Last Updated on May 23, 2023 by admin
“Strength does not come from physical capacity, it comes from indomitable will.”
Building Mental Toughness
One of the underrated aspects of superior mental fitness is the complementary role played by physical fitness. A 2018 study by the University of Southwestern Texas found a strong correlation between exercise and brain health. The findings showed that participants with lower aerobic fitness had weaker white brain matter, which can affect executive and memory function, and performed worse on memory and reasoning tests.
We all know that exercise is good for us, but that doesn’t mean we actually make it a priority. Remarkably successful people understand the connection between a healthy brain and body and professional success. The path to achievement includes physical and emotional demands that are more manageable when both our minds and bodies are strong and healthy. Indeed, strong bodies do build strong minds and can be instrumental in the construction of possibly the most important aspect of a No Limits Mindset.
Mental toughness is defined as the ability to resist, manage, or overcome doubts, worries, concerns and circumstances that prevent you from succeeding or excelling at a task. It has five primary components: determination, concentration, self-confidence, resilience, and poise. It is not simply an attribute you are born with but is something that can be significantly enhanced with the right training. In my book Achieving Peak Performance, I explore techniques on how to build mental toughness in young athletes, but the truth is that developing this key characteristic is beneficial and important to people of all ages.
It truly is a key part of my program. After all, it’s not enough to dream big and plan a path to realize those dreams. You also need to fortify your willpower and determination to make sure that you have the mental endurance to see challenging goals through. That’s where mental toughness comes in.
A huge part of developing mental toughness comes from building physical toughness. Having a strong body can instill confidence and in turn create a stronger mind.
Building a powerful physical base serves a multitude of purposes. First of all, the more physical attributes you can develop, the more confidence you build. It helps you to allay fears about being too small, slow, or weak. Secondly, putting in the concentrated effort to enhance physical prowess develops mental resiliency. When you work the body to push through exhaustion or weakness, you break mental barriers and prove to yourself you are capable of more than you thought possible. Digging deep builds not only strength, but character and more importantly, mental toughness.
Exercise is also incredibly important to the physical well-being of your brain. For one, it increases your heart rate which in turn sends more oxygen to your brain. Secondly, exercise releases a plethora of important hormones that provide mental nourishment and ensure a stimulating environment for the growth of more brain cells. Possibly the most important benefit of physical activity is that it enhances brain plasticity and actively builds new connections between critical cortical sections of your brain. Additionally, regular and consistent exercise can help to alleviate stress, combat brain fog, increase energy, and enhance your mental alertness and focus.
With that in mind, it is hugely important to commit to a consistent workout program. It can even be something as simple as bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, squats, etc. It is important to set a schedule that you can stick to and to track the results. Having a consistent routine works to help in setting and accomplishing goals, while tracking results allows you to see the progress that is being made. Not only will you make noticeable strides in improving your physique, but the mental payoff will be just as impressive.
Navy Seal Training
It is no secret that some of the most mentally tough individuals on the planet are those who endure the rigorous physical training of the Navy Seals program. Because of the challenging and highly-dangerous missions these warriors are commanded to undertake as part of their job, it is absolutely essential that they are both courageous and impervious to the effects of fear. They also need the fortitude to endure in the face of some of the most daunting conditions and environments.
The secret to their training lies in the practice of habituation, a form of learning in which a subject ceases to respond to a stimulus after repeated exposure. For Navy Seals training, this means that if you continue to expose a soldier to something they initially fear, you can eventually condition them to overcome that fear.
In an interview with Men’s Health Magazine, Sergeant Bill Cullen of the First Battalion of the Fourth Marines put it this way: “Essentially, you’re bending the body’s software to control its hardware. It works standing over a putt on the 18th green. It works shooting a final-second free throw. It works banging down a door with a bad guy on the other side.”
Additionally, while being extremely physically fit is a critical component of being a Navy Seal, it is only considered a prerequisite for those who want to be a part of this elite unit. What is much more important is the mental component. Those seen as being mentally weak are the first ones that get screened out, no matter how impressive their physical abilities are.
Lieutenant Commander Eric Potterat made an interesting correlation between Navy Seal candidates and Olympic Athletes. “Physically, there’s very little difference between athletes who win Olympic gold and the rest of the field. It’s like the Seal candidates we see here. Terrific hardware. Sit-ups, push-ups, running, swimming — off the charts, superhuman. But over at the Olympic center, the sports psychologists found that the difference between a medal and no medal is determined by an athlete’s mental ability. The elite athletes, the Tiger Woodses, the Kobe Bryants, the Michael Jordans — this is what separates them from the competition. Knowing how to use information.”
Essentially, what it all boils down to for these elite soldiers is that by consistently putting themselves in demanding situations or stressful environments on a daily basis in training, they condition their minds to the point that they no longer have an emotional attachment to danger. In essence, they become immune to fear and are much less likely to fold under mental duress.
An example of the grueling nature of their training comes in week 4, commonly known as “Hell Week.” This is by far the most difficult thing that a Navy SEAL recruit will face, as it consists of continuous training for five and a half days with only four hours of sleep and more than 20 hours of physical training per day. This gut check exercise is designed to be the ultimate test of a SEAL candidate’s physical and mental motivation and stamina.
