Much has been written and spoken about ‘mental strength,’ or mental toughness and how to coach it.
It’s an attribute we are often told is required to be successful in any walk of life, from elite sport, to business, to working in an accident and emergency ward, to parenting children.
Other words are sometimes used to describe the same thing – words such as grit, resilience, willpower, mental toughness etc.
But what do these words really mean when it comes to taking action, to actual performance to showing up in the world? Most definitions of mental fortitude would include a strong reference to the circumstances in which the action takes place, giving the impression that what is going on around us is a limiting or encouraging factor in our ability to perform.
The word ‘pressure’ is often used in these descriptions, as if it was an actual thing, a physical entity which acts as an obstacle to a person achieving a particular outcome or result.
The objective of this article is to sweep away some of the myths which surround the concept of ‘mental strength’. There are many misunderstandings. These actually make it harder for people to reach their potential, rather than easier.
If you have ever wondered why some days it’s easier to show up and do your thing than others, or how some people seem to take setbacks and adversity in their stride, then please read on.
Mental strength isn’t about doing.
It’s about understanding.
Only when we truly understand how our psychology really works do we realise that resilience, grit and a capacity to achieve and succeed are qualities we were born with, rather than skills we have to learn or develop.
Mental strength has three main principles underpinning it:
Understanding that your circumstances have no power to affect your performance.
Understanding that your thoughts and feelings are meant to ebb and flow, rather than be controlled or managed.
Understanding that your performance is limited by how you feel and what you think, only to the extent that you believe that thinking and feeling states can affect performance.
In the moments that you see these principles clearly, you are as mentally tough as any person that has ever lived. In the moments when you don’t see them you can feel as insecure and vulnerable as a lost child.
This is the human experience.
No one is mentally tough all the time. The greatest athletes and performers have days where they ‘just don’t have it’.
Conversely, ‘ordinary’ people are capable of extraordinary feats and achievements when for a moment, they forget who they think they are and their potential is realised. Every great athlete was an ‘ordinary’ person once.
Let’s take a look at the three key elements of mental strength to find out why they are so important.
Circumstances are Irrelevant
The understanding that our situation or circumstance isn’t directly connected to how we feel, and therefore can affect our performance is the key to showing up when to the outside observer, the challenge appears most challenging.
Human beings do not feel their situation or circumstances. our feelings come from our thinking, from thought in the moment.
This is how we can go from feeling insecure and nervous, to calm and confident in the blink of an eye, when the circumstances have not changed.
This is why two people in the same situation can feel completely different about it.
Knowing that this is true is the key to realising that ‘pressure’ isn’t real.
You Can’t Control Your Thinking
Over the past 40 years, sports psychology has mainly focused on the link between an athlete’s thinking and feeling state and their performance. This is unfortunate, because there is no causal link between how we think or feel, and how we perform. There may be a correlation, but not a cause.
A correlation that is easily explained by the third principle.
This misunderstanding has led to a proliferation of well meaning, but erroneous and damaging advice for athletes to practice mental techniques, routines and strategies to control or manage their thinking and emotions. It is impossible for a human being to control what thoughts come into their consciousness and when they do so.
As stated in the first principle, our feelings come 100 % from thought in the moment. Therefore if we can’t control our thoughts, we don’t control our feelings or emotions either. Thoughts and feelings are simply mental energy, ebbing and flowing, waxing and waning.
Attempting to control or manage this flow of energy is counterproductive, and is what leads an athlete to feel insecure, stuck, or weak. Attempting to counter these feelings with a mental strategy requires thinking or willpower.
How can this possibly help improve performance when it was jammed up thinking which caused the feeling to begin with!
The less an athlete thinks about their thinking then the more clarity and flow they will bring to their performance.
The zone is a place of freedom, not of control.