Change your mind

Friday July 30,2012

WOD: 20 Deadlift 95/65 20 Push press/jerk 20 Thruster 20 OHS 20 Front squat
every minute do 4 burpees


What causes the ordinary man to accomplish the extraordinary? When most would quit or not even try to begin with, what pushes a person to go farther or longer? What pushes him to go where the ordinary man would not even dare to go? Some people call it courage, I would agree that this is part of it but courage will only get you through the door. It is mental toughness that keeps you walking down that difficult path beyond which the ordinary man would not continue. Mental Toughness is what makes extraordinary feats possible.

So how does one discover or develop mental toughness? Well I for one don’t believe it is something that can be discovered or developed. I believe it has to be a combination of multiple processes. First you have to make up your mind and do it for reasons that are important to only you. You must decide that the endeavor in which you are undertaking is worthwhile. It cannot be someone else’s goals or dreams, they must be yours. Second, you have to discover within yourself the fire that drives you to accomplish the difficult and endure the hardships that go hand in hand with success and achievement. Third, you have to develop the winning mentality that carries you in the moments that cause the ordinary to fold and abandon that which they were courageous enough to attempt.

These processes can be applied to any enterprise but without proper understanding of your limits both mental and physical the potential for failure and ultimately psychological let down becomes more likely. So the question lies in just how does one develop the mental skills necessary to achieve the extraordinary and succeed in accomplishing difficult goals for which they set for themselves.

Success through failure is an abstract concept that may seem backwards to those who have neither experienced success nor failed to succeed at something for which they desired to achieve. In general there are four types of people within what I call the mental toughness paradigm. Within the paradigm you have two driving factors: Confidence in ability or experience, and Anxiety of failure or inadequacy. The way we typify a person as it relates to the first process of discovering mental toughness based on the paradigm is to determine the proper balance of the two driving factors.

The four prototype individuals are:

  • Low confidence/Low anxiety
  • Low confidence/High anxiety
  • High confidence/Low anxiety
  • High confidence/High anxiety

Let us quickly break down each prototype personality. In the first example the person who exhibits a “low/low” personality is someone who has little confidence in their abilities however does not show anxiety toward failure. The reason behind this is that the individual won’t experience failure because they most likely won’t even pursue the endeavor. You can’t fail if you don’t try, right? So someone who lacks confidence in themselves and doesn’t set high goals won’t have anything to fear. If you aim for the gutter you’ll never miss but aiming for the stars invites the possibility of failure, and to these people it isn’t worth the risk.

The second personality type, the “low/high” is dominated by people who either don’t know their limits, or have a natural lack of self confidence. They may have achieved some small level of success in their endeavors however not with enough consistency or on a grand enough scale to build confidence. These people have a high anxiety toward failure because they generally have enough courage to begin the journey toward great things but at the first sign of struggle or strife they instantly fear they are not good enough to endure and thus fulfill a self propagating pattern of failure. Sometimes people fall into this personality type when the pressures for success are put on them from an outside source, like the child athlete with overbearing parents who attempt to live vicariously through their children. It may not have ever been that person’s dream to be a pro-baseball player but because of pressures from the parent the child feels obligated to pursue goals that are not their own.

The third personality type, the “high/low” is where we find the high school athlete who becomes the manager at Wal-Mart. Please understand I mean no disrespect to high school athletes or Wal-Mart managers, but typically we don’t see a lot of stud quarterbacks who really, really want to run a super store when they graduate from high school. These individuals are extremely high in confidence usually because they are naturally gifted or received excellent training and coupled that with hard work. The biggest reason these people peak early or not at all is due to a lower level of challenge. If you’ve never really been tested in your life and you are used to sustained success in everything you attempt, then the first time something challenges you beyond your abilities and you are faced with the possibility of failure, the ego can’t take it. The mind fails these people because it has always been easy for them. They don’t lose, they don’t fail and when failure hits them they can’t recover from it.

This leaves us with the final prototype of the mental toughness paradigm. The individuals who are “high/high” have the perfect balance of confidence and anxiety of failure. This is where we see the product of success through failure. These people have high confidence not only in their abilities but also their ability to cope with failure. They fear failure only in the sense that it equates to an unaccomplished goal, however their previous experiences with failure and ultimate success allows them to fight through the difficult aspects of the road to accomplishing their goals and they know that through that experience they have what it takes to overcome. These are the people who “get back on the horse” and “don’t take no for an answer.” It is the knowledge that “I’ve been here before and I can do this” that sets these people apart from the other three personality types. Thomas Edison said “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

This is a prime example of the argument that the discovery of mental toughness is derived from a high confidence in ability and the high anxiety of failure. Failure breeds determination in the mentally tough. If at first you don’t succeed try, try again as the saying goes. But understand that when we talk about the anxiety of failure we aren’t suggesting that the mentally tough be afraid of failing like someone who is afraid of spiders would get anxious if they saw one. The fear of failure is a compelling force; it allows the mentally tough to put worthiness to the task. If it weren’t hard to do, would it be worth accomplishing? If the possibility of failure weren’t present would you even care?

