One often over looked key to fitness has nothing to do with your lungs, heart, muscles or bones. Instead, we have to look to what lies between our ears. There is a mental aspect of our training that we don’t always seem to understand. Mental toughness is not something that we walk into our local gym and PR. I can add 10 lbs to my deadlift, but I can’t exactly measure my mental toughness. We all know what it feels like to have one of those days where it does not feel like we had our head in the game, so the question is how do I improve my physical game by improving my mental game.
One of the best definitions that I have heard to describe mental toughness is “the ability or willingness to suffer”. I think we can all understand that. Nobody can force you to do a workout. Some one may tell you to do the workout, but they can’t do the workout for you. At some point you made the decision that you were about to do “Fran”. It was a conscious and willing (albeit probably hesitant) decision, and in that act elected to suffer. The reason that we decide to suffer is that we feel that by sacrificing our short term comfort, we will improve our long term fitness. This concept is very similar to another word he have all heard. Discpline. An ability to obey or follow a code or rule of behavior. In this case, our behavior involves routine sacrifice for our personal betterment.
In each of these definitions there is a goal, an end result. Our routine is predicated on some type of “want”. We want something enough that we are willing to sacrifice to get it. Our level of “Commitment” to our “want” will ultimately determine how much we are willing to sacrifice. What happens to us in workouts (and in life, for that matter) is that our suffering will begin to weaken these priorities. At the beginning of a workout we are full of steam and ready to do every set unbroken. At some point, when we are gasping for air and starting to feel a burn in our legs and arms, we begin to negotiate these priorities.
- “Maybe instead of doing all 20 unbroken, I can do 2 sets of 10 so I can rest for a moment in between”
- “Nobody will notice if I just walk part of this run”
Everyone has there breaking point, the point where our “wants” or goals succumb to our suffering. It is human nature, whether you are marathon runner, a Navy Seal, or simply some one with a lot of things going on in our life.
So one of the first things that determines our mental toughness is how strong our commitment is. How much do we want this “want”.
The next thing that we consider is our will power.
Regardless of whether you are an athlete, Law enforcement officer, fire fighter, or member of the military, there is no substitute for quality training. The reality is that when when the time to perform comes, there is no such thing as rising to the occasion; you are either prepared or you are not. When the shit hits the fan, you don’t magically become imbued with untapped strength or speed. We fall to the level of our training. You can’t will something to happen. Our willpower then are those moments where our focus allows us to endure more suffering than normally possible.
Will power is a limited resource, and some of us are capable of more than others. Usually the time when we experience the might of our will power is at the end of a WOD. It could be a case that you have been battling it out for a couple of rounds and now the end is so close that we seem to “dig a little deeper” to get that last round or set done. We didn’t automatically get stronger or faster but we did mentally accept more suffering in the short term. There are those times when people think they have more will power than they do and they try to start that last “finishing kick” a little to early and end up burning out too soon. Some days we have the mental toughness to will it through and others we don’t.
Most of us have heard the line “you can always do one more burpee”. Basically, we can all endure a little bit more. Our WOD times will get faster because of the work we put in, and our ability to endure a little bit more is what gives our body the need to adapt and improve. If you do a WOD in 5 minutes and after continued training you are able to do the WOD again in the same time, but it was “easier” the second time around; then you may not have had to endure or be as mentally tough because your physical capability improved.
Knowing that we can have that little bit of extra reserve at the end of a WOD is great, but then we do have the other 90% percent of the workout that we have to contend with.
Another reason that we sometimes fall short or under achieve is because we allow ourselves to become overwhelmed by the workout before we start. One of the most common cases of this is with “Murph”. A mile run, 100 pullups, 200 pushups, 300 squats, and another mile run. Athletes have “psyched” themselves out before the WOD has even started and destined themselves for an even more arduous journey.
I have seen people engage two main different strategies: Checking Out or Checking In.
Checking out is a strategy that works great for WODs with a lot of repetitive reps or long runs or rows. It means allowing your self to put your focus somewhere else and basically distracting yourself from the stress you are trying to endure. From a historical stand point, there are plenty of stories Prisoners of War who would have imaginary dogs or even motorcycles as a means of enduring the brutal realities of being in a POW Camp.
See More of the Interview with Franklin Jack Chapman
Checking Out isn’t really the best strategy for maximizing your performance but will at least let you grind out and survive some long workouts. This is only a viable strategy on well-practiced and less complex movements. This is not a great idea when working heavy squat snatches.
Checking In is all about staying mentally engaged with your progress. It also means doing a little more than just going until you can’t anymore and then grinding out the rest. It means actively setting goals within the workout. Instead of being overwhelmed by doing “Murph”, breaking it up into doable “chunks”.
- “I’m going to do as many as I can to start and then break the rest of the rounds into sets of 10.”
- “I’m going to do as many reps as I can for 20 seconds and then rest for 10 before going again.”
- “I’m going to keep running all the way to the next light pole.”
Now the reality of coming up with a strategy is understanding that you may have to adjust your strategy once you get started. At some point you might need to break those sets of 10 into sets of 5. The Key is to always be working towards something other than just finishing. The two times in life when your basic math is at its best is (A) when you wake up before your alarm clock and your trying to calculate how much more sleep you have, and (B) figuring out how many reps you have left and how many sets you can do it in.
- “I’ve got 21 reps left, I can do a set of 10 and 11, or three sets of 7, or sets of 9, 7, and 5.”
In the end, there is no way to PR or even accurately measure Mental Toughness. You can improve your mental toughness with a little understanding and strategy.
- Understand your “wants” and your commitment to them.
- Understand that will power is a powerful tool but nothing can replace training and putting yourself in a good position to start.
- Understand your limits and have a strategy for those things in your control.
- Mental toughness is the result of a lot of not giving up on the small things.
Set Goals, Break it up into chunks, and have the discipline to endure the process.
And in the end if this all sounds like mental toughness can be applied to a lot more than just a workout and and fitness… ….well then, you just might be onto something.