Are You Mentally Tough?
During a training session one time, one of my clients said to me, “Artemis, you should do a workshop about Mental Toughness – about how to be mentally tough.” At the time the client was having a challenging session, she was overworked, sleep deprived, and she was struggling to get through some of her least favorite exercises. When she said this to me I smiled because this was not the first time that someone had referred to me as “mentally tough”.
It’s funny, because I don’t always see the mental toughness in myself, but I know that many people who know me do. I just am who I am, I don’t think of it as anything special, however, I do recognize that mental toughness is a good attribute to possess. This is how my parents raised me, to be independent, resourceful, and mentally tough. You do, or you do not. That’s it.
and if you DO choose to go forth and DO, you don’t half ass anything, you whole ass it, (that is a technical term by the way… :)).
What exactly does it mean to be “mentally tough”?
In my definition, mental toughness is having the ability to be “comfortable” being outside of your comfort zone. If you seek change, or want progress or growth in your life, yourself as an individual, in your training or sport, or to your body, then you need to dig deep to find that mental toughness to get out of your comfort zone and to do what it takes to make those changes a reality. Transformation and growth does not occur remaining status quo or having a happy hour cocktail in your comfort zone.
You hear a lot about mental toughness in training, sport, or competition:
“Having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to: generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer; specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.” (Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, 2002)
Mental toughness allows a person to persevere through difficult circumstances and emerge without losing confidence. However, mental toughness does not just apply in training, sport, or competition, it also applies in life. For example, are you mentally tough enough to make the sacrifices it takes to not let every challenge that comes your way bring you down, and persevere in order to make a drastic career transition, be a business owner, or raise a family? These are just a few examples.
In Life – Career Transition
I certainly heard about my “courage” and “mental strength” many times as I made the transition from my office job to the fitness industry full-time (I write more about this in my post “The Leap From IT Consultant to Personal Trainer”) and again as I made the decision to leave the commercial gym I was working for to start my own business.
I heard a lot of:
“Wow, you’re brave… I wouldn’t have the courage to do something like that…”
I remember one person in particular, who I still think about to this day, who shook my hand, on my last day working in my office job, and wished me luck, but made it clear to me that he had his doubts that I would be successful. “It’s hard to make a living as a personal trainer, most people don’t succeed…”, he said. Often I think about him and his doubts, and how I didn’t let his doubts bring me down but instead thought he was a fool for not having faith in the person I am and faith in the fact that if I am going to do something, I’m going to take it to the highest level. Obviously this person did not know me very well and if anything his doubts fueled my fire to be successful.
Success with a big Cheshire cat grin on your face is the best revenge.
In this context most people don’t have the courage to make the change necessary to pursue what they are really passionate about. For most people it’s just easier to stay in a job that is less than desirable and collect a paycheck because it’s “safe”, it’s “easy”. Most people don’t want to put in the time, make the sacrifices, hustle and work as much as it takes to build a business, because God forbid they fail. However as Bruce Lee wrote, “Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.”
For every 10 people who want you to succeed, you are always going to have people who want you to fail. It takes mental toughness to put the naysayers and the “haters” out of your head and push through to achieve your end goal and to not just achieve it, but to also truly stand out with your success and achievements.
In each one of the instances that I write about in this post, I’ve had those naysayers, those “haters”, who wanted to see me fail, some of them a little too close for comfort. Part of mental toughness is having the ability to not pay these people any mind. To acknowledge that they exist, (perhaps even on a judge’s panel for a competition you are competing in, perhaps a manager or fellow colleague), and then to look past them, do not let them interfere, and focus on the task at hand and your end goal.
This is my favorite song that I like to play for all the haters out there…
In Training & Sport – Kung Fu Black Belt
I’m fairly certain my Sifu referred to me as mentally tough over the years of training with him for my black belt. Maybe not in those exact words, but enough that I knew what he meant.
