By Jordan Smothermon
There never was a good knife made of bad steel. –Benjamin Franklin
Mental fitness is almost always the difference between victory or defeat for competitive athletes. If you crudely split sport into two categories, mental and physical, then you can examine how at the highest levels of sport, there are small differences in physicality – often less than one percent. The successful athlete has a better trained and fitter mind, that, in the hour of competition, provides the marginal physical advantage to take the match.
We understand that there are many forms of mental fitness and that we can’t train every form in the gym. The terror of a fire fight, the sinking feeling of a 40-foot huck off a cliff, and the fear of summiting the atmospheric height of a mountain peak – and the mental will it takes to see those varied examples through – cannot be replicated with bumper plates and leg blasters. Those forms of steel must be forged in the battle, on the mountain. We train mental fitness through physical challenge, forcing athletes to fight through their pain, to focus on the moment, and to remove emotions and thoughts that prevent success.
People often describe an athlete’s mind as “tough,” as if it were a metal. An athlete that consistently outperforms others is not tougher than other athletes, she is fitter and more technically proficient. If she can out-lift or outrun her opponents, it would be insulting to say her muscles or lungs or heart are “tougher.” She is more fit. Every aspect of her athleticism is trained through purposeful planning, focused execution, and thoughtful reflection. Mental fitness is not an fixed property of the mind, like the toughness of a metal. Neither is it not some magical force that exists in the ether or a power you channel. It is a trainable skill. In fact, mental fitness is the single most critical skill an athlete can possess.
The Swing of the Blade
But what does mental fitness look and sound like inside the athlete? What can you look for inside yourself to monitor your own mental fitness? How does it transfer from the artificial space of the gym to real world? Mental fitness trained in the gym provides the focus to lower external and internal obstacles of performance for a sustained period of time, allowing the athlete to attain their best physical performance on the mountain, in the real world. First, external performance obstacles: the best athletes in a given field often, upon reflection of a key aspect of performance, comment on how the game slowed down, things became quiet, or even silent. Their minds become sharp enough to perceive only what mattered to the successful completion of the activity, despite external conditions. In a fight, this may be fractions of a second to mere seconds. In a race, this may be hours. These athletes also tend to control internal obstacles: in training or competition, mentally fit athletes deal with pain like any other petty frustration: ignore it until it goes away. Mental fitness does not remove pain, to say so would be to romanticize it as some magical force. The skill to maintain attention at a critical time or to ignore the pain in your own head and body should not be taken lightly. It is perhaps the most powerful attribute of mental fitness – and all athleticism. The amazing ability to block out all other time but the present, and focus so totally on a single moment, that a single rep – every inch of movement, every ounce of breath – can be made an experience in and of itself is an invaluable skill. The prior and next movement do not exist in these magnified micro-moments, only the one rep, play, swing, or trigger pull. The mentally fit mind will maintain this focus through the necessary duration of time, without fail, and, should the athlete be distracted, quickly return to the previous level of focus.
It is this very focus, sharpness, and discipline of mind that carries over to the mountain. Time and again, our athletes tell us that when facing a challenge they will focus on the purpose, goals, and elements they need for success, not negative chatter in their mind or inconsequential details in the environment. All the while, mental fitness never overrides their principles of safety. It is neither smart nor an indication of mental fitness to take unnecessary risks or disregard clear signs of danger – that’s selfishness and pride, a mindset and emotion that are contrary to mental fitness and our training.
The degree to which an athlete can attain this level of mental sharpness – and maintain it – is the result of explicit mental fitness training. At Mountain Athlete, the mental fitness training model consists of the following, with principles for each afterward:
- No rest in transition. Keep moving. Your body is a capable machine. You must have the mindset that mission accomplishment requires the focused discipline to attack the next action without hesitation.
- Do not go to failure. Stop with a few reps in the tank so that you can maintain your intensity through the duration of the workout. Blowing up your engine makes the whole car useless, anyway. Back off the gas. It’s better to keep moving slower than to suffer the longer recovery of muscle failure.
- Limit rest to 5 breaths. If you must rest, be disciplined and limit it to 5 breaths before continuing the circuit. This should be enough rest to continue at a high intensity.
- Integrity. Full range of motion for every rep. Your muscles need to be trained through their full range of motion. If not, you risk both injury and limiting strength for certain actions outside the gym when you need them most. Extend your hips on the air squats; push your head through the window on overhead presses: every time, without fail. If you shortcut inside the gym, you lose time outside. Also, number 2 comes into play here. If you go to failure, the last one or two were probably lacking full range of motion. You did all the work, but got less than the optimal benefit. What’s the point in that?
There’s an overarching principle here also: maximize your time in the gym to maximize your performance outside. Staying true to the mental fitness training points outlined above will place you well on the path to getting the most out of each session and putting the most into what really matters outside the gym.
We say strength is king and work capacity queen, and rightly so. Mental fitness, then, is the power behind the throne. It is law: the kingmaker, the thing that gives power the legitimacy to be used and a channel through which to focus it. The focus of the fit mind is the singular junction at which athletes turn training hours into competition. It is the edge by which victory is attained. It, by no accident or magic, silences crowds, slows time, and ignores pain. The one who wields it wears the crown.
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