Developing Mental Toughness as an Athlete

Happy Friday everyone!

For someone who actually spends a lot of time training in different forms, I never really talk about training on here… I mean, I spend more time in the gym than I do writing, so surely it deserves some airtime?! Anyway, I’m remedying that today and talking about something that’s been on my mind in the gym lately and which, while it might seem training-specific, is actually very easily translated to other areas of life as well.

So today I want to talk about mental toughness. But what is mental toughness, and how do I get it? How do you, if that’s your goal as well?

Mental toughness is a measure of resilience and determination which shapes your ability to maintain your focus, push through discomfort—and past your own desire to give up—in order to reach the goal. 

Now, I’m relatively good at not quitting. Even when I want to, I’ll keep going (possibly I should thank the Army for this, where stopping wasn’t really a viable option) and complete the workout. But, as an athlete, I would say that, historically, I’ve had pretty average mental toughness. I’m ashamed of that. It gnaws at me to know that I can talk a damn big talk, but when the rubber hits the road, I struggle to walk the walk. It’s not that I don’t want to train, or that I don’t want to be mentally tough while under physical strain… It’s just that it isn’t something I’m very good at developing. The things that I’m good at—any kind of lifting, or swimming—aren’t a problem. But high intensity cardiovascular work? Noooooope. I won’t quit… But I routinely find ways to build rest into a workout and to decrease the intensity in order to pander to my own feelings of ‘holy shit, we’re about to die,’ ‘your limbs are going to fall off,’ ‘your heart is exploding,’ or ‘you’ve punctured a lung, just STOP!’

When my body starts to ache with effort and my cardiovascular system is struggling, my solution is always to ease off a bit.

If you’ve trained with me at any point, you probably know what I mean; if you haven’t but you train pretty regularly, have a look around your box/gym and I can almost guarantee you’ll be able to spot what I’m talking about. There’s always that one person who needs chalk for every rep, who crouches down with that pained grimace on their face in the middle of a workout, who misses a rep and takes a slightly-too-long break before starting again, who groans before you begin, and collapses at the end. That was—that has always been—me. I’ve just always struggled to convince myself to accept the hurt, to push harder, to preserve through discomfort. [DISCLAIMER: I am NOT talking about pain. Hurting during a workout often means burning muscles and tight rib cages and maybe a stitch or a feeling that your heart may explode (if you have heart problems, probably avoid this feeling), and that’s acceptable. Bulging discs and torn ligaments are pain, and that’s not.]

Part of me wants to blame this weakness (because as hard as it for me to embrace this, that’s precisely what it is, a fundamental weakness in my make up as an athlete) on injuries, and probably specifically on my back injury. If you’re carrying an injury, or ever have in the past, it can be nigh on impossible to convince yourself that pushing through discomfort isn’t to your detriment. And that injury can at times provide a convenient excuse. But, as much as I would love to blame my knee-back-knee-back injuries, that’s not what this is about. This predates injuries.

Now. The solution here seems really simple, right? Just. Don’t. Rest. Seems so simple; except sometimes it’s not until I’m in the moment of resting that I realise I’ve done it. I’m so hardwired to just take a couple of seconds pause before starting the next rep or set that it’s almost impossible to recognise until I’m past that point. So the solution for me seems to be small steps first (which realistically is never not a good way to approach things).

For example, I had a workout earlier this week with 5 dips in it. I decided before I started that every time I got up on the dip bars, I wouldn’t get down until I’d finished the five reps: even if I had to have a bit of a rest at the top of the movement, I wouldn’t get off the bars until they were done. I knew that getting off the bars gave me the excuse to unnecessarily waste time before getting back on.

And I did it. Seven times total in fact during the course of the workout. That was a huge success for me, even though it was such a small and simple thing to do. So small and simple is clearly the way to go for me, and this came to the fore again with the deceptively-easy-looking workout that James (aka Coach EastO!) programmed for me on Wednesday. I’m sure that there is a significant percentage of the population who would find these workouts a walk in the park… Sadly, I’m not one of them. It consisted of 10 rounds, starting every 3 minutes, of 20 DUs, 10 kettlebell deadlifts (at 24Kg), and 10 box jump overs.

Again, if you’ve ever trained with me (or hung around with me post-training at any point in 2014 when my whole body seemed eternally covered in skipping rope welts) then you’ll be aware of my relationship with double unders. [What are DUs? A double under, or DU, is a skip—using a skipping rope—where the rope passes under your feet twice in a single jump]. For those who haven’t, let me put it in easy-to-understand parlance: historically, it hasn’t been pretty. You might call it love-hate: the rope loved to whip the living daylights out of every inch of me whether covered with clothing or not, and I hated the sight of the bloody thing. Along with most other aerobic exercises in Crossfit, DUs have always been one of my biggest challenges and my inability to string them together into sets could make me frustrated and defeated like nothing else.

You’d think, then, that having eschewed Crossfit since leaving Sydney at the end of 2014 in favour of Olympic Weightlifting (and then since Nov 2015, nursing a back injury that restricts a proportion of the movements integral to Crossfit), I would still be shitty at DUs. Surprise, surprise, I appear to have improved out of sight. I’m fairly oblivious as to how this happened, but very grateful! Anyway, that’s not really the point. Somewhere along the road I’ve developed this strange habit of, every time I pick up the skipping rope, turning the handles around and around multiple times like I’m trying to find the right or most comfortable grip… And thinking about this earlier in the week, I realised that’s complete crap. There’s really only one way to hold these handles and it’s equally comfortable however you do it: my bizarre little pre-skipping ritual has nothing to do with physical comfort. It’s a mental defence. By twiddling with the handles I delay starting something that I dislike and am not good at: one of the oldest tricks in the book.

So on Wednesday I decided that every time I picked up my skipping rope, I would immediately grip the handles and not readjust. I would be ready to go at the start of every round without fiddling: again, really small, and really simple. It made not one whit of difference to my comfort levels, and it made me feel in control. It made me feel more confident, like I didn’t need to delay DUs because I knew I could do them.

It’s really easy to overlook the point behind these stories: it’s not important that I’m only just getting the hang of dips and double unders. What matters is that process of slowly but surely developing your own mental resilience to discomfort in a way that is realistic for you. Sometimes this means forcing myself to smile while I’m rowing and I don’t want to keep pulling; sometimes it means forcing myself to walk at the end of a workout instead of collapsing; sometimes it means belly-breathing when I want to inhale and exhale as rapidly as possible to get oxygen to my system.

It also means that sometimes I will fail at all of these little endeavours, and I’ll have to remind myself to keep doing them. But the saying ‘practice makes perfect’ isn’t a cliche for nothing: continuing to reinforce these positive behaviours on a daily basis strengthens my mental resilience to discomfort, and increases my resistance to my own fear. I feel like a lot of my training at the moment is about doing things that I don’t want to do because I’m not good at them, and this in and of itself is another exercise in mental toughness. It’s also the only way I’m ever going to get good at these things!

I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s had experiences with developing their own mental toughness, regardless of whether that’s in the gym or defeating negative self-talk at work, or in creative endeavours, or anything!

I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts on Monday about the current plan for an upcoming postal ballot regarding same sex marriage in Australia. Have a great weekend everyone!

— Ana.

P.S. If you’re on social media and want to check out some great hints and tips about mental resilience training, check out @mentality_wod on instagram: Dawn has some brilliant stuff to help on your journey!

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