4 Stages to Develop Mental Toughness

A Marine simulates assaulting a beach.
U.S. Marine Cpl. Oai Tran simulates assaulting a beach with steep earth during an urban-climber course aboard Camp Pendleton, Calif., Sept. 30, 2014. (Sgt. Emmanuel Ramos/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Over the past several years of writing about high-level special operations fitness, one recurring question I've received is whether I have any tips on becoming more mentally tough. I hate to sound like a grumpy old coach, but there are no easy tips. There is no secret sauce that makes mental toughness magically appear in your life. Mental toughness and resilience are built slowly, sometimes taking years, and often are developed through the following stages:

Motivation: There is a saying in the Navy SEAL community that "the motivated find the teams." This is true, but motivation has to grow into much more. We all need that initial spark, that why you want to do something to better yourself. This is the easy part, as many people are highly motivated in the early stages of discovering a new goal.

When the work to achieve this new goal is realized, motivation can suffer. Motivation only will get you started. Maintaining motivation only occurs when the stages below are met, and this takes time. The challenge here is that time often brings pitfalls in the form of administrative headaches, physical injuries or illness. As time progresses, you might feel like you are starting from scratch again, but you have to keep moving forward.

Persistence: If motivation is the start, persistence is the day after. No matter how many rejections you receive, keep pushing forward. Starting off moving in the right direction toward your goal has to be done every day. Everything you do should move you toward accomplishing your goal. You build good habits through daily persistence.

Habit: We are all creatures of habit. Dropping habits that are bad for us is just as challenging as creating new habits, sometimes harder. You often have to do both to achieve new goals you are motivated to accomplish. After you have completed several weeks of the journey toward accomplishing your goal, doing the little things to help build your foundation, you will find that you have created a habit.

Habits are daily events, a gold standard of perfect performance, and have to be part of the schedule (religiously) so that when you miss it, you feel horrible for doing so. Be patient with this stage, as it takes time to build a habit.

Discipline: You cannot reach your goal without discipline. Discipline is what gets you moving when you are low on energy and not motivated to keep going. Discipline requires a laser focus on your goal. Constantly remind yourself that you need to get to work doing the things that will make you better, such as studying, exercising, earning money and moving forward.

Turning a weakness into a strength requires discipline. Likewise, you may need discipline to help drop your ego and seek help. If you feel like you do not have all of the answers and are seeing no results, it may be time to reach out for assistance. Discipline is linked not only to military performance; we all need it in life.

So how do you get discipline?

First find something that motivates you, then find enjoyment in learning more about it. Figure out what you need to do to achieve your goal. Set up sub-goals and a timeline. Continue to enjoy yourself along the way by performing daily tasks that will move you toward your goal.

These tasks may take the form of schoolwork, learning to swim or run, lifting weights or anything that requires constant repetition before you see improvement. Once you have made this process a habit, you have developed a working level of discipline. You soon will find that you are more disciplined in other areas of your life as well.

Finally, you achieve mental toughness. Before reaching this final stage of the process, you must master the above stages. There will be times when you are physically beat down and exhausted, and your mental toughness will help you find that second wind or "the fuel when the tank is empty." Often, this is part of the pinnacle of the challenge that you set in front of yourself years ago. It will come to this very moment. Just you and no one else.

How bad do you want it? I am a firm believer that you cannot measure someone's heart, but you can test it to an extreme level. Some believe that you are either born with this mental toughness or not. In my experience both personally and as a coach, it is a bit of both.

Mental toughness can be built, but it may take years. Building a never-quit work ethic is the end result of any difficult accomplishment that takes everything from you to overcome. Find a goal, set a course, stay focused and never quit.


Related links on mental toughness:

  • Mental Toughness -- Art or Science?
  • Top Ten List of Mental Toughness
  • Daily Motivation Required
  • Getting Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
  • Persistence Wins
  • Discipline -- The Missing Link

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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