Years ago, my mom bought me a book titled “Girl Power: Inspiring stories of smart, strong, super-real women.”Riach, S. (2009). Girl Power Inspiring Stories of Smart, Strong, Super-real Women. Hallmark Books. 1st ed. Inside there are more than 30 stories of women facing their fears, persevering no matter what, and chasing their dreams. After re-reading this book as an adult, several female athletes reminded me of key sport psychology and mental toughness principles that can help all of us be our best selves. And even though we’re focusing on women’s health right now, when it comes to mental toughness, I believe that men and woman aren’t that different. So men, if you’ve already started reading, keep going as I’m sure you’ll enjoy this article as much as the women.
1. “When you want something bad enough, fear and pain become unimportant” -Laura Wilkinson, Diver and Olympian
I believe the first marker of mental toughness, utilized by the best athletes of our time, is wanting success more than you fear anything else. Laura Wilkinson is a former American diver and Olympic gold medalist. Five months before the Olympics, she broke the middle three bones in her right foot during training. She chose to delay surgery so that she could still compete in the games. Rarely able to practice from the diving platform, on the day of competition, about to perform the same action that broke her foot, Wilkinson focused on two things: her love for diving and her desire for the gold medal. In that moment, any fear and pain became unimportant and she gained an Olympic gold medal and was claimed the world’s best diver.
Think about your fears and any pain that, until now, have prevented you from really going after a specific goal. Do your best to silence those fears and pain by bringing what you want to achieve front and center in your mind. It’s not about completely dismissing your fears and pain because they are real and, like Laura Wilkinson, you probably have good reason for having them. Rather, it’s about reprioritizing and making your love for your sport, mind, and body, as well your deep desire to perform your best, more important than the fear. Then, you’ll give yourself the best shot at achieving your goals. (Of course, you should make your own health decisions with the advice of your doctor, and seek medical attention if you have persistent or severe pain.)
2. “I don’t need easy, I just need possible” -Bethany Hamilton, Pro Surfer
You may have heard of a pro surfer who, at thirteen, was attacked by a shark in Kauai, Hawaii and lost her arm. Despite the physical, emotional, and psychological challenges that come with a traumatic experience like this, Bethany Hamilton was back in the water just ten weeks after the attack and returned to competition. She turned down any special treatment, as she wanted to be treated like everyone else.
I believe Bethany Hamilton understands a very important motivational principle. She understands that to be optimally motivated and focused; you must strive for goals that are challenging and still within your reach of achievement. Although we may initially think we want things to be easy, when we set goals that are too easy, we make room for distractions and even boredom. Goals that push and challenge us (that are just above our current level of ability) heighten our concentration and give us the best opportunity to have a peak experience.
Every time you train in your sport, turn your focus away from what’s easy and zone in on specific goals that will be challenging yet possible to achieve. You’ll be amazed at the level of confidence you develop that will only propel you to create new challenging goals for the next day.
3. “It just basically comes down to the love that you have for what you’re doing and if you believe in what you are doing.” -Dot Richardson
Dot Richardson is an orthopedic surgeon and former international softball player. She reminds us all how important intrinsic motivation is for long-lasting participation in any activity we pursue. You may have read that yoga can help improve flexibility, or that running makes your booty look good. A fitness professional may have told you that you need to do interval training. All that may be true, but only if you do those activities consistently. Instead of trying to figure out what you should be doing when it comes to sport and fitness, ask yourself what you love to do or what activities you will enjoy the most. When you participate in activities you enjoy (that you choose to do, feel competent in, and connect with), you are more likely to stick with it. Then you truly give yourself the best opportunity to achieve your best self. Like Dot has been quoted saying, “Do what you love and what you believe in.” That is the most direct path to realizing your best performance and overall best self!
Who inspires you?