Building Mental Toughness: Simple, But Not Easy

by Cameron Schaefer on May 10, 2008

“Quit? You know, once I was thinking of quitting when I was diagnosed with brain, lung and testicular cancer all at the same time. But with the love and support of my friends and family, I got back on the bike and won the Tour de France five times in a row. But I’m sure you have a good reason to quit. So what are you dying of that’s keeping you from the finals?” – Lance Armstrong in “Dodgeball

By now most of us know the incredible story of Lance Armstrong, the Texas native that came back from cancer to win 7 consecutive Tour de France titles from 1999-2005. He has inspired many and is now busy trying to conquer his next challenge, the sport of running. He ran his first marathon in 2006 finishing in 2:59:36 (if you’re not sure, this is really good). He recently completed this year’s Boston Marathon in 2:50:58. Elite runners, watch your backs.

The story is amazing because it seems so supernatural and unreal. When staring at the list of Armstrong’s achievements the natural question is how? How does a man go from his deathbed to winning one the toughest sporting events in the world 1,2,3….7 times in a row! How does one maintain that much consistency? Lance has told us, “It’s Not About the Bike,” and I would agree — I think the majority of the answer to “how” lies in Lance Armstrong’s mental toughness.

Mental toughness is talked about a lot, but understood by very few. It is the ability to will oneself through less than ideal situations and conditions whether that be battling cancer or simply waking up early to go workout. Mental toughness can come from many sources such as:

  • overcoming a difficult childhood
  • a deep faith in God
  • battling an addiction or disease
  • undergoing military training
  • consistent physical exertion

I know several people that I would consider mentally tough from WWII veterans to outdoor adventurers to Christian missionaries, but my friend Beau Suder is the first that comes to mind.

Beau has been an incredibly close friend for some time now so I’ve gotten to see his “inner workings,” a bit more than most folks. In high school Beau was an amazing athlete. Was it because he was 6’2” 220lbs with a 50-inch vertical? No, it was because he worked harder and pushed himself more than anyone else on the field. I have several stories I could tell, but I’ll keep this short.

Beau ended up playing football for the Air Force Academy, but struggled with a nagging shoulder injury. One night, while playing UNLV, he made a big hit on a guy and came trotting to the sideline holding his arm which was completely limp – he had dislocated his shoulder. I was on the sidelines and cringed thinking he would be out for the game if not longer. The next thing I saw was him talking to the trainer and the trainer popping his shoulder back in right there on the sidelines. One play later, Beau was trotting back onto the field to play the rest of the game! This is mental toughness, ignoring pain and performing under less than ideal circumstances.

Photo by Slagheap
As I began thinking about how one builds mental toughness I realized that while there are many ways it comes about, for the majority of people, consistent and intense physical exertion is the most accessible and common way to build mental toughness. You can’t help if you grew up in a posh suburban environment with loving parents or have never battled cancer, and the majority of people will never undergo the type of training that comes standard in the military, but everyone can go on a long run or work out until their bodies are screaming to stop. With that in mind, here are some keys to building mental toughness that anyone can follow:

1. Show Up – “Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on? ” – Lance Armstrong

What separates a guy like Lance from 99% of the world is the fact that he showed up everyday, when it was raining, when it was hot, when he was sore, when he was tired….he showed up everyday. JUST SHOW UP! What happens after you show up is where the real fun begins, but most people can’t even make it to that point. If it’s working out, tell a friend you’ll meet them at a certain time so you will be less likely to back out. If it’s battling an addiction, make yourself go to a recovery group every time it meets.

2. Hurt Vs. Injured“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.” – Lance Armstrong.

My high school football coach, John Deti, used to always ask players that limped to the sidelines during a game, are you hurt or injured? This may seem trite to some, but he was keying in on a fundamental issue. Soreness, stiffness, bruises…these are just parts of any game or any physically demanding activity, but they should not keep one from continuing. Injuries on the other hand, like muscle tears, broken bones, etc. are a different thing entirely and should be taken care of. One of the best ways to develop mental toughness is extreme physical exertion…if there is no discomfort , you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. This is different from causing injury which hinders you rather than helping.

