“You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength – Marcus Aurelius
Most of us are familiar with the concept of mental toughness and/or having an “unbreakable mindset”. I have been practicing mental toughness for years as an endurance athlete and coach, but only realized recently that what I have REALLY been practicing is mental resilience. Being able to gut out the last several reps in a hard workout, pushing through the pain during the last few miles of a race, or being able to handle difficult situations in life, like being exhausted but still mustering the strength to get through the day. That is mental resilience. Defined as“the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress”, mental resilience is something we all possess, but most of us rarely tap into.Allow me to give you a few examples.
I first really learned how to differentiate mental toughness with mental resilience at a men’s retreat last fall. A former Army Special Forces Operator came to our event to talk to us about this topic and take us through a workout. The workout was a 10 minute Sandbag Get-up test, where each man would hoist an 80lb sandbag over his shoulder and proceed to complete as many Get-ups as possible within a 10 minute time period. During the test you could switch shoulders as needed and you could put the bag on the ground BUT only for 5 breaths, then you had to pick it up and continue moving. Quitting was not an option. Each man had a partner that was responsible for counting your reps out-loud and motivating/pushing you to keep moving. This was the longest/hardest 10 minutes of my life, but I did not quit. I completed 65 get-ups. His top tier athletes complete 120 (insert big eyes emoji). After the first few minutes my lungs were on fire, my legs quivered, and I felt like my soul was dying but I did not stop. I focused on one rep at a time, pushing air in and out of my lungs, and knowing that this would eventually end. After the exercise was complete he explained to us that this was a test of our mental resilience. He said that he aloud us to take the “break” of 5 breaths when needed, BUT every break was a small version of quitting… What??!!! He then explained, in a life and death situation such as combat, you MUST possess the mental resilience to keep moving and not stop. Otherwise you die…
Former Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine, founder of www.unbeatablemind.comsites in his book Unbeatable Mind, that the human body is capable of 20 times more than we think we are. He calls this our “20X Factor”. During the infamous BUDS Hell Week, the candidates are put through continuous training for 5 ½ days, 24hrs a day, while constantly being submerged in the freezing waters of the Pacific Ocean. During this literal hell week the candidates are given only 4 hours of sleep. Why 4 hours? Because that is the minimal amount of sleep the human body can have in that time frame without literally dying. This continuous beat down day in and out while freezing, hungry, and tired breaks the candidates physically for sure, but moreover it breaks them down mentally. It is often said in BUDS that it’s not the strongest or fastest guys that make it through, it is the guys with the mental resilience that they cannot and will not stop or be broken. In a life or death situation such as combat, you MUST possess the ability to push forward regardless of circumstance. Once the candidates realize they CAN keep going, a whole new realm of possibility and confidence sets in, and their ability to withstand mental and physical stress is multiplied 20 times over.
Taking it down a notch from military/combat situations, I have experienced and seen mental resilience at every Ironman triathlon that I have ever raced or supported. We see it all the time in athletes and has been talked about for several years now in endurance events like Ironman, yet instead of being called mental resilience, it is referred to as the “Central Governor Theory”, wherein an athlete has the ability to mentally override a fatigued broken down body and muster up the power to run faster towards the end of the 26.2 mile run of an Ironman after the 2.4 mile swim and a 112 mile bike portions of the race. I have witnessed athletes barely being able to put one foot in front of the other for 24-25 miles of an Ironman but as soon as they “smell the barn”, here the music at the finish line or sense that they are close, almost miraculously their once completely broken down legs go from doing what’s known as the Ironman shuffle into a full blown run. Personally, every Ironman I have ran I have experienced this. As soon as I reach mile 20, knowing I only have a 10k left to run my pace increases significantly. It hurts like hell, but I have the resilience to persevere through the last few miles faster than before. I could just shuffle to the finish, but I grit my teeth, literally put my head down, embrace the pain and run like hell.
The aforementioned scenarios may sound interesting, inspiring, or down right insane, and you may be saying to yourself “well that’s not me”. “I’m not a Navy SEAL and don’t ever see myself racing an Ironman”. So I give you this final example of being a new parent. Although I have not had the experience of being a new parent, the stories from friends, and clients telling of constant sleepless nights and fatigue for up to a year or more, are well known amongst this group of folks. I use this as an example of mental resilience because often times in the absence of a tiny little life to maintain, if someone were to experience that level of sleeplessness and fatigue they would surely shut down, call in “sick”, etc. Yet because they have no choice, they forge a mental resilience to push through the fatigue and carry on with life, work, and responsibilities. It is in no way shape or form easy, but remember, mental resilience isn’t about not feeling pain or discomfort, but rather diving head first into it and not looking up until you have accomplished the mission or the goal. Mental resilience is not a “want to”, it’s a “have to” mindset.