Mental toughness is something that is thrown around a lot in the strength and fitness world, but what does it actually mean and how can you implement it into your life. This week, we discuss just that and more!
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Today, we’re going to be talking about mental toughness, specifically mental toughness training. As we were discussing this prior to sitting down and talking with you guys, we decided that we might need to have two parts to this because we have a lot of thoughts on this just as people, as athletes, as business owners, and as women.
We also wanted to talk about the science, but we’re not exactly experts in the science. So we wanted to take a little bit more time to listen and read other experts before we can bring you guys back to the sciences of mental toughness.
I think we can generally say that it is incredibly important for athletes. It’s incredibly important for anyone and it’s something that’s going to take time for you to develop. And it’s something you have to – just like training, you have to practice intentionally every single day, every single week.
Absolutely. Yeah. So there is, I’ll just touch on some of the research that’s out there on mental toughness right now, which as I was reading it, they basically defined mental toughness in athletes as “the ability to tune out both external and internal distractors,” which makes perfect sense. But that’s not really the way that when I thought about it initially, that’s not…I wouldn’t have come up with that definition, but that definition makes perfect sense.
If you think about all of the distractions that occur at a meet, right? Tons of people, and it’s kind of scary cause you’re facing them all when you’re lifting. There’s potentially just a lot going on at a meet. There might be your favorite lifter of all time who shows up to the meet and that could be distracting for you. There’s just a lot of different things.
So the ability to tune that out is mental toughness and to continue on with the meets and be successful and stay focused. It’s the ability to stay focused on the task at hand.
When you said that it made me think of immediately when I was, when I’d go train with my team in Texas, when I was part of the Olympic weightlifting, I’m no longer doing that because of my body. But anyway, so when I would go, I was always incredibly jealous because they had a space that was quiet, it was set aside for everyone else, it was free of distractions or athletes could lift without any issues. And I was always jealous because I had to lift in a gym where there were a lot of distractions. People were walking in front of me, there was loud music, there was always a conversation happening and I had to figure out how to tune that out so I could focus on the task at hand. Now, when I got to that gym, it was so much easier to focus because there were no distractions.
But what I did notice, and this is not a knock on my teammates because it’s the environment that they had, I noticed that when there was a distraction in that gym, whether it may be the music was playing loud or something dropped, or people were having a conversation on the side, my teammates lost focus. Their inability to focus was very apparent and that’s because they never had to train that mental toughness, that ability to focus without the external and internal stimuli coming in and wrecking their train of thought.
So, this is something that I know we all joke on the internet of, “If someone walks in front of me one more time, I’m gonna, you know, I’m just gonna drop the barbell and I’m going to scream at them.” And like, yeah, they should not be walking in front of you. But if you are lifting in an environment that maybe is louder than what you would normally have at a meet, like Olympic weightlifting meets can be incredibly quiet.
And so, if you’re lifting in a gym, that’s really, really loud take that as an opportunity to start training mental toughness. Because if you can be mentally tough in an environment that is a rager, there’s a rave happening in the back and you don’t know what’s going on. If you can lift in that, lifting in a silent meet is going to be so easy for you.
Yeah. I remember when we had our private training facility, so it was just you, me, and our friend and we would be sometimes just there by ourselves or whatnot. One time my husband just walked up, we lived right down the street, so he walked down and he, I was doing like a max clean and he literally stood right in front of me cause he didn’t, he just wasn’t really thinking…
Oh, bless his heart.
And I was like, “Why are you standing right in front of me?! Just move like a foot in either direction.” And he, you have to remember, he’s like an elite of the elite decathletes. And so he said, “If me standing in front of you is going to make you miss this lift, you are not focused enough.”
And I was like, “Ohhhhhh…”
He’s got a point.
You’re right. I wanted to think he was just being a jerk, but no, he was right. He’s right. He’s right. About a lot of that kind of stuff. And I, you know, so that’s something that I think is good. Yeah.
Mary, when we used to train at a commercial gym, we would train Olympic weightlifting at a commercial gym on deadlift platforms for a while and we would have people coming up to try to talk to us, like literally in the middle of a lift. I think learning to tune that out was huge. It’s a huge part of mental toughness. And this is something that, yeah, absolutely you can train with practice.
