How to Train Yourself for Mental Toughness

Triathlon Ironman Mountain Climber
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It’s your last line of defense against being called a quitter. It can help you compensate for a lack of strength, skill, or natural ability. Arnold Schwarzenegger talked about it in Pumping Iron (“You just go on and go on… and say, ‘I don’t care what happens.’”), and a flu-stricken Michael Jordan exemplified it in the ’97 NBA finals by hitting the Game 5 winning shot after nearly collapsing with exhaustion. It’s what a triathlete needs to survive the last mile of an Ironman contest, and it often means the ultimate difference between success and failure.

We all know what it is—whether you call it guts, will, or balls. It’s mental toughness.

The question is: How do we get it? Most of the information surrounding the notion of mental toughness is anecdotal, not clinical. But we did some research and picked the brains of some of the toughest folks we know, asking them about what it takes to focus in on, push through, and outlast every obstacle in your path—whether it’s inside the gym or out. Read on and you may never feel like quitting again, whether it’s on a set, in a game, or on the job.

In the broadest sense, mental toughness can be defined as the ability to maintain the focus and determination to complete a course of action despite difficulty or consequences—to never quit, period. To many athletes and coaches, it’s an innate quality that can’t be trained. “Mental toughness is usually something you’re born with or develop very early in life due to your surroundings,” says Jason Ferruggia, a performance-enhancement coach who’s trained top athletes from more than 20 different sports. “It’s hard to take a wuss and make him a hardcore no matter what you do—unless you throw him in prison.” Still, it’s fair to assume that anyone can improve his tolerance, patience, and concentration, just as anyone can get bigger, leaner, or better educated.

1. Be a self-starter

The root of mental toughness lies in motivation. Those who are deemed mentally tough typically exhibit what sports psychologists call “intrinsic motivation.” A study featured in Psychology of Motor Behavior and Sport defines this as the desire to be self-determining. People who are intrinsically motivated are self-starters, willing to push themselves to the brink for the love of their sport or activity. They need little encouragement to give their best effort, and they often do well setting goals for themselves. Needless to say, this doesn’t describe all of us. Some guys can only get their head in a game when the pressure of competition is on. They revel in the chance to compare themselves with others. These guys have what’s called “achievement motivation.” According to The Essentials of Strength and Conditioning, the main tome of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, all things being equal between two competitors, whoever is higher in achievement motivation will be the better athlete, hands down.

“Calling a person who’s motivated to avoid failure a pantywaist if he doesn’t get 10 reps on his next set of squats makes him feel his manhood is under attack.”

Under the umbrella of achievement motivation are two opposing mentalities that can drive a person to be tough. Both exist in all people, but you’re more likely to lean toward one or the other. Those who are dominated by the motivation to succeed are, predictably, people who gather their energies best when they feel a great opportunity lies ahead for them. Even if the probability of that success seems uncertain, they believe if they bust their butts, they can achieve it.

The flip side of that is what’s known as the motivation to avoid failure. These folks only get going in response to challenges that threaten their egos. Calling a person who’s motivated to avoid failure a pantywaist if he doesn’t get 10 reps on his next set of squats makes him feel his manhood is under attack and that he’d better prove his detractor wrong or suffer humiliation. Knowing this, it makes sense that men who focus situations in which success seems easy to achieve. If the task seems uncomplicated, their confidence is high. But if an obstacle is perceived as an extreme challenge, they’re just as likely to cop out, believing there’s no way they could overcome it.

Sound familiar? Understanding which of these two traits is more dominant in your personality is the key to helping you train yourself to become tougher—and endure more. Most coaches report that players who are motivated by success don’t need as much instruction or cajoling when the chips are down in a game—they see it as an opportunity to turn things around and be heroes. However, players whose focus is on avoiding failure need that direction. They need to be told what to do so they’ll feel they can react correctly when backed into a corner. (Otherwise, they’ll be convinced they don’t have a chance.) Take your average football game, for example. One team is up by two points in the closing seconds of the game. The opposing team has the ball and has just crossed midfield. A good coach or quarterback needs to tell the players who are most likely to focus on failure exactly what to do, in this case to cover their territory while in a zone defense or just use their footwork during pass coverage. This kind of instruction removes some of the self-induced pressure from a player, allowing him to focus on the task at hand.

This logic isn’t limited to high-pressure athletic situations. If you’re a guy who’s afraid of failure and you’re going for a new max on the deadlift in the gym, you might find the inner strength to smoke an intimidating weight by focusing on simple techniques and strategies that will make the lift seem easier. You could remind yourself to allow your body to fall backward as you thrust your hips forward,thereby achieving the glute and hamstring activation you need to pull a monstrous load. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by impending deadlines at the office, create a to-do list that helps you budget your time. Do whatever it takes to eliminate potential stressors and make the task seem easier.

