Mental Toughness…It’s a Choice!

Mental Toughness…It’s a Choice!

John Cavill

Recently I have been watching a programme on BBC2 called the Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week which coincidentally a friend of mine from University was participating in. To give you a brief background to the programme, 29 of the UK’s fittest men and women are pushed beyond their mental and physical limits by battle-hardened veterans from the world’s toughest special forces including the US Navy Seals, Israeli YAMAM, Philippine NAVSOG, Australian SAS, Russian Spetznaz and British SAS. The contenders endure 2 days with each special force and at any point they can be sent home due to a lack of commitment, ability, attitude or even due to injury…a bit like tennis!

Last year I competed in Ironman, one of the world’s most challenging triathlons, so a lot of what they were going through resonated with me. I think that any endurance athlete can associate with the requirements above and tennis players are no exception. While watching the programmes you get a feel for each contestant’s physical breaking point as they vary in age, size and gender but the ultimate overriding element was mental strength. Where people were physically broken, starved, dehydrated and deprived of sleep, only the strong could take it to the next level to accept the situation and deal with it positively.

Many people, including myself, believe that mental strength is what makes a tennis player but one of the problems we have in the UK is that pushing people to the point of breaking or collapse can be deemed as dangerous and irresponsible. The other issue when pushing people to their limits is that you don’t know what long or lasting effects it will have and by going over that point you may cause damage both physically and mentally that will last for life. I believe that pushing limits are essential to achieving greatness but provisions must be made for monitoring and accessing players to ensure their welfare is cared for. Most coaches don’t have access to psychiatrists and a medical team, like they did on the programme, so we have to make a judgement which usually means we will protect the player far earlier than what they possibly could have endured, so does this mean we’re not getting the most out of our players?

In my experience talent and intelligence don’t play nearly as big of a role as you might think. The research studies that I have found say that intelligence only accounts for 30% of your achievement — and that’s at the extreme upper end. Mental toughness — or “grit” as they call it — plays a more important role than anything else for achieving your goals which is something that can be developed unlike the genes you were born with. Mental toughness, perseverance, and passion all have a greater impact on your ability to achieve goals. Mental toughness predicts whether or not a player would be successful, not their talent, intelligence, or genetics. Through mental toughness and that tenacity to keep going and be better, players eventually get better results.

You have probably seen evidence of this in your own experiences with friends who squandered their talent or people who have squeezed the most out of their potential. Have you known someone who was set on accomplishing a goal, no matter how long it took?

In every area of life — from your education to your work to your health — it is your amount of grit, mental toughness, and perseverance that predicts your level of success more than any other factor we can find which leaves talent and intelligence overrated.

It’s great to talk about mental toughness, grit, and perseverance … but what do those things actually look like in the real world? In a word, toughness and grit equal consistency. Mentally tough athletes are more consistent than others. They don’t miss training sessions, they are reliable and do everything properly with no short cuts. Tennis is an individual sport (unless playing doubles which requires other attributes) and each player is expected to be their own leader. Mentally tough leaders are more consistent than their peers. They have a clear goal that they work towards each day. They don’t let short–term profits, negative feedback, or hectic schedules prevent them from continuing the march towards their vision. They make a habit of building up the people around them — not just once, but over and over and over again. Grit and perseverance can become your defining traits, regardless of the talent you were born with. You can become more consistent. You can develop superhuman levels of mental toughness.

 So how do we development mental toughness?

  1. Define what mental toughness means for you. For an aspiring tennis player it may be not missing a fitness session or eating the right foods. Whatever it is, be clear about what you’re going after. Mental toughness is an abstract quality, but in the real world it’s tied to concrete actions. You can’t magically think your way to becoming mentally tough, you prove it to yourself by doing something in real life.
  2. Mental toughness is built through small physical wins. You can’t become committed or consistent with a weak mind. How many workouts have you missed because your mind, not your body, told you that you were tired? How many opportunities have you missed out on because your mind said, “Nine reps is enough. Don’t worry about the tenth.” Probably thousands for most people and 99% are due to weakness of the mind, not the body.

So often we think that mental toughness is about how we respond to extreme situations, for example, how did you perform in the final of the tournament? There’s no doubt that extreme situations test our courage, perseverance, and mental toughness … but what about everyday circumstances? Mental toughness is like a muscle. It needs to be worked to grow and develop. If you haven’t pushed yourself in thousands of small ways, of course you’ll wilt when things get really difficult. It doesn’t have to be that way! Choose to do the tenth rep when it would be easier to just do nine. Choose to create when it would be easier to consume. Choose to ask the extra question when it would be easier to accept. Prove to yourself — in a thousand tiny ways — that you have enough guts to get in the ring and do battle with life.

Mental toughness is built through the individual choices that we make on a daily basis that build our “mental toughness muscle.” We all want mental strength, but you can’t think your way to it. It’s your physical actions that prove your mental fortitude.

  1. Mental toughness is about your habits, not your motivation. Motivation is fickle. Willpower comes and goes. Mental toughness isn’t about getting an incredible dose of inspiration or courage. It’s about building the daily habits that allow you to stick to a schedule and overcome challenges and distractions over and over and over again. Mentally tough people don’t have to be more courageous, more talented, or more intelligent — just more consistent. Mentally tough people develop systems that help them focus on the important stuff regardless of how many obstacles life puts in front of them. It’s their habits that form the foundation of their mental beliefs and ultimately set them apart.

We all have mental toughness in us but the true answer lies within…how much do we want it and how far are you willing to go?