The Athlete’s Toolbox: An Unbeatable Mind

Mental fortitude separates successful athletes from their peers.

As a coach and gym owner, my goal is to create clients who are successful athletes. Over the years, however, my definition of “successful” has evolved. Originally, I would deem an athlete successful when he or she could plan for and accomplish a goal. Although goal actualization will always be a definitive characteristic of success, I believe that a truly successful athlete is one that possesses the knowledge to be self-sufficient.

Successful athletes understand basic psychology, exercise science, nutrition, and can work through a majority of their problems on their own. A true coach is always there to provide a structural framework, mastery knowledge, and persistent motivation to refocus them towards their goals, but they possess the core tools of athletic competence.

After watching hundreds of clients over the years, I have come up with eight tools for the competent athlete’s toolbox. These eight tools span several disciplines that are all crucial to an athlete’s successful mental and physical development over their lifespan.

The first principle, covered in this article, tackles the greatest asset an athlete possesses—their mind. Mental fortitude separates successful athletes from their peers. The great athletes and achievers among us have a very similar emotional profile. They are emotionally agile, introspective, and uniquely goal-driven.

The Role of Emotional Agility

The pursuit of your health and wellness goals, also known as training, seldom follows a path of perpetual progress. There are twists and turns, ups and downs, periods of tremendous progress, and spells of barren backslides. Training, like life, is not linear, and the down times will throw serious demons your way. Recognizing and understanding how to react in times of strife and struggle is paramount for a successful athlete. The skill of learning how to react to negative emotions and challenges is called emotional agility.

Emotional agility teaches us to treat emotions as data points, not as right or wrong. Your brain uses negative emotions the same way your body uses pain, to alert you that something is wrong (or right). If we do not know how to process and respond to negative emotions then they will begin to grab hold and manifest themselves in our actions. Left unchecked, negative emotions begin to drive our actions in a way that detaches us away from our values. We must develop emotional agility to help us overcome this pattern. Learning how to identify and accept unpleasant situations that arise during training can help you break the emotional patterns that are holding you back.

This skill becomes even more critical in today’s age of social media. We are constantly bombarded by other athletes’ successes every hour of every day. It’s easy to begin thinking that everyone else is leaving you in the dust while you struggle day in and day out. Although we may logically know that this cannot be the case, it does not stop the negative emotions from pouring in over us. We are helpless if we do not know how to respond to these suffocating feelings of inadequacy and failure.

How Is Emotional Agility Developed?

The solution is simple, but the application will be a practice in the art of trial and error. The first big step is simply being aware that negative circumstances and emotions will present themselves and it is okay to feel a certain way. Emotional awareness will develop into the agility to then react and respond to any emotion or circumstance. Once we become emotionally aware, true emotional agility stems from having a plan of attack when confronted by a negative scenario. Honestly ask yourself:

  • Am I emotionally agile?
  • How easily am I your dissuaded from your goals?

Does a disappointing weigh-in often lead to an all-day binge or possibly falling all the way off the dietary wagon? What plan can you enact instead to combat this cycle?

A successful athlete has the emotional agility to not only recognize negative emotions, but they have a plan ready to combat and circumvent those emotions in order to sustain themselves on the path to success.

Use Introspection

An obsessively introspective mindset is the hallmark of a champion. A successful athlete will dwell on factors that they control, instead of complaining about factors outside of his or her control. Once a plan is set in place a successful athlete will pursue it with blinders on and solely focus on the pursuit of the goal.

I constantly see unsuccessful clients at the gym come and go due to one extraneous excuse after another:

  • “I’m too busy.”
  • “I can’t eat the food I’m supposed to.”
  • “I don’t like this programming.”

You name it. I’ve heard it.

We have an unending list of excuses at our disposal, and our egos will use them to protect us from challenges outside of our norm. A lazy athlete stops at the excuse. They present no solutions to their challenges. A successful athlete will see the same challenges but will instead think:

  • “How can I fit my workouts into my schedule?”
  • “What can I do in order to stick to my diet?”

We all have extraneous roadblocks that will impede our progress. Are you an athlete who stops at the excuse, or do you seek out solutions to your problems? A successful athlete will always first look within to find a solution.

Triage Your Goals

A fairly obvious characteristic of a successful athlete is one who is goal-driven. In order to keep you tuned in however, I’d like to share a seldom-discussed aspect surrounding goals, and that is triage.

A successful athlete knows how to triage their goals. Triage is the process of determining the priority or urgency of need. A successful athlete does not attempt to tackle 10 goals at once. The problem with pursuing too many goals is simply a matter of logistics. You cannot expend the personal resources (time, energy, etc.) necessary when you are split in 10 different directions. Successful athletes may have 10 goals, but they independently pursue each one.

We witness this phenomenon in action every year around January 1st. A person who already claims to have no time over the holidays between kids, work, family visiting, cooking, and whatever else is in their life decides to make a New Year’s resolution to workout five days a week, read three books a month, learn to play the guitar, write poetry, and volunteer every weekend at the local homeless shelter. While these are admirable goals, it is wildly impractical to think you can pile these together all at once. The inability to triage goals is single-handedly the reason so many people fail to see their goals through to completion.

Goal triaging allows you to differentiate between important goals that will make a significant impact in your life and which are just noise. So often, those “noise” goals derail us from what truly matters right this minute. If you focus on the most important goals, and fully commit to them, you will likely find that they are the “big domino” that sets a cascading effect of accomplishment down the entirety of your goal list. To be successful, you need to be able to identify what goals need immediate attention. The largest holes in your health and wellness must be addressed first. Find what is important and purse it, relentlessly.

The Power of a Strong Mental Make Up

Successful athletes come in all shapes and sizes, but their mental makeup is consistent across the board. They can recognize deficiencies, set a plan, and put it into action. This may sound simplistic, but the magic comes from their ability to react, reset, and refocus as many times as is needed throughout the process. Their external environment is never a crutch, as they will always look within for future improvements over past mistakes. The successful athlete cannot be mentally beat because they never truly fail. Failure would indicate quitting. A successful athlete learns from a momentary failure to create a lasting culture of success for themselves and those around them.

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