Aug 23

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Developing Mental Toughness


By Kevin Marks, Kinesiology and Health Science Professor

School of Health Science

Solano College

It’s intriguing to see individuals who have the ability to stretch themselves and push through physical and mental barriers. For example, Navy Seals, Army Rangers, athletes, business leaders, etc. These highly competent people have a “no quit mentality” and can push through the pain. Is this all mental or physical? Can we as coaches and players develop the skill of “pushing through the pain”? 

How mental toughness will benefit both football players and coaches:

1.    Developing mental and physical toughness allows players to feel in control which is an essential psychological tool of highly functioning people. 

2.    You will learn a lot about yourself: mentally, physically and emotionally.

3.    Consistency- those who push through pain correlate with “consistent” behavior. These players are well read, and we tend to know what we are going to get from them. They are also the players who tend to be the leaders of the team.

4.    Positive Attitude! Those who can push through pain remain confident and never complain; if fact, they enjoy the process of discomfort. Both coaches and players must constantly adapt to uncomfortable situations.

Whether it’s a staff meeting and we feel tired or the fourth quarter of a hard fought football game, many of us start to experience mental or physical pain or both. Pushing through pain is both physiological and psychological. Physically, we need to invest the time to train so our body tissues can adapt to the stress imposed on them. Mentally, we can lean into the pain if we feel we have prepared the right way. If we have not trained at all, even the most physically and mentally tough football players will tap out.

How can we learn to push through the pain?

1.    Physically prepare: as a coach, we will be able to sit through staff meetings and retain more information and engage when we are physically fit. The coach who is running the meeting will be able to deliver high quality, dynamic information. Additionally, the same goes for a two and a half hour football practice. Well-conditioned athletes can remain focused and explosive. Research is equivocal regarding what comes first: developing mental toughness or physical toughness. However, even the most mentally stable football players cannot endure the physical rigors if they are not metabolically trained. Essentially, it is effective to train hard physically, and this can improve our mental toughness and our pain tolerance (Martin & McGee, 2008).In fact, being a highly conditioned player will increase our ability to make decisions and even increase our will power.

2.    Pain is always finite. The pain will always end. In our minds eye, we must understand this. This “understanding” is a very common cognitive strategy. We gain mental control of the pain when we know the end point of the pain (end of meeting or competition). Mentally strong football players develop a mantra they repeat in their head as they break apart the pain in different segments. Repeating words like: “finish,” “Power,” “tough as nails” helps the mind to focus during distress. In addition, the coach should always tell players where they are at in practice: period 6, 8 10 etc. When I was the defensive coordinator at Solano College, I would call the defense up at the end of each quarter of practice and half time. This specificity is significant because it takes place in the game and most importantly, psychologically, the player “knows” where they are at and thus- they know the end point.

3.    Break it down to the smallest parts: a two-hour staff meeting or practice might seem daunting. This meeting should be divided into four small parts. Every 30 min, stand up and change your position. Turn the page on your notebook. Take a few deep breaths and start the next 30. This is where the coach can break up meetings and practice to keep players engaged and themselves. The player must “mentally” start a new game in their mind after each quarter during practice and games. This is how great teams and players improve as the game and practice goes on.

4.    Practice- consistently put yourself in an uncomfortable situation both mentally and physically. Repetition is the mother of skill. We can build up a tolerance and immunity to our pain threshold; we just need to embrace it (Anshel & Russell, 1994). Our bodies and minds will become stronger as a result of this.

5.    Be smart: know when to adjust. The key is to train mentally and physically day in and day out so we can learn about our minds and bodies and find the middle ground. We never quit, however, feeling acute pain in an area that continues to worsen as the race goes on is a sign that we need to adjust. Physical pain typically goes away during completion and goes somewhere else in the body. However, pain that always nags and gets worse must be addressed.

6.    Lean into the pain. As soon as we feel pain, the human tendency is to stop or avoid (because we gain control). As soon as we feel emotional pain, we might deny or suppress it to protect us. We really should lean into these. We should not try to stop, suppress or block out. Making a mental note of the pain and returning to the activity is a healthy adaptive approach. We must feel and acknowledge all forms of the pain, physical, emotional and psychological. As soon as we try to gain control by stopping the pain, paradoxically; we lose control. We want to feel the pain, keep going with the understanding it will go away and then adjust (not quit) if the pain turns into an acute issue.

Anshel, M. H., & Russell, K. G. (1994, Feb). Effect of aerobic and strength training on pain tolerance, pain appraisal and mood of unfit males as a function of pain location. Journal of Sports Sciences, 12(6), 535-547.

Martin, G., & McGee, S. (2008, April). Metabolic Adaptations to Short-term High-Intensity Interval Training: A Little     Pain for a Lot of Gain?. Exercise & Sports Sciences Reviews, 32(2), 58-63.

Kevin Marks is a tenured professor at Solano College in Fairfield, California. He has two Master’s Degrees and has been teaching exercise science and performance psychology for 14 years. Marks was a former defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Solano. His email is Kevin.marks@solano.edu and he can also be reached at his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/KevinMarksOptimalPerformance/

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