Then there are the legendary Spartans. One of my favorite movies of all time is 300. It is the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, where a small cadre of 300 Spartans battled overwhelming odds in defending their homeland against an invasion from the Persian Empire whose army was reputed to have one million combatants. It seems ridiculous to believe that such a thing would be possible, but Spartans were no mere soldiers.
In their era, Spartans were regarded as the most disciplined and fierce warriors in the world. Spartans were known for their rejection of anything perceived as weakness, and they pursued training with singular focus to enhance their ability to perform in battle.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Spartan lifestyle involved bathing in cold water to develop mental toughness. In Ancient Sparta, hot water was considered a luxury, and Spartan warriors eschewed anything they perceived as being indulgent or leisurely. Therefore, they would engage in daily baths of freezing water, as they believed it would mentally prepare them to endure discomfort and build resilient spirit.
Being able to overcome the physical and mental toll of the cold water took exceptional willpower and strengthened their mental toughness to the point that they became comfortable with discomfort. When you consider that the average person is likely terrified to take a cold shower, it shows that it takes an exceptionally tough individual to undertake this type of challenge.
The point of the story is this: exceptional people often do things that others would consider insane. The truth is, you cannot get extraordinary results with ordinary training. By its very nature, facing a situation one dreads helps to build inner strength and forces the body to adapt. Only by testing yourself and pushing through barriers can you experience true growth.
The key takeaway from looking at the way soldiers train to enhance physical and mental toughness is that these are attributes that can absolutely be developed.
My Approach to Fitness
Physical conditioning and exercise have been a hallmark of my life. I’ve been involved in athletics since I was a young child, including a number of team sports and individual disciplines like martial arts.
Brazilian Jiu-jitsu has been one of my personal favorites. The sport has been sometimes likened to kinetic chess and is an intense form of combat that involves both strength and endurance, as well as a critical mental component. It requires incredible discipline and patience, since you need to not only defend your opponent’s attacks but constantly look for opportunities to counter-attack as well.
The full body workout is second to none, and the tremendous rush of exhilaration in being able to force an opponent to “tap out” or submit is incredible. Becoming skilled in this discipline has not only strengthened my physical being, but boosted my mental fortitude to an incredible degree.
The Gracie family are considered royalty in their home country of Brazil. They are the founders of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, an offshoot of the popular Japanese discipline, which emphasizes technique and leverage instead of the usual aspects of combat, such as strength. There is a deep focus on the mental aspects of combat and the viability of combining intense physical conditioning with a healthy lifestyle that eschews the use of drugs, smoking, and alcohol. The Gracies feel that when all these are combined in regular practice, it allows one to perform at an optimal level and overcome any challenge life might put in their path.
Helio Gracie was one of the earliest proponents of the sport, and despite his small stature and somewhat fragile nature, he was able to confound the masses by consistently overcoming the challenges of larger and stronger opponents. This led to the creation of The Gracie Challenge, which became an open invitation to practitioners of all disciplines to meet a representative of the family in vale tudo combat and vie for the superiority of their art. The Gracies had absolute belief in their creation and would welcome the chance to prove it at every turn.
The sport gained acclaim in the United States in 1993, when Helio’s son, Royce Gracie, at a mere 176lbs, dominated a field of more physically imposing contenders to easily win the first ever Ultimate Fighting Championship.
It popularized the concept of ground fighting. By combining grappling and submission holds, it effectively allowed smaller, more skilled combatants to neutralize the strength and size advantage of larger fighters. Needless to say, the effectiveness it has shown in combat has changed martial arts forever and made it an important part of any serious fighter’s arsenal. In a way, it is also a true embodiment and application of the No Limits Mindset, which is a large reason I was attracted to practicing it.
As I’ve gotten older however, it’s not as easy to do some of the intense training and physical activities I enjoyed as a younger athlete. This has forced me to take an introspective look at the way I train to make sure that I not only train hard, but train smart at the same time.
A huge part of that has been looking at the way I eat. Previously we discussed the importance of the right foods needed to maintain optimal brain fitness, but they also play a vital role in helping to stay physically fit. When you are young, you can get away with a lot more in terms of eating liberally. However, as you get older, it becomes much more important to be disciplined in the kinds of fuel you put into your body.
As someone who strongly believes in optimal health, I’ve experimented with many of the different types of eating plans, including the Keto Diet, Paleo, and fasting, and I’ve seen different benefits from each. The problem with restrictive diets, however, is that they can be hard to adhere to over a long period of time, especially for someone like myself, who has a sweet tooth and thinks one of life’s greatest pleasures can be found in a can of Dr. Pepper.
As the purpose of the article is not to advocate for any one type of way to eat, I’ll leave it at this. Consume a sensible mixture of good whole foods, including fruits and vegetables as well as quality lean proteins. Keep processed foods and sugary drinks to a minimum. Drink plenty of water. If you have to snack, do it in moderation. In other words, keep it simple.
In the end, staying committed to regular exercise and eating well play an important part in developing a healthy balance between body, mind, and spirit.
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