Building Mental Toughness: A Long Term Approach

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“Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare.” - Angela Duckworth , Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

I hear toughness spoken about as though it is the only thing that matters is sports, like it’s something people have or they don’t. It is all too common to see this replicated in the gym and youth sports in the same way. If you are beating your athletes down, you are hindering their progress and their potential.

Too many coaches who look at an athlete or client and makes a snap judgment as to what they can achieve. Unfortunately, this has left too many potentially good athletes on the sideline or, worse, not playing at all. Putting this ceiling on people is a mistake. As a coach, it is our job to look long term regardless of a person’s age or current ability and help them develop as an athlete.

Hans Seyle developed the General Adaptation Syndrome, which describes the stages of which the body confronts stress. According to Hans, stress is the nonspecific response of the body to any demands made upon it or events that are interpreted as stressful. To simplify, there are three stages to this syndrome:

1) Alarm: the body has undergone a stressor followed by a hormonal response to the stress.

2) Resistance: the body attempts to adapt to the current stress by decreasing activity and conserving energy.

3) Exhaustion: the stress continues beyond the body's capacity.

**It is important to note that there are natural factors, individual differences, challenges of specific sport, or material factors that can impact the perceived level.

Depending on their age, trainability, and experience, athletes should be gradually put in situations where the maximum recoverable stress is applied, and then the coach will factor in the athletes perception of the applied stress. According to Buitrago, PhD and Jianping, here are some of the causes of stress that are important to recognize in young weightlifters (and all athletes in general):

1) Fear of losing,

2) Overly focused on results,

3) Feeling unable to control the situation,

4) Lack of confidence

5) Fear of opponents

Yu reported in the article On the Psychological Training of Weightlifters, there are two guidelines to follow when implementing psychological training: implement stress gradually, repetitively, and integrate them in the the sport. Secondly, the training must be tailored to the individual, paying attention to variables such as psychological characteristics, intelligence, and mental condition.

As the fable goes, a frog that is put into a pot of boiling water will jump out immediately. Yet, if the water temperature is gradually increased the frog will not perceive the heat. The same applies with athletes building their mental fortitude. If you throw them into situations that are physically or mentally beyond what they are ready for, it is going to backfire in the form of slow burnout or quitting immediately. However, if the demand is imposed gradually and the athlete can see success, then there is an opportunity to improve.

At a certain level of sport, toughness and competitiveness is and should be expected, but taking a beginner and “toughening them up” by adding physical or psychological stress to the point of breaking them does not do anyone any good if that athlete or client quits. My dad coached football for 20 years and he used to tell me his favorite thing to do was to take a kid who can’t tie their shoes their freshman year and turn them in to an all state player by the time they were a senior. The only way to do that is to have a long term plan for athletes, help them develop grit to gradually realize that tasks are doable and can be built upon. If an athlete views training for their sport in a positive light, they are going to work harder and be driven to succeed. It should be the goal of the coach to help the athlete to withstand the challenges and difficulties of hard training for the long term.

Shaun is an expert at creating challenging training programs and coaching athletes of all levels to help them safely and consistently make progress and see results. To contact Shaun to set up a free consultation, click the link below.