Editor’s Note: Wanha from Reddit, shares his advice on what it takes to increase mental toughness.
I’ve always been fascinated with mental toughness and athletes who possess it, and I’ve spent many years trying to understand this topic.
Much of our physical ability is determined by our body structure. I can train as much as I want, but I’ll never beat Usain Bolt in a footrace. Mental toughness, on the other hand, is something that can be learned and cultivated, it can be forged through practice and struggle. Naturally some people are born with a higher level of mental toughness than others, but on the whole it’s a skill that anyone can cultivate to a relatively high level.
Mental toughness is the ability to perform at an optimal level when the stakes are at their highest. Whether that means closing a huge sale or fighting back from the brink of defeat, mental toughness means we don’t allow the situation to overwhelm us emotionally.
One of the most respected NFL coaches, Bill Belichick, defines mental toughness as
“doing what’s right for the team regardless of how you might be feeling at the time.”
In other words, mental toughness is about sacrifice, doing something that’s difficult, pushing past your threshold, playing injured or playing a role you might not be comfortable playing. It’s about putting the team first.
But talking about mental toughness is easy. For every athlete that is mentally tough, there are probably ten athletes that aren’t.
So how do we improve our mental toughness?
Boiled down to its most basic elements, mental toughness comes down to two choices: to control your mind, or to let your mind control you.
When we don’t control our minds, we accept whatever programming that has been inputted earlier. You see, most of us never chose our current mental programming, we simply stumbled onto it, and now it’s the way we deal with life’s various challenges and situations.
For example, if your default reaction to high-stake moments is fear, anxiety or over-excitment, it’s because somewhere down the line you learned that that strategy works for you. That’s obviously not a particularly smart strategy, but at the time when you accepted it as part of your programming it was clearly good enough. And once we accept a programming, we usually stop thinking about it and it becomes our default reaction for similar situations.
So if we want to increase our mental toughness, we are going to have to do a little reprogramming of our minds first. From my experience, the key to being mentally tougher is to control your focus and eliminate the little voice of doubt and critique.
It’s All in Your Mind
Most articles you will find on this topic break mental toughness down into various subcategories, such as focus, poise, confidence, courage, and so forth. Although that may make sense from a scientific perspective, I’ve found that such an approach makes it difficult for the average person to put any of the advice to use.
So what follows is my attempt to provide an easier and more natural process to help you perform better when it really counts. I’ve successfully used these techniques myself over the past few years and I believe they can do the same for you.
Let’s get to them.
I. Be Positive. I Mean REALLY, REALLY POSITIVE
It’s easy to get down on yourself and let the inner critic run free when things aren’t going well, but that isn’t going to help you.
Instead, fight the urge to criticize and ask yourself if you can make a commitment that you will only bring forth positive energy for the remainder of the match. I’ve found that when you prioritize eliminating all negative thoughts, your focus automatically shifts to the positive ones, and that in turn makes you more likely to enjoy and excel in the big moment.
II. Focus Only On What You Control
Yes, we play to win, that’s why we keep score. But spending time thinking about the potential outcome just diverts your focus and fills your head with unimportant, distracting thoughts.
The remedy is to be present in the moment and let nature take its course. Focus only on the things you actually control: your approach and your attitude. What happens after the next point or after the match doesn’t matter. I’ve found this approach helps me relax, focus and play my best at the key moments.
III. Keep Your Emotional Level Steady
Some of us get more easily up and down that others. The more up and down you get, the more likely you are going to get over-excited or overwhelmed by the situation, and that puts you in a bad spot to win the big points consistently.
The key is to distance yourself from the game just enough so that you’re not swept away with the emotional tides. Don’t only focus on not getting down – also make sure you don’t get too high either, because that disrupts your focus also. Visualize remaining calm and composed in even the biggest situations. Act like you’ve been in those situations a hundred times, and eventually you’ll feel like it too.
IV. Enjoy The Big Moments
This is probably my favorite technique because it takes a moment that is stressful and intimidating and turns it into a moment that’s fun and exciting – something you actually look forward to.
The next time you find yourself in a big moment in a game (e.g. a tiebreak in tennis), remind yourself how exciting and fun these big moments are compared to a casual game with nothing at stake. These are the moments you’ll remember and what you’ll all discuss after the games – enjoy them, embrace them, and feel them with every cell in your body.
V. A Prepared Mind is a More Confident Mind
It’s been said that self confidence is ‘your ability to influence the world around you’. What better way to do that than through practice?
When you know you’ve practiced a single shot a thousands of times, you have a lot more faith in being able to rely on your training in a big moment. You don’t need to ‘will’ yourself to do something that has very little chance of succeeding. Remind yourself that all that sweat and sacrifice was a price you paid so you could be victorious today.
VI. Forget About How You Might Look
Sometimes we start thinking how bad we might appear to others if we lose this point – or how embarrassing it would be to blow a big lead. But the moment you start thinking from the outside in, you lose your focus and your ability to stay calm and composed.
Thinking from the outside in is toxic. You are not doing this to “look good” or win the admiration of onlookers, so put all thoughts about looking bad out of your mind and just focus on playing the game one point at a time. Win or loss – do it your way.
VII. Have a Short Memory
This is also one of my favorites. It’s so easy to get angry and criticize ourselves when we make a mistake, but all that usually does is turn one bad play into another.
If the previous point or play didn’t go your way, you need to forget it immediately and concentrate on the next one. Don’t let one bad play ruin the next one.
Just make a note and move on.
VIII. Don’t Expect Perfect Circumstances
It’s easy to say the conditions were poor, you had a little ailment or that nothing is going your way today. But these are all just excuses that tempt you down the road of surrender.
