I was introduced to the concept of Toughness Training when I was studying music, specifically performance, in college. One of my professors was a huge sports fan and despite his admittedly nerdy love of opera, he would often compare training for sport to training for music. This is where I had my first real understanding of the implications of perfecting muscle memory.
In opera and classical performance, the slightest deviation from the intended shape, intensity, and emotion of a given syllable or note would derail the entire piece and in turn, the performer. As one can imagine, this tedious attention to detail was accompanied by inevitable failures. As explained by my professor via sports psychology, these failures were not unlike the setbacks seen by even the most adept athletes. Coming from a competitive sports background I could appreciate the valid parallels between on stage performance and on field performance.
The question then becomes “How do we equip competitors with the mental tools to succeed?”
In analyzing the talents, skills, and abilities of some of the top athletes there is ubiquitous factor that separates the good from the great. How and why do the best athletes maintain their mental toughness even after making mistakes? We can physically practice to create the best movement patters, athletic defaults, and agile bodies, but the beauty of sport is that the opposition presents variables to test those limitations. What are we left with when perfect movement fails us?
In this article we’ll discuss the components of mental toughness as well as how to create and maintain it’s power while under the stress of competition.
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Toughness Training is a term that was popularized and utilized by James Loehr, prominent sports psychologist and author. He has worked with Olympic and Nationally ranked athletes from speed-skating to tennis, testing his theories and developing the tools to optimize mental toughness.
What is Toughness Training?
“The ability to consistently perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.”
Let’s think about that for a moment. One can infer from the above definition that an athlete’s ability to be tough under pressure is a reactive mentality. The real question is, can this mental toughness be learned?
Luckily, mental toughness is a skill and tool that can be learned through improving the very markers associated with optimal mental toughness. Mental toughness is almost entirely dependent on individual emotional characteristics.
1. Emotional Flexibility – the ability to absorb unexpected emotional turns and remain supple, non defensive, and balanced, able to summon a wide range of positive emotions to the competitive battle.
Example: A referee makes a bad call, but it is already beyond your control. You adapt and focus on the task at hand.
2. Emotional Responsiveness – the ability to remain emotionally alive, engaged, and connected under pressure. Responsive competitors are not calloused, withdrawn, or lifeless as the battle rages.
Example: Being coachable under heightened stress. Become more of a team player, not less, when the outlook is grim.
3. Emotional Strength – the ability to exert and resist great force emotionally under pressure, to sustain a powerful fighting spirit against impossible odds.
Example: Being assertive and leading others through encouragement especially in losing situations. It’s not over til’ it’s over!
4. Emotional Resiliency – the ability to take a punch emotionally and bounce back quickly, to recover quickly from disappointments, mistakes, and missed opportunities and then jump back into battle fully ready to resume the fight.
Example: Missing a free throw, penalty kick, or shot of any kind and being able to get back to emotional/mental stability.
Toughness training is one means to reach something that is described as an IPS, or Ideal Performance State, by Loehr. Interestingly enough, the phrase “fake it til’ you make it” has a lot of relevance in elevating toughness levels. Overcoming mental and emotional setbacks during performance can be drastically improved by simply acting.
Tips for Mental Toughness Training
- Tough Thinking
The first challenge comes from within the brain’s self-talk. After having suffered a performance blow, a good athlete begins a positive dialogue within themselves. Even if the feeling does not initially come naturally or genuine, studies have proven that training the “bring it on” inner monologue is a way to trick your performer self into fighting on. Call it lying to yourself or using your imagination, but having disciplined tough thinking will make “tough acting” all the more effective.
Loehr states that an athlete should, “Make every effort to suppress negative feelings during competitive battle unless you can do something positive right away to meet the expressed need.” Positive thinking isn’t just a distraction, it’s a means to ignite the kind of behavior you wish to exhibit.
- Tough Acting
Body language, posture, and physical expression are huge indicators of an athlete’s confidence. Without the ability to convey a strong sense of dominance over not only your emotions but your opponents, you will lose a commanding presence. This demeanor is of the utmost necessity to both intimidate the competition and reinforce your own self confidence. When a mentally tough athlete makes a huge mistake, they physically turn away from it immediately. This is an attempt to re-calibrate as they realize nothing productive will come from dwelling on a flub while in the midst of performance.
Adding to Tough Acting, athletes are encouraged to spring onto their toes or jump when they are at their most tired. This behavior sends a message that there is a lot of fight left within the individual. Similarly, keeping an heir of poise and supreme confidence can be a great tool even when you’ve just choked under pressure. Loehr encourages athletes to smile and stand tall not breaking eye contact, as if to say, “You were lucky this time. Next time you won’t be.”
Toughness Training begins and ends with exhibiting the qualities we most admire and respect about advanced athletes. Being cool, calm, and collected is not a coincidence but is a conscious concerted effort by the athlete to maintain their IPS. This reactive behavior is rehearsed, practiced, and repeated until it becomes a default like any other patterning.
Do some self evaluating to find which of the four components of mental toughness needs work and attack it by Tough Thinking followed by Tough Acting. In sport winning or losing is truly a “sum of the parts” and those parts are not limited to one’s physical prowess. Instead, physical efficacy is highly dependent on the athlete’s mental state. A gifted athlete without toughness training is like a Fast and Furious movie without The Rock. You know it could be good, but realistically it’s just a matter of time before the whole thing falls apart.
A strength and conditioning coach since 2009, Cali has worked with numerous athletes spanning from rugby players to cross country skiers. Almost immediately after finding CrossFit in 2010, she was introduced to a program that better suited her athletic goals. With her existing background in powerlifting and football, she became a natural devotee to CFFB/PowerAthlete and testament to it's effectiveness. In 2012, she left D.C. and headed for the state named after her to be a part of the CrossFit Football Seminar Staff and a Jedi of Power Athlete HQ. Cali currently resides in Seattle where she works full time in law enforcement.
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