A year ago, I stumbled on an article on how to be mentally strong that got a ton of comments and shares. It confused me. Why do all these people care about this?
I didn’t care about being mentally tough. I wanted money and happiness. And I didn’t see how mental toughness would help me with that unless I wanted to change my goals to becoming a Navy SEAL. But everything’s changed since then.
Mental toughness is incredibly important to your peak performance.
Today, I’m going to share with you everything you need to know on a critical skill you may be overlooking. I’ll share with you why mental toughness matters and how to improve it. And if you’re wondering why you should trust me, it’s because all my advice comes from people you can trust: the world’s top performers.
What is Mental Toughness?
Mental toughness is the strength of mind to keep pushing through when your body and other psychological factors tells you to quit.
The scientific definition is:
“Mental toughness is defined as an unshakeable perseverance and conviction towards some goal despite pressure or adversity.”
Based on a study of ten international performers, classified mental toughness as something that can be measured by the following dimensions:
- Pain and Hardships
- Desire and Motivation
- Dealing with Pressure and Anxiety
Here are some examples of mental toughness in action:
When you are broke and homeless, it feels like there is no hope, especially when you have tried hard for years to improve your situation and failed. This was Sylvester Stallone’s situation before he made it as an actor. There was significant psychological pressure telling him to give up, but he didn’t.
Another example would be when you’re competing at the Olympics. A slight difference of who can push further a bit further can decide who takes the Gold or Silver medal. At a crucial point like this, you have physical factors (your body screaming at you to quit) and mental factors (screaming crowds distracting you and your body screaming at you through your nerves) that are competing against your mental strength.
Or let’s say your parents and siblings all died from illnesses or unexpected accidents. You need to be strong to stay positive and keep moving on.
Sylvester Stallone defines it the best. Here’s a clip from the film “Rocky Balboa:
This video made an impression on my beyond anything else. I almost cried after seeing it for the first time. This was because I was really in a bad place at the time in almost every area of my life, and it was like he was speaking right to me.
It explains mental toughness fairly well and gives a great tip on improving it. It’s not about how great you are, it’s about how many times you can get back up after life beats you down.
Why Mental Toughness Matters
We all know that muscles are built on the last couple reps when it’s painful and you want to quit. But most people quit far sooner than they want to because they can’t withstand the pain. As you will see later on, experiments have proven that we can perform beyond when our bodies tell us we’re exhausted.
Imagine being able to push a little bit farther each time when you’re at the gym and on the last rep. Imagine being able to work harder than your coworkers and get more done. Imagine having that extra push in that make-or-break moment that could define your future and crown you as a champion.
What would that mean to you? How much more money would you make? How much longer would you live? How much better would you look?
Developing mental toughness will lead to the promised land. Mentally tough people have more self-discipline to keep pushing when you want to quit.
As I hinted, it’s incredibly important in the realms of sports and other competition, when you need to push to the next level when your body wants to be lazy or tells you to quit. But don’t just take my word for it.
The Extra Edge Against Your Competitors
At the top levels of athletic competition, there is little to no difference in technical or physical skill between you and your competitors. Therefore, you need every advantage you can get to win. A large portion of this advantage is in the mental game.
Mental toughness reigns supreme on multiple levels in sports. It includes:
- not letting the audience distract you.
- not let the psychological mind games of competitors get to you on-the-court or off-the-court.
- not letting unexpected mistakes, surprises, or cheating that doesn’t get caught affect your performance.
No matter how great your life is, you will most likely face tough times. There are a plenty of bad events that can happen to you that are out of your control. A family member could get sick. You could get into a car crash. There could be an unexpected nuclear terrorist attack in your area.
Mental toughness lets you bounce back from trauma faster. Brian Tracy says successful people don’t try to avoid bad situations. They expect them to happen and are better at dealing with them.
Famous Celebrities and Athletes on Why Mental Strength Matters
Now let’s hear what some of the world’s most successful people have to say about it:
Arnold needs no introduction. But here’s a quick bio anyways: He won Mr. Olympia seven times. He went onto become a real estate millionaire. Then, he became the highest paid actor in the world and governor of California.
Arnold has stated in interviews that there will always be people in competitions who have just as good a body as you. What puts you over the top is your mind.
Michael Jordan: Mental Toughness Matters More Than Genetic Talent
Michael is widely regarded as the best basketball player of all time. According to the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, Michael said:
“The mental toughness and the heart are a lot stronger than some of the physical advantages you might have. I’ve always said that and I’ve always believed that.”
She is widely regarded as the best female soccer player to play the game. She is often asked, “What the most important thing for a soccer player to have? Mia always responds with no hesitation, “mental toughness.” She went on to say:
“It is one of the most difficult aspects of soccer and the one I struggle with every game and every practice.”
