To be mentally tough is the ability to maintain your focus despite difficulties. It’s resilience, commitment, determination and an inner strength that enables us to persist when times are tough or when life knocks us off our feet. It’s a skill we all need to develop.
Roger Federer is a great example of someone who is mentally tough. Not just because he ranks as number 1 tennis player in the world, or because he is older than most tennis players, but because of his ability to be gracious under fire and the way he maintains his focus. In most matches Roger appears calm and relaxed but during the recent Australian Open grand final, he lost his cool during the fourth set and instead of carrying on he did something unprecedented, between sets he ran off the court and changed his clothes. I did wonder at the time if this was his way of changing his mindset, and whether it was or not, he came back onto the court a different man and cruised on to win his sixth Australian Open.
During the interview following that win Roger said that during the fourth set he lost control of his thoughts and his mind was all over the place. Once he regained control of his thoughts he went on to win the set and match quite easily.
What makes a person mentally strong?
Researchers who have studied elite athletes concluded that mental toughness results from grit, which is defined as determination and commitment to their goal. And that’s true but I believe there is more to it than that. It’s really hard to be determined if you aren’t motivated and motivation doesn’t just come from winning or being the best, it comes from doing something that you love. Roger Federer loves tennis. For him it’s not about being the best, the money, fame, or winning, he simply loves to play. So being motivated, or having a compelling reason, is what gives you the determination to persist when the going gets tough is important. Without motivation most people don’t last the distance.
Rosie Batty, the domestic violence campaigner, plunged herself into making a difference when her husband killed her son. Her motivation, most likely was a way to survive by making something good come from this tragedy. The fact that she is now taking time out to care for herself is a wise one but I expect she will be back in the public eye one day because she is one mentally tough lady who is an inspiration to so many.
Another example of mental strength was displayed by the parents of Dolly Everett, the beautiful 14-year-old girl who committed suicide not long ago, when they made the decision to fight to end cyber bullying so that no other parent would have to experience what they did.
Mental strength is developed by using whatever tool you can to help you move forward. Your ‘why’ is what compels you to persist even during tough times.
Mental toughness always starts with a decision to change yourself
There is a video doing the rounds on Facebook showing Roger Federer, as a young player, chucking tantrums on the court. He says that he realised one day that wasn’t who he wanted to be, and he made the decision to change. Novak Djokovic, another great tennis player, made the same choice.
The ability to be able to change the way you think and act, sometimes within a very short span of time as Roger Federer did, is what separates people who survive and thrive from those who struggle through life. And that is not a judgement, some people haven’t had positive role models in their life so they haven’t had the opportunity to develop this skill.
Grit, determination and strength start with your thoughts
Think of thoughts as a pathway in your brain. The more you dwell on a thought the more that way of thinking is reinforced, until it becomes your default way of thinking whenever a certain event occurs.
If your pathway supports you to feel better about yourself, to feel happier, to move forward despite the obstacles you face, that’s great.
If, however, your pathway leads you to thinking that you are not enough, will never get what you want, or to dwelling on what’s wrong in your life, then you will need to make a conscious choice, followed by action to change your thoughts until such time your new way of thinking becomes your automatic response.
We all need to develop mental strength to help us cope with setbacks, delays, failure and sometimes tragedy.
Parents can help their children do this by making it okay for them to fail. By showing children the positives that come from failure. By looking for the good in difficult situations. By not criticising and complaining. By acting on their strengths instead of their fears. And being a role model for how a mentally strong person behaves.
One of Roger Federer’s great strengths as a tennis player is that he is a master strategist. Instead of madly running around the court in an attempt to hit the ball back, he plans his next shot, and because his mind is filled with what he intends to do next there is no space left to dwell on fear and failure.
Fill your mind with thoughts of things you love. What’s good about your life. What you are grateful for. What you are looking forward to. Who you intend being. What you love doing. These thoughts are the stepping stones to becoming mentally strong.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said, “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.”