Competitive sports are played mainly on a five-and-a-half inch court, the space between your ears.
Pushing yourself to do physically difficult things is one way to build up your mental toughness reserves. The kind of reserves you need to call on when it comes time to dig deep in a physical contest. When your brain tells you to quit, but you need your body to keep going.
In other words, you need to figure out how to work the edge.
There are times when we want our bodies to be able to keep going once our brains have checked out. But wouldn’t it be great if you could prolong the time BEFORE your brain checks out?
This is actual MENTAL toughness training.
Removing all the distractions and keeping your brain engaged longer than you think you can. It’s all just working a different edge, this time the mental one. The one you need to be the sharpest.
1) The Dark Place
It’s a weird and often unspoken truth that athletes sometimes have to disappear into their own heads and fight against their own demons. You have to descend through the levels of your brain and fight a boss battle with the nagging voices in your own head.
In order to do that, you have to tune everything else out.
Not just tune everything else out but remove all external distractions completely.
I snagged a quote from an article I read ages ago that I haven’t been able to find since. But it hits perfectly on the idea of “the dark place”.
“Every once in a while you need to put yourself in that dark place, without the benefit of external motivators, and slug it out with yourself.”
When I first started getting seriously competitive in my roller derby career, I had a coach that wouldn’t let us play music at practice. It was a jarring transition from a team that constantly had music cranking. And even used it as motivation for getting through particularly brutal endurance drills.
But this coach refused.
No music. Ever.
After months of slogging through suicides and 13-minute drills and push carts without any music, we finally built up the courage to ask him why he wouldn’t just let us play some goddamn music.
“You won’t notice the music in a game.” He said. “You won’t have it to rely on when you need to dig deep for the last jam. You’ll only have yourself. You need to learn to rely on that.”
Basically, this coach wanted us to embrace our discomfort. Become friends with that moment when you feel like you’re going to give up and know that you won’t. Everything will get easier as you go.
Even being in the dark place.
2) You lack discipline.
The truth is that mentally tough people are more consistent than you are.
They don’t rely on motivation to get going. They don’t wait for the perfect time. Or make excuses to procrastinate on doing something. Mentally tough people DO THINGS.
Think of it this way, when we choose priorities like health and fitness over, say, watching TV, we might eventually lose the desire to watch TV at all. If you’re headed to a Quantum Leap marathon at a friend’s house it might feel a bit UGH.
You’re out of the habit and watching TV has lost its appeal.
The same thing is true of training (or doing mental toughness work or attending practice more often). You have to prioritize it and then just fucking do it. There’s a reason why Nike hasn’t changed its motto in over 30 years.
People are always surprised to hear my answer when they ask me, “How do you stay motivated?”
The answer? I’m not motivated. Easily 30% of the time I don’t want to train or eat a big ass salad over a donut or even go to practice. I’m disciplined. I do it because the reason why I’m doing it is more important than my momentary discomfort.
I’ve built in the habit and that shows up as the discipline to train.
If the thing you aren’t motivated to do is important enough to you, then you can’t wait for motivation. You just have to get started.
Every time you go to practice or the gym or eat a salad when aren’t motivated to or you don’t really want to, you’re building up your mental toughness muscle too.
3) Control what you can control.
And let everything else go. That’s all there is to it.
Simple, but not easy.
Start by noticing what specific situations set you off and then dig down into what specifically about those situations stresses you out.
When in doubt, refocus — immediately — onto something you have control over. Bring a mantra into your mind that calms you down or start breathing in a pattern that takes your mental focus.
Then let everything else go. Seriously.
The 5-week solution to getting out of your head, building your confidence, and keeping your focus where you need it.
Here’s how it’s going to shake out:
- #mindsetmonday → I’ll be giving you a mindset focus for the week. Something that you can carry over into your life, your job, your training, and/or your athletic practice.
- #walkthewalkwednesday → On Wednesdays, we wear pink. And put into practice a specific tool to work on the mindset focus for the week.
- #followupfriday → Get ready to reflect on how you did. You won’t ever have to share (unless you want to) but part of improving your mental toughness and mindset will be evaluating how things went.
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