How Mentally Tough Are You?

How Mentally Tough Are You?

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

When was the last time you faced a difficult test or challenge — mental or physical? How did you handle the situation? When you hit an obstacle or a limit, were you able to push through and persevere despite the pain, exhaustion or self-doubt? Or, did you reach your last straw and give up and give in?

Do you think mental toughness is something you are born with or a mind-set and set of habits you can develop, like your muscles?

Do you think we can all learn how to not only endure, but thrive in our daily challenges?

In “Build Mental Endurance Like a Pro,” Talya Minsberg writes about the life lessons we can learn from the world’s best extreme athletes:

There’s a special kind of exhaustion that the world’s best endurance athletes embrace. Some call it masochistic, others may call it brave. When fatigue sends legs and lungs to their limits, they are able to push through to a gear beyond their pain threshold. These athletes approach fatigue not with fear but as a challenge, an opportunity.

It’s a quality that allows an ultramarathoner to endure what could be an unexpected rough segment of a 100-mile race, or a sailor to push ahead when she’s in the middle of the ocean, racing through hurricane winds alone.

The drive to persevere is something some are born with, but it’s also a muscle everyone can learn to flex. In a way, everyone has become an endurance athlete of sorts during this pandemic, running a race with no finish line that tests the limits of their exhaustion.

Some of the world’s best extreme athletes shared what they do when they think they’ve reached their last straw. How do they not only endure, but thrive in daily challenges?

One message they all had: You are stronger than you think you are, and everyone is able to adapt in ways they didn’t think possible. But there are a few techniques to help you along — 100-mile race not required.

The author provides several techniques used by athletes for thriving in the face of difficult circumstances that are applicable to all people. Here are excerpts from three:

Pace Yourself

Training to become an elite endurance athlete means learning to embrace discomfort. Instead of hiding from pain, athletes must learn to work with it. A lot of that comes down to pacing, the sports psychologist Carla Meijen said.

Similarly, as you muscle through an ongoing pandemic, you must look for ways to make peace with unknowns and new, uncomfortable realities. “When we think about the coronavirus, we are in it for the long run; so how do you pace yourself?” asked Dr. Meijen, a senior lecturer at St Mary’s University in London.

She recommends thinking about your routines, practicing positive self-talk and focusing on processes instead of outcomes. You don’t know when the pandemic will end, but you can take control of your daily habits, Dr. Meijen said.

Create Mini-Goals

Sports psychologists frequently recommend creating mini milestones en route to a big goal. There are many steps on the path from base camp to a mountain’s summit. Likewise, there are smaller, more achievable milestones to reach and celebrate as you venture ahead into the unknown.

“Setting goals that are controllable makes it easier to adapt,” Dr. Meijen said. “If you set goals that are controlled by other people, goals that aren’t realistic or are tough or boring, those are much harder to adapt to.”

The professional ultrarunner Coree Woltering is especially skilled at conquering mini goals. The long-distance runner has stood on the podium after races from 50 kilometers to 100 miles. This summer, he set his sights on breaking the running record on the Ice Age Trail: some 1,147 miles across Wisconsin. He ran more than 50 miles a day for three weeks in a row to accomplish the feat.

“I’m really good at breaking things down into small increments and setting micro-goals,” he said. How micro?

“I break things down to 10 seconds at a time,” Mr. Woltering continued. “You just have to be present in what you are doing and you have to know that it may not be the most fun — or super painful — now, but that could change in 10 seconds down the road.”

Focus on Something New

When all else fails, look to something new: a new hobby, a new goal, a new experience. During a particularly hard patch of a competition, some athletes say they focus on a different sense, one that perhaps is not at the forefront of their mind when the pain sets in. A runner could note the smells around her and a climber could note the way his hair is blowing in the wind. When athletes are injured, sports psychologists and coaches frequently encourage them to find a new activity to engage their mind and body. The key is to adapt, adapt and then adapt again.

“We all want mental toughness, it’s an important part of dealing with difficult things,” Michael Gervais, a psychologist who specializes in high performance and the host of the “Finding Mastery” podcast, said. “The current definition of mental toughness is the ability to pivot and to be nimble and flexible.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • The article defines mental toughness as “the ability to pivot and to be nimble and flexible.” Are you able to pivot and be flexible in the face of adversity? How mentally strong are you?

  • Can you recall a time when you demonstrated mental toughness in the face of a grueling test or challenge? Describe your experience: What was the situation? What strategies did you use to conquer your pain, exhaustion or doubt? What advice do you have for others who are facing similar adversity?

  • What role does mental toughness play in your life? Does it affect your life in and out of school? Do you agree that mental strength is needed during the pandemic more than ever? Why or why not?

  • What do you think of the athletes’ message: “You are stronger than you think you are, and everyone is able to adapt in ways they didn’t think possible.” Do you think this is true? Which of the athletes’ experiences and life lessons resonated most for you? Why?

  • Which techniques recommended in the article, like setting micro-goals or learning to pace yourself, do you find most useful? Do you think you could learn to “embrace discomfort”? How might you apply this advice in your daily life?

  • The article ends:

“The next moment is always completely uncertain, and it’s always been that way,” Dr. Gervais said. But adapting, adjusting expectations and discovering new goals or hobbies can allow you to continue to build the muscle that is mental toughness.

Bottom line? “Optimism is an antidote to anxiety,” Dr. Gervais said.

Does the article give you optimism — to get through the pandemic and to find ways to grow in mental toughness?