What is Mental Toughness?
by Alex Thompson
In case you hadn’t noticed, April is “Mental Toughness” month on Endurance Corner. When I learned about the theme, I thought, “This is me; this will be good.” After all, I think of myself as pretty tough.
I’ve come from the “slow class” at a below average high school which was nearly closed down the year I graduated to getting an honours degree in a tough subject. I’ve beaten alcoholism and stayed away even when I’ve been homeless. I’ve been attacked with knives on several occasions. I’ve worked 16-hour overnight shifts with only a 20-minute break picking orders in warehouses. I’ve spent winters without hot water and days without food. I’ve run through a heart attack in a sprint triathlon (winning my age group). And I’ve sat through a Nelly Furtado gig for a girl.
I’d like to think all of that was for something -- even the pop concert was a learning experience -- but is this sort of toughness required for Kona?
I believe that mental toughness is irrelevant -- we just need to do what we need to do. Triathletes don’t need to be particularly tough even if a lot of triathletes think if they could stand more suffering they would go quicker. Should it take mental toughness to get through a training plan? Is mental toughness the ability to inflict more physical suffering on ourselves? If it’s that hard you’re doing it wrong!
What about racing? Sure the last 10 miles of an ironman are pretty tough, but there is no will in the world strong enough to beat glycogen depletion. I’m not allowing mental toughness to be a factor here -- if you’re walking, you’re lacking appropriate pacing, not toughness.
A better way to understand true mental toughness may be to define mental weakness. When we think of mental weakness we thing of being insecure, being needy, being hesitant, having low self-esteem, not following through with our ideas, changing our ideas with the zeitgeist, and lacking will power.
I believe mental toughness is the ability to do the right thing without care for the consequences. To be truly mentally tough, you must have complete absence of mental weakness. Buddhist monks in Tibet can set themselves on fire if the situation calls for it. However they are not hard men, they are full of love. We need to step away from the “hard man” imagine of mental toughness -- the Dalai Lama is tougher than Charles Bronson.
When you are truly mentally tough, you will do things which are right and you’ll do them without hesitation. It won’t be a big deal to do the right thing; if you think it’s a big deal, you aren’t there yet. For example, when I found out my swimming stroke was slightly flawed in that my right hand was coming into the water two inches from where it should be, I stuck bits of knitting needles in my ears so I had a wider stroke. I didn’t think much of this, it just seemed like a good idea. However it was only when I told my coach that I realized it was a bit extreme.
Be the person you want to be. If you lack conviction, just have conviction. If you lack confidence, remember all the things you have to be confident about. If you don’t have any, then get some. If you want to be the guy who can get up early for a swim squad, set the alarm!
Alex has been a triathlete since 2005 and has competed several ironman and ultra distances races. He is currently working towards making the transition from age group athlete into the pro ranks. He has been working closely with Alan Couzens for the last two years to achieve his goal. You can follow Alex's progress through his blog, TriOnTrack.