Important, But Overrated
To be candid, I don’t agree with the sentiment, “Running is 90% mental.” It’s supposed to be 90% physical, without much mental energy needed at all. Hence the better sentiment, “Hard (physical) work pays off.” After all, in terms of hand-eye coordination, putting one foot in front of the other is the simplest sport there is, right? So from where do all of these mental factors originate? If you’re thinking strictly about running through pain/injury, then I’ll address that in a separate article, as I’m currently studying pain psychology for my PhD dissertation. But let’s delve into some other aspects of mental toughness and hopefully increase your confidence along the way!
As a professor of performance psychology, I acknowledge that mental toughness is an important skill and that it has the ability to separate levels of competition, yet I don’t think it should define one’s training and racing performances. In that regard, I tend to think that mental toughness is overrated, which surprises people when I say that. Let me clarify. Experiences that require mental toughness are draininggggggg. It’s been said many times that mental toughness is when you have to “go to the well” or “dig deep.” I agree. More importantly, I also agree with the saying, “How many times can you go to the well before it dries up?” Thus, mental burnout, quitting, and/or frustration are often right around the corner. As with all matters of psychology and philosophy, coming to a mutual understanding on a given concept can be based upon whether or not we are using the same definitions or vocabulary. Let’s dig in!
In my perspective, mental toughness, whether on-the-field or off-the-field, implies that there is significantly more mental effort required to complete a given task (i.e., compared to the amount of effort that is normally required), and the research in performance psychology tells us that this is generally not a desirable mental state. In general, in terms of athletics, the less we think, the better off we are (i.e., Keep it Simple and Stupid, or K.I.S.S.). Just ask any golfer about the expression “paralysis by analysis”. Alternatively, watch Michael Jordan hit a foul shot with his eyes closed; running should not be much different in relation to expending relatively little mental energy, especially since its technical components are much easier than golf and basketball. Hence, garmin watches have unraveled many-a-runner due to paralysis by analysis (over-analyzing).
Mental toughness is not something on which we should have to rely all the time, it’s more like “Break Glass in Case of Emergency.” I wrote a similar article explaining this concept in terms of “Precision is Better Than Pushing.” For instance, if you’re constantly attributing your successes to mental toughness, then my initial reaction is, “What on earth is going wrong (or backwards) all the time that you have to summon the athletic gods in order to hit your goals?” Too often, having to be “mentally tough” is the result of being under-trained (i.e., missing workouts), under-fueled, dehydrated, not warming-up properly, pacing improperly (i.e., going out too fast), and/or not taking care of injuries. These variables pretty much exist in the physical world, which also makes these variables far more important than anything else. In other words, when you’re hitting all of your workouts, properly fueled and hydrated, doing a full dynamic warm-up, maintaining discipline in your pacing, and staying injury-free, then there’s no need to have to be mentally tough. Rather, in the case of the latter, it’s Just Do It. Leave the mind out of it, there’s not much thought required at that point, right? “It’s physical first, mental second” –Coach Mike.
As a firm believer in cognitive reframing, I promote the importance of mastering aspects of self-talk in order to assess one’s own performance mid-race and to remain levelheaded when the going gets tough; therefore, if we don’t have experience in how to cope with our own thoughts during harder efforts, then we’re more likely to focus on the wrong cues on race day or think negatively (side note: this is one reason I used to take a hard stance against running with music). However, there is a distinction between self-talk and mental toughness; I don’t conflate the two terms. Furthermore, there is a difference between focus and mental toughness. I think too often, people are mislabeling their ability to maintain proper focus (or to at least not be a negative-nancy), and they’re calling it “mental toughness.” Does it really matter what they call it? It does. Let us continue.
Maintaining proper focus and positive self-talk are keys to success in running (and any sport) and should not be confused with mental toughness. To reiterate, when it comes time for race day, we don’t want to have to rely on mental toughness, as it’s too intangible. What the hell is it anyway? Self-talk and focus (on the other hand) are much more tangible(!) and that is the distinction. In other words, because focus and goal setting are nearly synonymous, you’ll be able to hit your goals and/or adjust them on the fly when you’re self-aware of your focus. Focus has a degree of specificity to it, whereas mental toughness is vague. If you tend to lose focus easily and/or your thoughts drift toward negativity, then that’s clearly a skill that you can develop, so that it doesn’t require “toughness” to get you back on track. Again, the latter is too draining.
Additionally, focus and composure are similar terms, but not the same. Focus is the ability to block out task-irrelevant cues during the right moments. Composure is the ability to maintain that focus over an extended period of time (you heard it here first). Anyone can be focused for the first two minutes of a race, but how long does that focus last? …and why does it falter? …how long can you keep your cool? Focus and composure can be learned; they are skills. Based on prior life experiences, as in academics, professional roles, and/or experiences in other sports, some runners are already equipped with these skills. I strive to teach these proper focal points during the track workouts I coach. The ability not to space out too much or throw a pity-party by the end of a workout or race is called composure. Focus and composure can be viewed as the ability to concentrate on the elements of a workout or race that are in one’s control (e.g., stride length, breathing, pacing strategy), as opposed to giving attention to task-irrelevant cues, such as the crowd or personal errands that need to be done over the weekend. If you struggle with focus and composure during workouts and races, then try more runs without a watch and/or without music in order to enhance aspects of self-talk.
