Due to its common association with the military forces, we need to clarify that mental toughness has different reference in civilian life than it has in a military context. As in military context, it means withstanding the physical and mental hardship that arises from a situation.
In civilian life, however, that approach cannot possibly bring success, since the goal is a high quality life which does not arise from merely surviving the present. Accordingly, mental toughness in civilian context refers to resilience, as it is the ability to flexibly navigate complex and difficult situations, including leaving pressing circumstances – which is not an option in military context.
The framework of building mental toughness
Mental toughness builds with practice through a quite similar process as to building muscles. It also starts with a desired condition in mind one wants to achieve, it uses a training plan put together with a help of a professional, followed by regular revisions on how the plan delivers and where it needs to be adjusted for better progress. Also similarly to physical conditioning, the training plan has to be suited to one’s current condition so as to not cause injuries. Both of them is a dual-step process that contains:
- Appropriate level of challenge
- Reflection and adaptive adjustment
The only significant difference is where the work is. While in case of building muscles the workout is the heavy part, for mental training the reflection is the actual work.
Simple enough in theory. To improve mental resilience one needs to enter a not too hard, not too easy situation, be it a sensitive conversation at work or a physical competition in sports. Then, they need to analyse their involvement in the events objectively to see what was done well and where they felt mentally unprepared, and then find a solution to incorporate and practice.
Why is it not as simple in practice?
It seems not taking anything personally is at the core of mental toughness development as it is vital for reflecting on a situation objectively to see where the help is needed. But the truth is that reflection is dependent on one’s own pre-existing thinking patterns. These are deeply engrained and are hard to identify, yet fundamentally define what we can see when looking back an event.
It is also truth that life itself delivers enough challenges and in a lot of cases it brings them in gradually, offering us the opportunity to learn to cope. As we usually start out in a protected nest where our parents filter out what might be too hard for us to handle at that age. Later, as a young adult, our mentors and the senior professionals around us help us to navigate the environment until we know enough to cope. In this set up the development of mental resilience is natural as the person has the basic skills delivered by their nurturing environment so they can handle the upcoming challenges adaptively.
But there are cases when life delivered something other then ideal, blocking to develop coping strategies or teaching maladaptive patterns. In these cases one needs to fix their reflection process as an adult. In other words, the practical job of building mental toughness is breaking into the pre-existing thinking patterns for reflection and change them to allow the natural development of mental toughness via regular life challenges.
When one is setting themselves up for mental development this is the primary task – to break into this closed circle of event reflection in the head and inject new options.
Practical methods for resilience development
To break into an already engrained thinking pattern and change how the person interpret challenges and their outcome is usually done by finding a specific activity, a focus topic that can be used to strategically observe and tamper with the status quo. In this activity, new ideas can be tried out and opportunities created to repeat the new thought process until it is embedded. It will first be embedded in that particular topic of life and later expand to all areas of life.
The official way
There are official ways to break into thought circles, which commonly imply some form of therapy like cognitive behavioural therapy. These programs work on a specific aspect one wishes to develop resilience for, and with focused and carefully strategized exposure-reflection exercises build up the foundational skills. They break into the problematic pattern directly and change it in its core. Fast and efficient.
However, going for such a direct solution is still socially stigmatised and makes people worried that by participating in any form of therapy, they reveal mental issues to their network, risking being labelled as ill. That keeps a lot of people away from looking for professional guidance.
The unofficial way
The public view is much better regarding unofficial ways of developing mental toughness, such as sports, especially combat sports and martial arts. Combative art forms are one-on-one conflicts in a controlled environment, under the supervision of a coach and with a known partner on the other side. They are like kiddie pools, where you can get used to the temperature, wetness and resistance before entering the deep water that life is.
Note: The quality of the guidance here is much lower than in targeted therapy, because the majority of coaches have no background education in psychology and only can advise based on their personal experience, which is strongly biased. That means in terms of finding coping mechanisms you’re somewhat left alone.
