How Tough Is Your Mind?

Mindfulness training will take your performance to the next level.

At the pinnacle of every grueling workout live two types of athletes: those who choose grace, and those who choose chaos.

Certain workouts reveal these qualities more than others, like a descending ladder of thrusters and burpees. These workouts are like a freight train en route to the pain cave, and unless you’re Superman, there’s nothing you can do to slow it down.

The athletes who choose grace are mesmerizing to watch, with their stone-cold composure and trance-like movements. The chaotic athletes are also fun to watch, but mostly to enjoy the show as they flop on the mat after the final rep in a dramatic display of defeat. So why do some athletes stay cool, calm, and collected for the entirety of the workout, while others freak out two reps in? Their mind. The difference lies in the ability to shut out extraneous noise and focus solely on the task at hand.

If you think mindfulness is a bunch of hippy-yoga-nonsense, think again. Learning how to control your mind in stressful situations will harness untapped strength that you never knew existed.

When conditions are less than ideal, can you ignore the distractions and focus on the task at hand?

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a cognitive behavioral treatment designed to teach people how to change the pattern of unhelpful thoughts. Originally formulated to treat individuals with impulsivity, self-injury, substance abuse, and personality disorders, DBT has expanded into the sports arena as a way for athletes to build positive mental capacity while under pressure or in uncomfortable situations. It’s the difference between having the mental composure to nail a buzzer-beating shot or choking under pressure.

There are four main components to DBT:

  • Mindfulness: The ability to take pay attention, non-judgmentally, to the present moment. Mindfulness is the ability to control your mind instead of having your mind control you.
  • Interpersonal Effectiveness: The ability to express your needs without damaging your self-respect.
  • Emotion Regulation: The ability to regulate your emotions by understanding the relationship between thoughts, feelings, and actions.
  • Distress Tolerance: The ability to get through a tough situation without making it worse.

How many times have you been deep in a workout and the burning sensation in your legs from a monster set of wall balls becomes almost too much to handle? The negative self-talk creeps in, and instead of facing the workout with vigor and mental toughness, you let unhelpful emotions get the best of you. In the end, you leave the gym disappointed with your performance.

The Teflon Mind

One component of DBT used by many athletes is to develop a “Teflon mind.” In this state, you allow thoughts and feelings to come into your mind in a non-judgmental way. Then you let them slip right out, without allowing yourself to react and get stuck to them. This mindset helps people cope with intense feelings and remain in the present moment without losing perspective.

With a Teflon mind, you have the ability to stand up to the mental challenge that lies within each grueling workout without breaking down emotionally, and subsequently, physically.

Creating a Teflon mind requires more than positive thinking. It takes practice, just like getting a bigger back squat requires continued training. But that doesn’t mean it has to be overwhelming. Like all aspects of training, it’s about the quality of your effort. The next time you are at the gym (or in your living room), give this DBT mindfulness exercise a shot.

  1. Find a quiet spot and sit in the rock bottom of your squat.
  2. Set a timer for 10 minutes.
  3. Let your arms fall over your knees and close your eyes.
  4. Focus your attention on your breathing.
  5. Pay attention to what it feels like in your body as you breathe slowly in and out.
  6. Become aware of whatever thoughts enter your mind. Notice how they enter your consciousness, develop, and then let them float away.
  7. If you get immersed in a thought, notice what took you away from your previous state of calm observation, and try to shift your attention back to that state.
  8. Stand up at the end of 10 minutes and shake out your legs.

This exercise should open your eyes to how you react when your body is placed in an uncomfortable situation. How does your body feel when your ankles and legs start to get tired? What thoughts enter your mind? How do those thoughts impact your feelings?

Were you able to let thoughts float in and out of your mind when your body began to fatigue, or did you feel overwhelmed, unable to stay calm and present in the moment?

Either way, if you want to develop a Teflon mind, you have to train yourself to notice the discomfort that comes with working out, without reacting to it. You want to achieve a state where that monster set of wall balls doesn’t phase you. Commit to practicing these skills every time you train. Start small, perhaps during your warm up, and progress to longer and more involved workouts over time.

Rope climb.

Worrying about grip strength won’t do anything to help you hang on.

Attitude Is Everything

So much emphasis is put on building physical strength, but spending three months on a Russian squat program won’t do you any good if you fall apart emotionally every time you go for a personal record attempt. Winning the mental game is what separates the good athletes from the great ones. It’s rare to see someone like Rich Froning crack.

Learn to recognize when your mind is wandering, and quickly shift back to the present. Dwelling on the negative will break your confidence. Manage mental chaos by concentrating on one rep at a time, and block out everything else. When you dial in your brain, your body will follow.

More on Mindfulness:

Headline photo courtesy of J. Perez Imagery.

Photos courtesy of Jorge Huerta Photography.