The 6 Steps to Building Mental Toughness
What is it that makes some able to grit their teeth and hammer through the final painful moments of a session but sees others crumble and fail? The expression, “It’s not about the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog” springs to mind often when I watch people train. Some just seem to want it more than others.
The funny thing is that when things get tough, it’s often not the natural born freaks that you’ll see succeed. Instead, it is the guy or girl who always seems to struggle who can grind out a great performance. Why is that?
Are some people just born with more mental toughness than everyone else, or can this skill be cultivated and improved, just like any other quality we look to improve in the gym?
One of the things I’m a big believer in is that the things we do in the gym should carry over to the rest of our lives. Discipline, toughness, stubbornness, and perseverance all have relevance to everything else we do. Knowing you have to finish with an all-out Airdyne sprint session can leave you dreading the rest of the session, just as looking at a pile of paperwork can be daunting. But once you start you soon realize it’s not as bad as you think. (Except Airdyne sprints really are as bad as you think).
I have some tricks I use on myself as well as my clients to work on improving toughness:
1. When the alarm goes, get upright ASAP.
Never, ever hit snooze on the alarm. I believe all adults should train early in the day, as that way there is no chance of a missed workout later when the boss drops a pile of paperwork on the desk or requests one more meeting for the day. But many struggle with getting going first thing. My trick is to get upright as soon as possible. I find once I am vertical with my feet on the floor the rest of my body just switches on. Before you know it, being able to get up, even when you’re absolutely dog-tired, will become habit. And when getting up is a habit then getting to training will be easier.
2. Trust your trainer.
As a trainer nothing makes me madder than when people tell me they can’t do something. “Yes, you bloody well can,” I say. “Which is why I picked this particular workout for you.” While it may be a stretch, you absolutely can accomplish what your trainer is asking you to do.
This always reminds me of things that seem dangerous, like abseiling (rappelling). There is a high-perceived risk, yet the actual risk is nearly zero. Realizing that while you may be incredibly challenged by a particular workout, your trainer has suggested it knowing you can finish should calm you. If they believe you are capable of finishing, why don’t you? And if it was you who picked the session, then you should never second-guess yourself when you’re faced with the reality of what’s to come. Stick to the damn plan.
3. Use some proven tricks and tools.
Sometimes, as a trainer-entertainer-babysitter-psychologist I need to come up with ways to get people to do the things I know they’re capable of without looking like I’m leading them. My goal is not just to lead the horse to water, but not even let the horse know I was there.
One of my favorite ways to develop toughness is an SMMF session. Static holds are awful. They’re just painful. But they breed coping ability. Once someone has suffered through twelve to sixteen minutes of static holds they soon learn that they can cope with far more pain than they knew was possible.
Other ways to use this same idea is something like 100 get ups. There’s a lot to be said for a workout that is a single movement done for many, many reps. Similarly, take one movement and do it for time without putting the bar down. They’re all equally awful, and used in the right doses they help a client acclimate to harder work - like easing yourself into a steaming hot tub, taking time to get used to the hot water.
There’s something to be said too for longer duration sessions. The fatness industry keeps trying to tell people that short, thirty-minute sessions are great for whatever ails them. The problem is that in today’s MTV-Twitter fueled world people can’t stay focused for long. A two-hour run will fix that. People fool themselves with their fitness by doing a short, heavy session. It’s easy to do ten hard, heavy reps and put the weight down huffing and puffing. But go on a long run and learn to cope with your heart rate being elevated for a sustained period. Learning that you won’t die from it is a valuable tool in teaching toughness. I’m a big believer in training volume. It fixes a lot of issues, massively increases fitness, and seems to work wonders for the mind’s ability to cope with duress.
An old military favorite, and not surprisingly a Spartan and Gym Jones favorite too, is to lie about workout volume. In the army it’s not uncommon to finish a massive pack march only to be told that the trucks are needed elsewhere. So despite having hauled ass for a day to get where you are now you need to haul ass back to the barracks. This is always good for temper tantrums and guys will pout and chuck their toys out of the pram only to find the trucks parked up around the corner. Or maybe you really do need to march all the way back too. In either case, the next time it happens you won’t even bat an eyelid.
We can use this same set up in training in two ways. Firstly, by lying about what we’re doing for the day. It may be something as simple as telling the class your plan is to do four rounds of a workout when your actual plan is to do six. Wait until they get to the fourth round before telling them though. The alternative is to only write up the section of the workout you are currently about to do. I find people will pace themselves if they see a lot of work in front of them. However, if you just write up something short they’ll give a greater effort. This does lead to all kinds of moaning and whining from clients, but they learn to overcome adversity on a small scale. This ability to keep a flexible mindset will be important when things go awry during an event (and the longer the event the worse these things can seem).
4. Don’t fall for your own or your clients’ tricks.
Many people are so inundated with noise in their daily lives they struggle to be alone with just themselves and their own breathing. These people will speak up - maybe to give themselves a break and maybe just to satisfy their own need for noise. That’s one of the reasons we don’t have music at RPT - I want to get rid of the noise in their heads. If you need a soundtrack to row 2000m you’re going to be out of luck when the zombies come.
All those little client tricks you need to be vigilant for – the water break during the warm up (because they’ve become so dehydrated in the first five minutes of class they may expire), the coming late to avoid the warm up (because they’re trying to stay fresh for later in the workout), or starting a conversation mid-set with someone else (to cause a necessary break by entering into a social obligation not to appear rude) - all of that needs to be crushed on the spot by a trainer to help these people. Learning to work hard and avoid distraction will be needed later in the day when they have a deadline but Facebook beckons.
5. Remember, like anything else, it’s a process.
Finally, the best way to develop toughness is to realize that it’s not an overnight process. Just like no one walks into a gym and squats double body weight their first time, no one just waltzes through something like a 2000m row for time when they first start training. Learning to embrace the suck, to endure and hold pace even when everything in your body is screaming at you to slow down, is not a quick skill to learn. Even accepting that you look like a dribbling mess can be difficult for some. But slowly over time you learn to handle the pain and vanquish the voices in your head until the only sound left is the rasping of your breath.
6. The final step is simple: Quit being a pussy and get it fucking done.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.