What if I’m not a high confidence/high anxiety personality? The answer lies within the second process of attaining mental toughness, development. How do you think the great success stories in life became such? Did Lance Armstrong wake up one day and just, poof, dominate his chosen endeavor or did he find and develop the mental toughness necessary to succeed when his body told him to quit? I think the rhetorical nature of the question exhibits the answers we all seek. Of course Lance experienced failure in life, of course there were times when he didn’t achieve his desired goals but he persevered and endured.

So what kind of techniques can you use to develop and strengthen what your mind and body already possess? How do we develop mental toughness? I don’t advocate undertaking tasks that are impossible for the sole purpose of experiencing failure, nor do I suggest you only pursue goals that require no effort. To do either of these two things would perpetuate the wrong balance of confidence/anxiety. A few mental toughness development strategies that I find effective are pretty simple to practice and fairly common in usage.

  • Give your goals worthiness: Why is it that what you are doing is important? If you give a man the why he’ll undoubtedly discover the how.
  • Break goals down to the lowest common denominator: Let’s say my goal is to win the CrossFit Games. That’s a very lofty and seemingly impossible goal. It is a long and difficult journey. But if I break the goal down to a lower common goal such as, to win the CrossFit games I need to place in the top three at Regionals. To place in the top three at Regionals I need to be in the top 60 at the Open. To be in the top 60 at the open I need to develop a competitive Olympic Lifting game and have a high work capacity in metcons. To develop that Olympic Lifting and increase my metcon I need to find a good box with a good trainer and eat the kind of foods that maximize performance. The goal never changed – I want to win the Games, but I break the goal down into smaller goals that are objectively structured and tailored to the individual.
  • After you break your goals down quantify the steps necessary to achieve the goal: I want to win the CrossFit Games in 2014, I need to make it to Regionals by placing in the top 60 at the Open. Competitive numbers for Regionals are: sub-3 minute Fran, 10 unbroken muscle ups, 230# snatch, 25 foot handstand walk. To get those numbers I need to find a box that focuses on the difficult and technical skills within the CrossFit modality (you know, because no one loses the Games because of burpees). Remember it is much easier to attack your goal if you have bench marks to reach. It is easier to reach goals that have realistic milestones than it is to look at abstract notions with no way of gauging the level of success.
  • Visualization: Pretty common in the world of success. See yourself doing something and then do it. Envision yourself flawlessly executing the task that you are striving to accomplish; the more intense you can project your success on your image the better. Don’t just win, crush it.
  • Reflect on the victories/analyze failure: Go over the mental summary of success and pinpoint what went right for you that led to the success. The same is necessary for failures; you can’t win them all so when you do fail, look back and find out where it went wrong so you can avoid the mistakes that lead to the failure.
  • Don’t dwell: On either success or failure. Enjoy the success but don’t linger on it. Accept the failure for what it is but don’t let it consume you. Revert back to positive self imagery, and understand that failure builds the experience that you can return to and ultimately push through to success.
  • Encourage yourself: Positive self talk mentally or even verbally will benefit you to achieve your goal. Don’t think it sounds silly to hype yourself up. The only thing that is silly is not reaching your goal because of a strategy that you elected not to use.
  • Find and maintain like minded partnerships: Let’s face it – not everyone you encounter will share your drive or determination, in fact those of more feeble mental fortitude may desire to see you fail. Let the haters hate but don’t allow their negativity to cloud your purpose. Keep those around you who encourage your successes.

I leave you with the following truths. We can’t all be winners but you can’t win them all. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If it were easy everyone would do it. If you don’t believe in yourself how do you expect anyone else to? Fortune favors the bold. No pain no gain. Courage is not the absence of fear but how one acts in the face of fear. You only fail when you quit trying. Pain is temporary but not giving it your best is a shame that last forever. What may break the body a strong mind can endure. There is no success like failure and failure is no success at all. Believe and you will achieve.

- Justin Smalley *Adapted from NAVSPECWARCEN Mental Toughness Seminar