Rich Froning (from his book First: What It Takes To Win )
Who is Rich? He is widely regarded as the best Crossfitter of all time in the decade or so of the sport’s existence. He won back-to-back three years in a row and came in 2nd place the first time he competed, a feat no one has come close to. He’s also won numerous times with his team, Crossfit Mayhem, for the Team division.
According to his book First: What It Takes To Win, mental toughness is a key to success in Crossfit because it helps you push farther. He says roughly 80% of Crossfit success is mental, and only 20% is physical. When you think about it, it makes sense. A large part of any physical activity is about mentally tolerating pain in your brain; it’s internal, not external.
Rich has trained a lot of different people. He found the difference between the people who succeed and those who give upon the sport doesn’t have to do with genetic talent. It’s about their mental strength.
Sugar Ray Leonard
Sugar is widely considered as one of the best boxers of all time, winning years worth of world championships. In the video below, he explains how mental stability (rather than physical skill) is truly what helped him when the toughest matches of his life. He also talks about how this was what he admired most about Bruce Lee:
Here’s what science has to say about it:
Being Mentally Strong Improves Physical Endurance
This seems like common sense, but it’s important to verify any assumption with rigorous science. A 2005 study by Lee found a significant correlation between mental strength and endurance.
It May Improve Mental Health
A 2016 study by Gucciardi, Hanton, and Fleming found that mental toughness may be a positive indicator of mental health.
How to Improve Mental Toughness
First, I’ll show you what science has to say about becoming mentally tough, and then show what the world’s highest performers reveal are the top mental toughness techniques.
New Studies Reveal How To Build Mental Toughness
According to the books The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor and Social by Matthew Lieberman, studies show that having strong friendships increases your resilience to negative events.
When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. When you lose your job or have an unexpected illness, your friends are a great support network to catch you, keep you going, and get you back on your feet.
A 2007 study by Jones examined eight athletes who were world champions or Olympic medalists and found that there were four dimensions that made up mental toughness:
- attitude and mindset
These could be areas worth looking to improve.
A similar study was done on 33 elite athletes and coaches, including 25 who were Olympic athletes or world champions. They found twelve dimensions: elf-efficacy, potential, mental self concept, task familiarity, value, personal bests, goal commitment, perseverance, task focus, positivity, stress minimization, and positive comparisons.
Dr. Rob Bell is a sports psychologist and has worked with professional athletes, like PGA golfers, to improve their mental toughness. I couldn’t help but be a little skeptical about this guy because he didn’t mention any results of his clients; maybe he’s just a good salesman. Having said that, he does have a scientific background and he does mention some really good stories from top athletes in this video guide on becoming mentally tough:
In the video, he lays out an acronym for improving mental toughness: No Fear. It stands for:
Never Give Up
Obstacles Into Opportunities
rE-focus (refocus when you lose track)
Attitude (e.g. being excited rather than nervous)
Respond, don’t react
Rich Froning’s Secrets to Mental Toughness: Practice, Have A Higher Purpose, and Have Fun
According to Rich’s book, First, What It Takes to Win:
If he had to answer the question, he thinks it comes down to your upbringing and practicing pushing your comfort zone. There have been moments during the Crossfit Games where he thought, “I don’t feel like doing this. I want to quit. Why am I doing it?”
And that’s when his upbringing kicked in. His parents made him do a lot of chores, including meaningless tasks like pulling nails off a board, to instill in him a strong work ethic. His work ethic kicked in automatically when he wanted to give up.
As far as practicing pushing your comfort zone, make sure you remember that you can’t rely on your genetic gifts. He has observed many successful athletes rely on their talents to get them through high school. But when they hit college, they fail because they meet people who have the same genetic skill and highly honed high mental toughness from practice.
Therefore, always push yourself farther than you can go — even when you can get away with not doing so. Otherwise, it might bite you in the butt later in life.
According to Rich’s video:
The elite Crossfitter’s ability to dig deep and push through comes from genes and practice. So don’t make the excuse that you just don’t have the genetics. For Rich, he uses a higher purpose (rather than his own selfish reasons) to push through when he wants to give up. His higher purpose is promoting his faith, Christianity.
He also said that not putting too much pressure in yourself and finding a way to have fun also helps push through.
Advice from Navy Seal Commander Mark Divine
Mark Divine is the founder of SealFit and a retired Navy Seal commander. He had trained thousands of Navy SEAL 20x their performance. See the video below for a quick tip:
Too long? Didn’t have time to watch the whole thing? Here’s the summary:
- The body is an amazing thing. You can actually get stronger mentally, physically, and emotionally over time.
