Amazing Article on Mental Toughness

Martin Rooney wrote an amazing piece on mental toughness for GRACIE MAGAZINE. Its for jiu jitsu practitioners, but its so far beyond that. If you love what you do, whatever it is, please read this.

A number of years ago, a sports psychologist I worked with asked me to define mental toughness for him. Strangely enough, the concept of mental toughness seems easy to think, but very difficult to define. I came up with a number of different thoughts on mental toughness for him, but none were a solid description. Over the last few months, I have been meeting with different high level athletes and trainers, trying to better understand the problem, but no one had one clear answer. During my time here as a trainer, I have seen many of us experiment with the concept of mental toughness on the athletes. Over this time, I have tried to develop tests and certain sessions around the concept of mental toughness to not only help the athlete to understand it, but for me to get a better picture as well. Through this, meeting with athletes and trainers on the subject as well as reading a number of books on the subject, I have come to some general conclusions about this type of training. Mental toughness is a personal, persevering decision. You can view this in an athlete’s desire to continue exercise, even when passing through higher and higher levels of fatigue. When I began to experiment with athletes and myself with fatigue, I came to see some interesting results. I used to believe that everything about fatigue could be defined physiologically. I used to watch the kids on the track and almost invision the physiological mechanisms that were running out to stop the athlete from performing.

There are 4 physiological mechanisms of fatigue that I am concerned with. Depletion of the energy systems, inadequacy of the circulatory and respiratory systems, body temperature elevation,and dehydration can all lead to fatigue. As I read more about these mechanisms I saw that all of them had their shortcomings. How do I then explain the marathon runner that can run 4 minute mile pace with a heart rate of 200? How do I explain the man who, at risk of death, was able to tread water for 40 hours until he was rescued? How do you watch a fighter continue for over an hour and never give in? Surely their systems would of run out. Further still, how do I explain the fact that other racers in that marathon had the same potential physiologically, but couldn’t keep up? Or what about the other two treaders that could not stay above water and were lost at sea? Why does the fighter who is still fresher than his opponent just give up? There is one explanation. Mental toughness stems from the interaction of the mind and the body.

Mental toughness can be seen as desire or willpower. I have watched athletes persevere through levels of pain that others are not willing to endure. These athletes all have a level of excellence set much higher than that of other athletes. I noticed from my conversations with elite athletes that they all had the wisdom of delayed gratification. They were all ready to pay the price hard now, for the prize that might even rest years from now. The interesting part was that the prize was very different for all the athletes. I think it is very important for the athlete to know themselves and to know what it is they are really after.

I asked a top level track and field athlete how he could be ranked top 10 in the world for the last 6 years, but could never crack the top five. His answer was interesting. He believed he had the talent and the skill to be number one in the world, but at that moment whenever it was time, mentally, there was something missing. He felt that during his upbringing in this country that his mom would console him too much. For instance, she would bake a cake when things didn’t go well and show him everything would be alright. The top athlete in his event for the last 8 years, he contended, was from a brutally tough country in which you fought for everything you ever had. This was the mental edge he had all his life that made the difference.

I spoke with a nationally recognized speaker at length about the topic of mental training and he also had an interesting story to add. When he was a child he was being chased by a big dog in the neighborhood. When he got to his house, there were 8 steps that he had to clear to get inside safe. He said without even thinking he hit the bottom step perfectly, and made the jump. He thought about this even up to the present day 40 years later and didn’t think he could have ever made that leap again. He believed that it is a sense of necessity that drives the athlete to superperformance. Something inside the athlete, whether it is his need to win, his life is at stake, money, or the applause of the crowd, the necessity is there. This is what the athlete must decide for himself and believe in it. Without some need, the athlete eventually will not succeed at the highest level. Interesting studies have been performed on sedentary and professional athletes and their ability to withstand exertion. Sedentary people always gave up early, with no signs of really approaching any true fatigue. The professional athletes, on the other hand, were able to withstand huge amounts of work and continue to go on.

This tells me that mental toughness is learned and it can be trained just like any other skill. To get to a higher level you must continually push the envelope of your own limits. The best athletes have a great ability to do this. Jerry Rice, one of the best receivers in the NFL is a great example of this. In his training, Jerry runs up a mountain every morning before he starts his training for the day. Other athletes from the NFL would come and try to train with Jerry because he was the best in the league. Upon trying to run the mountain, none of the athletes could make it and they would invariably go home because they could not compete. What was a regular day for Jerry, other athletes were not prepared for. His level of toughness was so much higher, it can be said this was probably a big factor in his success as a pro athlete.

Now, you might be saying, “Where is he going with this stuff?�? Hopefully, you have a much better idea of the mental aspects of training as well as learn to better understand something about yourself. Now you must see that beside the training you have been doing so far in your sessions, there has to be a portion that focuses on the mental development as an athlete. There is something to be said about a “brutally hard�? session, but an athlete must be shown the value of what they are learning from it. An athlete working so hard he is puking is not good. An athlete being shown the value of learning how to go to the next level in the training, and that he may eventually become a better athlete from it may respond more positively.

Different bits of advice can be given to the kids in different ways. Test yourself in drills and examine the value of what you have accomplished. Do not become a self fulfilling prophecy with words like “I can’t�? during the last few minutes of the session. You can even begin the session with the message to yourself that you are going to be here for one hour. That hour is a gift. You can do the most with it, or squander it and the hour will still eventually be over. What happens during that hour is the accomplishment, or the let down. Get yourself to believe that a little on top of a little eventually becomes a lot.

Finally, I will leave you with a quote from a poster I hung in my room when I was in college. The poster is one of the great Russian Greco-Roman wrestler Alexander Karelin. He is throwing a huge 300 pound man in the air, and the quote below him reads,“ I train harder everyday of my life than you will ever train one day in your life�?.

This is the epitome of mental toughness training.

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