Most people think they know what mental toughness is. I thought I did. I thought it was what helped me finish an 8-hour race, or what will propel me through my upcoming Ironman in August. I took a special interest and started reading all I could about the subject. It turns out that there has been a real, scientific investigation of the phenomena and there are specific concepts which can measure your mental toughness. I decided to see what it could be used to improve upon and have found that it can be applied to almost anything! At the end of this description, I give specific exercises which can drastically improve your mental toughness mindset when dealing with injuries.
I became interested enough to become certified to give the psychometric test to evaluate one’s mental toughness (MTQ48). Prior to Peter Clough’s 4 C’s model, which led to the mental toughness test, there were a number of different definitions for this personality trait, and not all had been based on any research. Now, with a research-based definition and working model, we can assess someone’s mental toughness in relation to just about any experience. Although my specialty is in couples relationship coaching, I think that dealing with injuries can be such a significant disruption to a relationship that I thought I would tackle it here. Have you ever dated an athlete who was not able to run because they were injured and couldn’t control their emotions? It’s not fun!
What I find so interesting is that some of the physically toughest people can be mentally sensitive (which is the opposite of mental toughness). On the control scale, one of the 4 C’s of mental toughness, individuals are assessed on two sub-scales: “life control” and “emotional control.” In this article, I focus primarily on this concept, although the other 4 C’s could be equally relevant.
When faced with an injury, a person who has low levels of mental toughness in this “life control” category will often blame their environment and need support and encouragement from others. They will struggle to keep a positive mindset. On the other hand, a person with high levels of “life control” will generally believe that they are capable of getting through it. They usually think of the bigger picture and can control their mindset.
We can learn from the mentally tough here and follow their example.
A mentally tough athlete can stay calm when suffering an injury. To keep a broader perspective on things, they might use positive thinking to work on their rehabilitation and focus on goals. As Henry Ford is famous for saying, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re probably right.”
Visualization is one of the interventions that we, as relationship coaches, use to increase the mental toughness categories. One way to use it for injuries is to see yourself recovered from the injury: think of what it will look like when you are able to perform again. Fill in all the details that you can imagine – the race venue, the people, right down to the shoes that you will be wearing. The more realistic the visualization, the more effective it will be. I will give a concrete example at the end of this article.
The other component of control, related to mental toughness, is “emotional control.” This describes how well individuals are able to control their emotions and how much of much of their emotions they show. Individuals with lower scores tend to wear their emotions on their sleeve. They may believe things happen to them, get angry because the situation is not favoring them, and adopt a fatalist approach to dealing with the injury. By contrast, individuals with higher scores may feel they shape what happens to them, and they don’t usually appear anxious or upset. They direct their energy to what will help them achieve their objective and, as mentioned earlier, they believe they play an active role in determining their results.
Much of the research that has led to the mental toughness archetypes is positive psychology, which is the idea that what happens isn’t as important as what an individual thinks is happening. There are many tips and techniques to improve one’s ability to think positively.
Here are some tips to improve your mental toughness personality trait:
- Affirmations: Positive statements about your healing which are important to you. (i.e., I am taking time to rest my body so I can be strong for my race).
- Think of five positives: At the end of each day, write down five good things that happened. At the end of the week, summarize them to sense the goodness which is there.
- What will I do tomorrow: At the end of the day, identify one, two, or three things that you will do for your recovery the next day. These must be doable. Follow up the next morning.
- Self-talk: In your head, use positive language to support your recovery. Tell yourself that you are doing well with self-care and you have control over improving each day.
Banish negative thoughts
- Mental thought stopping: Say “no!”
- Self-talk: In your head, eliminate negative words or phrases which enter your mind when you are reminded of your limitations-limit self from using “if” or “but.”
- Turn negative into a positive: Reframe the situation into something positive: “I know this happened for me because….” Or “I am still better off than….”
- What have I learned from this: Seek the positive in any injury: there is always something.
Exercise: Creating a visualization of your healed future self.
The goal of this exercise is to use the inside of your head to create a picture there of what you would like to achieve or be. When that is done, do two things: 1) see what that looks like and 2) imagine how you will feel when that happens. If you wish to be healed, this can become a driver: “I like how that feels and I am going to get there.”
- Think of how you would like to feel when you are free of injury.
- Anchor this to a specific point in time.
- Contextualize the feeling- what does it look like when you are free of injury, how will you know that you are feeling well, what is the evidence of your health, how are others responding to you being able to return to sport, and most importantly, what does it feel like to be at your full health?
- Now, imagine you are able to see this situation from a surveillance camera: visualize this from the unseen eye. What will others see?
- This is what you will want to hold in your mind. Anchor it to your routines and visualize it whenever you begin to think about how your life is different because of your injury. Think about this when you are leaving work, getting ready for bed, taking a break, or when meditating.
- Keep adding to the visualization to make it feel more real.
Do you struggle with your level of mental toughness in your relationship? If you need help getting your mental toughness in shape, then check out Extreme Relationship Fitness couples relationship boot camp. There are many techniques to improve one’s ability to think positively. What will you start with?