I got an email from one of my best friends from my younger years last night. She has children in elementary school and middle school. She asked me to give her a few ideas about how she could help her children become mentally tough.
This presents a bit of a challenge for me, because I don’t think it worthwhile to teach mental toughness until you teach character. You have to first teach children humility, caring, teamwork, effort, self-control/discipline, commitment, accountability, and goal setting. This is because mental toughness is all about maintaining those character traits when things get tough.
So the first thing I would say is teach your children about character. It really boils down to eliminating the crippling effects of selfishness. Focus on preventing self-serving behavior from forming in the first place by helping them realize the great joy of teamwork, selfless contribution, and awareness of others. Begin by placing instances of positive and negative behavior into a larger framework of character education. Talk about their behavior at home and at school using character terms. Talk about other people driving, in the super market, at school, playing in the game on television etc. using character terms. The examples of good character and poor character are all around us all the time. Help them to see these examples in a character light. Help them understand that almost every situation they encounter requires a decision that they make that has both individual and group (family, team, school, town, society) ramifications. Put the milk back in the fridge, put your dishes in the dish washer, pick up your toys when you are done playing with them, help put away the laundry, put the remote back where you found it, share your candy, thank your coach after practice, hold the door open for the elderly lady, etc. These are really just decisions. They can do them or not do them. Help them to make the character choice. Teach them to recognize the character reflected in these decisions and how it affects not only them, but others as well. Then empower them to see that they can grow in character by understanding the vocabulary and applying it to these situations they encounter during their daily lives. Take the initiative to get humble enough to recognize your own and your children’s own character weaknesses and disciplined enough to overcome them. Make character building a priority.
So once you have established the expected character behavior, and share a common character vocabulary and vision, you can next start concentrating on keeping character and continuing progress under pressure. You want your children to be able to set challenging goals and get to the finish line no matter what obstacles they encounter. You want them to be able to do the things they need to do to reach the goal, even when they don’t want to do them.
Teach them to tie their actions to their goals. The trick is to teach them how to stay focused on the goal, and progress toward the goal. They need to adopt a mindset where they think about their goal when they make a decision, almost all of their decisions. Will eating this bag of chips or laying on this couch help me to become a state champion wrestler? Will yelling or slamming the door solve this problem? Will I pass this test if I get on my skateboard? Will it it help me succeed if I complain about the ref, or the teacher or the coach or is there something better I could be doing right now? Did Chase Utley spend the off-season lifting and running or playing video games? You want them to tie their actions to their goals and recognize how successful people have done the same.
Teach them visualization. This allows them to see both positive and negative outcomes of their actions by working backwards. Have them visualize winning the meet or getting an “A”. Then have them work backwards from that point and figure out what needs to be done to get there. Visualization provides both motivation and confidence. It can make a challenging goal seem inevitable as long as one stays on the right path towards the goal. Also have them visualize failure. Have them visualize losing the meet and failing the test. Have them work backwards to see what mistakes may have been prevented.
Teach them to handle adversity. Talk to them about what they will do when someone is unfair to them or when they are tired, or sick, or in pain, or when it’s too hot, or too cold, or when they have much to accomplish in a short period of time or when they want to have fun but have work to do. Because so many people quit when they are faced with any of these things, your children will have a huge advantage if they learn how to fight through them. Talk about these things ahead of time, so that once adversity comes, they can make the right decision and continue to progress toward their goal.
Teach them how to start. Teach them how to get up and get going when they don’t want to. Teach them to fake it until they make it. Teach them how to adopt a mask of a positive and enthusiastic attitude and eventually they will have one. Clap the hands, jump up and down etc. Teach them how to energize themselves and how to get pumped up.
Teach them how to finish. We all try to get away with completing a task with minimal effort. We are wired to do that. Like many of our animal instincts, we do better when we overcome them. We have an innate desire to be efficient when it comes to work. However, we often do a poor job as result, because we focus on getting through the job instead of focusing on making sure the job is done right. Teach them how to finish their laps and not stop one foot short. Teach them how to make the meal and then do the dishes and then put them away. Teach them how to sit until their homework is done, and then have them check it to make sure it’s done right. Never let them quit.
Teach them how to recognize the enemies of character. Let them know when you see instances of ignorance, or apathy or justification. Especially justification. Teach them not to make an excuse or take an excuse. Give them an excuse to be lazy, and then point out how they took the excuse, rather than demonstrating the mental strength to not take the excuse.
Teach them how not to seek comfort and ease in everything they do. Lust of ease and comfort absolutely destroys mental toughness. Is making things easier on your child going to make him better? Is making sure your child is always comfortable going to make him better? Nobody ever reached their potential by taking it easy and being comfortable. People never want to hear that simple truth. Teach them to look for the difficult way and not the easy way. There are surely better examples, but take them to the track for a run. Watch as they run in lane one, or cut across the field in order to win. Teach them how they actually lost, because they failed to get better. Turn off the AC for a day, just to let them know they can survive the heat.
I just want you to know what is possible.