By Brian Wallace, Ph.D., FACSM |
For many, sport and exercise science seems like a world apart from their own daily lives – corporate executives, professors, sales and advertising, housewives and moms. Those of us in sport science use sport as a living lab, a place to precisely measure how athletes respond to stress – not just physically but mentally and emotionally as well. We have found that the most successful in life, leading professionals and world-class athletes have uncovered how to enhance their ability to not only survive with stress but to perform at higher levels under the most intense conditions – a capacity known as being mentally tough, and it can benefit all of us.
The capacity for mental toughness is fundamental to our ability to meet head-on the personal challenges we each face every day – the daily wear and tear of taxes, traffic, weather, family and job issues superimposed against an ever-changing and somewhat troubling global backdrop. We live in real time, fast-moving and unrelenting. With our mental and emotional capacities on overdrive, we under-train physically, persevere with too little sleep, fuel up on fast foods and caffeine, and unwind with alcohol or sleeping pills. The result is an imbalanced cycle of stress and recovery that compromises our health, fitness and performance.
The reality is that stress of all types – mental, emotional, and physical – is good for you. Exposure to stress is the most powerful mechanism driving personal growth. Much as we can increase our physical strength by lifting progressively heavier weights, so too it is possible to systematically shape our mind and emotions to grow stronger, more resilient and flexible. Too much stress, however, without equal doses of recovery and we burnout, too little and we atrophy. Ultimately however, the impact of stress in our life is determined not by the stress itself but by our personal response. To become mentally tough we must change how we think, feel and act.
Training to be mentally tough is largely about fine-tuning our way of responding to a stressful situation. The next time the challenges of life escalate and you feel overwhelmed (whether at work, home or even in traffic) resist the urge to become defensive, angry, negative or inflexible. Rather, become focused, grounded and engaged. Take a break, a deep breath, go for a walk to dissipate stress hormones and to recapture perspective while identifying solutions and, yes, smile – even the simple act of smiling will readjust your physiology and help dissipate the buildup of the chemistry of distress. Embrace any challenge that comes your way, for nothing carries more influence over your physiology and capacity for change than the power of the mind. Thoughts and actions that are consistently repeated become embedded and are more easily accessed when needed and ultimately will have a powerful impact on stimulating consistent behavior change. Such mental training rewires your brain, attitudes change and philosophies take shape. As a result, productivity increases and considered reflection guides future decisions. To be called mentally tough is the ultimate compliment. It means you can take a hit, rebound quickly from failure, grow from your mistakes and continue to move forward more resolute. Building super health, realizing dreams and personal happiness are fundamentally anchored in being mentally tough.
Dr. Brian Wallace is the chair of sports exercise science at the United States Sports Academy.