But there’s also the tuning out of the internal distractors, which is something…
That’s a big one.
That is a huge one for me overcoming my internal dialogue in my just internal thoughts during a training session is almost one of my favorite things about training, because if you can do it right, if you can overcome all of these thoughts in your head, whether it’s a negative thought about how heavy the weight feels, or if it’s a negative thought about your body, like you catch yourself in the mirror like, “Oh gosh, I feel fluffy today” or whatever, a negative thought about feeling a lift at a meet or whatever, or just work or life – all of these things that can come into our brains during training – if you can learn to tune that out, training becomes a meditation. And that’s my favorite thing about training.
Yeah. And the internal dialogue can be way more difficult to tune out than Joe Schmo coming up and asking you how you get your pump.
That did happen And the honestly in a commercial gym, if you guys left in the commercial gym, you know, you have to become an expert in avoiding conversations or maybe having a teammate there who can move people around while you’re lifting. But it’s that internal, it’s that internal dialogue. It’s the, okay, this is why like Kristin and I have talked about so many times, it’s so important for you to have a pattern when you go up to lift. So, whether that’s, you know, if you’re deadlifting, you know, “plant feet, plant feet, grab, grab big breath in, lift, pull.” Whatever it is, whatever your pre-lift routine is, that is part of your meditation. Part of that meditation then needs to include focusing. It needs to include silencing the thoughts in your brain. If they aren’t already silenced. You’re not going to be able to go initially an entire training session without having a lot of internal dialogue.
Did I turn off the hair straightener?
What do I have to do tomorrow?
What’s my work like tomorrow?
What are we going to have for dinner?
Like, those are things that you’re going to have to think about outside of training. So starting with when you’re actually actively lifting and being able to silence those voices and just lift, just focus on the lift hand, that’s a small step and you can start building from there.
We’re going to talk about, you know, periodization and training and nutrition and life. And, and why, actually we’ll just jump into it right now and why that’s so important because you know, you can’t be, when we talk about mental toughness, you can’t be going 110% all year round. You are going to burnout.
That reminds me of when I was, you know, younger, I tell myself now all the time, sometimes I’d beat myself up for this even nowadays. I’m like, “How, where did that focus, that energy, that discipline, that desire come from when I was so young to go to the gym, to eat better, to focus on this goal of weight loss? Which in hindsight made me a very unhealthy person, but I was so focused on that. And there’s a couple of reasons for that. But one of them is you’re not meant to push that hard for as long as I did and the reason that I haven’t really been able to recapture that type of focus ever in my adult life is two parts:
One, I’m burnt. I’m still burned out. I mean, just the thought of having to do that again makes me exhausted. And two, I always am cautious when I’m pushing myself to do something because I don’t want to feel the negative effects that I did before from pushing myself to those extremes from not taking care of myself. I don’t want to be in that discomfort because that prolonged discomfort sucked so bad for me.
Yes, definitely. And the research is in line with that, Mary. The research, there’s some research that shows that if we have these high attention intervals in our life, where, so if you think about potentially a college athlete who is in preseason training and who has a lot of academic load and who has, you know, potentially a job or family commitments, just social life, the ability to stay laser focused for the full season or the full semester tends to decline over time and their sports performance declines with it because we can’t stay so focused for so long. But you can train yourself to get better at it through mindfulness training.
So, whatever mindfulness, there’s a million ways to do mindfulness training but I think the easiest way is like, find a meditation podcast and just go with it. Try things. There’s all sorts: Calm app, Headspace app, there’s a lot of different ways that you can focus on and learn to be present and tune out distractions, internal and external.
And that literally we can train ourselves to be able to handle more for longer periods of time. And that’s actually mental toughness, training. Doesn’t sound like it, right? Like sitting and being very Zen does not sound like mental toughness training, but it is.
But it’s, and it’s hard too.
If you’ve ever tried to go on this journey or started this journey, sitting down…and the reason I love the Headspace app is because it starts in like two to three minute intervals and you think, “Two minutes? Pssh. Whatever.”
