Written by Alyssa Schlosser, B.S. in Health Promotion with a Specialization in Health and Fitness Training
Mental toughness – the phrase sounds intimidating, calloused, and rather harsh to some, but is it really? To be mentally tough doesn’t mean you have to have a mindset defined by the words above, it is your ability to persevere through tough times, tough workouts and tough diets. Mental toughness allows you to cope better, and be more consistent, focused, controlled and confident. By being mentally tough, we are better able to deal with whatever life throws at us, no matter what the outcome may be. So you might be saying to yourself, “Yes, that’s nice and all, but I’m not sure this whole “mental toughness” thing is for me, and even if it was, how do I get there?” – and this is where self-efficacy plays a huge role.
To clarify, self-efficacy is a belief in your capability to organize and execute actions that will lead to a specific outcome. Makes sense right? If you believe that you are able to do something, and you organize the proper actions that will lead to the outcome desired, you will be successful. For some context, you know eating Burger King daily is bad for you, and you also know that if you were to make yourself a salad with chicken and veggies in the morning before work, and didn’t go to Burger King on your lunch break, your overall health would benefit. However, if you believe and convince yourself that you are completely incapable of making a salad in the morning for lack of time, lack of skill, lack of anything that can be an excuse for you not to do it, it will not happen. Mental toughness begins with self-efficacy, holding yourself accountable, and believing in yourself that you are capable of achieving a goal – as long as you take the right steps to get there.
Now, if you’re reading this, you are clearly looking to make a difference in your own life by changing your mindset and the way you think about working out and dieting, which is awesome! Some of you might already have a personal trainer who gives you workouts, weekly motivational speeches and tells you to do your 20 minutes of cardio, but they are doing the mindset work for you. They hold you accountable and make sure you know what you’re supposed to be doing, but if we don’t push ourselves that extra rep after they told us to stop, or the extra couple of minutes on the bike after we’ve reached our goal time, will we ever mentally improve? Maybe, but not to full capacity. To be mentally tough is to push yourself past your comfort zone, without fear of failing, because we know that if we fail then we only have to try harder the next time to get where we want to be. The driving force behind this mindset needs to be meaning. Find meaning. Meaning manifests in our life due to desire, because we deeply care about something. Meaning translates directly into effort and priority. Maybe you invest time into working out because you want to avoid surgery, prevent diabetes, get stronger, or live to see your grandchildren grow up. Whatever it is that you truly care about, use that meaning to light a fire, hold yourself accountable, and push yourself past where you’ve been before, because you sure don’t want to retreat back to where you came from.
Let’s revisit the Burger King example. We know Burger King is the last thing that any self respecting person should eat, and if we just made that salad before we left the house in the morning, we would be healthier. The same principles that I explained in regard to working out and pushing yourself also apply to this Burger King example. Choosing to eat healthy shouldn’t be a punishment, it should be a reward for working hard. Yes, fueling your body with essential nutrients can be difficult sometimes, but don’t you want to do it in order to help yourself progress further in your journey to good health? In order to change the negative mindset on how “healthy” food tastes or how hard it is to prepare, we have to eliminate the negative experiences we’ve had with these foods before. I’m sure everyone has had moments in their lives when they’re going to try a new “healthy” food and they absolutely hate it. Naturally, we associate that “healthy” food with something negative now, and all of a sudden every other healthy food is negative also, even though you’ve only based your opinion on that one thing. Stop that. Eating healthy should not be a punishment. Catch yourself in the act of reaching for that Burger King, and realize that there are thousands of other foods in this world that are so much better to fuel yourself with. After you catch yourself, stop yourself in the act of biting that burger and hold yourself accountable. Self-efficacy influences behavior and behavior influences self-efficacy. Don’t drive to Burger King next time and you won’t get a burger. It’s simple, yet challenging. Self control is huge here; you need to stay on top of your actions in order to make those actions translate into the things you need to achieve your overall goal.
All of this boils down to perseverance, which, by definition (my definition), is the ability to repeat that self control, discipline and meaning over and over again to achieve your end goal. By persevering we become mentally tough. Mental toughness is the by-product of fighting for the attainment of something we deeply desire. If you desire to not eat Burger King for lunch every day to get healthy, persevere. If you desire to see your grandkids graduate from college and you need to lose 100lbs to do so, persevere. If you desire to get stronger so you can play the sport you’ve always dreamed of playing, persevere. If you desire to be a better you, persevere. No matter what your meaning, show yourself that you can and you will reach your goal by being mentally tough and self- effacing. It won’t happen overnight, but you’ll thank yourself later.