Here Is Our Top 10 List for Mental Toughness

V Corps soldiers participate in the Murph Challenge in Fort Knox.
V Corps soldiers participate in the Murph Challenge in Fort Knox, Kentucky, May 27, 2021. (PV2 Javen Owens/U.S. Army photo)

After this article, a friend of mine asked about what I thought the top 10 list of traits for mental toughness would be. After some thought and discussions with some successful, mentally tough people, we came up with this.

Mental toughness -- How do we obtain it? Make it stronger? Many young people ask these questions of me each day, and I wish it was a simple answer. I wish you could be mentally tough by figuring out a magic solution of phrases or training programs. But it is not that simple.

Being mentally tough requires you to keep competing when your mind wants you to quit. Humans have a "safety switch" in our brain that tells us to stop in order to prevent us from hurting ourselves. We are natural-born survivors built to conserve our energy, store food and just simply live to survive another day.

There are times you can shut that part of your brain off. When you do this, you realize your body is 10 times stronger than your brain will let it be. Training programs in the Special Operations world help you tap into this mindset, but your life experiences and habits often can build a mental toughness and resilience that no one can beat.

Here is a top 10 list of common denominators in many people I know who have accomplished great things in their lives and continue to keep moving onto bigger and greater goals:

Daily persistence and focus -- never stop: Do what you have to do every day, even when you are tired, feel lazy, etc. It does not matter if it is physical training, studying for a test, working toward a deadline or just getting out of bed every day with a positive attitude, do it, no matter what. Make moving a habit. You may find all you needed was a good meal and hydration to give you the energy required to stay focused and finish or start a new task.

No one becomes mentally tough overnight. It takes a lifetime. Some of the toughest people I have met in my life know they have some level of toughness, but still say they have to work at it every day. In the Navy SEAL Creed, there is a line that says, "I have to earn it (the trident) every day."

Stay motivated: Why do you put yourself through painful training, long hours working or studying? You have to answer this question, not me. It is no one's job to motivate you; it is all self-motivation that keeps you moving. Have goals that you see each day getting closer and closer one step at a time into fruition. Prepare mentally for the weeks, months or even years required to get to where you want to be one day.

Have a quote that resonates with you: There are many great motivating quotes to get and keep you going. Here are some of my favorites when I need that extra affirmation:

1. "Mental toughness is finding the fuel when the tank is empty." (My favorite. It sums up what mental toughness is in so many ways.)

2. "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

3. "If you are going through Hell, keep going."

4. "Never quit."

5. "Go for it now. The future is promised to no one."

These are basically performance cues used by sports psychologists at every level of performance. There are many, many more to find online. Find one that works for you. Find a poster or​ make a poster -- see it every day. Say it when you need it.

Train to compete, not just survive: In relation to Special Ops training programs, athletic events or even business, this is the biggest difference between those who graduate training or succeed and those who do not. You should try to be in the type of shape and mindset that will allow you to win or be in the top 10% of the class in many events -- at least some.

Too many of us, in general, just get by each day "putting in their time" and barely living. Knowing that you are stuck in survival mode is a realization that can be the first step to learning how to change your life and compete for the first time in your life. I developed this saying, shortly before I ran a marathon for the first and last time. My goal was to finish a 26.2-mile run. I saw a skinny kid from Africa warming up and I realized he was about to run the same race as I was, but his goal was to drop a minute off his best time. My goal was to survive the event.

Who has a better chance of finishing the race? The kid who was in competition mode, not me. I succeeded with my goal and was able to use the "complete, not just survive" quote many times that day and ever since in my life.

Dissociation training: There is a fine line between mental toughness and stupid, but when it is a life-or-death situation, there is no stupid method if it keeps you alive. Basically, how much pain, discomfort and even fear can you play with? That is an immeasurable element of success. Dissociation refers to being able to take instructors yelling at you, cold water freezing you, sand chafing you and exhaustion slowing you and not letting it get into your head.

There is a bit of "find your happy place" in these dissociation skills, but you still have to be focused on the mission at hand and not just be some zombie who cannot follow orders stuck in some Zen state. Maybe it is just being so focused on the mission at hand; nothing else matters. That is why I put daily persistence and focus as the number one trait.

You can practice this skill with mundane, monotonous, long workouts like long runs, rucks, swims and high-repetition pyramid PTs that can get pretty boring if you do not have an ability to think of something else besides counting reps, miles and time.

Laugh: Finding humor in what happens to you daily is one of the best ways to get through the daily grind. Find humor in what challenges you. You would be surprised when going through a stressful event how a humorous comment or action will lighten the mood and keep you focused on the task at hand.

In a group setting, finding humor and laughing can bond a team together like nothing else. By yourself, you have to laugh as it will help change your mood, gather yourself and get over any negative thoughts you may be having at the time.

Know your weakness; make it a strength: You have to have a level of internal awareness and realize there will be things you are not naturally good at doing. I have found that when working on my weaknesses that I have to check in and use a certain level of mental toughness to keep going than if working on something I was naturally good at doing.

For instance, prior to SEAL training, I was a powerlifting football player whose idea of long-distance running was anything greater than 100 yards. It took me years to get my running times down to where I could compete or at least stay in the middle of the pack of my class during beach runs. Running was something that I had to check in mentally each time I ran, whereas the calisthenics and swimming were not something that challenged me as much. Even to this day, running is something I have to focus on to "stay in the pack."

Plan your dive; dive your plan: In training, we learned how to "dirt dive." This is a simple walk-​​through of a mission where we take each phase of the mission step by step and discuss how we achieve the desired outcome. Discussing and creating contingency plans is one of the outcomes that helps us to be immediately flexible in case something goes wrong.

Create different routes for you to achieve your goal. There may be 3-4 different ways to get from point A to point B. Consider every possibility and don't get discouraged if your original plan fails. Move onto plan B or even plan C. Stay focused on the end goal.

Big goals with sub-goals: We all want to be successful in what we do. One event in my life that I knew was going to be difficult was Hell Week -- a 120+-hour evolution at SEAL training that requires everything out of you to complete. You eat every six hours with little or no sleep breaks the entire week. I knew if I broke up the week into 20 six-hour segments, it mentally seemed more obtainable than one 120+-hour, five-day event.

Parallel this in the business world by keeping track of weekly, monthly and quarterly goals, and the next thing you know, your annual projections also can be obtained even if you have to change course to get there. But you won't know to change course if you do not assess. Remember: "You get what you inspect, not what you expect."

Stay positive: Positive thinking and planning goes a long way. If it is not in the schedule or plan, it does not exist so make sure you stay positive with your planning and actions. You always will have negative thoughts and doubts that pop into your head every now and then.

A trick to quit having obtrusive, negative thoughts is called "name it and tame it." The next time a negative thought or doubt pops into your head or is spoken by another on your team, give it a silly name like "dumbass." Then tell yourself out loud so you say it and hear it, "I can't think about 'dumbass' anymore." This may take a few rounds of practice, but it works to help you stay positive. Naming a thought takes away its power and shows you that you have control of your fears and anxiety. That is powerful.

This mental toughness top 10 list works for me and many people I consider successful, motivated and mentally tough that I interviewed for this article. I hope this list helps you. By no means are mental toughness tips and attributes limited to my top 10 list. There are countless ways to build your mental toughness and resilience that will help you stay motivated, thinking positive and handle stress and adversity throughout the rest of your life.

Hang in there, and never, never give up.

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

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