MENTAL FITNESS: 8 TRAITS OF A MENTALLY TOUGH ATHLETE
Having coached professional sporting athletes through to Olympic level athletes in my 7 years in the strength & conditioning industry, I have found the same common traits to be true and consistent at a physical level but also from a psychological level - experiencing their ups and downs in mood, motivation and experiences with winning and losing.
The sports psychology behind mental toughness is one which varies wildly between individuals and I can only write about this from an observation perspective as a Strength & Conditioning coach.
1. TRAIN THE HABIT
The ability to be mentally tough is absolutely a trait which is trained and developed over time, even when dealing with stressful situations and when feeling overwhelmed with life and all the daily tasks that need to be completed, while still trying to perform at a high level.
Start small, as cliché as it may sound, commit to a routine which can easily be adhered to with minimal impact on your daily life and add to the routine from there. It’s said time and time again, yet so many people fail at this very simple and crucial point to succeed in their training goals – start small.
2. OVERCOMING THE NEGATIVE MENTAL SELF-TALK
I have noticed that mentally tough athletes all have the ability to overcome negative self talk and the consistency to keep turning up to training (with intent) even when there is chaos in other parts of their lives.
Like many athletes, you will experience moments of negative head noise where you question things like: “why am I doing this?” “what’s the point?” “am I even getting anywhere?” and any other question your brain can conjure up to test your resolve.
The short of it is simple, trust the process. If you know you have a training program which has been planned out by a professional and it has “worked” for others, it’s only a matter of time before you reap the rewards for your discipline and commitment.
"The goal is to ensure you are able to cultivate good habits over a longer period of time so that they “stick” over time and ultimately you become equipped with mental fitness to have the self belief and ability to train your mind to stay positive, even when there is plenty happening in work and personal life."
3. BEING BOTH MENTALLY AND PHYSICALLY STRONG
I believe these two attributes are closely linked and inclusive of each other. Generally consistency is key to any physical strength gains and it is very unusual for people who fail in breaking bad habits to develop physical strength – even if they do, it’s only a matter of time before it ends.
Which brings me to my next point, it’s perfectly okay to drift in and out of periods where you are more dedicated and disciplined than others. That’s life, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to always be at peak performance - this kind of attitude often leads to undue mental angst and moments of failure in adhering to unrealistic expectations.
The goal is to ensure you are able to cultivate good habits over a longer period of time so that they “stick” over time and ultimately you become equipped with mental fitness to have the self belief and ability to train your mind to stay positive, even when there is plenty happening in work and personal life.
4. KEEPING MENTALLY HEALTHY
One of the tried and tested methods of staying mentally healthy in regards to training and exercise is to not obsess about it and to let it overrun your life. It should really only be a small part of a much bigger project, spend time on other things you enjoy doing which stimulate you mentally and provide you with a challenge which is not only physical.
Meditation is very much a trendy thing to do, but once again, only do this if you actually enjoy it and if you feel like you reap the benefits from it. Be mindful to give it a good chance before you give up! From feedback I have had, meditation is very much something which requires time and discipline before perceived benefits are “felt” and it becomes a worthwhile exercise.
5. BEING DISCIPLINED
Mentally tough people have it in spades and they have it on tap. They will say no to that slice of cake, they will say no to that night out and they will almost certainly say no to that night out or sleep in if it jeopardises their training or physical performance.
6. TRUE TO THEIR WORD
When they say they will do something, they always deliver and if they don’t – you already know they gave everything they could to try and deliver.
7. AN ABILITY TO SACRIFICE
Athletes who exhibit mental toughness have the ability to break bad habits by making sacrifices in all aspects of their lives. Often this will require the self belief to know that the sacrifices will be “worth it” in the long term, because sometimes they will affect personal relationships where the other party doesn’t understand of believe in the same vision of the athlete as much as they do.
8. SUPPORT NETWORK
You’re only as good as those you surround yourself with, and this is an integral component of all high performing athlete’s - their mental toughness often hinges on this one part of the entire ecosystem they are immersed in. No amount of discipline will save an individual from poor surroundings which they cannot remove themselves from.
Small doses are fine, but ultimately an elite athlete with true mental toughness will consciously choose to surround themselves with quality friends, family, coaches and peers who only add value to their goals.
These traits are all available to the every day person to develop if they choose to actively become better at learning about and implementing them on a daily basis. Understanding that the shift in momentum will be small and often hard to notice at the start is key to long term success in developing mental and physical performance.