Mental Toughness Exercises for You and Your Students (Part Two)

Yesterday, I offered four simple exercises for students to grow their “grit.” Today, I will offer four more, in Part Two of the Eight Ideas to Develop Mental Toughness list. Before I do—consider the day we live in.

When we reflect on the realities that Generation Z grows up with today, we could argue that life has never been easier, more convenient, offering swifter service and solutions delivered to our door or on a screen, more so than in any past generation. Collectively, they have more opportunity than any previous generation in history. Although kids today suffer from more mental health issues than past generations, some of the problem has been fostered by their sedentary and low-physical activity lifestyles. In short, today’s kids have not been conditioned to develop grit.

University of Pennsylvania researcher and psychologist Angela Duckworth, has done the most extensive study on grit, and has defined it as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Dr. Duckworth has created a test called the “Grit Scale,” assessing students on a series of 8 to 12 issues, that reveals their perspective and possession of resilience and perseverance. Duckworth’s team has found that a person’s grit score is highly predictive of achievement in challenging situations.

To be clear, grit is a greater predictor of success in life than grades.

In fact, during my visit to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, I discovered a cadet’s grit score was the best predictor of success in the rigorous summer training program known as “Beast Barracks.” Grit mattered more than intelligence, talent, leadership ability or physical fitness. In fact, the ones most likely to succeed actually had less than average talent, perhaps intuitively knowing that what they lacked in talent they could make up for in tenacity. Further, at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, it was the grittiest contestants, not necessarily the smartest ones with the highest IQ who were most likely to advance to the finals, in part due to the fact they would study longer and with greater focus.

Eight Ideas to Develop Mental Toughness (Part 2)

So, yesterday, I offered the first four items of eight to build mental toughness:

  1. Wait on something you want.
  2. Talk positively to yourself.
  3. Persist on a project when it’s hard.
  4. Memorize important information.

Let’s pick it up from there.

5. Read a long book. 

The digital world has changed our reading habits. In many ways, it’s made us lazy. We now consume more information per week than we did two generations ago, but in shorter spurts, and usually on screens, often websites, instead of books. We’re often conditioned to read 140 characters at a time. We feel like we understand something when we’ve digested a sound bite. Then we move on. Teens’ attention spans have shortened from 12 seconds in the year 2,000 to 8 seconds today. Adolescents are reading fewer books for fun than they did 30 years ago. Why would they with access to on-demand shows on Netflix or YouTube? So, reading at least 30 minutes a day over a period of several weeks increases our mental toughness. Staying with a long book, working to recall the arch of the story or the theme cultivates our grit.

6. Practice mindfulness daily.

Mindfulness is a way to recover control of our thoughts. Many adolescents display little mental discipline because they merely react to external stimuli from their portable device, unlocking their phone 80 times a day. Mindfulness, the art of brief meditation, enables our minds to focus for a few minutes, quiet our thoughts, calm our emotions and guide our thought processes away from all the noise and clutter around us. There are countless apps available on our smart phone that help a person practice mindfulness on a daily basis. While the advantage is far more than mental discipline, the experience furnishes us with the ability to stay on top of our thoughts. It also offers the advantage of emotional stability when practiced regularly.

7. Pay attention to a program long past its engagement value.

This step is a second cousin to numbers three and five above, but it cultivates mental toughness in a different way because it enables us to conquer boredom. Another unintended consequence of our digital world is that it teaches us to run from boredom; to seek out entertainment or stimulation instead of creating it ourselves. When we force ourselves to continue paying attention to a program our minds must work to find stimulation when it’s difficult to find. Finishing a lengthy project or program when we would rather quit liberates us from the tyranny of our need for someone else to help us persevere. It relieves us from our “addiction to stimulation.” The faster we quit a commitment, the easier it is to quit again. The longer we persevere in a commitment, the easier it is to stay committed in the future.

8. Build a moral compass and set standards inside of you.

People get derailed in their pursuit of excellence by compromising their beliefs. When the going gets tough, they begin to buy into the idea they can fudge on a standard or surrender a moral value they hold to be true. One of the clearest paths to building mental toughness is the accountability that comes from a personal ethic or belief that will not let you surrender. It holds you to performing as your best self. In other words, I grow mentally tough when I embrace a standard that’s transcendent of me, and it acts as a plumb line to keep me performing excellently. Years ago, I exchanged New Year’s resolutions for New Year’s standards. They are a “bar” for me to reach on a regular basis, not just a one-time goal.

I bet you can come up with other ideas that could foster grit in your students. Why not try them out and if they work—add them to this list?

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Mental Toughness Exercises for You and Your Students (Part Two)