By continually celebrating the merits of mental-toughness, are coaches possibly limiting their athlete’s ability to reach their highest potential?
What if telling our athletes they need more grit in order to be successful was actually restricting their ability to train and race at their highest level? Sound crazy? Well, 20 years ago I would’ve thought so—but now, I’m not so sure. When we think of elite-athletes, we’d be hard-pressed to describe most of them without including the label “mentally tough”—I get that. In fact, I would consider that my ability to “push through” painful training sessions when I was rowing is what helped me reach the levels I did. However, what if instead of pushing through those painful moments, we were able to give in to them and just go along?
WHERE TO BEGIN:
Is grit really the main ingredient when it comes to high-performance, or as ex-athletes-now-turned-coaches do we just like to think so because it’s means that when we were young we were—ya know—tough!
Don’t misunderstand me, I appreciate that there’s a time and a place for mental toughness in sport. I can remember some nasty rowing workouts back-in-the-day that were incredibly painful and the only reason we were able to get through them was because of our mental tenacity. However, today, when I listen to coaches describe the virtues of mental toughness, it makes me think that we’re missing out on an opportunity to go beyond the limits we have taught our athletes to simply tolerate.
When I think of mental toughness, I think of opposing forces. Words like conflict, fear and grind come to mind. As if we’re trying to overcome an obstacle—in this instance, a workout or a competition. What if we taught our athletes to embrace training sessions and competitions as if they were something to experience on a deeper level? Now, I realize it’s hard to imagine a max-V02 workout as anything but painful—but what if it was? What if we were able to change the way our athletes perceived training and the resulting pain that sometimes accompanies it? Imagine viewing training and competing as not something to overcome, but instead as something to connect with—to be a part of in the moment. When I think of that scenario, synergy comes to mind.
In 1988 while training for the Seoul Olympics, I remember one winter workout in particular. It was a max-VO2 session on the ergometer—10 x 3 minutes on 2 minutes rest. Ugh, just writing that out makes my hands sweat as I recall the pain that accompanied such an undertaking. However, I will never forget the moment when somewhere during the 5th piece, in the midst of excruciating agony, my mind stopped fighting the pain and, instead, gave into it. For the remaining workout, I felt as if I couldn’t make myself tired if I tried. Today, we would call that experience being in flow. At the time, I just experienced it as something out of my control. With each 3-minute piece I got stronger, not weaker. In fact, I remember smiling numerous times as I uncovered newfound strength with each stroke. It was like magic! Well, what if it wasn’t magic? What if that sort of experience was IN our control—now there’s an opportunity. If we could create that kind of flow for our athletes every time they performed, and not just by accident—imagine the possibilities!
The current competitive paradigm tells us that in order to overcome pain, we must be tough. However, what if it told us to embrace pain as a something to work with? Surely, that subtle shift would not only help our athletes in their quest for high-performance, but it might actually allow coaches to retain more athletes.
How many times have you heard the expression, “80% of the game is mental”? I’m guessing more than a few. Okay, then if that’s true—why don’t we spend 80% of our coaching time working with our athlete’s mental and emotional skills when it comes to how they approach performance? I have said it many times before, that part of our athlete’s development is THE most undervalued and underutilized part of coaching. Changing how we frame training and competing for our athletes would surely be a good start in working towards optimizing their mental game?
Furthermore, it doesn’t have to end with our perception of pain. I would go so far as to include our perception of our so-called competitors. When we describe them as obstacles and enemies to overcome or beat, are we really helping our athletes engage fully? Again, I would suggest that framing competition in this manner impedes an athlete’s ability to perform—not support it. As my friend David Meggysey—the ex-NFLer and author of the critically acclaimed book “Out of Their League”—shared with me recently, the root of the word compete is competere, which means to strive together. Therefore, we have completely misconstrued the essence of competition to align with old-school values that don’t serve the athletes or their high-performance goals.
Sure, Hollywood’s portrayal of sport being for the tough and determined sells more tickets at the box-office, but like so much that we’ve bought from Hollywood, I think we may have been short-changed!
Photo credit: Stephen Lane
Jason Dorland is a High-Perfomance Coach who believes the most undervalued and underutilized components of reaching our goals are the mental and emotional areas of our lives. With your commitment, Jason can help you make a positive difference in how you approach your life’s dreams and goals. Guaranteed! To find out how, contact Jason today for a free no obligation consultation. He looks forward to meeting with you and getting started soon!
As the national team coach for skeleton, I found that over the years my focus progressed from teaching race lines to the mental side of competition. I personally believe that sport psychology or what I refer to as “competitive mindset” is the single most important aspect of sport and as such is probably the most undervalued as well. To quote Frank Van Den Berg, who is a sport psych here in Calgary, high performance sport isn’t 80% mental, it’s 100% mental. It’s also 100% physical, 100% your diet, tactics, and any other aspect of what you do. I like that definition because it describes well how one has to be disciplined in every aspect of being an athlete. I would add however, that if an athlete fails to perform when it matters most, the reason is far more likely as a result of the mind than the body. At least, this is my experience. I believe that what you talk about Jason is absolutely critical to high performance and I’m simply not aware of other people who talk about it on this level. All the best and keep up the great work.
Thanks, Duff! Agreed—control the controllables and you’ll get the performance you deserve!
Interesting. I always define mental toughness as the ability to internalize and accept the pain, and make it part of who we are. The pain represents growth and achievement. On our team we work at finding ways to fully appreciate how feeling and accepting the pain helps us move forward towards achieving our goals. The pain is something to welcome and celebrate. Duff. I like your point that it is 100% of each aspect of our training. As a marathon swimmer I was asked if it was more physical or mental and I always felt silly because I said it was 100% mental and 100% physical. The math doesn’t add up, but it’s 100% true.
You bet, Vicki—that math adds up for me. You and Duff are bang on! Thanks, for sharing your wisdom.
Great shift in thinking! Just in time for the National Tournament. Thanks!
Hope it helps, Erica!
Perhaps a deeper level to fully accept what is, including the discomfort and yes pain. How much of the experience of pain triggered by our anticipation and resistance. Clearly in your example Jason acceptance allowed you to drop into the flow state that amazingly transcended your experience of pain.