Often we think of mental toughness as being an assertive force, something that drives us on and gives us belief that we can, and will win. Mental toughness is the motivator that takes you to the field not just to show up, but compete with confidence – no matter who you are facing. It is the factor that gives you the confidence to take blows and still keep going. It is the armour that protects your mind from the fear of failure. And like armour it is not easily made, but if you put the work in to make it strong you will be far ahead of your competition.
After his Stevenage team earned a convincing win against one of the bigger clubs in the league, one of the more successful lower league managers in English soccer, Graham Westley, told a local radio station that “I don’t think we ever really care too much about clubs’ reputations. Games get won by the 11 players that play any football match on any day. They don’t get won by the size of your history, the size of your fanbase, or the size of your wage bill, they’re won by the size of the hearts, the cleverness of the brains and the strength of the legs in the players on the day.”
Westley, much maligned by many for his philosophical approach and psychological mind-games cannot be accused of a lack of belief in himself, or the teams he builds. He approaches every challenge with a self-belief that irritates friends and infuriates foes, and sometimes infuriates friends as well.
Mental toughness is the armour that protects the mind even before the competition begins. It is the driving force that says we can win even if we get hit. It is the motivation to put one foot in front of another and head to the field of competition. It is the reason a small team like Stevenage can beat bigger opponents, and why smaller teams can beat them. But armour takes three components that we must apply to our mindset. It is also the tool we use to overcome fear of failure – we can always learn and we will always get back up again.
This is more than simply hoping for a result or wishful thinking. Wishful thinking does not bring about confidence, and will not bring about results. Wishful thinking is not based on hard work, dedication, or persistence. Mental toughness isn’t a “thing” or system of beliefs based on hope and unicorn farts. Mental toughness, like physical toughness, comes about through hard work and focus. It is grown from adversity, an openness to challenge, and doing what needs to be done, even when you don’t want to.
Here are the three takeaways for today:
1 – You need raw materials. Without a certain level of skill, which can only come from practice and dedication, confidence will always be lacking. You may not have the skill level you want to be at today, but practice will increase skill, and with it your determination builds mental toughness.
2 – You need the right tools. A blacksmith with an anvil that moved around and failed to absorb the hammer blows would not have been any use. Likewise, the right support system is needed for someone wanting to improve their mental toughness. Find a coach who will challenge you, and find friends who will support you and push you to be better. Be around people who have high expectations of you and believe in you.
3 – You need flexibility. Just as armour couldn’t be manipulated into something useful without fire, neither can the mind grow without adversity and challenges. Be open to new ideas, new experiences, and don’t be afraid to fail and own it.
Mental toughness is practicing in the pouring rain when the opponent isn’t. It is running that extra 100m when your legs gave up a mile ago. It is getting back on the beam when you fell for the third time. It is picking the ball out of the net for the fourth time and still giving everything for the full 90 minutes. It is leaving it all on the field, because anything else is less than you owe yourself and your team for all the work you put into being there to start with.
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