Tom Brady’s Mental Toughness Unpacked

How the greatest quarterback of all time uses mindfulness to win

Photo credit: Darron Cummings/AP

You have to admit it — Tom Brady is one of the greatest athletes of all time. It doesn’t matter if you’re a New England Patriots fan or not. To pull off a historic win in the Super Bowl after an enormous deficit is the latest testament to an athlete who continues to perform at the top of his game even as he approaches his 40th birthday.

What is the combination of qualities that creates a top athlete? And what can we learn from that to perform in our own lives?

Of course a professional athlete must be in incredible physical condition to excel at their sport. But to be a champion, you need something more. It comes down to our foundational building blocks of mind, body and spirit and training in all of these areas to perform at the top of our games.

Tom Brady recently cited a book called The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Side to the Mental Guide of Peak Performance, by W. Timothy Gallwey. He shared this pencil-lined passage on his Instagram account:

Perhaps this is why it is said that great poetry is born in silence. Great music and art are said to arise from the quiet depths of the unconscious, and true expressions of love are said to come from a source which lies beneath words and thoughts. So it is with the greatest efforts in sports; they come when the mind is as still as a glass lake.

Brady cited the Patriots’ “mental toughness” after the Super Bowl and in his MVP speech when speaking about their win.

Mental toughness has two main components: mindful focus, and a believing spirit.

  • Mindful focus is the glass lake.
  • The believing spirit is the fire burning beneath the lake.

Mindful focus is a calm state of mind that can experience unaltered reality — meaning seeing what is presented to the eyes, hearing all sounds, sensing all touch. In this state, anxiety, doubt, fear, anticipation, analysis, have no place. Some athletes also call this being in “the zone”.

In yoga, meditation is used as the tool to train the mind to be still so the mind can serve us. The undisciplined mind creates useless chatter, castes automatic judgments, projects our emotions onto our experiences, anticipates outcomes, and sows worry and anxiety. The Yoga Sutras site “one-pointedness of the mind” as the solution to the run-away mind that creates distractions and obstacles for us.

If Tom Brady had an undisciplined mind, he would have never gotten past the fact that he was down nearly 20 points at halftime! He may have started doubting himself, feared failure, or been distracted with all that was needed to be done to win. Mental toughness means one-pointedness of mind — to be in the moment and play in the moment. No past, no future, only now. One play after another.

A focused mind is essential and with the fire of spirit focusing action, we have a winning combination. Believing spirit is the second element that’s key here.

One of the Yoga Sutras says to deal with obstacles and their consequences “the recommendation is to make the mind one-pointed, training it how to focus on a single principle or object.”

The single principle or object for Tom Brady is winning. It’s not only a desire to win however, it’s believing he can win. A believing spirit doesn’t get exhausted or discouraged or beaten down. A believing spirit keeps the eye on the prize and keeps going no matter what. Even if at halftime, when he had been sacked more than ever and was 20 points down. That doesn’t extinguish the fire of a believing spirit. It never gives up.

This is the mind, body and spirit in disciplined union. That’s what Tom Brady and the Patriots pulled off during the Super Bowl. For those of you who aren’t sports fans, I have to challenge you to think about what it really takes to win and not be fascinated by it!

Let’s take this off the field and into our lives. We can do that in three ways.

  1. Noticing the activity of our minds
  2. Quieting our minds
  3. Believing

Notice Mental Chatter

Have you listened to your mind lately? It may sound like a ridiculous question. Really stop for a moment though and notice all the chatter going on. Some of it will be loud and clear like someone speaking to you in a direct conversation. A lot of it won’t be so loud though… maybe more like undercurrents of emotions and conditioned responses.

Let’s pretend you’re Tom Brady, and number 97 just sacked you two plays ago, you see him coming and you instinctively get nervous and look to run away. That’s the mind running you. Brady wouldn’t allow this to happen. He would see the situation for what it is... “97 coming my way, White is open, throw ball”. That’s the focused mind seeing the situation.

Starting to be aware of your mind’s tendencies and how it’s coloring your reality is the first huge step to disciplining your mind. Key things to listen for is negative self-talk, passing judgement, and expecting outcomes. Just start noticing. It’s helps to keep a journal and you can see trends as well.

Quiet our Minds

Next, we need to quiet our minds. You can do that by starting a meditation practice. Just starting with five minutes a day will bring you huge benefits. Meditation isn’t about clearing the mind, it’s about quieting the mind. It’s training it so you notice when it’s going off course, and then you bring it back to quietness.

Meditation is the act of returning again and again to a quiet mind — the glass lake. Here’s a quick first meditation practice for you:

  • Set a timer for five minutes. Set it to a pleasant soft tone so you aren’t shocked when it goes off.
  • Sit comfortably. It doesn’t have to be crossed-legged if that’s not comfortable for you. You can be seated in a chair. Just don’t lie down, as you may fall asleep!
  • Take three deep breaths — inhale and exhale fully.
  • Let the breath settle into a natural rhythm. Think “in” on the inhale, and “out” on the exhale.
  • If any other thoughts come into the mind, notice it as a “thought” and come back to “in” and “out”.
  • If you feel emotion, notice the emotion, but don’t analyze it. Just let it be, and come back to “in” and “out”.
  • Your alarm will sound. Take a deep breath — inhale and exhale fully.

Congrats! You just meditated. If you like, you can say a prayer or an intention for your day, or say a simple “thank you”. A great book for starting to mediate is Meditation for Beginners, by Jack Kornfield.

Believing

Those two steps will help you create the glass lake, or the one-pointed mind. Next up, is that believing spirit. What is is that you believe for yourself? It may come from your moral foundation, spirituality, or goals. It’s a matter of holding on to what you believe in for dear life and not letting go. You may be ready for it or you may find that you need to prepare more to get there. That’s ok. Whatever it is, believe you can do it, and little by little, you’ll start to get there. Time for a big dose of determination. Think Tom Brady got discouraged when he was a sixth round draft pick? Nope.

So no matter if you’re a Patriots fan or not, I hope we can all learn a thing or two about their amazing performance. And for me, being New England born and raised, I’m extra psyched these days to wear my Brady jersey! Go Pats!

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