Mental Toughness Exercises for You and Your Students
Did you know some of the greatest examples of “mental toughness” are unlikely heroes who failed or performed poorly prior to their rise to achievement? In other words, they all experienced a setback before they made a comeback:
- Roger Federer, the greatest tennis player in history, with seven Wimbledon titles, lost in the first round of Wimbledon his first three years of playing.
- Taylor Swift was rejected by RCA for a record contract at age 15. A year and a half later, she was discovered in Nashville and soon became a household name.
- Mike Krzyzewski, men’s basketball coach at Duke, had a mediocre record of 38-37 his first three seasons. His ACC conference record was a dismal 13-29.
- Roger Bannister finished fourth in his event in the 1952 Olympics. It was this disappointment that drove him to break the four-minute mile two years later.
- Lady Gaga was originally signed by Def Jam Recordings at age 19, but the company let her go after just three months. They saw no future with her.
Clearly, each of these individuals modeled mental toughness. They didn’t quit when quitting seemed like the most logical option. Most anyone else would have quit. Some might say that mental toughness is becoming rare in our day. It has been defined as “the ability to resist, manage and overcome doubts, worries, concerns and circumstances that prevent you from succeeding, or excelling at a performance outcome that you set out to achieve.”
While we all want this for our kids today—we don’t see it as much as we want. Far too often, we’ve actually robbed them of resiliency.
Eight Ideas to Develop Mental Toughness
Below, I offer you actionable items that all foster mental toughness over time. I encourage you to meet with your student(s) and take these challenges together. Make it a mutual exercise in growing “grit.” I will provide another four items in tomorrow’s blog article.
1. Wait on something you want.
Our brains have incredible capacity for critical thinking and problem solving, but we get lazy due to the fast paced, quick-click, convenient world we live in today. We are conditioned for immediate gratification and would sooner quit than wait. Learning to wait on something we really want is like working out in a gym. Patience is like a muscle. When we’re able to remain patient and stay the course until we reach a goal, neural pathways form in our brains and tell us success is possible. Good habits form. Those pathways enable us to work and wait again. Psychologists call this, “learned industriousness.” Few things cultivate mental toughness like active patience—working while you wait for rewards.
2. Talk positively to yourself.
A friend explained to me how he lost 40 lbs. He said, “I stopped listening to myself and started talking to myself.” It’s a brilliant piece of advice. Too often, we grow lazy or weary because we listen to our accidental self-talk or our lazy disposition and believe it. Positivity is one of the greatest feeders of mental toughness. There are many times I finished a project because I continued telling myself I could do it, when no one else did. Positive self-talk is one of my most important allies. “To develop and maintain the kind of mental toughness success requires, it’s crucial to keep your thoughts and self-talk positive and avoid habits that lead to negativity and unhealthy behaviors,” writes Lolly Daskal, president of Lead From Within.
3. Persist on a project when it’s hard.
This is something I talked to my kids about as they were growing up. We embraced this definition for discipline: “Doing what you need to do even when you don’t feel like it.” This is huge. All four of us in our family would choose a project (often weekly) that we didn’t like and do it. We’d discuss it later just for accountability’s sake. Whether it was cleaning the garage, taking out the trash every other day, raking leaves, you name it, we all chose something that wasn’t glitzy or sexy, but was hard. On purpose. There’s something about pushing my lazy body to do the opposite of what it wants that helps me lead myself, deepens my discipline—and makes me mentally tough. Few activities make us tougher than intentionally “doing hard things.”
4. Memorize important information.
Thanks to Google, Wikipedia and smart phones, we don’t need to recall information that we once memorized—like phone numbers and quick facts. In fact, we now possess a “Google Reflex” where our memories once resided. Yet, while this is true, it has affected our brains. Studies show we don’t retain information we once did because we subconsciously know it’s stored on a device. Further, thanks to the ongoing stimulation from our portable devices, we are more apt to remember entertaining facts than facts that actually benefit us. More Americans can tell you what Kim Kardashian is doing this week than what their state senate is doing at the capitol building. So, what if we conditioned our brain to memorize some important information, even if we could look it up, for the sake of building mental toughness? Like the restaurant waiter who deliberately hears your order and without writing it down, executes it with the chefs, we can deepen our mental abilities by committing data to memory and regurgitating it later to someone. Memories work like muscles. Use them or lose them.
Tomorrow, I will offer another four ideas to foster mental toughness.
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