It takes time, dedication, sacrifice, and mental toughness to put in the training for one’s black belt in any martial art. It took me four years of consistent training, and focus on the ultimate end goal, to obtain my black belt in kung fu. On the day that I tested for my black belt, during one three-hour exam, I demonstrated that in four years I learned and could apply:
- Eight open hand (non weapons) forms
- Four weapons forms (two short weapons and two long weapons)
- One Tai Chi form
- Thirty Qin Na (pressure point and joint lock self defense techniques)
- Sanshou Sparring (chinese kickboxing)
- All standing basics (kicks, punches, stances, etc.)
- All moving basics (jumps, jump kicks, aerials, etc.)
Over the course of the four years training for my black belt, I had my moments of weakness. I had my moments of meltdown. The difference between me and someone who is not mentally tough, is that I let myself have that literal moment of weakness and then I would shake it off and move forward. Whereas someone who is not mentally tough would let it consume them, define them, and likely not continue to move forward and finish the goal they started.
I know I even had my moments of weakness during my black belt test, but my mental toughness helped me to overcome those moments of weakness and focus on the task at hand – the end goal.
Mental toughness helped me to rise above the intimidation of walking out, completely alone, in front of a panel of judges for my black belt test to complete my very first form, of my black belt test, which was my newest and most advanced form.
Mental toughness helped me to push through the moments during my black test when I was physically done, but mentally I knew I had to finish. This moment (see video at 17 seconds left) at the end of my Nandao (Southern Broadsword) form when I stumbled to finish the last few moments of the form is a perfect example. You can see that I have a moment that I feel like I am about to give up, but I stumble to push through the mental and physical fatigue and I finish. I was not going let my physical fatigue defeat me; I trained four years for this, I was going to finish it.
At the very end of my black belt test I had to spar. They save the sparring for when you are physically and mentally cooked, so that not only is it a test of fighting skill, but it is also a test of mental strength. By the time it came to spar I was wasted, but I knew I had to suck it up. I remember in my last match (you have three matches with three different people) I was sparring with a woman who was literally twice my size and I lost my mental edge. I had been fighting to maintain it with each match, but with this last match, I was done. I went through the motions to finish the match, but I didn’t care if she dominated the match. It wasn’t my best moment, but at that point I felt like I had proved enough of myself over the course of the test and I didn’t have anything left in me to attack the match. My mental toughness in that moment was just to finish, to not walk away.
I remember thinking after that match if my lack of effort during that match would be grounds for why I might not receive my black belt? However, I could not worry about that; I had put forth my best effort through the entire exam. When my Sifu and the judge’s panel emerged from the office with their decisions as to who passed, I was relieved to hear that I had passed.
Mental toughness in martial arts does not end there. Just because I earned my black belt does not mean that I do not have to continue to work hard and prove myself. Receiving my black belt was just the beginning of my journey as a martial artist.
Shortly after receiving my black belt, one day I arrived late for morning class. I always trained a client at 6 a.m. before heading to morning class at 7:30 a.m. and I had been running late with my client that morning. When I walked in the door I knew that my Sifu was not happy (to say the least). After I quickly changed for class, I stepped onto the training floor and asked my Sifu:
I asked, “Sifu, what would you like me to start with?”
He replied, “100 push-ups.”
For a VERY brief moment in my mind I thought, should I ask him how he wants me to break up the 100 push-ups? Does he want four sets of 25, 2 sets of 50, 1 set of 100? Then I looked at him and decided, NO, NOT a good idea. Just do the push-ups. I had just tested with 100 consecutive push-ups for my black belt test (you can read more about this in my post “Strength Goals Trump The Scale”) so he probably expected me to do 100 consecutive push-ups.
There is no question, there is only DO.
This was one of the signs my Sifu has on his office door.
In Competition – Iron Maiden Challenge Attempt
I would say my attempt at the Iron Maiden Challenge (24kg – 53lbs pull-up, press, and pistol squat) was a “glorious failure” or as I called it in my post, Achieve Your True Strength Potential, a “stepping stone”.
“Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.” ~Bruce Lee
On the day that I attempted the Iron Maiden Challenge (IM), that morning I weighed in just under 117 lbs, which is HEAVY for me. To my knowledge, I am the smallest and the lightest woman to attempt the IM thus far and I nailed the pull-up and the pistol squat in front of 80 people that were so close to me as I did it that I could have spit on them. Try THAT without mental toughness.
