The Paradox of Mental Toughness

‘Weak is tough’ – Have you ever noticed, when you are not doing too well, that admitting to someone you are struggling is often harder than simply brushing them off with “I’m OK”?

The paradox of mental toughness is that it takes real courage to admit to weakness; it is much tougher than putting on a brave face.

Mental toughness is critical to the practice of excellence; nevertheless, mental toughness, also known as resilience, might be something different than how many people conceive it.

As a sport and performance psychologist – I hear the phrase ‘mental toughness’ used mostly in the context of being capable of pushing through a challenge, being stoic, not being phased by pressure – behaviours that are associated with mental toughness; however, what seems to make athletes, performers and business people truly tough is when they can balance the capacity to push hard with the smarts to recover well, and balance the courage to be open to their weaknesses with the effort to doing something about those weaknesses.

It can be psychologically easier just to put your head down, work hard, push through pain, ignore concerns and shortcomings – the ‘more is better’ philosophy – than it is to practice awareness for one’s needs – physical and mental – and to put time and energy into balancing oneself emotionally and physically.

I think choosing the ‘easy path’ of stoic denial may have to do with wanting to avoid the complexity of the many more variables involved with trying to stay in balance.  There is a relative simplicity in just working hard, which makes it attractive to equate mental toughness with a ‘more is better’ approach. In my PhD research, however, I talked to many top athletes in Australia who acted out that philosophy, repeatedly, until it ended in overtraining and injury (and I, myself, am a culprit of this misguided behaviour – having got injured twice in the lead up to two Olympics). I also sense that there is some ego involved in the one-sided approach to Mental Toughness – which is why being ready to admit to weakness is so tough….

So… mental toughness might be construed more accurately as the capacity to make the decision that is harder to make and then acting on it.

The important aspects of that decision making process:

(1) Be honest with yourself about your limitations – be wary of your ego jumping in to send you into denial about your own vulnerability.

(2) Learn to differentiate between when you need to work hard and when you need to spend more time recovering. People who only work hard, without break, can end up spending a lot of time stuck in mediocrity because they never quite have the energy to perform at their peak. Reaching for excellence requires balance.

(3) Admit to others when you are struggling, but do it in a powerful way by being responsible for acting on your situation. E.g. “I am not going so well at the moment, but I am committed to doing whatever it takes to get myself right.”

(4) Ask for help. There are often not too many things more difficult than asking for help – it can take extraordinary courage to do so, but it can make all the difference.

(5) Commit for the long term. Mental toughness is required to give up short term rewards in return for the desired long term impact.

In my heart, I am a competitor. I love to push my mind and my body to the limits to see how close I can get to excellence, but I have learned the hard way that excellence can be elusive when you don’t embrace the complexity of its pursuit. If you want to accelerate your practice of excellence, get tough, admit to your weaknesses and limitations, and then take action to do something about them!

We must combine the toughness of the serpent with the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.  ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

All the best,

Dr Sean R

www.seanorichardson.com.au