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

Depression is NOT the enemy of high performance

Depression is not the enemy… and is by no means unconnected to high performance

We might even consider that feeling depressed could be part of the body’s survival mechanisms kicking in to take care of you, telling you to slow down and take a rest when you are feeling physically, cognitively or emotionally overwhelmed.

When people are striving for excellence, it is not uncommon to go overboard, get unbalanced, get sick, injured, burnt out… because the mind tries to push past the limits of the body (I have a bit of first hand experience of this one, having missed out on the Olypmic Games because of overtraining-related injury). The body is smart, however, and sends the mind messages to slow things down when you are going too hard… (and that is not just going too hard physically… it is going too hard in any manner. If you are pushing the hours at work; if you are constantly wound up emotionally or thinking non-stop about things… your body gets out of balance on the neuro-chemical level).

We could think about depression a bit like hunger… when nourishment is missing, you feel discomfort.

Until you provide the body with the key ingredients to give it nourishment, it will continue to send messages of discomfort.

Those feelings can be quite unpleasant, but they are there for a reason – to get you to look closer at why you feel them, what is causing them and do something to rectify the situation.

Where depression becomes dysfunctional is when we don’t respond to those messages effectively. If you don’t treat the causes of the malnourishment, the feelings just get stronger.

By no means am I trying to diminish the extraordinarily debilitating impact of clinical depression; rather, I want to acknowledge the impacts, but challenge the world to look differently at what we are currently categorizing as a disease.

What if depression is just the clinical word for being really darn tired in multiple systems in your body? You can torture someone by depriving them of sleep. Research has shown that a severely sleep deprived person has less functional capacity than a significantly intoxicated person. Yet, we don’t say that feeling sleepy is a disease – yes we acknowledge it can be dysfunctional in your life, but it is just the body’s way of telling you that you need some sleep.

I acknowledge that depression is probably much more complex than hunger or fatigue… but the point here is that if we see depression differently, see that it might be serving a purpose in our bodies, rather than being a disease-like enemy, we might start responding to the early symptoms of it more effectively… and actually halt the spiral into the deep debilitating phases of clinical depression.

If you want to get to excellence in your performance, you need to become more aware of the signs and symptoms of imbalance – the early warning signs of a depressed state… and then take the effective actions to resolve what is causing them.

For some, there will be more easily identifiable surface causes of a depressed state – it might be mostly connected to physical overload, or chronic lack of quality recovery… however, for others, there can be things below the level of conscious awareness, which are sending your mind and emotions into overdrive, causing the imbalance.

Whatever the possible driving factors of feeling a bit flat, if you respond early, you can turn things around and get back on the track toward excellence.

My recommendations:

1. Be aware of the signs and symptoms of being in a depressed state (which is not necessarily clinically diagnosable depression) – feeling drained, heavy, fatigued (could be having trouble sleeping, or alternatively, oversleeping), feeling that things look bleak, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, appetite or weight changes, irritability or restlessness, self-directed negative thoughts, concentration problems, and possible unexplained aches and pains.

2. Remind yourself that these are normal reactions of the body – they are messages from your body warning you of some imbalance – physical, mental or emotional – so listen to them, don’t ignore them hoping they will go away

3. Try to identify the sources of that imbalance – is it surface stuff? (I just need to sleep and recover more) – or is it deeper stuff? (I don’t really know why I feel this way, I just do)

4. Seek professional help to understand the sources of the imbalance – if there is deeper stuff that is wearing you out from the inside, it will be very difficult to identify the sources yourself (your brain’s defense mechanisms might be quite invested in blocking them out). Often, there will be deeper levels to a depressed state if it occurs frequently and/or it seems to happen without an obvious cause (but frequently, there can be deeper levels in addition to an obvious cause). Talk to your GP, a psychologist, or a qualified mental health practitioner.

5. Take regular action to help prevent chronic imbalance – build recovery activities into your daily schedule (anything that puts energy back in the system – fun, socializing, light physical activity, relaxation, good nutrition, sleep, meditation, massage, etc.)

The thing to get is that everyone feels depressed at some point or another – even elite athletes – it is totally NORMAL. What will make it abnormally dysfunctional is if you don’t do anything in those early stages of feeling a bit flat. To get to excellence you need to acknowledge the normality of experiencing a depressed state and spend as much or more time on your recovery as you do on working hard to achieve your goals!

Depression is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign you have been trying to be strong for too long. ~ Anonymous

All the best,

Dr Sean R

The Arduous Path toward Excellence

What makes achieving excellence challenging in any domain in life?

To begin with, it is ABNORMAL.

It is against our instincts.

That’s right – it is NORMAL to be lazy! In fact, laziness is an effective survival strategy under certain circumstances… WHEN might that be? Let’s take a look:

Consider that the more primitive parts of our brains (the parts popularly referred to as the Limbic System) are designed to be on high alert for threats to survival – which, if perceived, would kick the fight or flight, adrenaline pumping, response into action to help save your life…

BUT, what about when you don’t face any threats to survival? Such as when you simply have decided you want to go to the gym to lose a bit of weight,  spend a few more hours on developing your latest business plan, or picking up the phone to make those last few calls of the day to potential clients?

When not under immediate threat of harm, one of the most effective survival response would be the exact opposite of the fight or flight response -> CONSERVE energy, so that you may be rested enough to face the next major threat, with the required vigour and aggression to stay alive!

So… what does this mean for the average human being living in the generally non-threatening Western World (and other places in the world where life is mostly peaceful)?

A lot of the time when you are hoping for a rush of energy to get you out of bed and push you to achieve that big goal that you have set yourself, you may be hoping in vain. Your instincts will be quietly suppressing most forms of motivation, as they tell you that there is no need to move too quickly because currently there is not a lion at the foot of your bed waiting to eat you for breakfast…

The key here is to see that, to your instincts, achievement and the practice of excellence, particularly in pursuits that are not about saving your life, are NOT A NECESSITY… which then firmly places them in the realm of CHOICE!

With many of the professional athletes I work with, we often say, it’s not how you feel, it’s what you do. If you wait all day to feel motivated to do something, you could be waiting a very…. long…. time, particularly on those days when you are feeling pretty flat. Doing something just takes a DECISION to do it.

What can you do about beginning the practice of excellence then?

  1. Set goals that inspire you – if achievement is a choice, then you need something to get you out of bed other than your instincts. Spend some time on your vision board, connecting to the big why – Why do I want to do these things? What will they bring me in all ares of my life? Why are they important to me? (we will talk about an effective goal setting process in a later post)
  2. Acknowledge that it is totally normal to feel lazy and unmotivated at any given point when working to achieve your goals (in fact, it is part of being human) so don’t beat yourself up about it… just accept it
  3. Make a choice and just start taking actions right now, and every day, that move you closer to your goals
  4. Connect to the big picture – make it a ritual to keep reminding yourself of the big why every time you think of getting in action
  5. Use your demotivating feelings as reminders to stay in action, rather than as deterrents or excuses – remember it’s not how you feel, it’s what you do that counts
  6. Put in the time before you expect to see results – the practice of excellence is not a one day, one week or even a one year thing – it is a LIFE-LONG COMMITMENT – short term results are a nice bonus, but don’t get distracted by them

How do the experts get to be so good at what they do? They work their butts off… for a very long time… and probably acknowledge that being human, with all of our supposed shortcomings, is something that they just will have to learn to accept!

Adversity causes some men to break, and others to break records ~ William A. Ward

All the best,
Dr Sean R