Mental toughness can be viewed as aggression or an unwavering ability to endure or the ability to perform at your best when the stakes are very high. These are all good examples of mental toughness but a closer look would likely reveal that these are all rooted in the ability to achieve a deep state of presence.
To be entirely engaged in the present moment is something that is very difficult to achieve. Humans are both blessed and cursed with a brain that not only thinks but can also be entirely aware of the fact that it is thinking. More often than not, thought takes you everywhere but the present moment. This is exacerbated when you feel pressure or nervousness or anxiety, which is ever-present leading into and during competition. Our thoughts will take us everywhere but the present moment because we like to obsess, rehearse, deliberate and worry about what’s coming or what happened. The problem is that the present is where you need to be if you want to perform at your best.
You often hear athletes talking about being in “the zone”. The zone has been described as a time when everything flows and unfolds effortlessly. But the zone is often elusive when it matters most and the primary reason for this is that thought gets in the way. Thought analyzes, criticizes, judges, tries to control and rarely ever stays in the present moment. To make matters worse, thought is usually triggered in pressure situations.
The zone is nothing more than a heightened state of presence. You are completely “there”, without the mental distractions, doubts, worries or judgments that often accompany thought. Everyone has experienced being in the zone. When you do something you truly love you become fully present and engaged mentally without realizing it. Think back to a time when a training session or race seemed to be effortless, fun and you were performing well without really trying. There is a high probability that you were experiencing a deep state of presence.
So how do you get there?
Awareness of Thought
Awareness of thought is the first and perhaps most important thing you can practice. As soon as you become aware of your thoughts you will realize that your thoughts are a separate thing from you. In the exact moment you become aware of your thoughts, you will be present. You can practice this every day. The more you become aware of your thoughts the less your thoughts will get away from you into the past or the future.
Control Over Thought
Awareness of thought puts you in a position to be more in control of thought. When you are in control of thought you can focus those thoughts on things that exist in the present moment. Aim thought directly at something in the present moment and it opens the floodgates for the ability to achieve focus and mental toughness.
Fall in Love With the Process
Thought often takes us away from what we are doing now because sometimes what we are doing now is uncomfortable or hard or “boring”. In a race or training situation where the effort creates discomfort it’s easy to want to be somewhere else. But what if you could learn to truly love the discomfort? By being entirely present and engaged in that exact moment you can learn to observe the discomfort, accept it and embrace it rather than running from it mentally. When you embrace the discomfort you will experience mental toughness at a level you may never have thought possible.
For the Sake of it
When you do things as a means to an end it’s much harder to be present because it is not the doing that drives you, it’s the end goal. End goals are good because they help shape the process and keep you motivated but you have to learn to do things for the sake of themselves. If you are doing hill reps because you want to win your age group at the next race that is great but don’t do the hill reps solely for that reason. Do the hill reps because hill reps are awesome!
How Does this Make you Mentally Tougher?
If you are always trying to be somewhere else mentally, it’s very difficult to give all of your attention to the task at hand. If you are fully present you will put all of your mental and physical energy into the thing you are doing. Breaking that down even further, it means that you will commit more fully to every interval or every repetition. Imagine how much harder you will try if all you are focusing on is that interval, that minute, that second. It’s easy to do one more rep but daunting if you have to do twelve more reps so don’t do twelve, do one and then one more and so on.
When you are racing, presence creates clarity. It will allow you to focus entirely on what is required at that particular time. Oddly enough, it also makes time speed up. In longer endurance events the hardest thing to handle mentally is the length of time. If you focus on the fact that you have to put out effort for hours on end it’s far more difficult to stay motivated and on task than if you are focused on the present moment.
When I was training, my best sessions were always when I was focused on one interval at a time and completely in love with and engaged in the process and the effort. I would become fully absorbed in the activity without any desire to be elsewhere. There was great mental power in that.
My best runs in Ironman were always when I ran one mile at a time. I would create presence by focusing on smaller more immediate chunks. I did not like the idea of having to run 26.2 miles after 112 miles of biking. But I knew I could always run one mile and run it well. So I would run one mile and then I would run another mile and so on.
The ability to become fully present is a mental skill that is entirely achievable with practice. Presence allows you to fall in love with and fully embrace the effort for the sake of itself. When you can do this, you will experience mental toughness at a whole new level.