- You can do a lot more than you think you can before you get exhausted.
Mark gives the example of going through the SEAL’s “hell week.” It’s a week of non-stop training with no sleep and considered the hardest military training for any special ops. Half way through the week, half the people had given up. But mark felt better in every way; he felt more alert and he felt like his muscles were growing.
Ramit Sethi, the entrepreneur interviewing him, responds by saying how one time, he was doing a workout and thought he couldn’t finish it because it was too heavy. His trainer put on more weight and he ended up finishing. In that moment, he realized he could do much more than he thought he could.
Now, did Mark actually get more alert and muscular in just half a week of training with no sleep? Probably not. I have studied the science of sleep and muscle recovery, and experiments show the opposite. Your focus drops when you need more sleep. And you don’t gain muscle that fast even if you get enough protein and rest.
But that’s not the point. Even Mark admits it was probably his mind playing tricks on him. The point is that you can push much farther than your body tells you it can.
In the book Willpower Instinct, the author cites a study that discovered that your brain sends signals of exhaustion far before your body actually gets exhausted as a fail-safe. Now, it’s there for a reason: to act as a prevention tool for complete exhaustion and danger.
However, your body doesn’t know it lives in the modern world. It’s still wired for Savannah times where there were real physical threats. Nowadays, there are safe environments to protect you from any downsides if you get exhausted and the benefits of pushing past exhaustion (in competition or to build muscle) are huge.
Mark has a lot more free advice you can find online. He’s done many hour-long interviews for different influencers on YouTube and for podcasts. You can click here to get access to a ton of them.
Also, Ramit Sethi partnered with Mark to create a 5-day Mock Hell Week course, which you can get by clicking here.
What I Learned From the Book, “The Ultimate Guide to Mental Toughness”
I read a great book on the subject called Ultimate Guide to Mental Toughness: How to Raise Your Motivation, Focus and Confidence Like Pushing a Button by Daniel Teitelbaum. Daniel used to work as a salesman. He used Napoleon Hill’s visualization techniques to become one of the top salesman for his company. Then, he transitioned to coaching everyone from Olympians to office workers to improve their performance, confidence, motivation, and wealth through live workshops.
He reveals his secrets in this book and expands upon Hill’s techniques with his own improved versions. I was recommended the book by a friend, and at first, I was skeptical. But once I finished it, I was much more convinced because some of the techniques are backed up by experiments.
The main thing I loved about the book were all the techniques around using classical conditioning. This is a classic, psychological discovery. Psychologists found that a dog would drool after a bell sound after sounding the bell before feeding the dog numerous times. Eventually, the dog would drool even if no food was given after the bell sounded. Later on, they found that they could use anything to do this; it didn’t have to be a bell.
Using classical conditioning, Dan’s techniques tied various triggers to ordinary events to get you motivated to accomplish your goals whenever you wanted. These included:
- Listing out and identifying the goals that give you the biggest emotions.
- Visualizing in detail the day before you achieve your goal.
- Visualizing in detail 15 minutes before you achieve your goal.
- Visualizing in detail the day after you achieve your goal.
- Visualizing in detail the moment you achieved your goals (who was there, what’s happening around you, how you feel, what you’re holding and wearing, etc.).
- Screaming a sentence that summarizes you achieving your biggest goal as load as you can fifteen times in a row.
- Beating your chest with your hand while doing the visualization exercise. Then, slowly condensing the movement so that you can get the same emotional trigger by just tapping your finger or toe.
- Playing a song that really energizes you while you’re visualizing so that you can eventually play the song to trigger the emotions without having to do the visualization exercise.
You don’t have to do all of these techniques. He has so many for different situations and personalities. And a number of these are not science-backed. Having said that, if all else fails, this is something you can test. It couldn’t hurt.
How To Summon Any Emotion or State You Want Instantly
What’s interesting is that I read the book The Art of Learning, and the author, Josh Waitzkin, stumbled across a very similar triggering method on his own. For some context, Josh was a chess prodigy who became a teen world champion and basis for one of the most famous chess movies, Searching for Bobby Fischer. He went on to become the world champion of the competitive martial arts, Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands, all by his early thirties.
Josh uses a similar “condensing” technique for triggering other emotions, like calmness. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t have to be for energizing emotions, like Dan has done. In his book he gives a great example.
A man always gets too nervous before presentations at works and blows it. He comes to Josh for help. Josh tells him to identify the moment when he is most calm. It was playing ball with his son.
He then asked him to conduct an hour-long routine each time before he played ball with his son. It happened to a number of random things, like stretching, listening to music, and washing the dishes. Gradually and slowly, Josh told him to condense the routine so it got shorter and shorter.
