Learn How to Be Mentally Tough

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Tone Your Mind and Outperform your Goals

A woman runs up a set of stairs

When you hear strength training, do images of weightlifting in the gym come to mind? If so, you’re not alone. Building physical strength is vital for a balanced and healthy body, but it’s only part of the puzzle. Strength training also happens in the mind. It’s time to pay attention.

To learn more, we reached out to Dr. Stephen P. Gonzalez, Ph.D., CMPC. He’s an Assistant Professor of Sport Psychology in the Department of Kinesiology, Sports Studies, and Physical Education at The College at Brockport, State University of New York. (Check out another interview we did with Dr. Gonzalez back in 2017 after Emma Coburn’s Olympic Steeplechase victory).

Why does mental strength matter when it comes to athletic performance?
In David Epstein’s book, The Sports Gene, he talks about the body like computers and smartphones. If you think about it, computers and smartphones continuously have improved hardware with better cameras, processing speeds, storage, and resolutions for images, but these components are worthless without software programs to make the hardware work optimally. I use this analogy to explain to athletes that while we put in daily physical training, we often neglect the mental training component that results in holistic preparation to succeed. If we want to be mentally strong, we have to run the right software program to allow our bodies to perform at their maximum capacity.

Where does sheer belief in something come into play here?
Ah, yes, another way of appreciating the power of the mind is by examining the placebo effect. We know that people merely taking a sugar pill that they believe can reduce their headache or nausea actually will alleviate these symptoms. The active ingredients must outperform a placebo to ensure a new drug is worthwhile. So if we believe or develop a conviction about something, the body will respond accordingly. When it comes to athletic performance, having the mindset and confidence to handle our challenges contributes to our ability to be mentally strong.

You have worked with a lot of athletes over the years. What is the biggest mental barrier you’ve seen in their ability to perform well?
It’s hard to pin down a universal barrier for all athletes because there are so many factors that matter at different levels of sport and different factors that matter to different people. But if I had to pinpoint a factor that I see more often than not, it’s how athletes struggle to create a relationship with their nerves.

We’re conditioned to think being nervous is a bad thing, but nerves originate from a place of care about what we are about to do. Athletes train hard to perform well, so naturally, we become nervous because we want to be successful. Learning to find comfort when sport becomes uncomfortable is a major determining factor for whether or not you’re going to be a good athlete or a great athlete.

How does optimism play into all of this? Does it make a difference?
Optimism is a crucial component of resilience. Several studies in sport, education, and in the military confirm the fact that optimism is the main ingredient in overcoming stress and adversity. Unfortunately, optimism also gets a bad reputation because people think that an optimistic person thinks that the world is always “sunshine and rainbows” and is overly jolly.

Really, though, optimism at its core is believing you can change your circumstances to improve your future. Optimism must be grounded in reality. If you do not believe you can change things to get better, then you lack optimism. If you’re going to get through a difficult time, optimism is crucial to finding a path out of adversity and back to a state of thriving and high performance.

And, finally, how do you recommend improving one’s mental prowess to not only perform better but feel better and happier doing it?
Your thoughts during competition determine how well you perform. If athletes can become more aware of how they are thinking during tough situations, they can then make a purposeful change to how they react to tough situations (both cognitively and emotionally). Realizing that you are thinking in a way that is ineffective and reactive rather than thinking in a way that is responsive, effective, and helps you take purposeful action towards achieving your goals is vital to feeling more confident, having fun, and improving performance.

So, the next time you encounter difficulty, ask yourself following:

1) How do you tend to think/what do you say to yourself?
2) How does that make you feel?
3) What is it doing to your behavior?

If your answer to any of these questions is that you tend to be harsh and overly pessimistic; feel frustrated, angry, sad; or you have poor body language, anxiety or fear, or increased stress, then you need to make changes to your inner dialogue. This will drive effective and positive change to your emotions and behaviors.

Dr. Stephen P. Gonzalez, PhD, CMPC is an Assistant Professor of Sport Psychology in the Department of Kinesiology, Sport Studies, and Physical Education at The College at Brockport, State University of New York. Dr. Gonzalez also serves as the Director of Mental Conditioning for the Brockport Golden Eagles Athletic Department and consults high school, collegiate, and professional athletes as well as US Military Personnel on improving their mental preparation and performance. To ask questions or follow up, follow Dr. Gonzalez on Twitter @StevePGonzalez or on the web www.stephen-gonzalez.com.