A BUDs Trainee’s Account “…With the doctor’s blessing, the instructors told us to take off our green tops and get back in the bay. We treaded water again for five or 10 minutes and then got out. Rinse, repeat. Eventually, we were down to just our underwear. That’s when I began to crack….as I treaded water, I looked up at the clear night sky and stared at a bright star overhead. I began wishing I were somewhere else. I was aware of a faint disappointment creeping into my consciousness as I considered that all my hard work would come to naught if I gave up now. The cold, however, had sapped my will to go on.
Once out of the water and back on the pier again, the evolution appeared to be over. I heard one of the instructors haggling with the doctor for just one more minute in the drink. Apparently, I hadn’t been the only one to hesitate before jumping back in the bay the last time. The instructors smelled weakness…The instructors ordered us back in the water and that was it. There was no way I was getting back in. I turned around and walked towards the instructors and I quit.
I quit at the “Steel Pier” on the first night of Hell Week. Sailors have filthy mouths. I can attest to that. In the Special Warfare community, however, there’s no dirtier word than “quitter.” …”
Mental toughness is talked about a lot, but understood by very few. It is the ability to will oneself through less than ideal situations and conditions whether that be battling cancer or simply waking up early to go workout. Mental toughness can come from many sources such as:
- overcoming a difficult childhood
- a deep faith in God
- battling an addiction or disease
- undergoing military training
- consistent physical exertion
One would consider mentally tough from WWII veterans to outdoor adventurers to Christian missionaries. As I began thinking about how one builds mental toughness I realized that while there are many ways it comes about, for the majority of people, consistent and intense physical exertion is the most accessible and common way to build mental toughness. You can’t help if you grew up in a posh suburban environment with loving parents or have never battled cancer, and the majority of people will never undergo the type of training that comes standard in the military, but everyone can go on a long run or work out until their bodies are screaming to stop. With that in mind, here are some keys to building mental toughness that anyone can follow:
1. Show Up – “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on? ” – Lance Armstrong
What separates a guy like Lance from 99% of the world is the fact that he showed up everyday, when it was raining, when it was hot, when he was sore, when he was tired….he showed up everyday. JUST SHOW UP! What happens after you show up is where the real fun begins, but most people can’t even make it to that point. If it’s working out, tell a friend you’ll meet them at a certain time so you will be less likely to back out. If it’s battling an addiction, make yourself go to a recovery group every time it meets.
2. Hurt Vs. Injured – “Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.” – Lance Armstrong.
A high school football coach used to always ask players that limped to the sidelines during a game, are you hurt or injured? This may seem trite to some, but he was keying in on a fundamental issue. Soreness, stiffness, bruises…these are just parts of any game or any physically demanding activity, but they should not keep one from continuing. Injuries on the other hand, like muscle tears, broken bones, etc. are a different thing entirely and should be taken care of. One of the best ways to develop mental toughness is extreme physical exertion…if there is no discomfort , you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. This is different from causing injury which hinders you rather than helping.
3. Unfamiliar and Unexpected Are Your Friends – Part of building mental toughness involves being comfortable performing in stressful situations. One of the best ways to develop this trait is by consistently doing things you have never done or trying things a different way. Fear of the unknown keeps many from ever developing mental toughness, but by consistently placing yourself in unfamiliar situations you can learn to deal with stress and fear. Some good ones that I’ve tried include rock climbing, attending the Air Force Academy, swimming (what is recreation for most used to stress me out since I was a terrible swimmer until recently) and mountain biking. You don’t have to do something crazy, just something that you don’t normally do and something that puts a little fear in your heart.
4. What’s Your Motivation – Whenever you find yourself in a tough position you will need something you can focus on to provide motivation. I don’t know exactly what Lance focused on during the hill climbs of the Tour de France, but I’m sure it included a mixture of other cancer patients he had met along the way, yellow jackets and a finish line. Lately, for me it has been my daughter and my desire to have her look at her father’s life someday and say, “Wow, he really pushed himself and accomplished some great things.” I want her to be as proud of me as I am of her. Whatever it is, everyone has to find something to focus on for motivation. If you allow your mind to focus on your pain or your laziness you will have a hard time pushing through any adversity.
5. Constantly Challenge Yourself – What most people fail to understand is that mental toughness is something that has to be practiced and developed over time. The key to this is placing yourself in challenging situations…constantly doing things that are hard. This is a fundamental principle of military training. Sure, push-ups and sit-ups help develop you physically, but after a couple hundred of them it becomes much more of a mental game than a physical one. The military uses physical training and yelling because it creates a stressful environment that breeds mental toughness and forces one to deal with intense discomfort and anxiety, the fact that it gets you in shape is a side benefit.
