Mental toughness is the ability to maintain your character when confronted with stress.
Stress is often caused by physical or emotional pain, inconvenience, and adversity.
Mental toughness and character are intertwined, yet distinct. Rarely can I find a way to talk about one without at least indirectly mentioning the other.
There are many fine people with good character. However, that character may not remain consistent when faced with challenging circumstances. So a person’s character can vary wildly depending on their level of mental toughness.
As people vary, so do our individual levels of mental toughness. Only the most mentally tough can manage to maintain their positive character under duress. Under easy circumstance, or for a period of short duration, most people will appear to have good character. However, once confronted with stress, real or imagined, some individuals continue to climb while others crumble.
The coach featured in the recent Oscar winning documentary film Undefeated is quoted as saying “football doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” This is a pretty common statement, but I believe it to be cursory and misleading.
I think what that coach is actually trying to say is that football reveals your mental toughness. It reveals how much stress your core character traits can withstand. It reveals your mental toughness level, undeniably and without mercy.
So it’s not the character that is revealed, but the mental toughness level in maintaining that character that is revealed.
Before our first game of the season one of my fellow coaches and I tried to demonstrate mental toughness to our team. We gathered them in front of a small portable bleacher. I pulled out a stout candle. I banged it on the bleachers a few times with a solid thud.
Then I asked them “is this hard? is this tough?” They all nodded in the affirmative.
Then my fellow coach fired up a hand held blow torch. He took the torch to the candle and it rapidly melted into goo.
I then pulled out a framing hammer. I pounded it on the bleachers.
I asked them “is this hard?” They now stopped nodding and responded with a loud “yes coach!”
My fellow coach took the torch to the hammer, but the hammer kept it’s character.
I then asked them if they were just going to appear to be tough like the candle and then melt when things got heated during the game, or were they going to be like the hammer and keep their character under the intense flames of competition.
Steve Siebold has written extensively on mental toughness. I admire his work, but 177 traits of mental toughness is a little too much for me to manage in teaching and coaching young people and advising parents.
So here are the 10 Core Principles of Mental Toughness I focus on when teaching my players, my students , my own children and the rare adult who has a true interest in getting better:
1. Tie Actions to Goals. Teach them how to tie all of their actions to all of 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 constantly think about their goals when they make a decision, almost all of their decisions.
2. Visualize. Teach them visualization. This allows them to see both positive and negative outcomes of their actions by working backwards. Don’t just visualize the happy outcome.
3. Handle it! Teach them to handle adversity. I 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, people 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.
4. Start. 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.
5. Finish. 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. Teach them how to maintain their attention in class until the bell rings. Teach them how to maintain eye contact when people are talking to them. Never let them quit.
6. Know the Enemies. 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.
7. Avoid the Easy Way. 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 someone going to make them better? Is making sure someone is always comfortable going to make them 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. 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.
8. Adapt to change. Teach them that things are constantly changing and that the ability to adapt quickly will serve them well in life. I hesitate to tell someone to “get over it.” Because leading someone to stop caring is detrimental to their character. I think “accept it. learn from it when you have time and move forward” is a better phrase as it does not excuse accountability.
9. Don’t complain. Most complaining is simply the vocalization of mental weakness as people vent that things are not the way they hoped they would be. Be aware of verbal and non verbal forms of complaining.
10. Make the best of it. Whatever situation you are in there is a way to persevere and get something out of it. Even if it’s a better appreciation of what you have, or had in the past.
By no means is what I write considered to be exhaustive or definitive. Read more. Find specific examples from a variety of fields. The consistent quest to learn and grow will lead you to increase your mental toughness and that will allow you to keep your character when things get difficult.