Mental Toughness — The Missing Ingredient

Ever wondered what makes someone a good leader, a good athlete, or a good competitor? Why do some people accomplish their goals while others fail? Why are some people more successful than others?

We usually look towards top performing people to try to figure out their secrets and we usually attribute their success to their inherent ability — their natural talent.

But we all know there is more to the story than that. It’s an often overlooked element that helps individuals become successful.

So, what is it that differentiates them from others? What makes a bigger impact than talent or intelligence?

Mental toughness.

“Mental toughness” is keeping strong in the face of adversity. It’s the voice in the back of your head that tells you to keep going, keep pushing, and keep trying, even when the going gets tough. It’s the ability to keep your focus and determination despite the difficulties you encounter.

It’s not something you’re born with — you work towards it.

Why is it important?

For me, mental toughness has given me the confidence and belief that I can achieve anything I put my mind to. No matter what obstacles lie ahead and no matter what skills I lack at the moment, being mentally tough has helped me achieve the things I’ve strived most for. Seriously. Things like becoming a Provincial Tennis Champion and obtaining internships at places like Google, Yelp, and Facebook.

When I was younger, I competed in the International Tennis Federation Junior Circuit and the Canadian Tennis Junior Circuit. I’m biased, but I’ve always believed tennis is a great representation of mental toughness. When you’re playing, you’re out there alone. You have an opponent, crowds, weather, injuries, and other conditions, and you face them yourself. Every player at that level has similar skills, fitness, equipment, and you have to find a way to best them. So how do you do it?

Throughout my competitions, I encountered failures and successes. Challenges in the form of difficult matches, and also in the form of what should have been easy wins. Eventually I learned that to really be a winner, you can’t just play as well as others, you have to believe, focus, persevere, and be tougher than your opponent. Mentally.

Playing tennis may be physical, but winning is mental.

You need to let go of mistakes quickly. You need to take time and have patience. When I watched the top players, I’d see that’s what they were about. Control in every moment and situation. They knew that persevering, being patient, focusing on one point at a time, and having that resilience to compete was the key to success. Realizing this, I eventually learned that a patient, but aggressive game, founded on consistency and perseverance was what I needed. Because of that, I went on to win the Ontario Junior Tennis Provincial Championships twice and place top 8 in the Canadian Junior Tennis Nationals.

But mental toughness doesn’t only apply to tennis. Sports, games, education, jobs, or anything you try to achieve in life is a mental challenge. You can have a skill and maybe even a talent, but how you prepare for and deal with every moment is what affects your outcomes.

So what does it take? How can you develop mental toughness?

Managing Expectations

If you poorly manage your expectations, it can make you feel like you have no control of your surroundings and it can overwhelm you. It’s crucial to set realistic goals and be adaptable to unexpected situations.

Setting realistic expectations prevents you from getting ahead of yourself. Getting your hopes up or relying on unlikely outcomes immediately puts you at a disadvantage. And if you do fall into this trap, you’ll tend to overthink possibilities. You’ll start playing the “what if” game, and you’ll lose focus of what you’re trying to overcome at the moment.

Keep cool in pressure situations

In high pressure situations, or in situations where you realize that your performance needs to be optimal, it’s easy to let your emotions get the best of you. In times like these, it’s important to have emotional resilience.

The best way to build emotional resilience is through experience. The more pressure situations you put yourself in, the better you’ll become at handling them. Step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself.

I look back at my tennis career a lot when it comes to this. In competitive tennis, you play different types of people. You play people who are supposed to crush you, people who you should beat, and people who are around the same level as you. Each type of match is a different pressure situation. And when I first started playing, I handled them all wrong.
When I played high-ranked players, I’d play loose and carefree because I had nothing to lose. When it came to playing people who I should beat, so-called “easy wins”, I found it difficult. There was an opportunity that could slip away and an expectation to live up to. So I lost more than my share of matches… until I played enough to start winning.

By putting myself in more situations I wasn’t comfortable with, I learned from my failures. Eventually, I turned these uncomfortable situations into comfortable ones. Once I developed the right mindset, I was able to play all matches with the same level of consistency, regardless of the type of pressure.

Find lessons from your failures and improve upon them

Failure is inevitable. You will have situations that you will not overcome. When this happens it’s important to embrace them. Don’t make excuses for yourself, even if the failure wasn’t your fault, and resist the urge to blame others. When you make excuses for yourself, you’re seeking comfort, instead of facing the outcome and proving you can overcome it.

Being mentally tough isn’t about always succeeding, it’s about learning from your failure and getting past it. Learn, shrug it off and move on.

I remember the time when I had an interview with Microsoft. Great company, great opportunity, and I completely bombed it. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the skills for the job. I prepared for weeks and as hard as I possibly could. But, it was my first technical interview… ever. When it came time, I was given a fair series of questions. Questions that I could definitely answer… if I hadn’t been distracted.
I was distracted by the pressure, distracted by the interviewer’s every move, and even distracted by the possible outcomes. Long story short, I bombed the interview. I ran out of time, asked poor questions, and didn’t focus on the right components of the question. I was frustrated and sad because it was an opportunity not taken advantage of. But what I got was a lesson in how to handle those technical interviews and how my coding wasn’t the problem so much as my focus. Eventually, another opportunity arose for me and it was an interview with Google. Same type of challenge and same distractions. That time I, got the job.

Find that motivation and develop that discipline

All of the previous things are great to have, but if you don’t have the motivation to continue to push and improve yourself, then it’s difficult to develop that mental toughness. One of the best things you can do to find motivation is ask yourself, why am I doing [this] or why do I need to do [this]? When you ask yourself why, you’re figuring out your underlying motivation. “Why do I need to work out?” “So that I can look and feel better?” When you realize why you feel the need to do something it gives you a reason to act upon it. It makes it easier to suck it up and just do it.

You also need discipline and willpower. You need this so that you can continue to push forward in difficult times. This takes time, but an excellent way to develop it is by trying to form simple habits. These can be any habits you like, but by doing them day in and day out, and by giving yourself small boosts of positive reinforcement, it will help you maintain the motivation and discipline to continue the habit.

You’ll find that by challenging yourself, motivation is easy to come by as long as you believe you have the ability to conquer the challenge.

Why did I write this?

I see a lot of people who think they are just unlucky. That no matter what they do, they can’t seem to get what they want, and so they start to develop a negative attitude. They stop putting in effort and they belittle themselves. And it upsets me. It upsets me because I want to see people succeed and because I really don’t want to surround myself with negative attitudes. It’s contagious.

Sometimes it may be easy to think that there’s a quick formula, but it’s not that easy. Nothing in the world comes easy. You need to consistently put in good work to get good output. You need to stay tough.

Everyone is capable of accomplishing anything they put their mind to. We’re all the same.

It sounds like a cliche, but it’s true. Why can’t you accomplish something? Why can’t you work towards it? If you believe in yourself, have that self-confidence, be strong, and work hard at it, then you can do it.

Remember, you can always continue improving your mental toughness.

Tell us what mental toughness means to you and how it’s helped you!

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