“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.
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.