Under the umbrella of achievement motivation are two opposing mentalities that can drive a person to be tough. Both exist in all people, but you’re more likely to lean toward one or the other. Those who are dominated by the motivation to succeed are, predictably, people who gather their energies best when they feel a great opportunity lies ahead for them. Even if the probability of that success seems uncertain, they believe if they bust their butts, they can achieve it.
The flip side of that is what’s known as the motivation to avoid failure. These folks only get going in response to challenges that threaten their egos. 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 and that he’d better prove his detractor wrong or suffer humiliation. Knowing this, it makes sense that men who focus situations in which success seems easy to achieve. If the task seems uncomplicated, their confidence is high. But if an obstacle is perceived as an extreme challenge, they’re just as likely to cop out, believing there’s no way they could overcome it.
Sound familiar? Understanding which of these two traits is more dominant in your personality is the key to helping you train yourself to become tougher—and endure more. Most coaches report that players who are motivated by success don’t need as much instruction or cajoling when the chips are down in a game—they see it as an opportunity to turn things around and be heroes. However, players whose focus is on avoiding failure need that direction. They need to be told what to do so they’ll feel they can react correctly when backed into a corner. (Otherwise, they’ll be convinced they don’t have a chance.) Take your average football game, for example. One team is up by two points in the closing seconds of the game. The opposing team has the ball and has just crossed midfield. A good coach or quarterback needs to tell the players who are most likely to focus on failure exactly what to do, in this case to cover their territory while in a zone defense or just use their footwork during pass coverage. This kind of instruction removes some of the self-induced pressure from a player, allowing him to focus on the task at hand.
This logic isn’t limited to high-pressure athletic situations. If you’re a guy who’s afraid of failure and you’re going for a new max on the deadlift in the gym, you might find the inner strength to smoke an intimidating weight by focusing on simple techniques and strategies that will make the lift seem easier. You could remind yourself to allow your body to fall backward as you thrust your hips forward,thereby achieving the glute and hamstring activation you need to pull a monstrous load. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by impending deadlines at the office, create a to-do list that helps you budget your time. Do whatever it takes to eliminate potential stressors and make the task seem easier.
FIND YOUR “ZONE”
Consider this: “World-class endurance athletes respond to the stress of a race with a reduction in brain-wave activity that’s similar to meditation,” says Rachel Cosgrove, C.S.C.S., a strength and conditioning coach and triathlete. “The average person responds to race stress with an increase in brain-wave activity that borders on panic.” This is a prime example of how getting into the “zone” athletes talk about—the cool-headed state that allows a per- son to perform optimally even under high-pressure conditions—can make all the difference in your performance. Achieving this state and holding on to it despite distractions, pain, and your own instincts to give in for the sake of self-preservation is the essence of mental toughness.
The best athletes train their brains to be as tough as their bodies, using techniques like these: