Mental Toughness is that elusive X-factor that’s spoken about whenever we witness a great performance, an effort that transcends skill and circumstance. It’s what people want but don’t know how to get. People ask if Mental Toughness (MT) can be taught. My belief is “no”. But if you ask me if it’s possible to learn and acquire MT for yourself, then I would answer “yes”. But you will have to expose yourself to situations and experiences that will challenge you. More importantly, you will have to show enough self-awareness and humility to learn from those situations and get stronger.

Mental Toughness is that little voice deep inside us all that doesn’t want us to quit. It’s the voice that is in the back of our mind whispering to keep going when our body is screaming at us to stop the pain. The tragedy is when we don’t listen to that voice. When we shut it out and give in to comfort and walk away from the pain that will reveal to us who we are truly capable of being.

Mental Toughness is that persona that we all have that can carry us through the most challenging of times if we just listen and follow its guide. I’ve identified 3 Pillars of Mental Toughness that we can work through and see how we can apply them to your life and help you find that gritty edge and determination to help you reveal the person you could be.

But before we even get there I need you to think about WHY it is you are doing whatever it is you do. Why have you decided to pursue any fitness regime, any goal, any work goal, whatever? Because until you are perfectly clear about WHY you are doing anything when things get tough, you will find any reason to quit..

1st Pillar: Discipline in Discomfort

Mental Toughness is not developed from the comfort and safety of your couch. It is borne of uncomfortable, challenging and frustrating experiences. It is found on the other side of your comfort zone. Moreover, it is not developed from visiting this Discomfort upon yourself once or twice, but of Disciplining yourself to seek out Discomfort regularly, daily even.

Once we have chosen to pursue Mental Toughness, we must accept we have chosen to no longer be content with going through the motions. We have decided that we are going to walk a path that will gradually, systematically challenge us on an intrinsic level.

We all experience fatigue when we exercise. When we start out things are difficult. Then we get used to that stimulus and they become easier. The 1 mile run on your first day of training feels vastly different from the 1 mile run on your 100th day of training. While it is important that we celebrate the adaptation and progress in making a set task easier for ourselves if we seek Mental Toughness we can not allow ourselves to accept that it is “enough” once we have achieved a milestone. That previous milestone becomes our new normal. Our revised baseline even. If we set ourselves the target of running 1 mile in 9 minutes, on achieving it we need to set a new milestone. Maybe it is resetting the goal to 8:30 for that same mile, or maybe it is a 2 mile run without resting.

No matter the situation, if we seek to develop ourselves to handle tougher challenges we need to be disciplined and consistently seek progress and improvement.

To elaborate on Discomfort, I don’t want you to think that you need to beat yourself up on the daily and recklessly break your body down. That is a very short-sighted approach to appeasing some kind of self-destructive stunted emotional development. All you are really doing in following that logic is trying to gain sympathy or recognition. You actually have no understanding or awareness of the Discipline required to develop your mind to endure real discomfort on a regular and developmental basis.

What we are looking for essentially is not pain, but the growth that Discomfort masquerading as pain provides. Once we understand that we are using this feeling of pain/discomfort to benefit ourselves, we are capable of enduring far more of it than we previously thought. So, Discipline yourself to seek Discomfort that will help you grow. That act in itself cannot fail in developing your Mental Toughness.

2nd Pillar: Our Growth Lies on the Other Side of the Obstacle

Once we have made the decision that we will use the discomfort in our lives to our benefit we can start to see Obstacles for what they are – Opportunities.

That workout that you are afraid of. That course you are too scared to take for fear of failing. That business you are too scared of starting. All of these are obstacles. All of them require dedication, commitment and a mastery of your negative thoughts and emotions before attacking them. But they are all Opportunities for growth and development, most importantly in the field of Mental Toughness.

If you try that workout and can’t finish it. If you do take that course and don’t pass. If you don’t succeed in your business endeavour. These are all lessons, not failures. There is a reason we did not find success in these actions – we have to locate that reason and turn it into a lesson.

Was it because we were not physically prepared for that physical challenge? Probably. This merely means we have to prepare better before we reattempt it, not that we are not worthy of taking on physical challenges.