3. Unfamiliar and Unexpected Are Your Friends – Part of building mental toughness involves being comfortable performing in stressful situations. One of the best ways to develop this trait is by consistently doing things you have never done or trying things a different way. Fear of the unknown keeps many from ever developing mental toughness, but by consistently placing yourself in unfamiliar situations you can learn to deal with stress and fear. Some good ones that I’ve tried include rock climbing, attending the Air Force Academy, swimming (what is recreation for most used to stress me out since I was a terrible swimmer until recently) and mountain biking. You don’t have to do something crazy, just something that you don’t normally do and something that puts a little fear in your heart.

4. What’s Your Motivation – Whenever you find yourself in a tough position you will need something you can focus on to provide motivation. I don’t know exactly what Lance focused on during the hill climbs of the Tour de France, but I’m sure it included a mixture of other cancer patients he had met along the way, yellow jackets and a finish line. Lately, for me it has been my daughter and my desire to have her look at her father’s life someday and say, “Wow, he really pushed himself and accomplished some great things.” I want her to be as proud of me as I am of her. Whatever it is, everyone has to find something to focus on for motivation. If you allow your mind to focus on your pain or your laziness you will have a hard time pushing through any adversity.

5. Constantly Challenge Yourself – What most people fail to understand is that mental toughness is something that has to be practiced and developed over time. The key to this is placing yourself in challenging situations…constantly doing things that are hard. This is a fundamental principle of military training. Sure, push-ups and sit-ups help develop you physically, but after a couple hundred of them it becomes much more of a mental game than a physical one. The military uses physical training and yelling because it creates a stressful environment that breeds mental toughness and forces one to deal with intense discomfort and anxiety, the fact that it gets you in shape is a side benefit.

6. Surround Yourself with Lance’s and Beau’s – As with most things in life, you will become who you spend time with. So, if you want to get more mentally tough, spend time with people that already are. It’s contagious. I always love working out with Beau because just when I’ve had it and am ready to leave the gym he is just starting…he pushes me by his example. Lately I’ve been pouring myself into training for a marathon. Being as I’ve never run one I have tried to meet and talk to others that have in hopes of gleaning some insight and motivation from them. Whether you are training for a marathon or not, surrounding yourself with other mentally tough people is a sure way to become mentally tough yourself.

Mental toughness isn’t about being macho or cocky, it’s about coping with stress, anxiety and pain. It’s about running another lap when your throat is burning, doing 20 more push-ups after your arms start to shake and doing the things others aren’t willing to do.

This trait is beneficial not just for the Navy SEAL, but for the 9-5 average Joe as well. When one looks at people like Lance, the Ironman triathalete, or the Vietnam POW it is easy to say, “I could never make it through something like that or be as strong as them.” The fact is, they too had to develop their mental toughness just like everyone else, day after day after day. Simple, but not easy.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

fathersez May 11, 2008 at 2:02 am

Let me be the first.

I just want you to know that this is a powerful post. I just feel moved!

Regards

Alik Levin | Practice This May 11, 2008 at 2:39 am

OMG, what an inspiring write-up.

I was hooked up with the title – Mental Toughness, then moved on with Armstrong’s story which makes me cry out loud every time i read it. Cancer, 7 times tour de France. OMG!!

So freaking timely for me. I am not going through hell now, no. But i have not easy times and was thinking that I am mentally tougher these days than before, then I stumbled on your post.

What a powerful post – thank you!!! I feel the power too now.
alikl

Cameron Schaefer May 11, 2008 at 6:42 am

@ fathersez,

I’m glad it moved you, thanks for the kind words. It’s not hard to inspire when you’re talking about stories like that.

@ Alik Levin,

Glad that you could relate to this post, that was my goal. It’s sometimes hard to take a supernatural story like Lance’s and provide principles that all of us can live by. Thanks for the feedback!

-Cameron

J.D. Meier May 11, 2008 at 10:07 am

Giving your all when you think there’s nothing left is such a powerful skill. I think physical things help us find it and then feedback helps us grow it. There’s nothing like pushing weights you thought you couldn’t move or doing another push up when your body’s given up. When your body give’s up, it’s your mind that takes it further. The feedback is the tough part. All your senses tell you you can’t, but your mind has to shout to you, you can.

