It’s your last line of defense against being called a candy ass. It can help you compensate for a lack of strength, skill, or natural ability. Arnold talked about it in Pumping Iron (“You just go on and go on... and say, ‘I don’t care what happens.’”), and a flu-stricken Michael Jordan exemplified it in the ’97 NBA finals by hitting the Game 5 winning shot after nearly collapsing with exhaustion. It’s what a triathlete needs to survive the last mile of an Ironman contest, and it often means the ultimate difference between success and failure.
We all know what it is—whether you call it guts, will, or balls. It’s mental toughness. The question is: How do we get it? Most of the information surrounding the notion of mental toughness is anecdotal, not clinical. But MF did some research and picked the brains of some of the toughest folks we know, asking them about what it takes to focus in on, push through, and outlast every obstacle in your path—whether it’s inside the gym or out. Read on and you may never feel like quitting again, whether it’s on a set, in a game, or on the job.
In the broadest sense, mental toughness can be defined as the ability to maintain the focus and determination to complete a course of action despite difficulty or consequences—to never quit, period. To many athletes and coaches, it’s an innate quality that can’t be trained. “Mental toughness is usually something you’re born with or develop very early in life due to your surroundings,” says Jason Ferruggia, a performance-enhancement coach who’s trained top athletes from more than 20 different sports. “It’s hard to take a wuss and make him a hardcore no matter what you do—unless you throw him in prison.” Still, it’s fair to assume that anyone can improve his tolerance, patience, and concentration, just as anyone can get bigger, leaner, or better educated.
BE A SELF-STARTER
The root of mental toughness lies in motivation. Those who are deemed mentally tough typically exhibit what sports psychologists call “intrinsic motivation.” A study featured in Psychology of Motor Behavior and Sport defines this as the desire to be self-determining. People who are intrinsically motivated are self- starters, willing to push themselves to the brink for the love of their sport or activity. They need little encouragement to give their best effort, and they often do well setting goals for themselves. Needless to say, this doesn’t describe all of us. Some guys can only get their head in a game when the pressure of competition is on. They revel in the chance to compare themselves with others. These guys have what’s called “achievement motivation.” According to The Essentials of Strength and Conditioning, the main tome of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, all things being equal between two competitors, whoever is higher in achievement motivation will be the better athlete, hands down.
“Calling a person who’s motivated to avoid failure a pantywaist if he doesn’t get 10 reps on his next set of squats makes him feel his manhood is under attack.”