6. Surround Yourself with Lances – As with most things in life, you will become who you spend time with. So, if you want to get more mentally tough, spend time with people that already are. It’s contagious. I always love working out with Beau because just when I’ve had it and am ready to leave the gym he is just starting…he pushes me by his example. Lately I’ve been pouring myself into training for a marathon. Being as I’ve never run one I have tried to meet and talk to others that have in hopes of gleaning some insight and motivation from them. Whether you are training for a marathon or not, surrounding yourself with other mentally tough people is a sure way to become mentally tough yourself.
Mental toughness isn’t about being macho or cocky, it’s about coping with stress, anxiety and pain. It’s about running another lap when your throat is burning, doing 20 more push-ups after your arms start to shake and doing the things others aren’t willing to do.
This trait is beneficial not just for the Navy SEAL, but for the 9-5 average Joe as well. When one looks at people like Lance, the Ironman triathalete, or the Vietnam POW it is easy to say, “I could never make it through something like that or be as strong as them.” The fact is, they too had to develop their mental toughness just like everyone else, day after day after day. Simple, but not easy.[Excerpt by Cameron Schaefer]
It can help you compensate for a lack of strength, skill, or natural ability. Arnold talked about it in Pumping Iron (“You just go on and go on… and say, ‘I don’t care what happens.’”), and a flu-stricken Michael Jordan exemplified it in the ’97 NBA finals by hitting the Game 5 winning shot after nearly collapsing with exhaustion. It’s what a triathlete needs to survive the last mile of an Ironman contest, and it often means the ultimate difference between success and failure.
We all know what it is—whether you call it guts, will, or balls. It’s mental toughness. The question is: How do we get it? Ever ask what it takes to focus in on, push through, and outlast every obstacle in your path?
Mental toughness can be defined as the ability to maintain the focus and determination to complete a course of action despite difficulty or consequences—to never quit. The root of mental toughness lies in motivation. Those who are deemed mentally tough typically exhibit what sports psychologists call “intrinsic motivation.” This is the desire to be self-determining. People who are intrinsically motivated are self- starters, willing to push themselves to the brink for the love of their sport or activity. They need little encouragement to give their best effort, and they often do well setting goals for themselves. Needless to say, this doesn’t describe all of us. Some guys can only get their head in a game when the pressure of competition is on. They revel in the chance to compare themselves with others. These guys have what’s called “achievement motivation. All things being equal between two competitors, whoever is higher in achievement motivation will be the better athlete, hands down.
- Achievement motivation has two opposing mentalities that can drive a person to be tough. Both exist in all people, but you’re more likely to lean toward one or the other.
- Those who are dominated by the motivation to succeed are, predictably, people who gather their energies best when they feel a great opportunity lies ahead for them. Even if the probability of that success seems uncertain, they believe if they bust their butts, they can achieve it.
- The flip side of that is what’s known as the motivation to avoid failure. These folks only get going in response to challenges that threaten their egos. Knowing this, it makes sense that men who focus situations in which success seems easy to achieve. If the task seems uncomplicated, their confidence is high. But if an obstacle is perceived as an extreme challenge, they’re just as likely to cop out, believing there’s no way they could overcome it.
Understanding which of these two traits is more dominant in your personality is the key to helping you train yourself to become tougher—and endure more. Most coaches report that players who are motivated by success don’t need as much instruction or cajoling when the chips are down in a game—they see it as an opportunity to turn things around and be heroes. However, players whose focus is on avoiding failure need that direction. They need to be told what to do so they’ll feel they can react correctly when backed into a corner. For example. One team is up by two points in the closing seconds of the game. The opposing team has the ball and has just crossed midfield. A good coach or quarterback needs to tell the players who are most likely to focus on failure exactly what to do, in this case to cover their territory while in a zone defense or just use their footwork during pass coverage. This kind of instruction removes some of the self-induced pressure from a player, allowing him to focus on the task at hand.
This logic isn’t limited to high-pressure athletic situations. If you’re a guy who’s afraid of failure and you’re going for a new max on the deadlift in the gym, you might find the inner strength to smoke an intimidating weight by focusing on simple techniques and strategies that will make the lift seem easier. You could remind yourself to allow your body to fall backward as you thrust your hips forward,thereby achieving the glute and hamstring activation you need to pull a monstrous load. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by impending deadlines at the office, create a to-do list that helps you budget your time. Do whatever it takes to eliminate potential stressors and make the task seem easier. [Excerpt from Sean Hyson, C.S.C.S. ]