Do you wish you were a little more willing to take risks, whether that means skiing tougher runs, signing up for your first fitness competition or entering an obstacle race? Good news! You can get gutsier just by building your mental toughness, essentially boosting your confidence to conquer your biggest fitness fears.
While it might seem like guts are something you’re born with, that’s not entirely the case. In many ways, mental toughness is like physical strength. “Nobody’s born physically strong, but with a plan in place, you can build that strength,” says Jason Selk, LPC, NCC, director of sports psychology with Enhanced Performance in St. Louis and author of Executive Toughness (McGraw-Hill, 2011) and 10-Minute Toughness (McGraw-Hill, 2008). The same applies to your mind.
That’s the thinking that helped catapult Kim Dolan Leto, Arizona-based director of family health and wellness for the International Sports Sciences Association, to the Ms. Fitness World stage. “Becoming an athlete starts in your mind,” she says. “You trade excuses for solutions and fight your way daily to eat clean, train mean and balance life.”
Nature vs. Nurture
Of course, nature does play a role. “Some people are born with personality traits that make them natural risk-takers,” says Richard B. Dauber, Ph.D., clinical and sports psychologist and director of the Morris Psychological Group in Parsippany, New Jersey. Yet those individuals share certain characteristics, and understanding what they are can help you develop your own toughness. The most important one? An unshakable belief in their abilities to achieve goals.
“You have to believe in yourself. Paraphrasing Henry Ford, if you think you’re going to succeed or fail, you will,” Dauber says. And though the mentally tough will fail occasionally, they look at every failure as an opportunity to learn and push on.
So how exactly do you strengthen your mind so that you can be less afraid to go after bigger fitness feats? Follow these three steps:
- Find focus. Define your end goal, what Selk calls a product goal. What is it you ultimately want to accomplish, and why do you want to do it? Selk recommends having no more than two product goals — one personal and one professional — at a time. Make sure, too, that the end goal is focused on performance versus outcome. “If you’re too focused on the outcome, especially if it’s winning, fear of failure could hold you back,” Dauber says.
- Take baby steps. Create process goals that will move you closer to your end goal. These effort-based goals are designed to build your confidence, which is why they need to be small and achievable, Selk says. For instance, if you want to make it to the national stage as a fitness competitor, make competing in a small, local contest your first step, and consider yourself successful no matter what your placing.
- See your success. Visualize what you want along the way. “People often focus on what they don’t want,” Dauber says. For instance, you don’t want to earn any placing other than first at the fitness contest. You then get stuck with those fears, which will paralyze your efforts to get up the nerve to progress to the next level. Instead, think about what you do want and picture yourself attaining it.
In the end, building guts relies almost entirely on your mind, perhaps the strongest muscle in your body. As Selk says, “If the desire is there and you put the time into it, your mind can get you anywhere.”