When you don’t feel like training do you find a way to get it done … or do you make an excuse to skip out? If obstacles are thrown your way do you lie down in defeat … or do you welcome the challenge? When you have a bad race does it rattle your confidence … or do you take the experience and build from it?
Many athletes and coaches say that mental toughness is the key component to achieving success in sport. Mental toughness is your ability to persevere in the face of challenges, to keep going even when things get hard, and to have an unrelenting commitment to your goals. When you develop your mental toughness, obstacles are only temporary and one bad performance doesn’t shake your belief in your ability. Here are the top four attributes of mental toughness and tips for developing those attributes both in training and on race day:
Motivation might be the thing that gets you going, but commitment is what keeps you going. Mentally tough athletes know exactly what they want to achieve and are committed to making it happen. When you are mentally tough it means you can delay immediate gratification and make decisions in the moment that are in service to your ultimate goal. When you are committed to the goal, any setbacks you encounter are temporary and it’s not a matter of if you accomplish your goal, but when.
Training Tool: Goal Setting
Goal setting is the tool to help you create a vision of what you want to accomplish with a plan for how to get there. Know exactly how you want to feel and what you want to accomplish on race day and then set specific short-term and long-term training goals to get you there.
Race Day Tool: Acceptance
Be ready to accept whatever the day brings you. Don’t fight it; believe that it is exactly what you are meant to encounter that day. When you immediately accept what’s in front of you and trust that you can handle whatever race day brings, you are quicker to see a way to work around any race day challenge.
One of the characteristics of mentally tough athletes is that they are able to perform under pressure and able to perform consistently. When you are mentally tough you stay in the present moment, keep your focus on the things that are in your control, and aren’t distracted by things irrelevant to your performance. You are able to focus on the task at hand and do what needs to be done in that moment, regardless of what’s going on around you. You know that when you get to the end of your race, you gave it everything you had to give, both mentally and physically.
Training Tool: Train for Adversity
In a research study done with 33 elite athletes to define the concept of mental toughness, one of the dominant themes that emerged was the ability to deal with adversity (Middleton, et al., 2004). Imagine circumstances that might rattle your confidence or focus and try to create situations during training that will simulate those experiences. By training for adversity you provide yourself the opportunity to practice remaining calm and confident while dealing with setbacks.
Race Day Tool: Critical Moments
Think about the moments that will come during your race that are critical to your performance. Think through each moment and plan how you want to react in those situations so you can stay focused on your ultimate goal and make this a part of your race plan.
How quickly your body is able to return to its resting heart rate after physical activity is a sign of your physical fitness. How quickly you can regain your composure after a setback is a sign of your resilience and mental fitness. A mentally tough athlete can quickly assess the situation and adapt to the new circumstances. When you are resilient it means that there is no demand you can’t meet, no obstacle you can’t overcome, and you aren’t immediately defeated in the face of a setback. You can handle anything that comes your way and where others see obstacles, you see opportunities.
Training Tool: Obstacles to Opportunities
How you define the challenge in front of you changes everything. When you encounter an obstacle during training, see what changes for you when you choose to think; “This is going to suck.” vs. “This is going to be hard.” vs. “This is going to be a challenge.” vs. “This is going to be an opportunity.” When you look for opportunities you find your way around the obstacle and can come out even stronger on the other side.
Race Day Tool: Affirmations
Many of us are better at creating lists that feed our doubts than we are at creating lists that build up our strengths. Affirmations are powerful messages that can help influence your feelings of competence and confidence. Craft a list of positive and powerful statements that will fuel your confidence on race day.
Every thought you have is a message you are sending to yourself about whether or not you feel like you are confident and capable of accomplishing your goal. You have to believe you can do this. Mentally tough athletes have an unshakeable belief in their ability to accomplish their goals and know that one bad day doesn’t define them. You use failures as feedback and carry what you learned into the next competition. Failures don’t make you want to throw in the towel; they make you want it even more.
Training Tool: Imagery
Research has shown the use of imagery is a strong predictor of confidence and mental toughness (Mattie & Munroe-Chandler, 2012). You have the ability to imagine the future and the ability to change your expectations of that future. The ability to see success in your mind helps you to believe you are capable of success in your life. When you use imagery, you create the opportunity to mentally rehearse how you want to feel and what you want to do during your performance.
Race Day Tool: Thought Stopping
When you get stuck in a negative thought pattern or in negative emotions, it can feel liked you’ve jumped onto a high-speed train and there is no way to jump the track. When you recognize that you are engaging in thoughts that are detrimental to your performance, you need to learn how to stop them and switch the track. Stop that line of thinking and shift your thoughts and focus to something that helps you feel calm, confident, and in control.
Mental toughness isn’t one skill; it’s many skills. And you aren’t born mentally tough – you work for it. When you show up to your race and haven’t done your mental preparation, you are leaving a significant portion of your performance up to chance. That same discipline you use for your physical fitness needs to be applied to your mental fitness. Set yourself up for success by training both your body and your brain for race day.
Mattie, P., & Munroe-Chandler, K. (2012). Examining the relationship between mental toughness and imagery use. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 24(2), 144-156.
Middleton, S.C., March, H.W., Martin, A.J., Richards, G.E., & Perry, C. (2004). Proceedings from the 3rd International Biennial SELF Research Conference: Discovering mental toughness: a qualitative study of mental toughness in elite athletes. Berlin.