Mental Toughness: Turning Disadvantage to Advantage

This is a picture of Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent winning gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics – Redgrave’s 4th Gold in successive Olympics – inspiring! I grew up in the shadow of an Olympian – my father. He was pretty good at accomplishing big goals, and even better at pushing himself when things got hard. He coached me when I was in high school rowing, and inspired me to push to the top of the sport as well. One thing that has always stuck in my head was my dad telling me to turn the weakest part of my race into my strongest.

In rowing, often the hardest part of the 2000m race, and one that is predictably many a rower’s weakness, is the 3rd 500m. In fact, the third quarter of any physically or mentally challenging endeavour is often deemed psychologically the most difficult. Why? Well… you have only just passed the halfway point, you are already exhausted and you just can’t imagine repeating the same distance, at the same intensity, without collapsing first. At least in the final quarter, you can sniff the finish line and you will find that little bit extra to keep going.

I work with Fremantle FC in the AFL (Australian Rules Football). In the AFL, the third quarter is referred to as the “Premiereship Quarter” – for obvious, similar reasons to rowing – whoever can get through the third quarter’s physical and mental challenge better than their opponent is most likely to win.

The idea of turning weakness to strength, is a psychological trick that demands deliberate choice and extraordinary effort in the face of massive physical and mental resistance.


Many times in my life, I have applied this idea of playing tricks with your mind, to consciously choose to do what is unnatural in the face of a pain, challenge, stress, and demands… and I have found that you can achieve so much more in those moments if you do choose to think differently about the challenge. Moreover, if you have made it a habit to keep choosing the harder path, to push harder against the grain, at that point where you feel weakest and when most people give up, you will find yourself consistently stepping up to new and unexpected challenges in all areas of life, not just in that one activity.

(There is a caveat to all of this: pushing exceedingly hard at key moments under pressure can only be accomplished by balancing the all-out effort with appropriate down time and recovery after those pressure moments have passed. See my previous blog on the Science of Chillaxing)

What can you do in your life?

Find a place where you have declared something is too hard, or where it might be deemed normal to back off the effort a bit… and choose to think about it differently, decide to feed off the pressure and the challenge, play tricks with your mind and tell it to use fear, fatigue, and feelings of quitting as reminders to go a bit harder. Turn weakness to strength and you will have a distinct advantage over those who give in to the pain and stress of those tough points in life.

Love to hear your thoughts!

Dr Sean R

The Science of Chillaxing – Recovery is Critical to Peak Performance

Love this Ad pic from ESPN – a few years back.

Perhaps you know someone like the dude melting into the couch in this photo…

Perhaps they drive you a bit crazy because they spend hours doing nothing but sitting there, occasionally grunting and groaning, sometimes shouting at the bright box in front of them… and if lucky, cheering every once in a while with ridiculous excitement, seeming like they have just won $500mil at the lotto…

First word that comes to mind for many looking at this pic?


(Although the younger generation tells me it’s not being lazy… it is called “chillaxing” and it is a good thing)

Well – many of us still look down on people taking it easy… and perhaps rightfully so because of the mounting numbers of kids, young adults, and many from other demographics who are spending too much time inactive.

HOWEVER – although we may criticize people for being too lazy, we have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater (or the flatscreen out with the recycling??).

Taking it easy at the right time is absolutely critical to high performance. Getting your mindset right around things like time off, recovery, and having fun is essential if you are going pursue excellence in any endeavour.

Problem is… we are not actually getting this right a lot of the time.

I spent 4 years of my life writing a PhD about athletes, some the best in the world in their sports, who messed up their recovery, believed that the only way to the top or to stay on top was to work harder, at all costs. I wrote a book about this research – Overtraining Athletes – and I can tell you that too many high performers push past the limits of their bodies and suffer for it. Sport science tells us that recovery is just as important as the hard work you put in – without it your mind and body won’t be ready to take advantage of all that hard work and perform at a peak.

Question is – where in your life are you hitting the “more is better” button one too many times? Feeling guilty about a bit of time out for yourself? Feeling weak because you are not working harder, despite feeling burnt out? Putting in 12 and 14 hour days because that is the norm, and still demanding of yourself to be at peak performance? Having trouble admitting to others, and maybe even yourself, that you are struggling, and that a bit of recovery time (and possibly some help from others) might be the remedy?

In my world – I say Weak is tough – it is tough to admit to weakness, fatigue, vulnerability and then do something about it, but you have to do the tough things if you want to achieve excellence.

If you need to chillax a bit to make sure you can recharge your energy stores, be courageous, admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed and tired, and don’t see recovery as a guilty pleasure; rather, see it as a responsibility to your body and your mind – as long as you get back in action once you are feeling good again!

Love to hear your thoughts.

Dr Sean R