Uh excuse me. Two minutes is really hard to sit down and just being able to focus, especially if you have someone with a lot of internal dialogue, which is my whole life is just an internal conversation with myself, sitting down and silencing the Beyonce in my head is hard. And it’s something that you shouldn’t like, you shouldn’t think like, :Oh, it’s just two minutes, whatever. I don’t really need that. I can do that myself.” I challenge you to do it because it is not easy at all.
I’ve done some meditation training that starts at like two minutes and ramps up to over the period of time, 30 minutes. And every time I’ve had to restart this a few times, because every time I get to like the 18-minute mark, I find myself stopping because I don’t, it’s uncomfortable. It’s really, really uncomfortable. I liken it to running. Like I can sprint, I’ll go sprint. If you tell me to run, I will go sprint for a minute, maybe 30 seconds. But if I have to go out, there will be a threshold. There’s a point at which I’m going to avoid it because I don’t want to do it because it’s really uncomfortable.
And it’s the same thing with mindfulness training. There’s a, you will reach a threshold where it starts to get really, really difficult, but just like training, the more you do it, the better you get at it. And the more you get out of it.
I remember forever ago we had a meditation expert on the podcast and I remember him telling us that he sometimes would meditate for hours and hours and hours. And I was like, “Whoa, what….like, how? And it’s just practice. His meditation is like our training. When someone says, I trained for three hours, I’m like, “Oh yeah, I get that. Do it.”
And other people are like, “What?!”
But yeah, they’re like, “How do you spend three hours in the gym?!” And to people who train like us, it’s like, “Well, how do you not? Like, what are you doing?” And it’s the same thing. It’s just building up that, that mental toughness.
You know, it’s, this is why it’s so important, Kristin and I talk about this so many times and you guys are probably sick and tired of hearing about this, but this is why it’s so important to make sure that your goals are your goals and that, you know yourself.
Going back to my story of, you know, I mean…listen. When I was so focused and my mental toughness was at it’s peak when I was, you know, between the years of 15 and 21, which is six years of being focused, which is really, it’s a lot, right? It’s a lot of focus. I was so hard on myself and I would, I mean, I did so much during that time. But when I look back, they weren’t my goals because I wanted them to be. They were my goals because of the external validation that I thought would come from achieving those goals. Pictures on the internet, someone saying, “Hey, you’ve got a nice body. How do I do that?” Someone saying, “You’re so disciplined, how can I be like that?” When I knew that it was very unhealthy and became more and more apparent as time went on.
But this is why even now, when I decide that I need to take some time and push in something, whether it’s, you know, whether it’s for Intuitive Athlete or it’s for Female Strength Academy or it’s for kittens, or it’s my personal life, whatever it is, I find that I everything else needs to be on the back burner for a few weeks. I have to push through this. I think like, is this the thing that I want, is this truly, what’s going to take me to my next career goal? Or is it going to take the Female Strength Academy up the next level? Is it something that I want? If the answer is no, I don’t do it. I don’t want to put myself in that amount of discomfort ever again. But if it’s something that I want, that’s when the mental toughness is a lot easier for me to do. And it’s because I want it. Yes. It’s hard. It’s not easy. It’s not like, “Okay, I’m not mentally tough because I want this thing.” No, but I know the desired outcome is what I want.
And that…your husband said something.
Yes. I asked him as a very, very accomplished athlete, I asked him how he would define mental toughness because he’s probably the most mentally tough person I’ve ever met. And he said, “It’s disguised desire. It’s not mental toughness. You just…the people that look like they are very mentally tough just want it so bad that they don’t care.”
But there’s a fallout to that, right? There’s a fallout to that. And that you may get to a point, just like Mary was talking about you’re so burnt out, you push so hard for so long, even if it was something that you loved and really, really wanted to do for you not for external validation. Even if it’s all of that, you can still get burnt out. So that’s where Mary and I came up with this idea of like periodization of your life.
We all know about periodization and training, right? We increase volume or intensity over time, you deload, you go into a different program, you know, there’s all of these periodization. You can look at your training for a year and map out how you can, you know, what meets you’re going to peak for, when your deloads are going to be. We should be doing that with our lives too.
Training is just a metaphor for life. And the more we think about it, the more apparent that is.