Cameron Schaefer May 12, 2008 at 6:16 am

@ J.D.,

It’s true, the feedback you get in tough situations is almost always saying, “stop” or “this is too much,” but the more you ignore it and press on anyway, the longer you can go without getting that kind of feedback in the future. In a sense your body/mind resigns itself to the fact that you are going to push it much further than most.

Hella Sound May 12, 2008 at 7:12 am

Cameron, another great post. #3 particularly speaks to me, and I think is relevant on many levels and layers throughout our lives.

I never truly knew what it meant to “work hard” until I did a on-site consulting project doing litigation support for an MSFT trial. In an extremely high-pressure, high-stakes environment, we clocked in 16-18 hour days for 3 weeks straight.

You learn your limits. And then you learn your limits are almost entirely self-imposed.
And then everything changes.

One last note on this: a Will Smith snippet I saw recently on YouTube touches on this exact same topic. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEMEBBwO6J8 A worthwhile watch.

Will May 12, 2008 at 7:25 pm

Whats up Cam. I saw your blog and thought I would add my two cents and see what you think. While this may be a little off topic I think it is relative. I think most of us, myself included underestimate the power of our minds and thoughts. They are very powerful forces that can either help or hurt us. One of my favorite books that changed my perspective on almost everything is “The Power of Positive Thinking” by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. I highly recommend it to anyone who is motivated to accomplish anything in life. Secondly, while I do respect Lance Armstrong’s accomplishments on his bike I do not respect him as a person. After reading his book and several magazine articles he is a very arrogant person in my opinion. He takes ALL the credit for overcoming cancer and winning on his bike. He worked hard and put in many hours training and deserves most of the credit, but all of it? No. Furthermore, his faithful wife stuck with him during the tumultuous years when he was jobless and fighting cancer yet during the glory years when he was winning the Tour, he divorced her and left behind two small children to date pop icons and celebrities. Apparently he didn’t have the “mental toughness” for marriage. While Lance may have a lot of determination, I believe he has zero humility, a character trait just as important as mental toughness. I believe the world will never know many of the truly “great” people due to their humility. In closing, I would like to say we need to respect Lance for his accomplishments but not necessarily surround ourselves with him.

P.S. No one is the perfect role model and everyone has flaws and its easy to criticize anyone. I just wanted to shed some light on the rest of Lance’s character. Great blog.

Cameron Schaefer May 13, 2008 at 6:45 am

@ Will,

Good to hear from you man! I must say, I really do agree with you. This was a big struggle I had while writing this post was whether to mention any of his character flaws that you highlighted above. I too was disappointed that he gave up on his marriage. In the end I decided that for this post it wasn’t necessary, but I’m glad that you brought it up.

Mental toughness is great, but at the end of the day if you aren’t strong enough to lead your family than it is all for not.

Thanks for the good discussion and the book recommendation. I’ll have to check that out soon.

amy May 14, 2008 at 1:59 pm

Wonderful post! I also believe the mental piece of running takes the longest to build. Leg muscles, breathing, endurance all build faster than the mental ability to cope with doing something you didn’t know you could do.

Amy
blog.runnerslounge.com
http://www.runnerslounge.com

amy May 14, 2008 at 7:47 pm

I took the time to reread this again and realized it would make a great addition to the Runners Lounge (www.runnerslounge.com) “Know How” section of articles. Would it be ok if I posted this article on the site with a link back and credit to you?

Michael G. May 15, 2008 at 7:21 pm

Cam:
I’m making the rounds tonight on your blog. Good stuff… very thoughtful and good perspective.

One thing I’m learning while training is that wherever your mind can go, the body with happily follow. If your mind can withstand a grueling workout, your body will readily follow suit.

But personally when I’m running, swimming, doing cals, doing under waters and really just hating life during a workout… I remember that Philippians 4:13 says “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength”. I’d say Jesus was the ultimate man of mental toughness! Carrying the cross and the sin of the world is no easy task…

Paul Singh May 22, 2008 at 10:17 pm

IMHO, Key #1 is quite possibly *the* most important step to building mental toughness – I’d estimate that by simply showing up, you’ve got 80% closer to your goal.

