10 September 2014

On mental toughness

Back in college, when I was running under the direction of the venerable John Babington, he had a saying - It's not just your legs, it's your head. Mental toughness, ladies. I just thought he meant get through the workout without whining. It was even on our team sweatshirts, the MT, that thing that would get you through the lung pain and leg agony of training and competing to your maximum level.
I still have my CC sweatshirt. Damn straight.
I don't believe I had any great MT at that time; while I loved running, my emotions sometimes overcame my physical self: my senior year we had a race which fell on the one-year anniversary of my father's death and I tried to use it as motivation, knowing that his wish was for me to live greatly and passionately in all my endeavors. Instead, the memory of him led me to tears, which led me to not be able to breathe properly and eventually, the only voluntary DNF of my racing career. So much for mind over matter.

Twenty years on, I am able to say that I am mentally tough. It was an accumulation of both difficult circumstances as well as my own desires to persist (stubbornness, perhaps?) that have allowed me to understand how crucial my mindset is with respect to achievement, both physically and professionally. It is not that I seek perfection or to be the best of anything, which should not be interpreted to mean that I don't set the bar high; it is that I will not allow any circumstance to determine my fate. I alone will do that.

What does MT mean to me? It means getting back up. It means pushing through whatever limits you thought were there, even when every ounce of your being says stop. It means that sometimes you have to be a self-involved stoic and ignore external distractions in pursuit of your aims. It means that physical discomfort is not a factor. It means that even if the tears flow, you move forward and don't repeat that thing that brought the tears in the first place. It means saying, "I will" instead of "I don't know if I can."

There have been a spate of running articles (see below) this past year recently about how the mind can aid or detract from your ability to compete at your potential. Throughout my military career, I also referenced many articles about MT and how to optimize it as a pilot and Marine and ultimately, how to use it to recover from injury. (Incidentally, the Marine Corps has developed several MT/resiliency programs to help train Marines for combat - OSCAR and RAPTOR.) I think that regardless of what your goal is, MT is vital, because there will be roadblocks, things out of your control, moments of failure and days when everything goes to shit. And if you can tell yourself to get up, keep moving, keep fighting the good fight and maintaining your focus - then you've got MT.

1) Competitor Magazine: Comfort in discomfort: why mental practice matters
2) Competitor Magazine: The seven traits of mentally tough runners
3) Runner's World: Train your brain to run your best
4) Competitor Magazine: Keys to running with mental toughness

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