Yeah. And so if you, if you are, for example, it’s tax season, right? So any of you that are CPAs or tax preparers that are listening, you’re probably not also peaking for a meet right now, because that would just be a recipe for disaster, because you’re really stressed out and working hard. So we can, we can arrange our life in such a way and periodize our life in such a way that it can make us more tough, mentally tough, for a longer period of time without leading to burnout. Because that’s the thing that I see happen is that people just ignore all of the health signs that are popping up, whether it be physical or mental. They ignore it, they push through it. I’ve been there, I’ve done it. Mary’s been there, she’s done it and you get to a point where everything falls apart and you’re just wondering, how do I get back to that? How do we get back to that person I was? And then you realize, “Wait a second, that person that I was was headed towards disaster and was not healthy.”
Yeah. And mental toughness comes with a lot of intuition and that means being able to listen to your body, but also being able to…When I say like intuition or intuitive eating, it’s not just about listening to what your body needs at that moment. It’s about being able to plan, knowing yourself intuitively enough, having the intuition to be like, “Hey, I know that I’m a CPA and during tax seasons, I shouldn’t be doing these things because work is going to be really demanding.”
Intuition tells you, you need to take a back burner for maybe training and maybe even your personal life during that couple months so that you can push at work. That’s intuition. Mental toughness is just a branch, or is the umbrella of intuition. Being able to create a life that is going to help you the best that it can so that you don’t reach a space of burnout. You don’t reach a space of questioning why you’re doing any of this. You don’t reach those dark corners of your mind. You’re able to balance things even if sometimes it seems a little out of balance because you’re pushing in one thing or another, they’re still balanced. Like periodization in nutrition, let’s say.
I don’t do dieting, but Kristin does work a lot with people who do dieting. And there are times in your life that you’re best prepared to go on a caloric deficit. There are times that you can push that way. It’s not going to be ideally not leading up to a meet. It’s not going to be you when you’re doing a heavy peak cycle or when you have a lot going on at work. Sometimes you can’t avoid that, but sometimes you can. So there’s going to be times that you can push nutritionally because the other things are not so demanding. But if you’re peaking for meet, if you’re working towards the meet that’s in a couple months or work is really demanding, you have to take a step back and ask yourself, intuitively, is this going to be something that’s going to set me up for success? Or is it going to set me up for failure?
For sure. And a lot of times people want to diet out of a place of negativity, right? They have negative thoughts or feelings about their body and they want to diet. And, and I get that, right? Like that’s our society. That’s the society we live in.
But you have to earn the right to diet. You have to be in the right place to diet. If you aren’t and you diet anyway, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You’re setting yourself up to quote unquote, fall off the bandwagon and then you gotta try to get back on and then you fall off again. The reason that’s happening is because your body wasn’t prepared for what you were asking of it. It is stressful on your body to be in a caloric deficit.
Your brain does not know the difference between mental stress and physical stress. So if you’re also under a lot of mental stress, and now you’re putting yourself under physical stress with work and training, that is going to be – and a caloric deficit – that’s going to be potentially disastrous for someone, especially if they have a history of dieting a lot. So, you have to be in the right place to diet. And this is why I’m a huge fan of periodization of nutrition.
And periodization of everything.
Everything, right. It carries over to everything so we can look at your whole year and we can say, okay, these are the times you take vacation from work. These are the times you have breaks from school. These are the times that work or school is really, really busy and what do you want to accomplish as an athlete? As a person? And then you can start to plan out your year in terms of meets, in terms of dieting, if you want to, or massing if you want to. All of these things, but you have to look at the broad picture to do that. And by doing that, it’s going to allow you to stay more focused and attentive during the things that require it.
So sometimes it’s going to be training and sometimes it’s going to be work or school or family. And you will be setting yourself up for success by doing that, cultivating more mental toughness because your ability to stay focused on the task for longer is improving. Instead of trying to stay focused on 10 things at one time, you’re setting yourself up for failure and you’re going to fall into that cycle, just like we were talking about in the beginning where you never want to push that hard ever again.
