We often hear the term mental toughness but what does it really mean? Are sports players, bodybuilders, and business leaders born with a “toughness” chip? Finally, can a person really develop mental toughness skills?
As an educator and counselor, I often am asked about this topic. If truth be told, it’s mostly men who have questions. That’s not to say women aren’t interested. They are.
But because of societal expectations of men (right or wrong), it’s mostly the guys who are looking for answers.
But here’s is the thing. Being mentally tough doesn’t have anything to do with being manly.
Instead, it’s about strengthening a series of skills that increase your reboundability.
In this article, you will learn:
- A definition of mental toughness
- Mental toughness and Army Ranger training
- 7 unique mental toughness skills
- Mental toughness reflective questions
- Resources for learning about mental strength
Mental Toughness and Army Rangers
An example of mental toughness can be found in those who successfully complete army ranger training. This is a grueling, nine week program that is physically, psychologically, and emotionally exhausting.
Before candidates get accepted into the school, soldiers need to do at least six pull-ups, 49 pushups (in two minutes),and 59 sit-ups (also in two minutes).
Once arriving at academy, there are three unique phases that must be completed.
Candidates complete the “walk” part in mountain landscapes. “The rugged terrain, hunger, and sleep deprivation are the biggest causes of emotional stress that students encounter,” shares the Army.
The last part of the program occurs in a swamp environment. Here, students train to operate “under conditions of extreme mental and physical stress.”
Ranger candidates spend many hours walking while weighed down with heavy gear. They sleep outside. Eating is restricted to just a few meals a day. It is not uncommon for students to shed 20 or more pounds by the time the nine-weeks is up.
“But the school teaches the Ranger he can overcome insurmountable challenges while under simulated combat conditions,” the Army reports. “And of course, he can wear the well-deserved Ranger Tab on his shoulder.”
Using Army Ranger training as an example, we can see there are various personal components that are integrated into the mental toughness dynamic.
So, what are they?
What follows are seven mental toughness skills you can use in sports, bodybuilding or other life areas. I encourage you to read them all to get the most out of this piece.
And remember, it’s not just one thing that makes a person mentally strong. How many of these can you grow?
1. Goal setting
The ability to set goals is the first step in increasing mental toughness. Without goals, you have nothing to work towards. In turn, motivation can’t exist.
People who are mentally strong understand that goal setting occurs for the short and long term. It’s also not just a one-time thing. Instead, a series of realistic goals are created over the course of a life-span.
While achieving a stated goal is important, there is also value in not achieving. That’s because valuable lessons can be learned. In turn, those “take-aways” can be applied to new goal sets for the future.
2. Stress management
Another important component of being tough mentally is stress management. You’ll never be able to reach the goals you have set unless you are able to stay emotionally relaxed and focused.
That’s not to say you can’t get emotional. It happens – we are human. The trick is not letting your feelings overpower you to the point of becoming derailed.
An effective way to work through stress is by living mindfully. To learn more about this approach and how meditation can help to create a more balanced psyche, check out this post on the benefits of mindful meditation for men.
You knew that at some point, confidence was going to pop up on this list. Doesn’t this make sense? Without a belief in yourself and abilities, not much can happen.
Remember that confidence is something that takes time to grow and build. Part of the growth process means learning from past mistakes and recognizing perfection is often a fantasy.
You can coach yourself in ways that increase your self-concept. But before that happens, you’ll need to ditch the negative internal dialogue that keeps you from moving forward. Learn more by reading the top 10 ways men kill their self-esteem.
Being able to bounce back from losses, setbacks, and bad breaks are critical to building mental toughness. Any worthwhile goal will have its fair share of obstacles. That’s what makes a goal worthy in the first place.
It’s important to not view resilience as “getting over” something. That’s a bunch of BS. Instead, resilience is about working through the disappointments and assessing what can be learned.
Example: You are a bodybuilder who wanted to place first in a competition. As it turns out, you placed third. Rather than get down on yourself and call it quits, you decide to train harder so that next year, you can place higher.
Resilience is a skill (and gift) that allows us to incorporate bad things that happen to us in life and transform them into something empowering. That’s what happens when we overcome obstacles.
Integrated into the mental toughness dynamic is focus. For our purposes, focus can be defined as your ability to concentrate on a given goal while minimizing distractions.
Notice I didn’t say “getting rid of distractions” or something equivalent. That’s because in life, some things can’t be avoided. But that doesn’t mean you can’t reduce the possibility of distractions.
Example: If your goal is to return to college and earn a degree, it’s important to assess things in your life that may pull you off course. Think mobile devices, surfing the net, family issues and so forth.
When your focus is high, you have a greater ability to push barriers aside. Take an inventory of things that have acted as obstacles for you in the past in relation to goal attainment.
Ask yourself in the here and now: what can be different?
Hand in hand with focus is self-discipline. In fact, one could make the argument that this skill is a subset of focus. In truth, they are not exactly the same.
Self-discipline is what allows you to say no to the things that act as goal deterents. It’s also the same skill that fortifies healthy rituals, like hitting the gym weekly or studying for exams.
There is a lot of magical thinking that goes on with self-discipline. Many people think a person has it or they don’t. But here’s the truth.
Self-discipline is a skill that is grown over time.
If you want to increase your abilities in this area, you’ll need to challenge yourself first. This goes back to setting realistic goals (short and long-term) and assessing your behaviors along the way.
A really good book to help beef up your skills in this area is Jeff Griffin’s book, Self-Discipline: Become Unstoppable and Achieve Anything (See Amazon).
Remember, it’s not about being born with a chip for this one. Instead, it’s about training your mind to think differently.
The final component of mental toughness is visualization. Successful athletes, leaders, and students have learned how to see the future through their mind’s eye.
Part of this involves imagining internally what you want to see happen externally. Examples include building a better body, getting promoted or being in a romantic relationship with another.
Visualization also empowers self-confidence. When you see what you want to achieve, you are more likely to believe it will happen.
In this way, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations operate in concert, acting as the engine for movement.
The trick is allowing yourself to see your goal and not getting derailed when slips happen along the way.
If your goal is to develop your mental toughness, it will be important to concentrate on the seven skill sets mentioned above.
Your best friend on this journey will be consistency. Study any professional athlete or person who has reached status in life and you’ll identify this trait as a common bond.
How many of these mental toughness skills have you developed?