Following this path, grappling arts seem to be the most effective martial art for developing mental toughness. They have a specific psychology which results from the skin-close contact between opponents. This means, during practice, the fighters’ full body is exposed to anything the opponent puts in the game (weight, pressure, submission techniques, control positions, etc.) triggering strong emotional responses so they’re reliant on their emotional control, stress managements and their physical skills at the same time.
The dual-step nature of the toughness development process applies to this path as well. With showing up at training one intentionally steps into a modest challenge, which they have to reflect on in the following hours and days. In practice the development journey looks something like this:
- You enroll and start to train, and most of the time have no idea what you’re doing. You’re confused, and everyone seems to be better than you. Revision work: you notice the feeling of embarrassment, you review the training in your head and realise there were a lot of other newbies with similar confusion on their faces. You might even think further, and figure that all coloured belts started in the same position as you are in now. Seeing how confident they look now gives you a great outlook, so your mind settles.
- You show up the next time, still nervous. Revision work: you look back and notice that your anxiety is much lower than last time. You also notice that a lot of other newbies have disappeared, but you showed your face again and now you experience pride. You have already started to grow.
- You try your best during class but you don’t get the technique and are unable to execute properly. You feel bad about yourself, question if you have it in you at all. Revision work: you’re looking back how much you’ve already put into your training and see the improvements. Rather than giving up, you push a bit more by looking the technique up on YouTube. You might also notice from the sheer number of materials available that the struggle you’re facing is common for a lot of novices. Your mind settles again.
- You start sparring with resistance, but you can’t score a point. You push hard but most of your opponents are stronger or more technical. You experience all kinds of unpleasant feelings from disappointment to anger to pain and sadness or even shame. Revision work: you notice these emotions and name them. You try to link them to exact events so you can get to know your triggers. The real growth has started: you’re reaching the deeper, fundamental levels of self-awareness.
- You enrol in a competition and look for all kinds of preparation advice. You learn a lot about physical conditioning, internal and external human dynamics, and stress management as a part of your tournament preparation. You pick up such amount of information about how your body and mind work that you couldn’t in any other way.
- You attend the competition, you try hard but you lose. You’re disturbed, hurt, stressed, you’re scorching inside from all kinds of feelings, you want to shout and cry. But you have to keep it together, and by now, you can keep it together. Here, you experience first-hand how much you have grown already. While club mates hug you, comfort you, making you feel good to be there. All these emotions are mixed together. Revision work: you notice and name the emotions, soaking up the good ones while linking the bad ones to the events that triggered them. By now, this comes naturally. You go home, feeling the pride of making it all through, seeing how far you got. Your posture changes and your strengths become visible.
- You start to use the skills and knowledge of human dynamics you developed in other areas of life in work and at home. Your relationships mature, you become more authentic and receive better treatment in response.
The above described flow of how the mental toughness development commonly happens via martial art training shows that the two main things that you learn during regular practice and competition attendance are:
- Emotional control, the single most valuable life skill, the main component of mental toughness – as if you can’t control your emotions, others will.
- Adaptive reflection, seeing that every adverse experience brings some gain without which there is no next level in life.
Note: In this flow of mental resilience development, as you can see, there is no taking or withstanding abuse. That doesn’t make you stronger. Its only use is that it teaches you to stand up and leave – which is the most effective mental defence against abuse and exploitation.
To reiterate the concept of developing mental toughness, in practice it happens via a dual-step approach of strategically creating opportunities to step into modestly challenging situations and adaptively reflecting on the event to form a coping strategy that can be reinforced via repetition.
This practice needs to happen in a safe environment, be it a ringfenced therapeutic program or a training schedule at your dojo, so as not to disrupt important parts of life that your income or relationships heavily depend on. From that safe space, where the foundations of the growth are laid down, the overarching change will happen. The self-understanding and coping mechanisms will adapt to other areas of life and the new strength will start to show.