Every coach I’ve ever talked to wants athletes who are mentally tough. I hear it all the time, “My players just aren’t mentally tough!” “How do I develop mental toughness in my athletes?” The problem is that “mental toughness” is somewhat of an abstract idea. Most coaches and athletes have an idea of the qualities of mental toughness but they fall short on what mental toughness really is. Even more troubling is how to develop that toughness in their athletes.
Before we can go about developing any skill we must first have a definition of what it is we’re trying to achieve. Otherwise we have no clue what we’re striving for. I mean, if we don’t know the destination then how can we possibly know when we’ve arrived? As author Stephen Covey says, “Start with the end in mind.” So with that my definition of what people call “mental toughness” is fairly simply and I believe fully encapsulates all of the qualities that coaches, athletes, or employers have in mind when they’re looking for mentally tough individuals to add to their team.
For me, mental toughness is one’s ability to remain completely present regardless of the external situation. Regardless of pressure packed or how heavy a situation may be mentally tough people are able to stay completely focused on the present moment. They’re able to stay focused on the process of whatever they’re engaged in and accomplish the task at hand. In sports this could mean performing when the game is on the line or being able to ignore any perceived external pressures that may be present. In business this can be having the ability to focus on getting the job done regardless of how tight the deadline might be. It means being able to stay completely present even though there’s a lot riding on the deal you’re trying to close. As a parent this could mean being able to stay present with your child even though you have a million other things to do. It means to not allow their behavior to negatively impact or mental or emotional state so that you can respond to the situation the way you choose to instead of mindlessly reacting.
So you might be wondering how do we begin to develop “mental toughness”?
Practice Daily Meditation/Mindfulness
A daily meditation or mindfulness practice allows us to develop the present moment awareness we need to be able to remain focused in challenging situations. I personally like breath awareness meditations because your breath is a constant source that we can return to when we feel our minds drifting to past and/or future. When challenges arise it’s helpful to have the ability to use our breathing to return us to the present moment. Our daily meditation/mindfulness practice allows us to develop that skill.
Become a Single-Tasker
It seems like multi-tasking is all the rage these days. People where it as a badge of honor when they think they can accomplish multiple tasks at a single time. What they don’t understand is that one never really multi-tasks. They really just bounce back and forth from task to task very quickly without giving each task the complete focus it deserves. Sure, it makes you feel like you’re getting more accomplished however is it really worth it? In addition to not being able to accomplish each task to your best ability you’re also increasing your stress level and most importantly training your mind to be unable to stay present. Take a step back and do one task at a time. Give that task your complete focus so that you not only do quality work but you turn the task itself into a mediation. It becomes an opportunity to practice being present and as result developing your mental toughness.
Set Present-Moment Triggers
Throughout the day it’s beneficial to set up triggers that remind you to return to your breath and become present. Since it’s so easy to get lost in all of the things we have to get done throughout the day I like to set a timer that goes off every hour to remind me to stop whatever I’m doing and become present. We almost always have our phones on us or are always attached to some type of device so I use this as a tool to build present moment awareness. I simply set a timer on my phone or on my computer and when that timer goes off each hour I stop whatever I’m doing and take 3 conscious breaths. Over time this practice has allowed me to be more present throughout my day.
Being “mentally tough” is something that every coach or employer is looking for. Outside of that however it’s extremely empowering to have the ability to go through our day and consciously dictate how we think and feel. To have the ability to not allow the challenges that life might throw at us to dictate our level of performance, peace, or happiness. Start making it your daily intention to remain present regardless of what the present moment might bring. Start adding some of these techniques to your life and I know that you’ll not only perform better on the field or in the boardroom but you’ll also gain much more joy out of life.