“To increase your effectiveness, make your emotions subordinate to your commitments”
“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”
Mental toughness unlocks the door to self-mastery.
“You’re a pathetic loser who never won a State championship.” Bryan screamed after collapsing in exhaustion.
“I guess we are going to out here a little longer.” I responded.
Bryan and his friend were high school wrestlers who were caught awake in their rooms after the 11pm “lights out” call at the Washington Intensive wrestling camp. After graduating high school, I started coming back to Washington to work as a camp counselor. My job was simple: break the kids mentally, build them back up, repeat. This is the same basic process that U.S. Army Drill Sergeants have used to influence motivation and generate confidence in new recruits since 1964.
Your mind requires adversity to grow just your muscles requires resistance. The secret to helping athletes build mental toughness as quickly as possible is to increase their physical burden through exercise and decrease their emotional support by ignoring their excuses and complaints. If you want to build physical strength, you have to tear your muscles down. The same is true if you want to build mental strength. The idea of breaking down a high school athlete may sound harsh, but it is the single best way to help him improve self-confidence and develop leadership skills. Of course, their participation in this process is voluntary and it never involves physical or verbal abuse.
It was 1:05 AM on the third night of camp and I was standing over Bryan and his friend watching them do their 8th superset of 100 pushups followed by 10 – 100 yard sprints. Bryan had a mouth on him and he had been running it since the first day of camp. At the same time, he was a hard worker and one of the best wrestlers in the State. Bryan and his friend had deliberately been disregarding the camp rules in order to get caught and be put through extra workouts. In their heads, “volunteering” for punishment was showing everyone how tough they were. It was their way of trying to establish leadership influence. Having worked several camps in the past, I had seen these types before. They were always talented and popular, some even worked hard, but they lacked the most important component of developing as a leader: self-mastery.
The Benefits Of Breaking
Earlier in the night, as I was walking through the dormitory halls, I noticed that the light in Bryan’s room was on. I immediately banged on his door and told him and his roommate to get their running shoes on. I had been feeling Bryan out since the beginning of camp and came to realize that he had all the tools he needed to achieve his wrestling goals, he just needed a push. Subconsciously, behind all of his mouthing off, Bryan was begging for a breakthrough. So I decided to break him. After putting Bryan and his friend through a two hour long workout in the wrestling room and on the track, they both finally stopped talking. Ten minutes later, Bryan’s friend started crying. Fifteen minutes later, Bryan lashed out and called me a loser.
When a person reaches a point of complete mental exhaustion, one of two things usually happens, either they start crying uncontrollably or they lash out belligerently. They reach their willpower limit and lose control of the internal influences. This is similar to what happens to marathon runner’s when the hit “the wall” around mile 20. Bryan’s friend started crying. Bryan lashed out. You might be wondering why these two kids didn’t just stop working out? Why didn’t they just get up and leave? Of course, that was an option. They weren’t forced to workout. The camp rules stated that a kid could refuse to be put through a workout at any time by going to his dorm room, packing up his gear, calling his parents, and going home. A few kids would pack up and leave every year but most, like Bryan and his friend, came to camp specifically to push themselves past their mental limits. They wanted to be broken.
Growth Is Gratifying
Contrary to popular belief, working at an athletic camp as a coldhearted counselor is not easy or fun. You spend more energy organizing and controlling the chaos of 300 kids than you would by going through the camp yourself. The only thing that made working the camp worthwhile was figuring out how to develop others in a way that increased their mental toughness. There’s nothing more fulfilling than watching someone else push past their self-imposed limits and instantly improve self-confidence. Nothing compares to witnessing someone make a breakthrough in their own thinking. You can actually see it in their eyes when it happens. Click, something invisible comes together and that person starts to command himself in an elevated way.
Sometimes you have to be a hard ass to develop leadership skills in others. I’ll finish the rest of the story of Bryan and his friend in Part 2 of this series. But I can tell you that at the end of camp, after the ceremonial half-marathon all of the wrestlers had to run to graduate, Bryan and his friend sought me out, gave me hugs, and thanked me for pushing them. Over the last ten years, I’ve run into several kids that went to the Washington Intensive camp and they always come up to me and thank me. Most recently, I received the following message from Mike Chiesa, a Washington Intensive camper who just won UFC’s The Ultimate Fighter Live competition and got a 6 figure contract to fight professionally:
The Counterbalance Strategy
Vince Lombardi, who led the Green Bay Packers to five league championships and two Super Bowl wins, described mental toughness as “a perfectly disciplined state of mind that refuses to give in”. Penn State psychologist, David Yukelson, defines mental toughness as a psychological edge that allows people to cope with situational demands. The six characteristics of mental toughness include determination, concentration, resilience, poise, and the ability to influence motivation and improve self-confidence. Together, these characteristics generate a state of self-mastery. Millions of people, from athletes in high school to executives in business and entrepreneurship, spend billions of dollars at camps and conferences trying to achieve this state.
Mental toughness is nothing more than a person’s ability to counteract damaging emotions with productive emotions. Damaging emotions are the enemy of self-mastery. When an emotion takes control of your behavior, it becomes your master. The only way to build mental toughness and maintain a state of self-mastery is to control your emotions. The problem is that damaging emotions like anger, fear, and pain are incredibly powerful forces. And once unleashed, they are almost impossible to stop. The only way to cut them out of your life is to counter them.
In my next post, I will discuss how you can use the “counterbalance strategy“, a term coined by Robert Greene, to specifically counteract the damaging effects of anger. Further posts will discuss how to use this strategy to quickly counter fear and pain. Once you are able to counter your negative emotions on demand, you will have achieved a state self-mastery and, by definition, be mentally tough. Click here to continue to Part 2.