After 9/11, hundreds of FBI agents were pulled from their assignments and reassigned to counterterrorism squads. Leadership was not concerned that these agents had no experience with terrorism cases, because they are taught in the FBI Academy to have mental toughness—the confidence to know that you will prevail in whatever situation you find yourself. In truth, everyone can benefit from mental toughness training—athletes, executives, and anyone in leadership positions.
Why? We all need to find ways of turning negative thinking into positive behavior. Athletes can psych themselves out by seeing other athletes that are in better shape. Entrepreneurs and leaders can become overwhelmed by the competitive demands of the marketplace. To be successful, we need to develop the mental skills to carry us beyond our current situation and create breakthroughs that take us into the winner’s circle. Ahead, five rules to follow that will sharpen your mental toughness.
Rule Number 1: Develop Emotional Awareness
To be mentally tough, you need to have a deep understanding of what makes you tick so you can follow your calling and create a richer life. Mental toughness is often associated with sports activities where athletes need to bulldoze their way through to the finish line. And yes, strong minds are needed to build strong bodies that are physically competitive. But any top coach worth his/her salary will tell you that the will to win has to come from within. That requires athletes to have mental toughness so they can control their emotions, thoughts, and behavior in ways that will set them up for success. Mental toughness is accepting our feelings without being controlled by them.
Rule Number 2: Push Through Your Limits
Mentally tough people know that to reach their potential, they need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. World class experts fail a lot. They like to play at things that are too hard for them and accept challenges that are too big. But this is key: In the process, they’re always getting valuable feedback.You cannot be mentally tough if you cry like a baby because it’s scary when you're left in the dark. Guess what? Life frequently throws a wad of darkness into our midst—even when we aren’t expecting it or don’t want it!
We are confronted with the unknown every day, and we choose to either navigate it with success or avoid it like a wimp. Mental toughness requires us to push through the limits that we’ve imposed on ourselves, or those that have been imposed upon us by family, teachers, or society. We need to practice moving into our discomfort zone—frequently. Each time we fail we need to take the time to stop and analyze what we learned from the experience. With these experiences comes the confidence that we won’t break like a china doll in the process. Follow your calling and celebrate each time you break a new frontier. It is ironic that you must move to the edge to find your center.
Rule Number 3: Transform Your Mind
To be mentally tough, you need to keep a tight rein on your thoughts. Recent research in the field of neuroplasticity explains how new neural pathways and synapses can be created by changing our thoughts, emotions, and behavior. In other words, mental toughness is not something you were born with—it is something you can develop! Neuroplasticity replaced the former opinion that the brain was a static organ that stops growing by the age of 25. Now we know the brain is capable of changing throughout our lifetime.
Norman Vincent Peale made the expression “The power of positive thinking” very popular several decades ago. Instinctively he knew, without the benefit of neuroscience, that if we change our attitudes we can empower ourselves to achieve the impossible.
Rule Number 4: Focus Your Energy
If you want to be mentally tough, you must be able to focus your mental and physical energy. When we focus, we are present to what is happening right now, not in the past or the future. It’s important to keep the mind and body completely engaged in the actual performance and NOT the outcome of the performance.
Olympic athletes are excellent examples of how to channel talent into success. They do not rely on luck to take home the gold medal. World-class experts practice with laser focus and with a specific goal in mind. But it’s not just repeating the same task over and over—it is deliberate practice, and that has certain features:
- Break down each task into individual parts.
- Work on the hard stuff.
- Get feedback so you can get better.
- Put your ego on the back burner.
- Remain steadfast in your goals.
Rule Number 5: Pursue Personal Growth
If you are seriously interested in sharpening your mental toughness, you need to read. Books. Articles. Blogs. I have never met a mentally strong person who was not a voracious reader. The reason? The mentally tough are learners who understand that the world is not made up of winners or losers; instead, the world is made up of learners or non-learners. If you have mental toughness, you learn new skills and expand your horizons, study to become more intelligent, and find ways to make yourself more likable and attractive. We should never stop learning, improving ourselves, and growing our mental strength.
For more stories like this, check out LaRae Quy.