It has become almost a cliché in American sports that an athlete in the NFL, MLB, NBA, or MLS is described as a “mentally tough” athlete when they come back from injury or battle through a personal loss or overcome some sort of obstacle to give an outstanding sports performance. While this is no doubt the case, the reality is that the vast majority, if not all, of the athletes in the professional sphere have been forced to develop an incredibly resilient mental attitude through the process of developing and competing at higher and higher levels of competition. Additionally, many of them have had to overcome even greater personal obstacles like being born into poverty, broken families, career-threatening injuries, volatile relationships with coaches and other players, academic struggles, or a myriad of other possible obstacles just to join the top 0.01% of the world’s athletes.
The point of this is not to disparage the mental toughness it takes for these achievements, but rather to illustrate that mental fortitude does not simply happen one day. No one sits in the hospital and says, “You know what, I’ve never dealt with this before, but I think I’m going to be mentally tough about this.” Rather, cultivating and developing mental toughness and strength is a process just like developing our bodies physically through training. By training our bodies, we are prepared to confront unexpected physical obstacles or challenges. By training ourselves to have a positive mindset and learning mental strategies for coping with stress, we can train our minds to focus and make good decisions under pressure rather than descending into panic or despair.
Failure Occurs at the Margins of Our Experience
The goal of CrossFit is to challenge the body in as many ways as possible so that we can be as prepared as possible to survive the “unknown and unknowable,” aka terrorist attack, natural disaster, or zombie apocalypse. By the way, everyone should have a zombie apocalypse plan; if you do not, let’s chat. As part of that physical preparation, you go through On Ramp and learn new skills. Once you enter the regular workouts, movements are scaled to your ability level. Through the process of training and practice, you become stronger, more skilled, and more mobile and hence more physically capable in general.
In the same way, your capacity for mental toughness must be trained and scaled based upon your experiences. For example, someone who has spent months battling insurgents in Afghanistan or someone who has completed a 100-mile trail race likely has a higher capacity for certain types of mental and emotional stress than someone who has never had those experiences. This is something that must be kept in mind in terms of staying within your mental capabilities just as someone with a 1RM back squat of 135lbs should not all of a sudden attempt 315lbs.
Create a Plan
You must approach challenges based on your own experience even if it is limited. You must create a plan based upon said experience. Whether you are approaching a challenging new metcon or creating a presentation on a subject with which you are not intimately familiar or dealing with an unexpected injury or planning for retirement, you have to create a plan. Keep the plan simple and seek out the expertise of others who have greater experience than yourself (like coaches). Many times you will find out your plan was imperfect; however, just having a plan is incredibly effective at reducing fear of the unknown. Fear can cause your body to shut down (the flight part of fight or flight). Moreover, having a plan allows you to focus on the action of executing said plan rather than the fear of what might happen. Training your mind to default to action rather than inaction is an enormous tool in learning to stay mentally tough in difficult situations.
No Plan Survives First Contact aka What Happens When You Get Punched in the Mouth
When Mike Tyson was the Heavyweight Boxing Champion, he was nearly unbeatable for a time. Challengers would always come forward with a new plan to beat him and then lose in about 45 seconds. A commentator asked Mike Tyson why none of them were successful. Tyson said (I am paraphrasing), “It’s easy to have a plan until you get punched in the face [by Mike Tyson].” While simply put and humorous, it is important to remember that our predictions are often wrong. I have lost count of the number of times I thought I had a good grasp of a workout only to get destroyed a few minutes later. But each of those experiences has allowed me to add to my mental bank of the different kinds of awful that can be experienced in a workout – there are A LOT.
When you get punched in the mouth, literally or figuratively, you have 2 options: stop or get back up and keep going. It is very easy to stop, at which point you have broken mentally for that given task. Choosing to get back up is a process of setting and achieving micro goals to convince your mind that you are not going to die. For example, the second mile run during “Murph” always feels like an enormous obstacle for me. Every time, I have to convince my body to take one step out the door, then one more, then I am walking, then I focus on breathing, and pretty soon I can talk my body into jogging. That is what it takes for me to finish that workout. Every. Single. Time. I know it is going to happen but every time feels like the first time.
These mental strategies do not only apply to big things. Make a plan to succeed based upon your own abilities and experience, and make sure you seek the guidance of others with more experience. And when things go wrong, as they inevitably do at times, set micro goals that are achievable. As you achieve each one, you will gain more confidence and convince yourself that you can keep going in whatever your endeavor. Stay positive and focus on the task at hand. You will be surprised at what you can accomplish.
The way we do one thing is the way we do everything,