I’ve known people that have talked about running marathons or writing books, but almost every single one of them never even made the effort to put on some running shoes and go outside or grap a pen and paper. If they’d just gotten started, they’d be so much closer to finishing.

Grady Gentry September 8, 2008 at 3:43 am

What did you want your father to do? Was it close to spend time with me?

Isidore Chin-kit October 2, 2008 at 1:31 pm

All these statemnts are entirely true because nothing good in life comes easy you have to sacrifice in order to achieve great things in life and in order to do that you need the ability to motivate yourself when your most tired physically such as lance armstrong the best cyclist in the world who had cancer and is still able to win the tour de france because of his mental strenghth which alot of people seek for as life is tough and the easiest thing to do is quit and hardest thing to do is go on achive your potential goals.

Man Overboard December 8, 2008 at 7:24 pm

Perhaps Cameron Schaefer might have shown Private Pile the proper motivation.

Bofkeefelypep December 19, 2008 at 9:57 pm

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Senta June 23, 2009 at 6:00 pm

Great post. For me the essence of mental toughness is Mohandas Gandhi who inspired an enslaved country defeated the mighty british empire without firing a bullet or Nelson Mandela who spent a third of his lifetime in prison and defeated apartheid through the force of his personality.

dave April 1, 2010 at 5:00 pm

I believe this is a great post and really inspiring. It seems to me though that i cant get any major improvements that i notice. I can push past physical pain when doing push ups but i just get stuck halfway up eventually and i can’t finish it. Are there any other ways to become like boderline psychotic when it comes to working out and sports. (i am a highschool linebacker)

daniel April 27, 2010 at 12:39 pm

wow no i know what pro’s like kobe bryant are going through when they take the field. But I guess that is what makes hime so mentally tough in this video.
http://yovia.com/blogs/worldclass/2010/03/29/mental-toughness-conquers-all/?utm_source=1677&utm_medium=yovia&utm_campaign=yovia

mark hurd ncr August 8, 2010 at 7:08 am

better information too much good man thanks.

Bruno April 19, 2011 at 1:12 pm

I think there are a couple of other attributes needed that will help with building mental toughness and they are; a strong desire to do what you are trying to do and confidence to compete.
When I was growing up I used to get screamed at if I failed at anything or even if I got an answer wrong in my homework. All this succeeded in doing was to instil in me a feeling of self-loathing that I have battled ever since. I cannot take losing at anything because this will only confirm that I am indeed useless. Therefore I cannot compete because then I won’t lose etc.
Now that is not the case for everything in my life. I enjoy writing and I have a decent amount of confidence in my ability. So, I get a bit nervous before I submit freelance articles to local newspapers or pitching script/story ideas to others. But I do it anyway because I’m confident with what I have created.
Sports on the other hand is a very different beast. My main sport would be Darts but I cannot get rid of that little voice in my head that tells me I’m going to fail. I have the desire to play but not the confidence and when I lose, I prove the voice right. I play with a team and a few other members lose as much as I do but they don’t seem to let it affect them. They can look forward not back.
Mental toughness may get an extra 20 press-ups, but it won’t help if you’ve already lost.

Sudhar November 27, 2011 at 7:38 am

Awesome post.

Mark Drew September 4, 2012 at 6:49 am

Hello Cameron,

It’s a heart-moving article !

I was especially moved by the point ‘What’s your Motivation’ as it really tells that small intricate factor that keeps everyone of us motivated. It also proves that its mind which controls the body. No matter how adverse the situation might be, physical weakness can be overpowered by mental strength.

I’ve collated my experiences on how a 90-year old woman won over Alzheimer disease, http://tiny.cc/wto3jw

Thanks for this wonderful article!

Regards,

Mark Drew

Ash September 23, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Very inspiring post!

Cara Rogers March 15, 2013 at 9:06 am

What a post, this is really a great read. Mental toughness is a major part of the hard times in life whether its the topic of divorce or hearing you have cancer. I have realized how mental toughness has kept me going and this article spoke directly to me. Thank your for this.

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