It’s well-documented that those who make it through Navy Seal BUD/S training are not the biggest, baddest, strongest, or fittest. The SEAL who makes it through is the one who has already made it in their mind.
Much of what the media shows us, and our education taught us, paints a picture of mental toughness that is synonymous with physical strength, fitness, and hard work. It is common to see coaches attempting to cultivate “mental toughness” with physical challenges. If implemented responsibly, these challenges can be fun and inspiring every once in a while. But more often than not we see them used as punishment, sometimes leading to puking, rhabdo, serious injury, and even death. That’s when we’ve gone too far and have lost site of what mental toughness actually is and how it’s cultivated.
I believe mental toughness is more of a state of mind created by 3 things: Reframing, Preparation, and Consistency.
Reframing gives us the power to maintain and grow mental toughness over time. What does reframing sound like?
- I showed up to the airport for a flight that left 24 hours ago. To rebook the same flight today cost me $1200. Good! A $1200 lesson. I’ll pay more attention the next time I book a flight and enter it into my calendar immediately. (True story)
- I broke my leg snow boarding. Good! I can use the time I’m healing to reconnect with other things in my life, focus more on school, and train my weak points to come back stronger than before.
- I didn’t get the job I REALLY wanted. Good! I’ll learn from this experience, sharpen my skills and be more prepared for the next opportunity.
- I failed my last exam. Good! Now I can go back and see where I went wrong and how I can study better. This is also a good time to go and talk to my teacher about the difficulties I’m having and how I can better prepare.
Is reframing easy? Hell no. Do I do this with everything I perceive as bad? Eventually, yes. The initial shock of things usually leaves me paralyzed with emotion. Reframing is a skill. It’s something that gets easier with practice. I’m now able to reframe within minutes, hours or days, as opposed to weeks, months or years.
Preparation gives us a greater chance of success when performing under pressure. And wouldn’t we say that mental toughness is the ability to perform successfully under pressure? Or even just perform under pressure? When we’re adequately prepared, we can then allow the majority of our energy and focus to be on overcoming the mental stressors of the situation or environment. Preparation is a great way to take power away from meaningless ‘worries’, and put it back into the mental battle that’s in front of you – which is usually the toughest of all.
The discipline of consistency itself can build mental toughness. Trying to improve on something day in and day out, over a period of years, is incredibly difficult. It cannot be done without mental toughness. Why? Because it’s too easy to quit when things get boring and mundane. When everything in your body tells you to stop or say no, it’s mental toughness that makes you say yes.
Want to help yourself and others build mental toughness? Start reframing what’s ‘bad’ in your life, prepare for the things you can control, and be consistent in your words and actions, even when the going gets tough. It has to start with you before others will follow.