After 15 years of coaching experience, training courses, continuing education, and many other levels of professional and personal development the one single variable that matters most when it comes to building on one’s fitness, strength, and performance is our state of mind. The mental side of life is what carries us. It’s the catalyst and the sustainability of a given behavior. Mental toughness is in short supply these days, but it’s not something that is completely extinct.
These days I often recognize that when it comes to nearly every aspect of life the only thing that matters is mental toughness. The reason I say this is because it doesn’t matter if we’re building a body, or building a business we absolutely have to have the right mental attitude in place when failure and rejection occur.
I know we’ve all heard this from time to time and many of us probably get tired of hearing it, however I feel it’s necessary to say here again. The thing is that if you don’t have the mental toughness to overcome failure and rejection by continuing to fight then you are weak and you can’t build strength. Simply put this is the order of operations. This is how life works…period.
After all, what happens when we work to acquire strength? Think about it. We strive to achieve new PR’s after spending weeks in the weight room and some of those PR’s we are able to reach while many times we fail along the way in trying to get them. Even after we fail do most of us in the iron game simply fold up like a tent and quit trying? Hell No, of course not!
This is the whole point of strength and this is also a metaphor for life. Life is about failing. That’s right, I said it. People can say that’s BS, but if that’s what they are saying I promise you that those people have never truly succeeded at anything. Even if they got lucky and hit the lottery I guarantee you their attitude about success without failure is what will ultimately lead them to their impending doom in some significant area of their life. It’s a guarantee. I’m telling you this is as sound as Newton’s Law of Gravity.
The point is that mental toughness is about accepting and learning from our mistakes. It’s about making ourselves better than our previously failed experience. It’s learning so that failure doesn’t occur the next time we’re faced with the same situation.
So what about the key question? Can mental toughness be coached? Well I’ll tell you from personal experience as a strength coach that I don’t believe it can be coached, BUT I do think it can be discovered…and I always enjoy a good expedition.
As a strength coach I’ve often coached groups and individuals that were truly mentally tough. At the same time, I’ve had my share of those groups and individuals that were easily distracted and seemingly lacking in the mental toughness department. It’s with the latter group in particular where I like to see if we can discover their mental toughness.
I’ve implemented several different tactics in an attempt to get many individuals into a scenario to hopefully help them to discover their mental toughness. One way I’ve always gone about doing this involves the obvious measure of making the trainee(s) very uncomfortable.
This can be done a number of different ways, but timing is also important. For instance, as a strength coach I find this especially good to do when looking at ending the training session with a good finisher. In other words when the day’s training session is near the end it’s an ideal time to test the frustration level of a trainee by altering the training day’s end.
This is the case because nearing the end of training is something most consistent trainees can sense and when I really want to make them uncomfortable I’ll extend the finisher to test their attitude and mental toughness. As an example I’ll spring on them a finisher consisting of a burnout set of push ups and just when they think they have finished for the day I’ll spring on them another burn out set of push ups. Then I’ll do another set and yet another. It can go on and on. Yeah it sucks, but they’ll discover whether they are mentally tough enough to endure, or not.
Another great way to do this is with a conditioning interval. As soon as the day ends I’ll have them jump rope for extended intervals combining lighter skips with more intense high knee runs. Sometimes I won’t even bother with a rope and I’ll just have them skip in place and randomly call out when they are to bound and when they are to start their high knee runs intermittently in the middle of the skipping round. I’ve included a brief demonstration with me performing this here.
For the sake of video file storage this only about a 25 second display of this drill, but after a single 3 minute round their tank is usually close to being on empty so I’ll hit them with another round, and maybe even a third round if I really want to push the envelope. The task is much more challenging than it appears, but it serves its purpose both for testing mental toughness and for being an adequate finisher at the end of a solid training session.
Mental toughness is a discovery. As a professional offering an opinion on the matter I believe it’s up to the coach or trainer to put the trainee(s) into a position to discover this trait. The fact still remains that many will discover that they aren’t that mentally tough and others will come to realize that they have a lot more fight and piss than they ever thought possible and feel better for recognizing it.
I also want to be clear that there is a time and place within the scope of the training program for coaches to do this. Mental toughness is a daily pursuit, but the objective of a good coach shouldn’t be to beat their students into submission with burpees every time for the sake of making a workout hard.
Anyone off the street can make a training session “hard.” The point is that a quality coach is there to make their students better today than they were yesterday. We should all be able to recognize this and recognize that at times the need for the discovery of mental toughness is more urgent than other times. It’s a daily pursuit, but the recognition needs to be pulled out at the right time. Stay strong!
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