It’s widely believed that the mind is where your greatest potential lies. It’s your most significant asset. Your other resources are the means the mind uses to achieve resultsWouldn’t it be a good idea to make your mind stronger by improving your mental toughness?

A good start to doing this is to have a handy definition for mental toughness. Surely, then you will have a greater change of learning more about it. So, how would you define it?

Don’t reach for the phone nor call a friend; and don’t read any further, yet. First have a go at describing mental toughness in your own words. The definition that emerged from my research is: 

Mental Toughness is the ability to manage your mind so that it directs your energy to the right place, at the right time, for the right reason. This enables you to operate at your highest potential, consistently, despite your circumstances. It means giving your best possible performance regardless of what is going on within and around you.

Essentially this means you do not waste energy on issues that have no bearing on your priorities, nor waste energy on emotional reactions that are simply expressions of neurological baggage.

The development of a mental toughness competitive advantage goes beyond the notion that a killer instinct combined with a high pain threshold are the most important mental components necessary for success. These approaches are only effective if they are applied within a holistic and developmental context.

The trick or secret to mental toughness is that there is no trick nor secret. I have a healthy scepticism for anything that is claimed to contain a secret. My opinion is that quick fix or oversimplified solutions to developing mental toughness, or achieving success for that matter, insults our intelligence.  Neither mental toughness nor success is contained in a quick-fix. I favour developing improving mental toughness through a systematic approach of learning and practicing the seven mental toughness components.

The mental toughness components that constitute my model have a logical sequence even though each one can stand alone as an independent factor. Each provides us with opportunities to improve the skills needed to become mentally tougher. The benefits are best accrued when you use these components interdependently.

In order, these components are: concentration, composure, controlled aggression, confidence, calculated risks, competence and commitment. Start with number one and work your way through to number seven. Benefits then grow synergistically; they start to feed off each other and grow exponentially. Learn the skills and behaviours needed for each one. In so doing, you can become the best possible you that you can be, and probably make it difficult for your competitors.

The journey towards becoming mentally tougher can become one of your goals, but note, gaining mental toughness is an ongoing quest.

It’s common knowledge that mind and body form one interlinked system, and that your body responds to instructions from your mind and vice versa. Think about how your mind responds to feeling sick: daily tasks become difficult to accomplish and general motivation to execute these tasks decreases significantly. Conversely, when you feel anxious or sad, your body’s ability to perform even the most automatic of tasks becomes difficult – your breath is shorter, your heart beats faster. A feedback loop between your body and mind exists and influences your daily life in a balancing act of give and take.

Most people have an ingrained preference for physical over mental tasks. We have the ability to strive for supremacy in both, but this journey to physical and mental excellence is based on choices, and hinges heavily on combining your natural inclination with learnt skills and behaviours.

Some say no matter how hard you practice and strive for excellence, you can never achieve the same levels of mental or physical prowess of leaders, elite athletes and achievers. They say that these types of people are simply born with natural abilities. However, my research shows that these claims are simply not true.

I agree some people seem to have a greater natural inclination towards leadership, particular sports or mental toughness. However, everyone can acquire some of the skills, which enables them to improve their performances and excel within the realms of their own boundaries. Essentially, you can learn to be the best version of you.

In today’s world, mental, as well as bodily attributes allow you to get ahead. Gone are the days of providing for oneself or family via physical means only. Although it is important to note that whilst there are laborious jobs out there, very few of these involve cavemen duties such as hunting or gathering. Essentially, we need to be mentally tough, resilient to today’s fast-paced and stress-inducing world.

The ideal approach to developing mental toughness is all-encompassing, what is termed a holistic approach. By concentrating on only one part, like aggression, you’re unlikely to gain a sustainable competitive advantage. The key is to learn to tell yourself to do something. How often do you hear of an elderly man or woman on their deathbed say, “I wish I did this or that?” Clearly they had the motivation, but simply did not follow through. Somewhere along the way they decided their desires were untimely or too difficult to achieve. These mental boundaries acted as an effective obstacle to their goals. There’s a large gap between saying you’ll do something and actually doing it. Ultimately, for a competitive advantage to exist there needs to be alignment between saying and doing.

Words of caution: the benefits of mental toughness are seldom accrued in isolation of other competencies. Part of the process of developing mental toughness involves assessing your overall competency needs, and advancing holistically. Once you have these competencies, your confidence rises and the potential for mental toughness benefits is enhanced.

As an example, I recall a junior tug-of-war team from my son’s schooldays. The team was extremely motivated to do well at an inter-house tournament. However, the opposition teams were bigger and stronger. This made it difficult for the participants to conjure the sufficient amount of mental toughness in the form of determination or spirit against the physical odds they faced. Of course, if you have tried tug-of-war, you will know that winning isn’t always about size and strength; it also requires an enormous amount of mental strength. However, in the absence of physical girth, you are unlikely to dominate on mental strength alone. You need the entire range of skills.  Despite being highly motivated and initially determined, they lost because they simply lacked the basic tug-of–war physical success factors.

A useful analogy for developing mental toughness is that of a fitness regime. In a fitness regime your aim is to develop physical muscle and become physically fitter. In a mental toughness regime your aim is to develop mental muscle and become mentally tougher. You may want to consider the process of developing mental toughness as a fitness regime for your mind. In fact, mental and physical fitness may be closer than a mere analogy; they may actually overlap. Tania Williams, a former South African gymnastics coach says, “When you push yourself through pain of getting fit, developing and sustaining a tolerance for high workloads, you become mentally tougher. Becoming mentally tougher, you’re able to push yourself physically more.” We teach mental toughness this way. It doesn’t necessarily make you happier, though.

From my own experience, I have seen how developing physical strength is a building block for enhanced mental strength. In other words if you fix your outside, it can go a long way towards fixing your inside. Of course, the converse is also true; if you develop your mental strength, it will in all likelihood encourage you to build physical strength as well. Thus the two regimes can be complementary. Many of you will know from past fitness training regimes, that you lost fitness when you stopped training. Well, I’m afraid the same is true of your mental conditioning programme; when you stop practising for mental toughness you lose mental muscle as well. Thinking about mental toughness in the same way as physical fitness, provides a helpful framework for getting started.

I also want to distance myself from the pop psychology approach of promoting mental toughness as willpower. My research indicates that willpower is a factor, but is only part of the explanation and is not an explanation in its entirety.

Mental toughness can be represented by the fire and ice metaphor. For me, it’s crucial for an understanding of mental toughness to embrace the seemingly paradoxical relationship between fire and ice.

People who are mentally resilient have fire in the belly and ice in the brain. They combine passion, a gut-felt enthusiasm and a drive to achieve with a mind that is clear and calm. The fire component is associated with qualities of heat, power and assertiveness.

On the other hand, the ice component is associated with the qualities of cold, patience and persistence. These two seemingly opposite truths are bound together into a new truth giving a set of conditions where intensity and tranquility come together to enable success. However, while fire and ice can thus be mutually reinforcing, they can also short-circuit each other if they aren’t held in balance: fire melts the ice, which in turn douses the flames.

Dr Steve Harris. Motivational speaker, team building, conference speaker, keynote speaker