Thursday, December 30, 2010

3 Tips to Build Mental Toughness

By John Rarity

As an endurance athlete, I’m sometimes asked where I find the most challenge during an event. Is it the swim portion, elbowing for room through a pandemonium of competitors? Is it the bike as I strive to maintain my pace through a series of hills, or is it the run, the final stretch?

Without hesitation, I always answer the mental game is where I find the most challenge and reward.

I have experimented with focused breathing exercises to relax my mind before an event. I’ve used some of these techniques to relax my body and limber before the starting line, as well as urge a shot of energy the moment my body wants to back down.

Yet, as an amateur athlete who’s gone from a complete newbie to placing in the top three in my age group, I’ve been unable to maintain gains beyond certain strength and stamina thresholds.

From consulting numerous nutritionists to incorporating a variety of strength training programs, these barriers have persisted. Had I reached certain impassable thresholds in my physiology, or were they perceived? Was there no way around them, or did I simply lack the key?

Six months ago I came across a camp designed specifically to challenge and enhance the physiology of mind and body. The Kokoro Camp (Japanese for warrior) put on by SEALFIT of Encinitas, California, has in a relatively short period of time become the world’s premiere camp for forging mental toughness.

Founded by former Navy SEAL Commander, Mark Divine, along with his core group of ex-Navy SEAL instructors, Kokoro is based off of the famous Navy SEALs Hell Week concept with an emphasis on teaching through experience, rather than a focus on attrition. Each camp participant is provided with the tools via field and classroom instruction to push the body and the mind way beyond previously perceived limits.

In my particular case, it set those limits on a hard cement floor and crushed them into powder beneath the weight of 50 hours of intense physical training.

The concept behind the camp can be broken down into three main components:

* Mental toughness
* Full spectrum functional fitness
* Self awareness

Mental Toughness

This means precisely what is says, lessons and practical advice on teaching how to toughen your mind. Does this mean push-ups and sit-ups for the mind? Yes and no. Yes, in that physical exercise is the vehicle used for forging this type of toughness. No, in that you can’t literally have your mind do push-ups…

So how does it work? Simple. One step at a time. Have you ever been in a workout or race and found yourself completely, 100%, without a doubt out of gas? Of course you have. So what did you do? Most of us probably eased off the throttle, while others stopped and took a breather completely.

Don’t focus on what’s left in your race... just focus on the next step.

Assuming you’re not training with any injuries and it’s the mental component we’re dealing with, this is where mental training proves extremely valuable. Don’t focus on what’s left in your race or workout, don’t even focus on those around you, just focus on the next step. One foot, one rep, one stroke after another. Incorporate focused breathing to relax and invigorate your body—then carry on.


One key lesson learned after participating in the Kokoro Camp is the fact that our bodies are capable of more—way more—than we give them credit. As a matter of fact, on the third day of this camp, I actually felt my pushups, running and squats getting stronger! But ask me to sit down, or get up from a chair—and I was moving at the speed of a centenarian.

Can you be pushed too far? I don’t know, let’s see. At one point, I was asked to hold the ready push-up position with my feet on a log. Fine. Then I was told to hold this position while raising my right leg in the air… fine. Then I was told to hold this position while a crew of six men crawled between me and the ground.

No longer able to hold my right foot in the air, it simply collapsed on top of my left. I glanced at my teammates and noticed most had done the same. When the body is maxed, it’s maxed. And the instructors at Kokoro, as with most elite training programs, understand that.

It isn’t your time or total reps that ultimately count—it is the fact that you put in 100%. You weren’t holding back. No plans for the future or memory of the past. You simply put out for the moment and found you had enough to take you the distance.

Instead of my mind being in charge and “teaching” my body a new exercise, my body taught my mind a few things. One of these was the fact that it is capable of much more, if my mind will simply let it do what it needs to do to take care of that moment. Rather than waste energy on what happened or will happen, the body will take care of what needs to happen now.

Full Spectrum Functional Fitness

At Kokoro Camp, emphasis is placed on the following key fitness components:

Strength. Aside from endless amounts of push-ups and squats, there was the functional aspect of strength development through bear crawls, duck walks, and running on the beach with a 25 pound rucksack strapped to your back.

Stamina. Each day challenged us to continue at a high rate, race after race and rep after rep for several hours at a time.

Work capacity. Your work capacity never diminishes. We finished doing the same intensity and number of exercises the last minute of the camp as we did the first minute.

Endurance. It seems to go hand in hand with stamina, and often did. Yet, it was distinctly tested during particular “evolutions,” as the varying events were called, that lasted for several hours at a time.

Durability. This extended to our physical and mental (don’t forget the two go hand-in-hand) durability. From jumping into 60 degree ocean water and performing flutter kicks on our backs to over an hour of pushups on a cement floor carrying 25 pound rucksacks. How did we rest between sets? Kneeling down.

And finally, there is little in your life you will find as rewarding and enduring as making it through a mentally and physically challenging experience that pushes you to new limits—akin to challenging one of the world’s tallest peaks or traversing a vast ocean or desert.

When you come out the other side and take a glance at who you once were, you understand. You know in the deepest corner of your being that you have reached new heights, surpassed self-imposed limits and are now a much better athlete, family member, co-worker and overall person.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post. Thank you. I really liked these ideas and will paste them into my training journal.