Mental toughness has historically been defined by the ability to shake it off, put on a brave face, and push past the pain. People often get rewarded for ignoring their mind’s and body’s signals and pushing themselves to the brink. However, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Increasingly, we are finding that this way of thinking may hinder physical and mental performance outcomes in the long run. Achieving true mental toughness requires a redefined and more adaptive approach that emphasizes the following three components: challenging goals, self-efficacy, and self-control.
Mastery goals are the name of the game here. You want to create specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely goals. You want to focus on soaking in as much as possible as you pursue a goal, not just avoiding the worst potential outcome. There is a difference. You want to stretch yourself into a zone of discomfort, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming or stunts your actual ability to perform.
Along with this comes focusing on the process, not just the outcome. Sure – setting a goal means selecting a destination you would like to reach. But how do you get there? Oftentimes, focusing on the process, the journey in between A and B, can put you in a better position to control the controllable, create habits and routines that allow you to move towards the person you want to become, and inch closer toward your victories. This also enables you to demonstrate the ability to refine your belief in yourself. To remind yourself that you can execute effectively to produce desired results.
Part of this is also accepting that sometimes you will do everything in your power, do it well, and still not achieve the intended result. Uncertainty and elements outside your control will always be part of the puzzle. A new approach to mental toughness should include accepting these frustrating yet honest parts of life in a way that helps you simply improve your perceived ability to cope with the unknown and unwanted rather than trying to predict and control the unpredictable and uncontrollable.
Here are some effective ways to expand your understanding and pursuit of mental toughness:
Listen to your body – Acknowledge and respond to your inner dialogue both mentally and physically. Amid a tough situation, make sure your right self is in charge.
Set authentic goals – Assess your situation and set challenging and realistic goals for yourself. Understand and accept your capabilities. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Respond, don’t react – Practice mindfulness techniques to hone in on your self-control. Allow space to make the appropriate choices.
Learn resilience by seeking discomfort – Pursue and find meaning in discomfort. Embrace fear, pressure, and even failure.
Dr. Natasha Trujillo is a counseling and sport psychologist who currently lives in Denver, CO. She obtained her Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Purdue in 2019, where she studied nuances of grief/loss under Dr. Servaty-Seib. In her private practice, she focuses on clinical concerns related to grief/loss, eating disorders, trauma, life transitions, identity exploration, and “the athlete mindset” primarily with collegiate, professional, and Olympic/paralympic athletes.