ATC 363: Foundations of Mental Toughness: It Starts Within – Self-Awareness, Confidence, Boundaries and More

March 8, 2024


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Lucho and Tawnee are back on for Ask the Coaches episode 363.

Anonymous asks:

Mental Toughness 101

How would you define toughness? (Admittedly, this is inspired by my recent start to reading Steve Magness’ book Do Hard Things).

What the coaches say:

Listen to OMM 17 in which Tawnee outlines how mental toughness can certainly be a great thing; however, it can also be tricky and certain types of toughness can even do more harm than good in certain cases like those with eating disorders who may also be “good athletes,” which is highlighted in a landmark study here.

We also reference Steve Magness’ new book Do Hard Things which has some amazing and refreshing insight on the topic of mental toughness, redefining what we’ve always thought toughness to be.

Tawnee also wrote an article on this topic way back in 2016, below are some quoted highlights from that piece, which intertwine with our answer on this show:

“Many experts and articles will tell you mental toughness is about going outside your comfort zone. I agree, and at some point I’ll recommend this for you, but it doesn’t always start with that act alone. Of course, doing those uncomfortable acts contribute to building a strong mind—no one will deny that—but, sorry, it doesn’t automatically mean you’re a mental badass. Mental toughness starts from within with self-confidence. Before you even do the physical acts that build mental strength, first you have to get real with yourself and take control of your mind. Don’t worry if you had it backwards. I did too.

“For as long as I can remember, I have always been a tough person starting when I was that little tomboy who kept up with the neighborhood boys when other girls wouldn’t even dare. Into adulthood, I’ve always been willing and able to do things that put me outside my comfort zone, whether toeing the line in a freezing cold triathlon, bombing down a black diamond on my snowboard or the scariest of all: public speaking. I may come across as very mentally tough because I’m able to push myself into these uncomfortable situations, but there’s another side to it—a side of me that ignored what mental toughness really meant for all too long.

“You see, outwardly I have always done ‘badass’ feats. But internally, I was living distressed for many years due to a faulty mindset. I lacked self-confidence and self-love, and never bothered to develop these things properly, instead choosing just to “be tough.” My exterior appeared tough indeed, but on the inside there was turmoil, anxiety and (irrational) fear. What you didn’t see were all those panic attacks I had and a life consumed by worrisome thoughts. Choosing to be tough on the outside doesn’t make these underlying issues just disappear. I put on façade to fool myself, and others. A life of going hard and “no pain no gain” was the easy part. But getting real with myself? Not so much. It took years.”

“Question 1: Do you feel reoccurring anxiety, worry and fear even over the smallest things?

“Eventually I realized worry, panicky feelings and fear had crept into my daily life and I’d be full of anxiety at the drop of a dime, no chance to react any differently because I didn’t know any differently. It led to many unhealthy habits and behaviors. Finally I realized my definition of mental toughness was missing a huge component: self-confidence and self-love. Truthfully, anyone can figure out how to race a marathon (or replace that with anything that makes you uncomfortable). But often, this is not the solution to our problems; rather, it’s an escape for what really needs to be addressed—our mindset and our relationship with ourselves.

“So while having the mental ability to go outside your comfort zone can be a very positive trait, it can also be used for ‘evil’ against yourself and doesn’t always get you closer to self-actualization and mental toughness.

“Question 2: Is it easier for you to push hard in a workout rather than sit down and get real with your emotions or personal issues?

“What about fear? Fear is tricky. On one hand, it’s totally ok to be afraid when you’re doing crazy things and admit your fears! Fear is a normal, healthy feeling, and nothing over which to be ashamed. Ask big wave surfers, for example. The best ones will fully admit they have fear, but they also have immense power over their minds and can channel that fear into focus, resiliency and respect for the situation allowing them to do the impossible. The fear response is there for our survival and can kick us into proper action. However, fear can become irrational and for those of us who lack a healthy relationship with fear we may mentally lose it in those pressing times. In other words, if we let our mind run amuck, it will. We have to learn to reel it in.

“Other things to ask yourself and consider in your healing and development of mental toughness:

“Question 3: Do you avoid uncomfortable situations?

“Question 4: Do you go outside your comfort zone but experience panic attacks or freeze in the process?

“Question 5: Have you ever allowed a behavior to continue chronically even though you know deep down it wasn’t the healthiest for you?

“Question 6: Have you ever lost control over an unhealthy habit and let it rule your life in some way and cloud your mental space? (i.e. food logging, overtraining?)

“There’s a difference between rational fear and irrational fear. Irrational fear can drive irrational thoughts and behavior. There are many manifestations. Some may avoid the uncomfortable situations all together and develop fear avoidance. Not me. Personally, my irrational fears were a motivating force that drove me to push myself very hard in a multitude of ways. I had an attitude of “no pain, no gain.” I’ve done “amazing” things but not necessarily with the healthiest mindset. I was not addressing nor solving some bigger underlying issues. I was just running from those things—literally and metaphorically. I’m sure many athletes can relate.

“Question 7: Do you exercise/train or do your sport for stress relief or to avoid a problem in your life?

“This “no pain no gain” ignores our true needs and puts our external image at the forefront (i.e. what we want others to see and perceive of us). In fact, “no pain no gain” is actually the epitome of mental weakness in my opinion because it is an example of succumbing to social stressors and following the “herd.” It’s our way to try and gain acceptance and prove to others we are tough. “No pain no gain” is a cop-out in my opinion and it doesn’t solve any problems; rather, it’s an easy way to run away from your issues without fully addressing them and just jump on a bandwagon. Eventually it all catches up to where you simply can’t push like that anymore. In my own case, ultimately I had to take a step back to work on me because I wasn’t being true nor kind to myself. Yes, there is some pain involved in that process, but it’s not defined by this “no pain no gain” mantra.

