Personal Training

Mental Strength

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Mental strength is a necessary skill for any athlete. It is also very useful in day-to-day life. Dealing with things that occur that you’d rather not think about or deal with is applying mental strength. It is a skill that you can improve, and that carries over from training to life. Anecdotally, being thrown in the deep end and having to deal with some quite frightening and potentially life changing things also does a lot for both mental strength and attitude to life!

It’s interesting that employers are often not that encouraging of their employees taking some sports seriously. Training rather than random keep fit. But there are many positive aspects that then transfer over to that person in the workplace. Being prepared to push yourself outside of your comfort zone in you own time, and to deal with what that brings, leads to a high likelihood of  being able to do the same during the course of your work! Next time someone wants you to work late, but you’d miss training, tell them this 😉

It is important to realise that willpower is not mental strength, at least not in isolation. Don’t beat yourself up when you think you lack willpower. Hard work, commitment, habits, all things I mentioned in my “Exercise is Hard!” apply too. It is perhaps for this reason people would say that they are mentally strong when things are going well. There are no disruptions for them to need to deal with, and to threaten any willpower or habit.

It is also sensible to consider control. Whilst you feel in control, it is much easier to flex your mental strength. Likewise, lack of control may hinder your adherence to a plan; a dip in mental strength. Therefore, a useful strategy is to focus on what is important and under your control. If you try to control things you can’t or worry too much about them, it becomes harder to use that focus elsewhere. Worry will also not stop that thing from happening. I speak from very real anxiety related experience here (though not when it comes to kettlebell sport).Negative thoughts, along the lines of “I can’t do this” also do not help. Would your tell your child/partner/best mate that? No, you’d be encouraging and positive. Do the same with yourself. You can do it! I’m not suggesting you ignore weaknesses, or be unrealistic, but there is no harm in saying I will do this, and to do this I need to x, y, and z. That said I think the overreliance on positive affirmations of limited use. It is important to be realistic whereas a lot of memes on Facebook etc. don’t take that into account. Just saying you can kick-ass, doesn’t mean you can when push comes to shove. Or kick, if you prefer 😉

An important aspect of mental strength is that when being used it can take you to places that are uncomfortable. However bad this may sound, it is necessary to experience discomfort to progress. Also being aware of your discomfort is important. Know that this thing you are dealing with is hard. Acknowledging it can help dealing with it. In a kettlebell sport context, increasing reps and/or time with a heavier bell requires both physical and mental discomfort. But knowing you are only (a relative term!) doing an extra rep/10 seconds today is enough to allow you to get through it, and push forwards. This discomfort challenges you. And when you achieve it, you can push on to the next challenge. Getting outside of our comfort zone is important as it teaches us to deal with uncertainty and fear. When you face fear and don’t let it win, you are developing mental strength. And courage. It doesn’t matter if that fear is real or imagined, rational or irrational. You need to face that fear, and in doing so you are taking back control.

Like anything that you want to improve, mental strength takes work. Don’t expect to try to do all of the above and to make progress each time. Another aspect of mental strength is to realise that you need to evaluate your progress. For example (last weekend) I realised I couldn’t lift that weight for that long regardless of how many times I told myself I could. It was more logical to stop before injury, check the plan to ensure I had enough recovery time, and ensure I hit my next workout. Which I did, and felt much happier after that next lifting session 🙂

Mental strength is also about focusing on the next step; the next incremental improvement. Telling yourself that’s all you have to reach (another rep, another 10 seconds, etc.) makes it feel easier and therefore you can convince yourself to carry on. Telling yourself you have 100 reps lift is daunting. Allow yourself to stop after reaching that sub-goal, and over time you will progress to the 100 reps without any concern. And in doing so you will have improved your determination to progress.

Our bodies can handle a lot more than we think. Unless you are obviously injured (and you know when you are – you just may not admit it *shifty look*) don’t let soreness or tiredness put you off. Keeping going – again that is mental strength. I didn’t want to do my training last night. I’d got in from work, tired, after a stressful day. But after a little sit down (come on, I’m only human 😉 ) I cracked on with it and performed completely to plan. I knew I needed to fit that workout in, and made myself start it. I relaxed into it and kept going. I may not have hit all reps but if I’d put in all I could give and attempted the training I would have been happy too. It’s a bonus I was able to colour that session in my plan green as fully complete 🙂

Mental strength is an abstract concept, but to improve it you need to do actual things. Those things will differ to everyone. Some examples are:

  • sticking to a training plan
  • doing an extra rep (or reps) in each set
  • lifting for a longer duration on each exercise
  • choosing to spend an hour a week being creative away from day-to-day chores and pressures
  • getting to work on time every day for a week or a month
  • having a home cooked meal five times a week
  • not having takeaways for the next month
  • hitting your macros every day

It needs to be something you have a desire and a determination to achieve. Building mental toughness around things you are not so keen on is going to make it harder. Though, of course, that is not impossible. But I suggest you get a handle on mental strength with something favourable first 🙂

Small wins over time build mental toughness. Don’t think that people you see as strong are necessarily more courageous or more talented. They are just more consistent and practiced at passing small hurdles. As time passes these small improvements lead to bigger achievements and goals. Their habits will let them improve in this way. They look to stay on schedule when things get tough or busy. Others tend to fall away and use them as excuses. No-one said it was easy!

Of course, there are plenty of challenges that mental strength helps with outside of training and sport. But given you are reading a blog about kettlebell sport it seems appropriate to couch it in those terms. Persistence and determination, dealing with hardship, tackling daunting things. All of these things are related to mental strength. You can apply this to work, life, relationships, … In any area though, mental strength is something you work on and earn. It’s not a freebie!

Leave a comment. Go on. You know you want to!