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Mental Toughness

By Marty Gaal | June 07, 2016, 2:23 p.m. (ET)

Paratriathlete RunningMental toughness is a big subject. It encompasses everything about your mind that can have an influence on how you excel in sport and in life: How you react to the unexpected, how you deal with competitive egos in your face, how you look at yourself first thing in the morning, how you process information about the world and make sense of it in the brainy goop that we call ourselves.

It’s serious stuff! But when you talk about mental toughness you can't just limit it to sports. Mentally tough people are mentally tough people regardless of the field of their pursuit. Here are 10 tips to strengthen your resilience and fortitude in triathlon and beyond.

1. Approach new situations with a flexible mind and recognition of your own preconceptions. You know you don't know everything, so you can't really be surprised.

2. Roll with the unexpected. If you're giving a presentation and the lights go out, you move the party to the local restaurant and continue onward. Stuff happens; everyone knows it. But how you react to it is what counts. If you're racing a triathlon and get a flat tire, you don't throw a fit and break your bike in half. You change it — even if it takes you 30 minutes. Don't give up.

3. Remain centered and focused. Other competitive types may try to throw you off with gamesmanship. It's part of the competitive world, and you may do it too, consciously or not. Don't let a competitor bait you into unwise moves ruled by emotion. As far as mental toughness within competition goes, you need to know your strengths and play to them, not to someone else's tune. Stay on task with your goal whenever anything or anyone tries to interfere.

4. Defeat isn't the end for you. You have lost before. You'll lose again. Your ability to absorb these and move onwards with your race, career and life is what counts. Michael Jordan has a quote about missing 9,000 free throws or something like that. You get the point.

5. Believe in yourself. Recognize your talents with a realistic assessment of your skills. Really knowing that you're good at something is empowering and will generally help you become even better as you believe in your ability and that skill. No one is good at everything, but we're all great at something. Recognize this.

6. Deal with the discomfort. Almost everyone is in pain the last few miles of a marathon or gets tired at some point in an IRONMAN. The front of the pack often separates not on their physical ability but their mental ability to deal with temporary physical states (like pain or fatigue). With a strong mind you can overcome.

7. Channel your inner Wolverine. He's angry, he's got claws and he heals very, very quickly. Sometimes you have just got to break out a little Wolvie.

8. Crap rolls downhill. It also rolls over you. Anyone in the business world knows that one. As an athlete, you will also experience your share of crap. Crappy workouts. Crappy days. Crappy equipment. Crappy training partners. Crappy races. My goodness, the world is full of crap. But you're Teflon, baby. Let it roll on down. Move on to that hill over yonder.

9. When things go wrong, keep moving on. "Don't give up" is a powerful and simple statement. What other options do you have? Is there another way? Is there any way? What do you have to do to make things go your way? Find it. Do it. This is the mental toughness that carries people through situations where weaker minds crumble.

10. Things aren't always your fault. Mentally tough people also tend to be drivers and doers with a predisposition to strong internal locus of control. That's a funny way of saying that it's easy to start to think you can make things happen by just doing your best. Some things are just out of your control, and there is nothing you can do to change that. Sometimes there is a competitor out there with a better idea, a higher V02 max or slightly better taper coming into his A-race. See the two rules above and move on. 

Mental toughness can be learned via good thought habits and self-monitoring. The easiest way to start the process to becoming mentally tougher is to tell yourself it's going to be a good day when you wake up. And then don't let anyone or anything take that good day away from you. Do that every day for a few years, and you've got it.

Marty Gaal, CSCS, is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach who lives in Cary, North Carolina. He and his wife, Brianne, coach triathletes through their company, One Step Beyond. Marty has been swimming in ocean competitions since 1986 and racing triathlon since 1989.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.