Mental toughness training for athletes is a topic that comes up frequently. Athletes and parents of athletes are interested to know what can be done to improve focus, attitude, and ultimately, results. So often a person comes to me for a training plan with goals for changing their body-get more muscle, lose fat, get stronger, faster, and so on – and the first thing I ask them is “How is your sleep?” and “Do you have a mindfulness practice?” There is no training plan that will get you any of the above if you are not sleeping 8-9 hours every night, making room to listen to yourself and eating healthy food that you cook yourself.
Mental toughness training is not about how to bend your body to the will of your mind. Let me be clear. Mental toughness training can only happen when you are able to integrate your mind, your body, and your spirit. Being in “the zone” is not something that can be forced or contrived, it has to come through you.
There are really only 3 things we can actually train: our body, our mind, and our craft. Learning how to observe your thoughts and how they drive your actions is key to becoming a high achiever. Every high achiever has a process that they have developed to get in the right state to perform at their highest – and they practice it every day, not just during competition.
Developing your own personal philosophy is one of the most significant anchors you can create to ground yourself. Great achievers have clarity of their personal philosophy.
So how does one develop this philosophy? Practice.
The thing about the word “practice” is that you never arrive. Practice ts ongoing, moving forward, not outcome based – it’s practice. Practice is about what comes up while you redoing what you do. The practice is to notice it, allow it, and see what it can teach you. Every time you practice is different. Part of the pain I see people experience is expecting things to always be the same and expecting that there is always linear progress.
Nothing is ever the same.
Progress is rarely, if ever linear.
Learning to accept what is — that’s what you can control.
Key Practices to Develop Mental Toughness Training for Athletes
Here are some of my key practices to develop for mental toughness training for athletes.
- Be optimistic! Optimism is a pillar of an athlete’s mental toughness training. How you think about your future is learned behavior. To gain mental toughness you must have relentless belief that things are happening FOR you, not TO you.
- Put yourself in rugged environments; get uncomfortable. Resilience is the effect. By the way, uncomfortable does not equal unsafe—there is a huge difference. I have young athletes whose sport coaches belittle and berate them with foul language and name calling—this is NOT uncomfortable, this is unsafe. I wish these coaches would exit the planet—or at least go to therapy to figure out why they do this…but alas, I digress. Getting uncomfortable is a requirement for you to be your best. This can be easily demonstrated with any world class performer from music to sports to any field. Knowledge is not enough. Information is not enough. You must turn learning into application and action. Learning has to turn into insights and those insights need to change your behavior.
- Learn the value of hard work. This is not about working harder. This is about a willingness to go to the edge of your capacity. This is not simply doing something 1 million or 10 million times. Your capacity is a place you (and only you) can push yourself toward, and you can only know it when you have gone there. As a coach I cannot push you there; I can guide you to the door but only you can enter.
- Get still. Another door opens for you when you develop a practice (that word again) of quiet presence. The doorway is the entrance to “the zone.” You can’t get there any other way. You must practice being still.
- Learn your brain. The thoughts you have are just that. Like clouds they will pass though your consciousness; what sticks is your choice. Thoughts can get us stuck and keep us small. And thoughts can give us hope and expand our life. The choice is all yours.
- Express your authentic self WITH OTHERS. This is a choice way of saying teamwork. Whether you are on a team or an individual athlete, you have a team of people who support you, including your coach. It is not about “this person did this and so I did that;” that is reactivity. When you are reactive you are not in choice. No matter who is doing what (even that stupid coach with the massive insecurities who is calling you names), you must know who you are. This is the art of mental toughness; a practice of deciding who you are is not reacting to your environment. Be authentic.
- Develop your own priorities. WHY are you doing what you are doing? This is a deep question if your goal is to become your best self. People who show up and say “tell me what to do” have not developed a personal philosophy of greatness. They are just trying to please someone and they have no idea who they are or why they are doing things, other than to get someone off their back. What a sad way to live. And in real life there are no trophies for just showing up.
- Align your thoughts, words, and actions. This is a way to develop an understanding of your own personal “why.” When you are aligned in this way it feels great. Imagine you know yourself and why you are doing what you are doing and someone says “why won’t you (fill in the blank dumb idea that everyone else is doing—eat fast food, take drugs, drink alcohol, beat up the weak kid, call people names, sneak out at night…you get the idea) —when you are aligned, none of these things are on your radar because you know who you are and why you do what you do. People who are distracted by eating crap, doing drugs, breaking rules, being mean do not know themselves. They are trying to fit in. There is no mental toughness for people who are just fitting in. Sorry.
- Align yourself with wise people. People who are switched on: people who are having deep conversations and talking about their philosophies and their why. Think about all the amazing athletes, performers, high achievers. They don’t fit in. They all have their own identity. They do things differently. Find your own community of people to train with. If you are in the gym with people who create an environment of pressure and fear you will never become your best. At Coaching by G we create a culture that is inclusive, constructive and always positive.
- Write. Write about your own philosophy. It doesn’t have to be long; it can be less than 30 words. Develop your own thoughts and put them on paper. And do this often. You will start to see how you change your mind as you learn new things and apply them to your own evolution on your way to becoming your best self.
- Practice recovery. Sleep at least 8 hours, eat well (colorful foods and plenty of great protein), get plenty of sunshine, and hydrate with filtered water. No one develops great habits when they are tired.
- Compete. Mental toughness training for athletes requires testing. How do you know if you are succeeding unless you test your philosophy?
- Don’t trust people who don’t compete. Those who cannot be vulnerable cannot grow. As humans, we are either growing or dying. There are no plateaus. Don’t listen to people who are dying. No matter how old a person is, they can find a way to start new things, do things that scare them, and show up and get their ass handed to them. There is always a way to compete. If your coach is a has been, leave them out in the field they died in and go find someone who is actually doing the work. This is true in business, life, sport, science, everything.
Winning is fun but the best part of training, practicing, honing your craft or your sport, is the process of becoming: the journey. The process of knowing that you have what it takes, the process of knowing you are creative enough to solve problems on the fly and make decisions is much more fun than just winning. The score only tells one tiny part – the end. Winning is a requirement to keep going for all things, otherwise it is not your thing.
Mental toughness training is learning to cultivate non-attachment, it requires focus on the present moment-the only moment anyone actually has. The only way to be focused in the moment is to have practiced nurturing your whole person – the mind, body and spirit- through meditation, sleep, nutrition, and community. The quality of each of these aspects determines your experience in life. If things aren’t going your way choose to change.
Live by choice, not by chance.