Mental Toughness – Do You Have It?

Stew Smith, CSCS

After the National Geographic Channel’s Fight Science television show on Special Ops, a majority of the emails received this week discussed mental toughness, as if I had some magic solution for people to acquire it. The truth is the human body is built for survival and will adapt to better handle cold, heat, stress, pain and just about anything you can throw at it. After years of training in cold water before, during and after my seven years in the SEAL Teams, I got used to colder water as seen in the Fight Science TV show. However, if you take a look online, you will see that we all have something in life, sports, environment, or attitude that makes us a little bit tougher. There are thousands of ways to get “mentally tough” and physical fitness is just one of many ways.

Mental Toughness has many definitions and is not limited to athletic performance and pain tolerance. I have known many men and women throughout my life who I would define as “mentally tough”. From an 85 year old gardener to a high school wrestling friend, who it seemed neither ever had a bad day. Much of mental toughness is simply attitude and self esteem. If you do a search online on the subject, you will see a variety of mental toughness techniques, articles, stories of remarkable physical performances to brave acts of heroism overcoming insurmountable odds and fear.

Personally, my philosophy has always been quite simple when it comes to mental toughness as well as increasing your body’s ability to withstand pain. Though like I stated, my way is NOT the only way, just the catalyst I have used in the past to develop what I call mental and physical toughness that enabled me to graduate SEAL training more than fifteen years ago. It works for me and many others who have attended physically challenging events / training programs.

I believe that in athletics especially, that through tough workouts you will build mental toughness. Physiologically your body will start to buffer lactate better IF given the stimulus to do so – meaning we will physically adapt to get in better shape and our muscles will fail later and later and later until you can surpass perceived limitations. In a military environment, this method has been known to work, BUT adding training under stress, hunger, and fatigue will only enhance performance on the battlefield. I guess the only saying, “The more you bleed in training, the less you bleed in war” applies to this philosophy.

Mental Toughness requires tough conditioning, but there is a fine line between pain and injury, of course. This takes hundreds of reps of exercises (both physical and military ops), or for example minutes of non stop punching in a boxer’s case. In my case, enormously high reps of pushups, situps, pullups, dips, running for miles and swimming for miles will create increased energy levels, increased ability to buffer lactate, and an increased pain tolerance through training in the pain zone. You really have to get the body to know what pain is before you can endure it longer. BUT once again PAIN is not injury, but if you push too hard through pain you will be setting up for injury, so knowing your training limits is necessary as well.

And then the next day when you feel like crap and you have to WILL yourself to workout again. THAT too is mental toughness. Persistence and determination are all factors as well. Other terms used to describe mental toughness is inspiration, self-motivation and confidence.

I guess in the end to define such an intangible quality is almost impossible. There have been many people who do not exercise at all who bring themselves out of horrible childhoods of poverty, neglect, and illness to become heroes, mentors, millionaires, and presidents. That takes mental toughness in my book.

One thing I do know though is that physical training programs will help your self-esteem and confidence, which is perhaps the first step to gaining mental toughness for some.

Read my Grinder PT article – it is more designed for Navy SEAL Training mental toughness but you maybe able to apply some of tips to your life.

Thanks for your kind remarks this past week. Feel free to email if you have any questions about getting in shape for fitness testing. That is my specialty, not necessarily developing mental toughness. You have to do that and find your internal fuel to propel you to great things.

Good luck and enjoy the workouts…Stew Smith CSCS

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