Can You Train Mental Toughness?
After years of training and coaching mental toughness, I still sometimes find myself addressing this most basic question. It often comes in the form of a declaration. Someone, sure of their assumptions, comes along and says, “You can’t train mental toughness. Either you got it or you don’t.”
I can’t entirely blame these guys for their sense of futility. Most stuff out there on mental toughness is either a slop of well-meaning but useless clichés, or soft, New-Agey, pop-psychology that would barely draw a crowd at Burning Man. Not scientific. Not empirical. Not result-driven.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing. And in case it’s not clear, my answer is yes, emphatically, you can train mental toughness. In fact, you’d better train it, because all the clichés are true: the mental game can make or break you. It can push you over the edge to victory, or it can beat you before you begin. It can be the surprise gut punch of stress and self-sabotage, or it can be the beast you ride into every battle.
You just have to know what it is, where it is, and how to get it.
The Trouble With Toughness
Maybe the most mission-critical task for training mental toughness is finding out what it is. Seems like a simple question, but ask anyone what mental toughness is, and see how many “uhs” and “ums” it takes before a halfway coherent answer emerges. In fact, go ahead and see if you can come up with a definition on your own before reading on.Now attack your definition and see how it holds up. Does is account for every aspect of the mental game? Is it unified and coherent? Is it precise and specific?
If we’re going to approach mental toughness training as a science, we need to know exactly what we’re going for. We need a definition that’s precise, scientific, and operational, not just a loose collection of abstract qualities.
Take confidence, for example. We all know it when we see it. Or think we do, anyway. But can you take a person into a lab and take measurements for confidence? No. For motivation? Nope. Resilience. Alas, no. All these are great qualities, and worth striving for, but they’re imprecise, slippery, and ultimately immeasurable.
That’s why so many mindset-related qualities are called “intangibles.” It's hard to know if you really have them, or if you only have them some of the time, or if have more of them or less of them than you did yesterday. This is the impasse where some folks throw up their hands and say that mental toughness can’t be trained.
Quantifying Mental Toughness
But what if there were basic parameters of mental toughness that could be measured? Qualities that have a fundamentally physical basis, and that lie at the root of all these intangibles. What if there were qualities that you could train as precisely as you train strength, speed, or mobility?
Well, it’s everybody’s lucky day, because there are.
The two parameters that make up mental toughness are high dominance and low stress. At first glance, those qualities may seem as intangible as any other. But these have a real, physical, and measurable existence in the form of testosterone (the dominance hormone) and cortisol (the stress hormone).
Recent research out of Harvard and Columbia1 confirms that the qualities associated with the “alpha” personality—feelings of power, risk tolerance, leadership abilities (in our language, mental toughness)—follow primarily from the levels of these two hormones. When testosterone levels are high and cortisol levels are low, people perform well under pressure. They demonstrate all the qualities that we link with mental toughness. When the recipe is reversed, you get the opposite: poor performance, anxiety, and frayed nerves.
Once we know the physical reality of mental toughnesss, we can modify training modalities to improve it.
These hormones are hardcore, physical realities. They’re not open to negotiation from your thoughts. In fact, they’re prior to your thoughts, prior to your conscious awareness. They dictate how you see your circumstances, how your respond, how you perform, and how you think. They dictate who you are at any given moment. They’re the essential, fundamental building blocks of mindset, and they don’t live in some abstract mental world. They’re in your brain and in your blood.
When you have them dialed in, all those intangibles—confidence, focus, motivation, the ability to perform under pressure—come naturally and effortlessly. When you don’t, they don’t. And that’s because the intangibles are consequences of mental toughness, not its cause. This is why you can’t wish, think, hope or imagine your way into true mental toughness.
The good news is you don’t have to. When you have a real, systematic method to train mental toughness on the level of the brain, you don’t need New Agey gimmicks, motivational speeches or wishful-thinking-based approaches. You can put aside childish things.
How You Can Train Mental Toughness
So how do you hack into those levels and turn up the dial? It’s easy to feel strong and powerful when things are going your way. Your brain is already set up to reward you with a powerful and relaxed mindset when outer circumstances happen to be in your favor. But how do you mix the right brain cocktail for yourself, no matter what’s going on, so you’re not dependent on outer circumstances for the quality of your mindset?
The key is training and maintaining a positive, forceful mindset so you have it no matter what. The study I mentioned above established that the levels of those two crucial hormones are deeply and directly impacted by body posture, the most primal language of the nervous system.
The researchers found that open, expansive postures encourage higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol, while closed, shrunken, constricted postures do the opposite. They even found that adopting exaggeratedly open postures before stressful situations helped mindset and performance.
But while that kind of last-minute, fake-it-till-you-make-it trick can make a little bit of difference, just imitating open postures won’t take you very far. That’s because the essential problem goes deeper than hunching your shoulders and not sitting up straight. The average person’s posture and body language are deeply constricted by chronic neuromuscular tensions, and those tensions make up the inner barrier to a profound and permanent transformation of your mental toughness.
The Inner Opponent
This full-body neuromuscular armoring develops over a lifetime, starting in early childhood, and manifests not just as chronic muscular and neurological tension, but as fear, ego, anxiety, stress, and worry. It sends constant signals to your brainstem that you’re in actual, physical danger, and lets your mind run in circles trying to solve a survival problem that doesn’t really exist.
All mindset-related problems have their root there, in the baseline stress of the deepest, most ancient part of the brain. And that cortisol-soaked, reptilian, fight-or-flight anxiety has much more influence over your brain than any positive thinking, affirmations, or motivational quotes you could ever throw at it. Dissolve those neuromuscular tensions, reclaim your nervous system, and your body mutates back into its relaxed, primal posture. And all by itself, your brain starts mixing the mental toughness hormone cocktail: high dominance, low stress.
That’s what Neuromuscular Release Work (NRW) does, and that’s why I’ve been using it as my primary technique for training and coaching mental toughness for years. It’s a type of workout that dissolves these deep, chronic layers of neuromuscular tensions and cracks the code of mindset on the physical, neurological level to give you effortless, natural, and primal mental toughness. As that process takes place, you can feel your mental toughness transforming your attitudes, your behavior, and your performance. And other people feel it, too.
Push it far enough, and you end up with easy access to the “flow” state, or the “zone;” that state of zero resistance and peak performance that usually only comes, if it comes, rarely and randomly. When you get there, you’ve entered the kingdom of mental toughness, and your world is transformed.
You Are Your Own Laboratory
When someone tells me, “You can’t train mental toughness,” it always feels a little odd. It's like if someone went up to a strength coach and said, “You can’t train strength. Either you got it or you don’t.” Can you imagine an alternate reality in which people somehow hadn’t discovered strength training, where everybody just has to deal with the strength they were born with? I wouldn’t want to live in that world. Would you?
Don’t just take my word for all this. Consider it a working hypothesis. If you want to make a real and significant transformation in your mental toughness, it’s up to you to turn your body and brain into the laboratory that’s going to give you results. If you approach it with an earnest, experimental attitude, you’ll find out for yourself what I and many others have found, and what the research supports: you can train mental toughness. You can train it like anything else: strength, speed, mobility, whatever. You don’t have to be born one of those few noble souls we call naturals. And no matter where you start, you can always improve.
You can't improve your fitness without starting between the ears:
1. Carney, D. R., A. J. C. Cuddy, and A. J. Yap. "Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance." Psychological Science 21, no. 10 (2010): 1363-368. doi:10.1177/0956797610383437.