because you don’t have it doesn’t mean that you can’t get it. I would point toward increased mental toughness as being one of the main reasons I haven’t quit all of these crazy endeavors yet. It is a skill that can be learned and practiced and improved. I am doing it every day.
The last week has been an uphill battle for me. Things are steadily getting harder and becoming more overwhelming. I spent my entire weekend either training, studying, doing homework, or preparing projects for work. I am physically exhausted. I have been up until 11-12 PM for several nights in a row either because of studying/homework or because I had pre-cardio coffee in the early evening and can’t fall asleep due to the caffeine and vigorous physical activity near bed time. I am still waking up at 4 AM to hit the gym again, despite having been asleep for 4 hours if I’m lucky. My carbs are slowly dropping out of my meal plan while the duration and frequency of my workouts are increasing. After today, I am officially going to 2-a-day workouts 6 days per week. 30 mins of cardio in the AM, 30 mins of cardio in the PM, plus weight training in the AM 5 days out of the week before cardio. This in addition to working full-time and taking 2 graduate school classes.
When I tell people what I’m doing, the common reaction is shock and disbelief. “How can you do all of that?!” I am practicing mental toughness every day and growing stronger. Some of the attributes of mental toughness include:
- Having an unshakable belief in your ability to achieve your goals
- Bouncing back from setbacks as a result of increased determination to succeed
- Having an insatiable desire and internalized motives to succeed
- Remaining fully focused on the task at hand in the face of distractions
- Regaining psychological control following unexpected, uncontrollable events
- Pushing back the boundaries of physical and emotional pain
- Accepting that anxiety is inevitable and knowing that you can cope with it
- Thriving on pressure
Those eight ideas and practices are pretty much my roadmap. I use the stress and pressure that I feel under all of these commitments to motivate me. I am constantly coaching myself and using self-talk through difficult situations, whether it’s trying to get through 45 minutes on the stairmill or it’s waking up at 4 AM when all I want to do is sleep for hours. When I have had setbacks, I find a way to reframe them positively and use them to motivate me to get back on track. I am constantly thinking about my goals, imagining the end result, and reminding myself of why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’ve accepted that pain and discomfort are just short-term parts of my experience that signal I am pushing myself beyond my comfort zone. When things don’t go according to plan, I don’t use that as an excuse to abandon my path, I simply look for a detour that will take me back to it. I do my best to focus on one thing at time and avoid getting bogged down by distractions.
I haven’t always operated this way. It’s something I’ve had to teach myself and practice over time. And now, instead of being discouraged by a challenge that comes my way, I see it as an opportunity to practice mental toughness and continue to get stronger.
My progress has been slower than my trainer and I had hoped for. It would be easy to be discouraged by that in the face of all of the work and time I am putting into this competition. And for short periods of time, I have allowed myself to become discouraged by it. But then, I put that disappointment to work for me – I start thinking about all of the ways that I could be doing more. Things that used to feel impossible (i.e. 45 mins straight on the stairmill or eating a meal consisting of only plain tilapia and asparagus) are beginning to feel easy. Those feelings of ease and comfort are my cue that I’m making progress in some way. But instead of enjoying it and becoming complacent, I realize it means that it’s time to kick it up a notch and take it to the next level. Because there is ALWAYS another level!