Yeah. I want to go back to what you said about goals being negatively coming from a negative space. So, I think a lot of you listening can relate to this. Somany of us fell in love with strength for so many reasons, but if you have a history, like me, where you got into fitness to lose weight, and so you did a lot of cardio, you did a lot of bodybuilding. You did a lot of HIIT. I, now that I’m, I don’t do Olympic lifting a lot because my body’s broken and that’s fine. I’m just, I’ve accepted. I’ve pretty much accepted what it is. But, what I’m trying to say is I have a really hard time going back to some of those other methods of training because I have such a negative feeling with HIIT, with cardio because all of those things I only ever did because I was negatively motivated because I hated my body and I wanted my body to change.
The only time I ever really accepted and loved, I’m usually neutral about my body, but the only time I ever really loved my body was when I was doing Olympic weightlifting. I have such positive feelings for Olympic weightlifting that sometimes even the thought of going back to some of these other types of training is nearly impossible. And so trying to figure out those waters right now is really difficult for me. Just trying to find things that I love and that I can do that bring me joy rather than something that used to come from a really negative space that doesn’t have a whole lot to do with mental toughness but it might.
If you’re doing things because it’s negatively motivated and a lot of this comes back to the fitness industry, dieting, severe caloric restriction. If you’re doing that because you’re coming from a point of self hatred, you’re, it’s not going to work. You’re just going to spiral more into self hatred. You’re going to continually fall on and off bandwagons. And you’re just going to have a miserable time.
I’m not saying that you have to love your body right now, but accepting your body and trying to do things that are positive to help your relationship with your body, to enrich your life, is gonna bring you to a better space to reach goals that maybe you do want your body composition to change, but you’re not going to be able to change it if you hate your body, if you come from a negative space.
For sure. I’ll say that years and years ago like when I was young, I was working in fitness centers and all I really knew for lifting was like bodybuilding-style training. We’re talking when I was 19, this was a long time ago. And I read like all the Muscle & Fitness Magazine and Oxygen Magazine and it was just all, that’s all I knew. I didn’t know any other form of strength training, and I loved strength training. So that’s what I did and really fell into that lifestyle.
I started to realize how negative that could be, because it was all physique-based, but it became physique-based in that like, “Oh, my shoulders aren’t peaky enough” or whatever and constantly trying to strive to be better in that way. When I made the shift away from that into just focusing on strength and what my body was capable of, everything changed for me.
And funny, I actually reached the body composition goals that way, without even trying, that I had been chasing for years. It was in such a more positive way and part of it was probably because I loved what I was doing so much the focus on, “Oh my gosh, my body’s amazing. I can do all of these things and I keep getting stronger, you know, month after month.” It was a really amazing and empowering time for me to be training, to be better in a way that made me feel mentally better about myself, as opposed to like every week, I almost felt worse about myself when I was doing bodybuilding-style training. That then led me to being consistent for a lot longer, right? Because it’s hard to keep yourself motivated when you’re coming from a place of hatred and negativity. But if it’s coming from a place of wonderment and love for your body and pushing yourself because it feels amazing. Cause you want to find out what you’re capable of. It’s a complete shift that will lead you probably to the road that you were trying to get to when you hated your body and now you’re training for a completely different purpose.
Yeah. And so, we can think, just like what Kristin is saying, the bodybuilding and the fitness itself space, mental toughness…if you’re finding that you are always on bandwagons off bandwagons, dieting, not dieting, if you’re pushing yourself to the wrong goals that are not your goals, you will burn out. You will absolutely burn out.
But just like Kriston said, just like I experienced, like you will experience you listening: When you’re pushing yourself towards goals that you actually want, your mental toughness will improve, you will find it easier to improve your mental toughness. Because, first of all, you are in a positive mental space. Just like we talked about in the podcasts a few weeks ago: Positivity, When you can see the positive and things, instead of looking up, my shoulders are not peaky enough. Like, “Holy shit, I just got 8-RM that’s nearly my one rep max…Holy crap, what does that mean?” You know? When we see the positive, it feeds into everything else. It feeds into being able to be more mentally tough because we see the benefits. But it also like, you know, it feeds into being able to periodize our lives, because we can see the benefit. Like I can push here, then I can push here.
