Can you really train mental strength? There’s a huge amount of information out there on social media and online in general about mental strength, whilst it’s all well-meaning, a lot of deep meaning quotes telling you to look deep within yourself to journal your feelings so very non-scientific and new aged, but if you read into the science behind the psychology of sport then yes you can treat mental toughness.
In fact, my experience of testing athletes in the lab and in field testing they can be pretty much identical on the charts and graphs, but what sets one athlete apart from another, is simply the grey matter between the ears, now not talking about simple pacing strategies etc, those are all game play techniques I am referring to is essentially confidence which can be built and therefore trained.
A few years ago whilst receiving the first briefing on a military course I had volunteered for a, very wise but young member of the training team said at the end of the brief “nothing in the world can defeat a man with self-confidence 100% belief in his ability, but nothing in the world can help a man with no self-confidence”, this was the single biggest thing I can remember anybody has ever said to me, not only because it was true ,but it had such a deep and profound influence on the rest of my life with everything I did and have done since.
I have said before that as a coach my most important job when working with an athlete is to build their confidence. There are many ways this can be achieved but essentially it all runs down to correct programming and progression ensuring training is achievable leaving the athlete with a confident feeling at the end of the session, this is not rocket science. it’s fact, and the same way you train a dog.
But it is easy to feel strong when everything is going your way, indeed your conscious brain is already set up to reward you when things go well. But how do you deal with a cocktail of negative emotions and feelings experienced when things maybe aren’t going your way. According to most of the research out there it shows that in this situation acceptance of these emotions is the first key, these negative emotions are completely normal, it’s just your brain your subconscious keeping you safe. Negative stress is just registered by the brain as danger, so accept the situation, accept why you may feel negative emotions towards something, once you’ve done this it is then easier to remain positive because in fact the negative emotion is not necessarily a negative.
There are one or two other tricks that have been shown scientifically to improve mind-set without first relying upon the extrinsic motivation of success. The key is to train yourself to remain positive, force a positive mind-set, express open expansive postures (overly positive body language) which encourages higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol, opposed to showing closed shrunken constricted postures (negative body language) which does the opposite.
Something else I was introduced to during this part of my military career was the excellent book ‘The Chimp Paradox’ written by Prof Steve Peters. I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anybody and indeed incorporate its teachings into the programming of all my athletes. If they are not open-minded enough to participate in this then they must find another coach… that is how powerful I believe this book is!