The recipe for mental toughness written by Graham Kuerschner

US Navy SEAL hopefuls test their mental toughness during ‘Hell Week’

Setting and achieving micro goals is the key to mental staying power.

I look at the people who come through the door of my school and I regularly ask myself, ‘What are these people looking for?’ And while they will give the standard answers of getting fitter and learning to defend themselves, these are surface motivators. In time, you come to understand that what most people really want is to feel better about themselves. And one aspect of that is mental toughness — or should I say, feeling mentally tougher.

My journey on that particular road started in the late 1970s when I came across a book called Sports Psyching: Playing Your Best Game All of the Time by Dr Thomas Tutko and Umberto Tosi. Tutko is a leading light in the field of sports psychology. Just look up how many texts you can purchase on the subject — I personally have at least 20, and it’s become more mainstream as it moves into the business world with mental toughness training and coaching for executives.

The term ‘mental toughness’ means many things to many people, although there is a common general sense of the term. It is used by coaches to describe an athlete who possesses the ability to stay focused and perform well while under very stressful circumstances. Military leaders use the term to describe the traits necessary to enable a warrior to remain calm in extremely dangerous situations.

Wikipedia defines mental toughness as: “A term commonly used by coaches, sport psychologists, sport commentators and business leaders — generally describes a collection of attributes that allow a person to persevere through difficult circumstances (such as difficult training or difficult competitive situations in games) and emerge without losing confidence.”

Perhaps surprisingly, there is actually no universally agreed scientific definition of the concept of mental toughness, so people form their own. I’ve written a manual for my students and I’m taking them through a managed mental toughness program. This program is comprised of the elements of mental toughness I feel are important, based on my experience. One of those elements is goal-setting, and there’s one very specific type of goal that I’ve found helpful and many of you may already use: the ‘micro goal’.

Lars Draeger, in his recent book Navy SEALS Training Guide: Mental Toughness, relates that the dropout rate for those attempting to become US Navy SEALS was around 75 per cent. US Naval Special Warfare psychologists conducted studies as to why so many candidates failed to make it through training and found that those who successfully made it through used four mental techniques to get them through the tough training. The first was goal-setting but, in particular, short-term or immediate goal-setting.

So, rather than think about all the months of gruelling training ahead, a successful student would instead think of what was immediately ahead of him at that moment and make that a goal and his focus. So, during a 6am physical training session, rather than focusing on the whole 90-minute session ahead of him — which would be daunting, especially when already tired and sore from weeks of training — he would focus on only one set of exercises at a time.

If the PT (physical training)instructor directed the class to do 50 push-ups, the successful student would isolate his focus on this one task and think about nothing else until it was completed. This would even apply to basic tasks like getting up in the morning, shaving, showering and getting dressed. These were all micro-goal events because the desire would be to stay in bed.

Throughout the course, those who made it through gave themselves immediate goals: ‘Hang on until lunch’ or ‘Keep running for at least another minute’, or ‘Just make it through this run of the obstacle course’. Then they would say to themselves, ‘Okay, got that done — you’re a winner’ and move on to the next task.

The trick here is to take anything that as a whole seems overwhelming and divide it up into micro goals. If you try to take in a big, daunting task, such as a heavy training session, you may set off that voice in your head that says, ‘Give up; you don’t have to put yourself through this.’ Listen to that voice and you’ll never achieve any challenging goal that you set for yourself.

Psychologists often refer to this micro-goal technique as ‘segmentation’ and studies have shown that it can be effective for people pursuing almost any type of goal, including personal goals such as losing weight, getting healthier, succeeding at work or study, etc.
Try this technique if you haven’t already — it’s simple and it works.

Read more training articles.

Photo via Getty Images.


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