Mental toughness: what it is and what not

Meyken Houppermans, PhD. CrossFit Level 3 Trainer.
Founder and Head Coach

Mental toughness, the super human

Mental toughness is often related to images of strong people, lot of times athletes, who are ready to conquer anything and are always successful at what they do. Who hardly ever have a setback. Who never show any self-doubt. Who hardly ever break down into tears or get stressed out. Who are happy and in balance with their inner-self. These are images of mental toughness in terms of indestructible superman- like human beings. A state many of us might dream of but consider to be a utopia not meant for normal human beings. This image does not reflect mental toughness.

It is not about what you want, but how bad you want it.

These supermans aren’t per se mentally tough. Your indestructible favorite athlete might be so nervous before every game, he is puking his heart out. He might hate it to perform, but feels  like there is no other option in his life. It is his extrinsic motivation that keeps him going such as the money, the fame, the pressure from his coach and fans. Does that make this athlete a good representation of mental toughness? What you see is not always reality.

Once you realize no human being is perfect, and the majority of humans do not succeed in anything without putting in a lot of effort and hard work with months and months of practice and more setbacks than successes, it becomes a harsh reality that there is no such thing as an easay road, lineair progress, or a quick fix.

Most people have to work really hard to achieve goals, even those with talent. What you see on the outside in term of results, is the product of a process of 80% failure and 20% success, of one step forward and two steps back. Quick fixes and easy roads are for those who believe in fairy tales. Success is for those who are willing to put in the energy and who are determined to keep going for as long as it takes. It is not about what you want, but how bad you want it.

The upside is: Reaching your goals is a realistic option and not a utopia exclusively for superhumans. You can achieve anything you want, as long as you are willing to put in the energy for as long as needed.


Now it gets interesting:

At the same time we decide to work on our goel, parts of our brain are activated that give us the victorious feeling as if we have already achieved that goal. Maybe you recognize this: the moment you start a diet to lose weight, you already immediately feel healthier without actually changing anything in your body.

One the one hand, it is a great mechanism of the brain to kick start our so-called goal reaching process. On the other hand, that victorious feeling only lasts short. And then everyday life kicks in and we are distracted from our goal. Not helpful is the fact that the brain prefers quick fixes above long- term success. Rather enjoy that piece of cake right now than to see a weight loss of 20 pounds after 6 months.

More mindf*cks:

Once we’ve reached our goal we often forget how hard it was to get there. One of the reasons for this is, it can be functional not to remember how painful something was at the moment we experienced it. Otherwise no one would have babies anymore, for example. It makes it possible for us to keep living our lives despite painful experiences. According to our memory, in hindsight, resisting all those snacks to lose 20 pounds; or running in the rain every day to train for the marathon; was not that hard.  Yeah… you  should have seen yourself at those exact moments: wining, feeling sorry for yourself, crying your eyes out, getting frustrated.

Sometimes, it is also our ego to trivialize our hard work. Nope, “easy peasy” for you! We do not always like to be vulnerability or share our setbacks with others. How many setbacks and failures do you see on social media, compared to the number of success stories? Sometimes it is also not in your culture to share your hard work, such as in The Netherlands. (Inner voice or social media, who wins?)

Mental toughness

We start our goal reaching process with a mental kickstart, then mindf*ck and life kick in, increasing the risk of dropping out. Mental toughness has everything to do with  the process in between.

Mental toughness is about the process, the actual doing, and not about the outcome. Mental toughness is a dynamic mental concept that concerns your thoughts, emotions  and behavior in a transactional relation:

The way we think about ourselves and see ourselves influences our emotions and our behavior and vice versa. If you think you cannot do it, you will experience negative emotions and will  act in a way that is in line with that: the self-fulfilling prophecy. You probably won’t even give it a try. And that creates negative emotions, followed by negative thoughts etcetera.

The environment plays a huge part in this. Surrounding yourself with people who support you, will give you confidence and will boost your self- image, creating positive emotions, making you ready to act in a way that gets you closer towards your goal. And that attracts like minded people, creating more social support…etcetera

Mental toughness is about creating self-efficacy, a positive mindset and positive self- talk, focusing on positive emotions (and embracing the negative ones!), and behaving likewise. It’s a positive coping strategy that sets you up for a successful pathway towards your goal and keeps you going instead of quitting. It’s about redefining failure in terms of great attempts and steps to get closer to your goal. (Mental toughness and comparison to others)

Now that doesn’t mean always being happy or stress free or successful. It’s about how you cope in a healthy manner with stressors, difficult situations and setbacks. It’s how you approach goals and life in general. It’s totally ok to feel shit every once in a while, to cry, to feel angry to doubt yourself. It’s about how you move on and grow from there.

Health benefits

Mental toughness in terms of self efficacy, positive self- talk, a positive mindset, focusing on positive emotions yet also embracing the negative ones, can have great benefits for  mental and physical health. In shorter run it lowers stress levels and improves the quality of sleep for example. It makes you feel more relaxed, fulfilled and at ease. In the longer run it can reduce the risk of chronical diseases such as depression, cardiovascular diseases and cancer.

Mental toughness is a dynamic concept. It’s like a muscle: you can develop it but you have to invest in it every day: use it or lose it.

Create your own health!©