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

12 replies
  1. drseanr
    drseanr says:

    Hi Jim,

    Thanks for the comment! You are welcome for any tips that were helpful. Don’t hesitate to ask any further questions!

    All the best

  2. AC
    AC says:

    Neat insight about the 3rd quarter. I was taught to believe that 4th quarter is the hardest but I appreciate the new perspective. Came across your Tedx talk yesterday and finished watching it today and really really enjoyed the passion you had. Bookmarked your blog and looking forward to new posts from you. Keep up the great work Doc!

  3. drseanr
    drseanr says:

    Thank you for the comment AC. The 4th quarter comes with its unique challenges too – fatigue is highest as you get toward the finish line; the 3rd quarter just has that psychological barrier to it ;o)

    Good to hear that you liked the TEDx talk. Thank you for following me. Stay tuned because I will be launching my new website soon as well!

    all the best

  4. Dan Loney
    Dan Loney says:

    Dr. Sean, I found this to be so true just last night. I was rowing 5000 Meters on my Concept 2 and wondered at the 2500 M how I was going to complete at the same intensity. I made it through by thinking of someone else’s intense suffering in order to inspire me. Closing in on 5000 M I was amazed that I really had taken my focus off my own discomfort and it really allowed me to perform at a higher level. A strong visualization was the key and the connection to that person. Your article reminded me that it was at the halfway point of 2500 going into the third quarter that forced me to come up with some plan fearing I would not complete.

    Appreciate so much your thoughts that lead us to higher performance and success!

    Best regards,

    Dan Loney

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