I have been fighting either the flu or allergies for the past week and it has progressively gotten worse. As I was putting this post together though, I remembered how two of my favorite sports figures had arguably their greatest games when they were sick. Michael Jordan’s NBA finals Game 5, where he had to be carried off the court and had to be given fluid intravenously because of how dehydrated he was, is still considered to be one of the greatest performances in basketball history. Similarly, on a cold Monday night, Walter Payton, still battling the flu and running a fairly high temperature, set the record for the most rushing yards in a single game against the Minnesota Vikings. That record would stand for nearly 23 years. I think part of the reason they, and many others, had great individual performances when they were sick is because they became very focused on the task at hand and were able to filter out the noise surrounding them. The fact that they undertook the task ahead of them, recognizing their physical condition, speaks to the heart of my post today…their mental toughness.
For the purposes of this post, I am defining mental toughness as the ability to stay focused and determined in spite of the difficulties you face as you pursue your goals. As an ability, it is something everyone can strengthen or ignore as they desire. It is a skill that can be developed, but it requires effort like any other skill. There are a lot of erroneous ideas about mental toughness. Some people believe you have to figure out a way to motivate yourself when things get hard, and certainly that is one approach, but it is just one approach. Some think that it means becoming stone-faced and stoic, which, again, may work for some people, but is just one approach. I recently read a couple of good articles about developing mental toughness and they had a number of common concepts that I felt were worth sharing.
First, one thing that weakens our resolve is loss of or lack of control. As more things spiral out of control, we tend to lose motivation and focus. Recognizing this as a weak area, we need to look at a strategy to combat it. The first step is to control the things you can control. It sounds simple, but all too often we try to control things outside our control in the name of probability and then start building our expectations on a weighted chance something will happen. By controlling only the things we can control, we then are able to lessen the internal pressures building up and be more rational when acting. I heard it put this way. “You can’t control everything, but you are in absolute control about how you react to it.”
A second attribute is flexibility and adaptability. These two characteristics are difficult for some and easier for others. Being flexible and adaptable to a deteriorating situation requires us to be willing to change our plans in response to the situation. I have been guilty of not wanting to change plans and still have difficulty being as flexible and adaptable as I probably should be. When things are blowing up my plans, I tend to retreat into myself to think and consciously accept that the plan now has to change. Regardless, you need to find the method that works for you to accept the change of plans and frees you up to be flexible and adapt.
A third attribute is honest self-awareness. This means taking a clear, unbiased look at your strengths and weaknesses and understanding what you believe your limitations are. This also means evaluating why you are pursuing your goals. Many times the answer is “I need to” or “I want to”, but those are not motivating reasons by themselves. To keep your determination, you need to have a reason that motivates you that you can keep going back to.
The final attribute is, in my opinion, the hardest one. It is being willing to delay gratification, or trading the short term pain for a longer term gain. In our fast-food world we expect our rewards quick and have little tolerance for delay. Being mentally tough in attaining your goals, however, means you have to wait on the long term gain, and the “short” part of short-term pain may be longer than you think.
There are some great writings on developing mental toughness, like Unbeatable Mind by Mark Divine, The Art of Mental Training by DC Gonzalez, and The Champion’s Mind by Jim Afremow. Have a great weekend!