You only get the perfect circumstances so many times in life. Don’t dwell on what has gone against you. Don’t worry that the conditions favor your opponent. Ignore the pain you feel in your knee.
What you have is what you have. There will never be another chance to win this game.
Be like MacGyver and use everything that you have at your disposal to succeed right now.
Mental toughness is really just about approaching the game from the right perspective. The next time you step out onto the field, ignore the score, focus being in the moment and tell that little, criticizing and excuse-seeking voice in your head to shut the hell up. You’ll be glad you did.
How to Stay Motivated to Achieve Your Goals
Time is the raw material of our lives. How we choose to spend it, shapes our life accordingly. So having the motivation to spend it on achieving goals is crucial to creating a life we want.
What is Motivation?
The Oxford dictionary defines motivation as the desire or willingness to do something – our drive to take action.
Scientifically, motivation has its roots in the dopamine pathways of our brains. When we do something that feels good, that’s dopamine kicking in. Our actions are driven by the desire for that reward (the good feeling).
Author Steven Pressfield describes motivation more practically. He says we hit a point where the pain of not doing something becomes greater than the pain of doing it. He sees motivation as crossing the threshold where it’s easier to take action than it is to be idle. Like choosing to feel awkward while making sales calls over feeling disappointed about a diminishing bank account.
However you choose to think about it, we all want to harness motivation to achieve our goals.
How to Get Motivated
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, says that most people misunderstand motivation. They think that motivation is what gets us to take action. In reality, motivation is often the result of action, not the cause of it. Once we start a task, it’s easier to continue making progress. Like Isaac Newton’s first law: objects in motion stay in motion.
This means most of the resistance when working on your goals comes right before we start. Since motivation naturally occurs after we start, we need to focus on making starting easier.
4 Ways to Make Starting Easier
1. Schedule it
One reason people can’t get started on things is that they haven’t planned when to do it.
When things aren’t scheduled it’s easier for them to fall by the wayside. You’ll end up hoping motivation falls in your lap or hoping that you’ll muster enough willpower to get it done.
An article in the Guardian said, “If you waste resources trying to decide when or where to work, you’ll impede your capacity to do the work.”
2. Measure something
It’s easy to feel uninspired when you don’t know if you’re making progress or what you’re even working towards. That’s why you need to make your success measurable in some way. Starting is easy when you know exactly how much closer your current actions will bring you to achieving your goal.
3. Extrinsic motivation
This type of motivation is from external factors. It can be either positive or negative. Positive motivation consists of incentives like money, prizes, and grades. Negative motivation consists of deterrents like being fired, having a fight, or being fined. Extrinsic motivation doesn’t work effectively long-term, but it can work well in the short term to get you started on something.
4. Make it public
Keep yourself accountable by telling friends and family your goals, or even sharing them on social media. This makes it easier to start something because you’re pressured to not let others down.
How to Stay Motivated Long Term
When we say we want to feel motivated to do something, we don’t want to be pushed or guilted into doing a task. We want to be so attracted and drawn to the idea that we can’t resist not taking action. That’s why it’s important to build a foundation that will set you up for consistency.
These are 5 techniques that will help you do just that:
1. Stay in your goldilocks zone
The goldilocks zone is when a task is the perfect level of difficulty—not too hard and not too easy. In this zone, we reach peak motivation and focus.
For example, let’s say you’re playing a serious tennis match against a 4-year-old. On this level of difficulty, you’ll quickly become bored and not want to play. Now let’s say you’re playing a serious tennis match against Serena Williams. On this level of difficulty, you’ll quickly become demotivated because the match is too challenging.
The Goldilocks zone is in the middle of that spectrum. You want to face someone with equal skill as you. That way you have a chance to win, but you have to focus and try for it. Adjusting your workload and goals over time to stay within your Goldilocks zone keeps you engaged and motivated long-term.
2. Pursue intrinsically motivated goals
Being intrinsically motivated to achieve a goal is when you want to achieve it for what it is. There are no external factors like a reward or the risk of being fired. The drive behind your actions is coming from within.
For most intrinsic goals we pursue them because they will enrich our lives or bring us closer to fulfillment. That makes these goals extremely sustainable long-term because they directly affect our quality of life and the things we care about.
3. Use “chunking”
Chunking is the technique of breaking down a goal into smaller short-term targets. By doing this you achieve multiple successes in your pursuit of the main goal. This triggers the brain’s reward system and drives you to keep going.
Traditionally, you may set a goal that you expect to achieve in one year. That’s a long time to commit without seeing any results along the way. By chunking your goals into monthly or quarterly targets, you get the consistent positive reinforcement you need to stay motivated long-term.
For example, instead of trying to lose 50 pounds in one year, try to lose 4 pounds every month for 12 months.
4. Be flexible
We’re all victims of circumstance. Things happen along our journey that we can either adjust to or quit because of. That’s why it’s important to have leeway and flexibility when you’re pursuing a goal. If you expect everything to go perfectly, the inevitable failure can make you disengaged and desireless. When you plan for things to go wrong, you make sure you can keep up for the long haul.
5. Pursue your goals in a sustainable fashion
Don’t lose hope when you’re not an overnight success. Overnight successes are the 1%—for the most part, they don’t exist. What we see as an “overnight success” is actually countless hours of work behind the scenes finally hitting a tipping point. Pursuing goals is a story of patience, persistence, and unseen effort.
Don’t compare yourself to others. Comparison is a recipe for a drop in self-confidence and satisfaction. It also cultivates a mindset where you think you haven’t done enough. As a result, you may raise your expectations and put more pressure on yourself.
This is pointless because things worth achieving take time. So we obviously won’t compare to the things around us when starting.
Mastering motivation is a superpower. With that ability at your fingertips, you can accomplish your goals and shape a life you want to live in.
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