2. Find your “zone”

Consider this: “World-class endurance athletes respond to the stress of a race with a reduction in brain-wave activity that’s similar to meditation,” says Rachel Cosgrove, C.S.C.S., a strength and conditioning coach and triathlete. “The average person responds to race stress with an increase in brain-wave activity that borders on panic.” This is a prime example of how getting into the “zone” athletes talk about—the cool-headed state that allows a person to perform optimally even under high-pressure conditions—can make all the difference in your performance. Achieving this state and holding on to it despite distractions, pain, and your own instincts to give in for the sake of self-preservation is the essence of mental toughness.

The best athletes train their brains to be as tough as their bodies, using certain techniques.

3. Be positive

“Every day, there is a dialogue going on in your mind,” says Cosgrove. “These thoughts are usually a mixture of outside stimuli and your own beliefs about yourself.” Some will be negative, but to be successful, you must focus on the ones that make you feel better about yourself. It sounds like corny advice, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a successful person who doesn’t practice it. “If you even think you can’t finish a marathon,” says Cosgrove, “You can’t.”

An easy way to stay in a positive frame of mind is to create a mission statement that gets you pumped up. Take the time to consider your reason for running a marathon, competing in a particular contest, gaining 10 pounds of muscle, or whatever your goal. “If you have a powerful reason why, you can get through anything,” says Cosgrove. “Make this ‘why’ your mission statement and repeat it to yourself during your training.” Anytime you catch yourself slacking, questioning your motivation, or feeling like you want to quit, repeat your mission statement.

4. Talk to yourself

You should be your own coach. “Speak to yourself in the second person with statements such as, ‘You are going to give this every- thing you have,’” says Cosgrove. It can simulate the extra bit of motivation a real coach would provide. It also allows you to control what kind of encouragement your “coach” gives—as discussed above, you may respond better to one kind of advice than another.

“Learning to talk positively to yourself when the going gets tough takes practice,” says Cosgrove, “but you’ll get better at it.” Then, on race day (or whatever your particular challenge is), you’ll be able to talk yourself into a second wind.

5. Visualize

“Before you even step under the bar for a squat or pick up a dumbbell,” says Joe Stankowski, C.P.T., a former powerlifting and strongman competitor, “your set should be mentally done.” Imagine the steps you’ll take to get into position and the way your body will look performing the movement, and rehearse each repetition in your mind. Think about how all that will feel to you. “Because it’s already been done in your mind,” says Stankowski, “all you have to do is repeat it with your body.”

“I like to think of myself as the underdog,” says Ferruggia, who avoids failure by competing in impromptu lifting competitions with his pro-athlete clients (often beating them). “I think of the shame I’ll feel if my lifting partner outdoes me. When that’s not enough, I picture him threatening my family, and that if I do not lift this weight for the required reps, he will act upon those threats.”

6. Meditate

Various forms of meditation have been used for thousands of years for almost any purpose you can fathom, including reduction of stress, enhanced mental clarity, and simple relaxation. But you don’t have to get all New-Agey to make it work. Skip the candles and Enya tunes and instead just focus on clearing your mind of extraneous thoughts and mentally preparing yourself for the upcoming contest or confrontation. “One of the biggest challenges guys have when they start meditating is knowing if they’re doing it correctly,” says Stankowski. In some instances, you may feel you just can’t concentrate well enough to get into a meditative state. In that case, check out the meditation technique offered by, which will start you off with a free demo CD. “Their technology uses sound to provide the exact stimulus your brain needs to go into meditation,” says Stankowski. “You will feel calmer in minutes.”

7. Get uncomfortable

You can’t settle into a routine and expect to make progress. If you’re trying to be a tougher runner, then a couple of times a month you need to practice running a little longer or faster than you’re used to. These workouts should be at random—put your running shoes on one day and decide you’re going to take it to the limit. The same logic applies to the weight room and life in general. “Take acting lessons, go skydiving, or learn the tango,” says Stankowski. “Just as progression is an important part of training, applying any challenging stimulus to your life will give you a greater ability to handle stress of all kinds.” It teaches you problem-solving skills and critical thinking, both of which can help you tough out any number of situations.

8. Be prepared

Endurance athletes have a saying: “Nothing new on race day.” Meaning if you’ve prepared yourself for everything, you’ll be ready for anything. You should know well ahead of a race what you are going to eat, wear, and even think about that day. Naturally, you can’t be prepared for every eventuality, but try to be anyway. Anticipate any problems that could arise, and have a solution in mind. During a triathlon, these could include flat bicycle tires, getting your goggles knocked off during the swim, or getting blisters on your feet. “Knowing you have done everything possible to get to your goal will help you mentally,” says Cosgrove. “When it comes to the event you are training for, you can go into it with peace of mind.” Once you have that, you’ll be surprised by just how far you can go.

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