Mentally Tough Stuff (Lesson #1)

Did you ever sit in front of the TV, dumbfounded, after watching a pro golfer like Tiger Woods sink a lengthy putt and ask yourself, “How does he do that?”


Or in 2016, do you recall seeing Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps blow everyone out of the water in the 200 meter Individual Medley in Rio de Janeiro?

Whether it’s completing The Tour de France or running a marathon, these athletes certainly have “the right stuff” when it comes to mental fortitude. It’s truly a gift that some people possess, many of whom are professional athletes.  This topic seems to surface a lot, so here are some questions to ponder, and perhaps answer:

How does a person acquire mental toughness?

Is it something you’re born with?

Does it take a serious life event or life experience to “toughen you up” mentally?

During my college swim meets, I would’ve loved to gulp down a can of spinach like Popeye did and kick all the “Female Bluto’s” rear ends in the grueling 500-yard Freestyle.  Unfortunately – there is no magic potion out there to mentally endure an athletic event – let alone life in general.

So, after consulting with some athletes, both young – and a little bit older – to get their broad perspectives, read these inspiring words which come from a golf pro, a female cyclist and a swimmer-turned-triathlete:

John Clare is a young PGA professional whom I’ve followed for many years, in fact, since he was on the Boys Golf team at West Genesee High School.  He shared his thoughts on how he deals with the constant mental challenges that golf throws his way:

     “Mental fortitude to me, not only as a professional golfer but as a person, is something in my opinion that I have developed over time. Though my professional career at this point has been relatively short, I have been lucky to have had both great successes and monumental failures.

      I look at it as a two-way street. What I may have succeeded in as far as golf has helped me develop mental strength that translates into my personal life. The same is true, however, when failure happens.  However, there is no doubt that I have been able to compartmentalize more memories of failure while staring down success because the best test of a person’s mental strength is not how fast they can forget, but more-so, knowing exactly where they went wrong – and still finding the courage to run towards that fear of failure until they have succeeded.” – John Clare

John Clare

Another perspective on mental fortitude comes from a great friend whom I’ve known since Girl Scouts (yes, Girl Scouts). She was not an athlete growing up, as she spent her high school years as a talented musician – and an extremely smart student.  It wasn’t until her freshman year in college that she began competitive sports, first with rowing on Syracuse University’s crew team, and eventually becoming an Elite Masters cyclist in her fifties.  Be it her husband, coach or trainer, Susan (Church) Andersson feels fortunate to be surrounded by the support and guidance to develop her mental toughness:

     “I have learned so much about myself through this odyssey. I know that I do best when I am given a task to execute. Thus, my coach and my personal trainer are essential to my success. I simply would not push myself this hard, and if I did I would probably injure myself. I am very competitive, but I really think that I do not have that extra “something” that makes me push beyond whatever limits I may think I have during an event. I think this extra “something” is what differentiates great athletes.

I think of it as a killer instinct. It’s the ability to put aside pain and discomfort and everything the body is saying and focus on the event and the outcome. I do not seem to have that, although I have had events where my focus on the result during the event transcended the pain. I think my mental toughness comes from my bias toward following rules. I will generally do my workouts as planned. Sometimes, if I’m super tired, I will not complete my workout as planned. I don’t like that.

Susan Andersson

     That being said, I do absolutely think you can increase your mental toughness. I think that because I’m competitive, I benchmark a lot and I want to beat the benchmark. I will race people at the airport (they are unaware of this!). I will walk as fast as I can with whatever I’m dragging/carrying to see if I can pass the folks on moving walkways or escalators; I will race my husband if we are both driving somewhere (not by going too fast, but by taking a better route). I think this mindset helps me push through stuff, and has made me faster.”       –Susan Andersson

My last “Mental Toughness Motivator” is Fred Dever.  Now in his early fifties, Fred was a D-1 collegiate swimmer (Marist) who embraced his physical talent – and mental skills – and evolved into a U.S.-ranked triathlete – and has run in 4 Boston Marathons:

     I believe “Mental Toughness-Mental Fortitude” is learned behavior that comes from a combination of natural instinct, coaching and the athlete’s environment.  I do not believe one’s ability to build strong mental capacity is limited due to past history, however, early athletic experiences do set the stage for sustained mental strength.

      I want to start with giving folks who are in a “Funk” in terms of athletic performance, inspiration!  Mental toughness is something that you one must believe in, visualize, and make certain you have people who can lift your mental strength around you.  Finding inner peace, making competition fun again can increase your mental fortitude.   Often, dips in mental strength come from long periods of sustained top athletic competition that always focuses on “Winning” – getting the best score, or beating a time.  This is unrealistic – and can be taxing.

Fred Dever

As a lifelong competitive swimmer and now multi-sport athlete, I have grappled with sustaining my mental fortitude.  I generally visualize past positive results, remember the folks who helped push me along the way, and position myself to find ONE good thing I can take away from an event or competition. The “fun” element of the sport must be brought into the fold, this is often the toughest task as mental toughness slumps can make competition all business.

       My personal mental toughness was developed early as a young age group swimmer. Growing up in Central New York, I was fortunate to have coaches, family and friends who believed in me. I also looked at the kids who seemed to have natural skill or body types as beatable.  I never subscribed to the analytics of athletics such as “he or she is a natural.”   I have seen too many “Dark Horses” excel.

     I believe everyone has Mental Toughness and Fortitude –  the trick is to make certain you nurture it!” 

– Fred Dever

Questions answered?

This is a great mix of wisdom from people who’ve “been there, done that,” and want to continue to stay competitive in their sports.  My takeaway from all three of these athletes is that everyone, EVERYONE has Mental Fortitude – one just needs the courage to stick with it, don’t quit, learn from mistakes, and if you need help, reach out to those who can encourage you to keep going in a positive direction.

Author: sinkorswim204

I'm a “veteran” Broadcast producer as well as a former high school and collegiate swimmer who still loves to write. I hope to inspire others to stay afloat in these often turbulent waters while enjoying some new challenges in my middle age.

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