Did we not achieve a sufficient mark in that course because we did not commit enough time to study? Probably this means we need to adjust our schedule and manage our time better so we can study more.

Did we not reach the financial targets we set ourselves and have to scale back our business venture? Surely this means that we just need to reassess our offering and adjust it accordingly?

In all these situations, the setback is the opportunity for learning that we need. It is not a damning condemnation of us as being unworthy of success. The setback before we achieve success is the opportunity we are given by pursuing a higher level of challenge. The changes we are required to make in order to overcome that higher challenge are dependant on our Mental Toughness and our commitment to our higher goal, and our “Why”.

It is imperative we embrace these failures as stepping stones on the path to Mental Toughness. Bill Gates said “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.” The failures we face daily, no matter the context, are crucial to developing our Mental Toughness because, without failure, we do not develop resilience in the face of adversity.

I’m not suggesting living life as a loser or a failure. What I am suggesting is that if you are able to use every setback, failure, or obstacle you face as a learning opportunity to make yourself better, then you will find more coping strategies that will enhance your ability find success, even when things are difficult and not going your way all the time.

3rd Pillar: Align Your “Why” With Your “Now”

There’s a reason we have decided to pursue the path of improving Mental Toughness. This reason has led to us seeking discomfort and challenges that are likely to be a little bit frightening. The steps we need to take are not always clear on the path we need to take. So we walk forward by faith. Not faith that someone else will catch us if we fall, but Faith that we will pick ourselves back up when we inevitably do fall or fail.

The faith we need to have is found in our “Why”. Our “Why” defines our reason for doing whatever it is we are doing. Why are you putting yourself through tough physical challenges on a regular basis? Why are you trying to learn a new skill that puts you on your ass more times than not? You get the idea. The fact is that we need to understand Why we are doing what we are doing.

Our strongest reasons for pursuing challenges are often found in the understanding that there is a greater benefit to completing a task than simply the knowledge that you have completed a task. By “greater benefit” I mean that we understand that the greatest physical challenges we face are not actually physical in nature. We do not fail physically (most of the time), we CHOOSE to stop before our bodies need us to stop. This means that we need to use Discipline, Discomfort, Obstacles, Failures as vehicles that will transport us to the higher level of functioning that we are seeking.

If we seek Mental Toughness, then we are required to take action. But that action to develop Mental Toughness is worthless if we fail to align our PHYSICAL and SPIRITUAL development with our MENTAL development. All three facets of our Being need to be aligned with the actions we choose to take if we hope to go past the simple act of completing a task. Our Why has to encompass every aspect of who we WANT to be, so much so that we are already that person that will push us past the desire to give up.

We all need to identify our deepest reason as to Why we are pursuing a goal. Once we can pinpoint, and articulate Why it is we are working towards something, we have a greater reason to keep going through the tough times.

That Why is what will keep us moving forward in those tiny steps, fixated on a higher purpose that will allow us to push past the immediate pain and discomfort of any situation. That Why becomes the tiny voice in our head that will encourage us and push us forward when the other voices want us to stop. We need to give that voice strength and authority, and we do that by understanding Why we seek discomfort.

Because it’s all too easy to just go through the motions or quit if you have no reason to endure and push on through the hard times.

Wrapping Up

I know I’ve gone deep on what appears to be a simple topic, but if you truly want to develop Mental Toughness, it’s going to take more than you know to get more than you’ve got. Mental Toughness is the result of thousands of decisions to take action and walk along the path of most resistance in our lives so that we can be truly the best version of ourselves.

The more of these decisions we choose to make, the more likely we are to find success in the face of adversity as we have trained ourselves to do so on a daily basis – our Toughness is not intrinsic, it is a Choice we make. The more we choose it, the less likely we are to choose to quit when things get difficult. We train ourselves daily to focus on the overcoming of the obstacle, and not the obstacle itself.  

Life will not stop throwing challenges at us, whether we want them or not. So there is no benefit to choosing not to pursue Mental Toughness every day so that when you need to be really tough, you are ready. Mental Toughness is choosing to do what is difficult today, so you are prepared for tomorrow.