There’s been a lot of talk of mental toughness around here. On this blog I mean. After some self-reflection on my DNF at Eugene and my non-BQ at OC Marathon, I certainly knew that above physical training, I needed to focus on mental toughness. Where do we start?!
First, let’s talk about what the heck mental toughness is. To me, a runner, it means staying in a positive mental state and pushing through pain during a race or a tough workout. To a soccer player, it might mean staying focused during a tough game when the opposition continues to score. To a business executive, it could be remaining calm and coming up with an alternative solution when an important agreement falls through at the last minute. To a Navy Seal, it could mean thinking clearly instead of panicking during a life of death situation.
According to Wikipedia, Mental Toughness is “a term commonly used by coaches, sports psychologists, sports commentators and business leaders to generally describe a collection of attributes that allow a person to persevere through difficult circumstances and emerge without losing confidence.” Only within the last 10 years has mental toughness been studied as a psychological construct but it has long been known that mental and physical performance has just as much to do with mental state as physical. To me, the most important word in the definition on wiki is confidence. Mentally tough people are confident in their actions and put positive thoughts ahead of negative in order to achieve their goals.
Only when I started to write this blog about mental toughness did I start to realize that despite having some serious determination, resolve, dedication and willpower in a lot of areas of my life, particularly my training (you can’t survive Ironman training without a healthy dose of these), I often let my fears win over all else. As a child, I tried sport after sport. I was good at some, bad at others. But one thing always was the same – when times got tough, I called it quits. Gymnastics, dance, softball, basketball, track and field, field hockey, even swimming- I never really achieved any sort of potential in any sport. One gymnastics coach saying I wasn’t ready to move up to the next level, and I quit. One too many softballs to the face and I was done (or at least hid in outfield since my parents wouldn’t let me quit halfway through). As soon as I realized I wasn’t one of the best or that I could get hurt, I figured I lacked some sort of innate talent that my peers who were good at the sport all certainly had and said peace out (this also proves that even as a child I was super competitive).
Luckily enough for me, I was usually naturally good enough at school to do well so I never quit that. In school, I was confident. In sports, I was not. I knew I could play but I also felt like I’d never be the best. Even after winning the divisional championship in the 50 meter breaststroke my freshman year, I still felt like I was a fake since I wasn’t favored to win (I was seeded 4th). By the time sophomore year came around, I’d lost the confidence I had earned at that final swim meet and didn’t want to dig down deep and get really good at swimming. I wasn’t sure I could even if I tried. And I never did.
Over the last few years I’ve come to consider myself an athlete. A runner. At triathlete. I appreciate my body for what it can do and wonder what I could have done in the past had I applied it right. I’m proud of myself. However, I still compare my performance to others. Instead of focusing on the fact that 90% of people who run a marathon are slower than me, I compare myself to the 10% who are faster. When reading fellow blogger’s race recaps, I wonder why I can’t miraculously bust out 6:45 min/miles in a half marathon. I have to remind myself that I can now run 7:45 min/miles in a half marathon and just a few years ago I ran a half marathon at over a 10 minute mile! What pace was once a struggle to maintain during just one 800 interval is now half marathon race pace. If I look at it that way, 6:45 seems pretty damn close!
It’s all about HOW you chose to look at thing. In 2008 after a bad breakup I went through a rough time in my life, questioning who am I, what do I want, where do I want to go?! I recognized that my thoughts were increasingly negative and it was affecting others in my life. I read the book “The Secret” which is based on the premise that if you send positive energy into the universe, you can create your own destiny. Although I’m not sure I believe I can wish myself into my dream life, I took away a lot from that book. I now believe I can shape my life by shaping my thoughts. How you react to a situation is what makes it “good” or “bad.” As a child, I threw fits quite often – I’d ruin my own day (and my mom’s – sorry Mom!) by crying my face off. After reading this book as well as a couple other self-help books, I came to the realization that I was in control of my life via my thoughts. I could sit in traffic and huff and puff and bitch about it, or I could turn up the music or call a friend and enjoy the ride. I could focus on being alone or I could focus on being completely independent for the first time. That year was a rough one but I learned so much and I changed as a person. I became a happier person just by shifting the way I looked at things. I wasn’t easy and I’m still not perfect at it.
I’ve come a long way since my childhood tantrums and boo-hoo breakup of 2008 and I’m sure I have plenty more hard times to learn from. The lessons I’ve learned so far about mental toughness in life can easily be translated to running races. When my legs are sore, I’ll think “you’re running a marathon, your legs are supposed to hurt.” When my lungs are burning I’ll think “good thing you did those crazy treadmill hill repeats.” When I wake up on race day after a restless night, I’ll think “It just means your body is excited and ready to go!” If the pace group passes me I’ll think “You will catch them.” If I have a cramp in my side, I’ll tell myself that it will pass. When I begin to wonder why in the world I’d ever put myself through 26.2 miles of hell, I’ll think “Because you LOVE to run.” And I do.
Mental toughness is about taking every negative thought that even tries to enter your mind and pushing it away immediately. Not letting these thoughts fester is the key to success. Recognizing that negative thoughts WILL try to intrude is even more important. So how do we become mentally tough? Practice makes perfect. I have actively tried to focus on the positive and push all negative thoughts out of my mind during all training runs and during any thoughts I have about the race. It’s much easier for me to make up excuses for possible failure in advance than it is to embrace a goal and make it your mission. In the past I’ve made up excuses before races even started and then as soon as the going gets tough, I cling to those excuses and let them take me down. Not anymore. It’s time to focus on the good and forget about the bad.
What have you learned about yourself and mental toughness? Are there certain situations that you find yourself more likely to give up during?