Related to focus…what we focus on, when, where, why, how, etc…an entire book could be written about the different types of goals (i.e., process, performance, and outcome), but the main point is that focusing on the different goal types at the right moments is typically how athletes succeed, but that’s a far cry from having to be mentally tough. As a student of personality psychology, I do recognize that different personality types (traits) make this realization easier or harder for some individuals. Most notably, someone scoring high in the trait neuroticism (i.e., typically low in extraversion) tends to magnify the negative aspects of a situation in terms of potential consequences, fears, threats, etc (“making mountains out of molehills”), so yes, it does require someone like this to expend extra mental energy to maintain composure, and in those instances they’ll call it “mental toughness,” which is fine, but here’s another way to think about that…
…attributing successes to mental toughness during endurance events is natural, but I don’t want it to detract from your confidence. It is better to have confidence in your physical abilities before the race begins, rather than having to find a way to become confident during the race if/when things get tough. For example, and on one far end of the spectrum, if the legs are too tired to keep moving (in the truest sense of fatigue) then there is little effect the mind can have on the situation (picture someone having to crawl to a finish line even though his/her mind is saying, “get up!”). In these instances, it’s “matter over mind.” There are several physiological mechanisms for muscle fatigue, none of which have anything to do with the central nervous system (mind). It’s been said, “You can have all the heart in the world, but it doesn’t mean anything if you ain’t got the legs.” In boxing, they say, “kill the body and the head will fall.” So, ‘tis better to have strong legs (or abs in the case of the boxer) than to have to resort to mental toughness at all.
Troy Jacobson, a renowned former triathlete and cyclist turned coach (Spinervals DVD’s!), once wrote:
Going to the well once too often is a phrase with 14-century origins and is essentially a warning against pushing one’s luck. This phrase can be accurately applied to the athlete who schedules a demanding training and racing schedule with expectations of achieving a peak performance at each event. Many times, these highly motivated and focused athletes fall short of their goals, not realizing the root cause is that they have gone to the well too often and can’t reach down deep again until they get recharged mentally and emotionally. Physiologically, an athlete can peak once or twice in a year, depending on the design of the training regimen. Similarly, from a psychological perspective, an athlete can only go to the well on a limited basis each year too. The key to having a successful season is to learn how far you can push yourself without going overboard.
So, how many times can you rely on mental toughness to get you out of a tough (or painful) situation before it results in mental burnout? Consistent mental stress has been shown to weaken both the immune and neuromuscular systems, in turn causing illness and/or injury. When something is perceived as stressful (mentally or physically), stress hormones, such as cortisol, are released to regulate mood. Too much perceived stress and subsequent hormone release leads to a breakdown in the immune system. In other words, a suppressed immune system can be due to the brain sensing increases in mental stress. And when we factor personality traits once again, it’s easy to see why some athletes are more susceptible to illness and injury due to very high scores in trait neuroticism.
Elite athletics and the machine-like approach to champion athletics teaches us that race day doesn’t require much more than showing up and doing what we’ve been trained to do. Extra effort isn’t required on race day. Physically, extra effort might imply that the pacing is too fast out of the gates. Mentally, extra effort usually has an undesired effect, such as causing extra tension in the muscles. Part of showing up and feeling ready to go is making sure there are no distractions, and that both mind and body (through their reciprocal relationship) are in the proper state of arousal. For this reason, going out too fast in a race is often due to not being in the right mode before the race, either mentally or physically, which, in my experience as a coach, explains 50% of the variance in race performance.
The importance of dynamic warm-up drills is apparent in this regard. Therefore, a dynamic warm-up (a.k.a., routine) is part of proper preparation, though it is frequently overlooked and unfortunately it’s the last variable considered when runners interpret their race results. In this way, I teach my athletes that dynamic warm-up drills (“track drills”) are a part of Psychological Skills Training. Imagery, muscle relaxation, goal setting, attention training, emotional regulation, and breath control are the other primary textbook examples. The summation here is to embrace the physical aspects of training and leave the mind at home.
A lesson I’ve picked up from all the pro athletes I’ve met/known from various sports over the years is to be physically better prepared and more fit than the competition so that mental factors rarely have to enter the picture. It’s better to have a machine-like approach to training—such as the famous Mark Allen quote, “Eat Right, Gets Lots of Sleep, Drink Plenty of Fluids, Go Like Hell”—than to have to put in extra mental effort on race day. An athlete doesn’t need mental toughness to win a game/race when he/she can easily outmatch the opponent, for which the “opponent” can actually be the athlete’s former self (i.e., PR’s)!
Every now and then, we all have a day when we exceed our own expectations and have the performance of a lifetime, a Breakthrough Performance, and this could be an instance when mental forces come into play in order to put on the finishing touches. It could happen only once per year or once per lifetime, but we know it when it happens. Otherwise, “if everything is special, then nothing is special.” If you’re mentally tough every day, then I might doubt the legitimacy of your definition of mentally tough. If you have a high pain tolerance and that is your definition of mental toughness, then so be it, and I’ll write more about that another time, as there as also physical aspects of pain tolerance, not just the cognitive interpretation of pain. But hopefully you’re not experiencing injury-related pain every day anyway…“Train Smarter, Not Harder,” right?
Finally, the terms resilience and grit are trending these days, and before these terms were made popular, there was the term mental toughness, which has been difficult to study scientifically because its definition varies from one person to the next and from context-to-context. And before there was mental toughness, there was hardiness, for which hardiness has existed in the psychological literature for a long time. In short, hardiness is positively correlated with goal achievement, a strong immune system, and less absenteeism at the workplace. And unlike mental toughness, hardiness actually has a definition, namely possessing “The 3 C’s”, a) the ability to sense control during difficult tasks, b) embracing challenges as an opportunity to grow/evolve, and c) a sense of commitment to finish a given task. People will keep coming up with new terms for mental forces in order to carve out a niche for themselves, and 5 years from now, someone will write a new book and we’ll be calling hardiness (mental toughness) something else…perhaps the re-emergence of the word fortitude…who knows. “Fortitude: 9 Ways to Be Your Strongest Self Tomorrow!” I don’t doubt it.
Train Smarter, Not Harder,