It’s just so important to really pay attention to yourself, to really know yourself, make sure your goals are your goals, and that’s gonna keep you from burning out. It’s gonna keep you being able to do the thing that you love for longer. And it’s just going to make you a healthier, happier person.
Yes. So, do the things that you need to do to prevent burnout like we’re talking about, but also work on your mindfulness. That is going to improve everything. It’s going to move the needle of what you can tolerate before you reach burnout a lot further. I think that that’s a really, really important thing to focus on. We’ve talked about meditation before on the podcast. You guys know I’m a fan of it and it’s challenging for me. I just want you to know that. A lot of people think that I have that all figured out and I do it because I recognize the benefits in my life, but it’s hard. It’s hard. It’s really hard for someone like me and Mary that has a lot of internal dialogue. I’m constantly going. I’m constantly moving. My brain is constantly going. We are the people that really need to focus on mindfulness because we are easily distracted and we are easily burnt out and mentally exhausted by our thoughts.
Just our thoughts.
Exactly. Don’t even do anything all day just, but thoughts are exhausting. So, learning to slow down and focus your attention on one thing is going to reap huge benefits as an athlete, but also just in your life as whatever else you are, you know? A parent, a spouse of, you know, in your job, or as a student. So, I think that that is huge. So,periodize your life, don’t get in over your head on things, and then also work to move that needle a little further through mindfulness.
Speaker 3 (32:01):
Yes and also recognize that mindfulness is not something to use to like push through an injury. Like this goes back to like your intuition. Like you should, you should be able to intuitively know like, “Hey, I’m injured. I really shouldn’t be pushing myself right now because this thing needs to heal.” That’s a great time to maybe unexpectedly periodize your life. But to periodize your life in that, I can’t really push through training right now. I should push on this other thing.
And also mental toughness is not a marketing tactic. It is used as a marketing tactic and that usually is really heavy in the fitness world. I like to delineate between the fitness world and the strength world, because they believe that they are two completely separate spaces. There is some overlap, but they are very different.
Usually in the fitness world, this mental toughness comes from like a negative space. So you know, “if you don’t follow a plan, you’re lazy. You’re not motivated enough. You don’t care enough. You don’t give enough shits about your own health.” That is not a space to use mental toughness. You don’t become mentally tough by someone berating you. That’s not how you become mentally tough. That’s how you have a lot of other issues, but you don’t get to be tough. So when you see mental toughness being used as a marketing tactic, especially for some of these like 10-week challenges, transformation challenges, what have you, it’s something that should really make you run away. Because mental toughness is not, it’s not a marketing tactic. It is something that you should be using as a tool to further the goals that you want.
Right. But also some of those like extreme challenges and transformations, I mean, what happens afterwards?
I say that with my clients all the time, like we can do this thing. Anyone can, anyone can suck it up and train hard and change their nutrition for a few weeks, a couple of months. What behaviors and patterns are we developing to carry over into success through life? And that’s what I’m a huge fan of with my clients. Like maybe starting out their success might be a little bit slower and they’re frustrated. I’m like, “Yeah, but you’re figuring out how to fit this to your life, not to change your entire life for eight weeks.”
Right. And this goes back to the periodization, too. Like you can say, “Okay, we can push for this eight weeks and then what are we going to do? Like, are you going to continue down this path?” Because you can’t, you can’t continue down these extreme dieting paths, no matter how much they try to market it to you. Those things are not meant for you to be on it for the whole year, even though that’s how they’re marketed to you.
They’re not sustainable. We’re talking about sustainability. Your life as an athlete, particularly if you’re in your thirties, forties, fifties, you’ve probably decided that you want to do this for a long time, right? That you want to still be competing or training when you’re in your sixties, seventies, eighties. So, we have to have some with this and I think that a lot of that’s going to come through periodizing your life, as well as training your mind.
Yep. Periodize your life, train your mind, be healthy.
Love it. I need to stop saying the P word because I can’t say it anymore.
The P word?!
I’ve said it too many times today and I can no longer say it.
I love that you call it the P word. So we just call it the P word from now on and hope that everyone knows what we’re talking about.
So yeah, we’re definitely gonna have to do a part two about this and go into the science!