Eventually, the routine was less than five minutes. Then, Josh told him to perform this routine before the presentation, and he felt calm. Was it magic? No. He had simply conditioned a set of random activities to the feeling of calmness, so he could summon it on command.
If you’re interested, click here to buy or learn more about the book The Ultimate Guide to Mental Toughness on Amazon. I’ll get a small commission if you buy through my link at not extra cost to you.
A very similar concept (and arguably just another word for mental strength) is grit, popularized by the psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth.
What is Grit? Grit is essentially the perseverance and passion to stay consistent to keep moving towards your goals no matter the obstacles that are put in front of you. Personally, I think it’s just a fancy term for perseverance.
Angela has written a book on the topic and emphasize how it is a critical factor for success. She stresses that IQ is an over-emphasized factor for success, while grit is not even recognized but really important.
The more grit you have, the more you stick to your habits and the less likely you are to give up.
Angela tracked 2,441 cadets from the U.S. Military Academy. They have to go through a program called “Beast Barracks” that is made to intentionally test the absolute limits of your physical and mental abilities. She measured almost every possible factor she could, including IQ, SAT scores, and so on. But only one factor correlated with which cadets made it through Beast Barracks: grit.
In a Tim Ferriss podcast interview (time stamp 22:53), Maria Sharapova, one of the greatest female tennis players of all time, explains how important parenting was to her. Her mother made her memorize Russian poems everyday.
At the time, she thought this was useless to her future. But later on, she realized that it taught her discipline and persistence, which she could apply to tennis.
Tim Ferriss is an best-selling author, entrepreneur, and host of a podcast with over 100 million downloads titled The Tim Ferriss Show. He has been able to interview hundreds of the world’s top athletes and game changers.
Tim remarked on Maria Sharapova’s answers to his interview questions. He noted the patterns he saw between her responses and the hundreds of others he’s interviewed. He found that many of these successful people (just like Maria) had parents who:
- talked to them as adults as children or taught them stuff that was a higher level than they could comprehend at the time.
- made them do repetitive, limited tasks to teach them the discipline and persistence.
He’s learned a lot about mental toughness from them:
Billionaires Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger on How To Get Mental Toughness
I have been a super fan of both of these billionaires for a few years now. I have consumed almost everything out there about them. One thing most people don’t know about them is that they’ve been through tough times as well and they keep going.
Charlie saw his own child get ill and pass away. Warren has lost loved ones and has been hurt by people he’s loved.
But Charlie describes it best in the document Becoming Warren Buffett. He said, “Warren soldiers on.” They keep pushing forward, like a soldier.
Now, no need to pity them, as they’ve both generally had incredibly awesome lives for the most part. But if you have want to change your negative attitude and outlook, there’s nowhere better than the book Poor Charlie’s Almanack.
Charlie Munger’s philosophy on dealing with life, which you can find in that book and in free interviews online, is the best I’ve come across in dealing with life. Hundreds of thousands of Tim Ferriss fans love to harp on his teachings of stoicism (If you’re not familiar, I’d describe it as minimalism for happiness). But Charlie’s stuff is better.
He explains in such logical terms why you should avoid all self-pity and jealousy because it only hurts yourself and prevents you from progressing. He talks about how to effectively deal with the dread of aging and dying. And he talks about why and how you should come to accept and move on from unexpected bad events that life hands you — and to even do it in a positive way.
One of Charlie’s biggest inspirations is Ben Franklin, so I suggest reading Ben’s autobiography too if you want to dive even deeper.
Prefer Listening To Reading? Listen to The Podcast Version of This Article
If you prefer listening to audio, listen to the podcast version of this article, where I give not-mentioned secret tips:
You can subscribe to the podcasts on iTunes and Stitcher below to get access to all my podcast episodes. Please leave a review on iTunes if you like it.
Mental Toughness Exercises and Tips
Willpower and self-discipline are directly tied to mental endurance. In the book, The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal, a distinguished psychologist, reveals that daily exercises that push your willpower, like meditation, can improve it. Willpower works like a muscle. This means:
- It can be improved with practice.
- It can be exhausted and leave you vulnerable.
The second point is just as important. Avoid exercising your willpower when your workday has already drained it. This is because it will leave you vulnerable to temptations and bad decisions (cheating on your spouse, making poor career moves, eating junk food, etc.).
My opinion on mental strength has completely changed. I thought it was something only useful for Navy SEALs, athletes, and spies. It turns out that it matters for anyone who wants to be more fit and anyone who wants to succeed because both require the strength to persevere.
Hopefully, these tips I learned will also help you change your opinion on mental toughness for the better and improve your mental fortitude.
Did I miss any valuable advice from a top athlete or scientist? Let me know in the comments below. I’d be eager to learn more.
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