Even though over the course of my life I have had instances when people have referred to me as “mentally tough” either with that exact phrase or an equivalent, it didn’t hit home until I heard Charlie Weingroff refer to me as “mentally tough” to his T=R2 seminar participants this past October. It was like time stopped for me for a second when he said it and then in that moment, on that day I understood it’s true meaning.
Why did it take for Charlie to say it for it to hit home for me? He is a mentor, teacher, and coach to me. I look up to him. He does not dish out compliments, he tells it like it is, one of the many reasons why I admire him. Therefore, for him to call me mentally tough, which was a compliment to me, it really meant something.
We hosted Charlie’s T=R2 seminar and the filming of this DVD at Iron Body Studios back in October 2013. Charlie witnessed my Iron Maiden Challenge attempt back in September 2013 because he was getting his StrongFirst Level II Kettlebell Certification. He witnessed the beauty of my pull-up and pistol squat and the dramatic failure of my press.
That weekend at T=R2 he had me work through some pressing drills so that I could re-attempt the 24kg press from half kneeling at the seminar. When it came time to attempt the press, I got it up, but again with this horrible, compensatory, back bending lean that I had during my IM attempt.
This is the first time that I have ever shown this video publically. I am including it in this post, so that people reading this post understand the excessive lean that I am referring to and so that people can learn that this is NOT the way to press a heavy kettlebell.
After I finished he went on to explain to participants that the press was incorrect, however, I got it up because I am “mentally tough”. He explained to participants that surely I am strong enough, because on the day of the IM attempt I flew over the bar with my pull-up, came up from my pistol squat and took an extra second to finish it with a high kick with my free leg (who knows why I did this, adrenaline and excitement?). He continued to explain to participants that because I am mentally tough, I pushed through the excessive lean to finish the press, no matter how bad it was for my body (trust me, my back did not feel good afterwards). My mental toughness overcame any discomfort I felt as I was pressing the bell in this manner.
It took mental toughness to walk away from my glorious failure of the IM Challenge without beating myself up about it. Surprisingly I did not because I was very happy about my pull-up and my pistol squat and I knew going in that my press needed more time to be as strong as the other two lifts. It took mental toughness to revisit my training and to work on my press from square one for the past seven months in order to correct it so that I can finish this goal that I set out to accomplish. It took mental toughness to not let this glorious failure of a press affect my confidence when pressing. As a result, my presses are stronger than ever.
This video was taken May 2, 2014. I pressed the 20kg for 10 sets of 3 reps right left and every single rep looked the way these reps look in this video.
When I surpass the IM Challenge, I don’t want all three lifts to be merely “passable”, I want them to demonstrate the principles of strength and skill that I initially learned as an RKC instructor and that I now continue to practice and apply as a StrongFirst instructor. These principles of strength and skill that turn petite 5 foot 1 inch on a tall day, and 115-118lb on a heavy day, women like me, into beastettes of strength stronger than some men out there. (You can read more about my IM Challenge attempt in my post “Achieve Your True Strength Potential”).
As Master SFG Mark Reifkind writes,
“If you want to be strong, you must be tough.
It ain’t easy or EVERYBODY would be. It’s really that simple. The bar isn’t going to lift itself. The kettlebell isn’t going to swing itself and no one but you can make you get out of bed early on a cold dark morning to make yourself do what you said you wanted to do.”
You can read more of his post, “If You Want to be Strong, You Must be Tough” HERE:
Mental toughness is not for everyone, however, if you seek change in life, want progress in your training, and changes to your body, then you need to dig deep to find that mental toughness to get out of your comfort zone and make those changes. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, in order to achieve success and great achievement, “You must do the very thing you think you cannot do.”
This path is not for everyone, as not everyone has the mental toughness to achieve it, but it is for those of us who are “comfortable” being outside of our comfort zone.
Are you “comfortable” being outside of your comfort zone?
Are you mentally tough?