“Question 8: Do you post your workout stats (mileage, volume/time, intensity, etc.) on social media?

Maybe you’re like me: You think doing the act is enough to be mentally tough. I had not problem putting myself out there, and building an impressive resume of accomplishments. But on the inside? Anxiety, fear, worry all dominated. I’ve had my share of breakdowns where my mind just wasn’t strong enough to prevail: panic attacks, doubt and worry for days on end, or pushing myself so hard that it had a negative effect on my physical wellbeing and health. Mental toughness means knowing the right things to do for your own wellbeing, thus being “tough enough” to rest for example. Most athletes will relate: It’s easy to train day in and day out, it’s the rest days that are the hardest.

Question 9: Do you workout even when you’re physically exhausted and sore? If you have a coach, do you “fib” to show you’re more recovered than you really are?

“The point is: Our mental toughness starts with gaining control over our minds; it’s not defined by how hard we can push or how often we can go outside the comfort zone. Those latter variables are important, but if the foundation is lacking—control over our minds—the end goals won’t be actualized.

“I see many people who have the physical strength and talent to execute amazing feats but they’re a wreck on the inside. I empathize and am not bashing, but rather want to provide another solution. Instead of signing up for a 100-mile race as the answer, how about working on YOU first.

“I am certain that I never got to my potential in triathlon because I lacked proper mental toughness and confidence, and was often fueled by fear of failing (or what I perceived as failure) and what others would think of me. In the sports psych world, we talk about motivation and there are two main motivators: 1) motivation to succeed even at the risk of failure, aka the “need to achieve,” or 2) motivation to avoid failure, aka the “need to avoid failure,” with failure often defined by extrinsic variables. The former are more task-oriented and are motivated based on their own achievements, i.e. setting personal bests. The latter, on the other hand, usually related to ego-oriented people who measure success based on rankings and comparisons to others. It probably is not rocket science that the latter—the need to avoid failure—is what we want to avoid. If you’re motivated to beat someone else or to avoid failing, it will certainly result in disaster at some point, even if that means living in mental angst.

“Meanwhile, don’t feel like you’re either one or the other. You may have intrinsic and extrinsic motivations—I was motivated intrinsically and extrinsically. But for a long time I let the ego rule, and that kept me training in a state of fear because god forbid I lose my competitive edge in the field.

“Question 10: Do you consider your ranking and/or end result in a race or competition as main driving factor?

“Furthermore, this doesn’t have to just be about sport, it can be anything in your life. Another common example is body composition. Are you motivated intrinsically to build a health body no matter what that ends up looking like as long as you know you’re super healthy inside? Or are you motivated to build a body that can be categorized under this idea of aesthetic perfection—in other words, do you define your satisfaction with your body based on other “fit” bodies you see?

“Question 11: Have you ever restricted your eating to control the “shape” of your body?

“Question 12: Do you feel better about yourself the leaner or ‘more fit’ you are?

“I say screw society’s standards and be true to yourself. Build health not aesthetics. Same for sport: Build fitness appropriate to what’s right and healthy for you—whether that puts you in the front, middle or back of the pack.

“Use these questions above to be introspective about where you’re at and what you may need to nourish your well-being and true mental toughness!”

Lastly some definitions from the research:

You would think that mental toughness is pretty simple to define and figure out, but in reality it’s not. Even research shows that mental toughness is one of the most overused yet misunderstood elements in sport.

From researchers Graham Jones, Sheldon Hanton, and Declan Connaughton:

“Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables mentally tough performers to:

  • Generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, 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.”

Jones et al., also researched the common personality traits among those who were considered mentally tough: 

12 traits that are found in those who are mentally tough:

  1. Having an unshakable self-belief in your ability to achieve your competition goals.
  2. Bouncing back from performance setbacks as a result of increased determination to succeed.
  3. Having an unshakable self-belief that you possess unique qualities and abilities that make you better than your opponents.
  4. Having an insatiable desire and internalized motives to succeed.
  5. Thriving on the pressure of competition.
  6. Accepting that competition anxiety is inevitable and knowing that you can cope with it.
  7. Not being adversely affected by others’ good and bad performances.
  8. Remaining fully focused in the face of personal life distractions.
  9. Switching a sport focus on and off as required.
  10. Remaining fully focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions.
  11. Pushing back the boundaries of physical and emotional pain, while still maintaining technique and effort under distress (in training and competition).
  12. Regaining psychological control following unexpected, uncontrollable events.

Research by Clough, Earle and Sewell also simplified mental toughness into a model consisting of four categories denoting personality traits:

  1. Confidence
  2. Challenge
  3. Control
  4. Commitment

Additionally, Clough et al., created the following brief list of traits and behaviors associated with mental toughness (you will see overlap with the 12 traits listed above):

  1. Persistence
  2. Self-belief
  3. Insatiable desire to succeed
  4. Ability to remain focused
  5. Pushes self to the limit
  6. Handles pressure
  7. Maintains emotional control
  8. Involves self at all times
  9. Influential among team

So, now think about yourself. Do you possess any, most or all of these traits listed above? Make a list of traits you already believe you have, and make a list of traits you desire to have!

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