Posts Tagged mental strength

Bringing Both Sides Up at the Same Time


My body treats me like a perpetually grumpy old coach treats an eager but distracted athlete. It constantly pushes me and teaches me uncomfortable truths, and when my ego gets out of check, it snaps me back to reality.

The other day at the gym, it taught me that things are easier when you focus on your strengths. I was struggling to push my usual weight on an incline press machine. The sides on this machine move independently, and though my left side is at least four times stronger than my right, I load equal weight on both sides. Out of habit, I focused on my weaker right side, trying to do all I could to make it work the way that it should. As I did that, my left side began to struggle too. My weakness was holding back my strength.

How often do we do something like that in our everyday lives? Maybe we have a big presentation at work, and instead of focusing on our mastery of the subject, we focus on our fear of public speaking. Because we’re so worried about botching the delivery, we miss key points, and the presentation isn’t as effective as it could be. Had we focused on our expertise – our strength – instead of our public-speaking fear – our weakness, the presentation would have been much more effective.

We all have weaknesses, and too many of us spend too much our time and energy worrying about them. When we do this, we make ourselves far less effective.

When I helped coach my son’s youth football team, like almost all youth teams, we had glaring weaknesses, but we also had tremendous strengths. We had to put 11 players on the field, working from a roster of about 20. We usually had four or five good players and an exceptional player or two, while the rest of our roster ranged from average to weak, depending on the day. We had the most success with formations and plays that capitalized on the talents of our better players. When we spent too much time trying to work around our weaknesses, we often failed to capitalize on our strengths.

That doesn’t mean that we ignored our weaker players. In practice, we worked with them to try to figure out what they were good at, and then we put them in a position where they could use their strengths. Some of the kids who thought they should be handling the ball failed miserably when we gave them that opportunity. Some of those same kids were pleasantly surprised when we put them in positions to block or tackle. Success is highly motivating, and you’re most successful when you can play to your strengths.

Focusing on our strengths not only makes us more effective, it also improves our attitude and mood. It’s extremely difficult to stay positive and energetic when we devote too much time to worrying about and trying to improve our weaknesses. When we do that, we invite frustration and discontent into our lives, and our strengths wither in neglect.

Back at the gym, I focused on my left side for my second set of incline press. That arm generally has no trouble moving the amount of weight that my right side can handle, and the weight went up easily. What’s more, my right side came with it. I didn’t get any stronger between sets, but my attitude, concentration and energy all benefitted when my brain focused on my stronger side.

Try that the next time that something doesn’t go the way you want. Instead of lamenting your failure and weaknesses, back up and think about how you can leverage your strengths to solve the problem. Then, repeat that process until it becomes a habit.


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Wrestlers Inspire Through Toughness

championshipTough people inspire me through moments of weakness. When I pull myself out of bed and grit my teeth in a struggle to stand straight, I think of the soldier guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and my discomfort fades away. When I’m tired at the end of the workday, I think of my grandfather and his days working the sugar beet fields of Western Nebraska during the 1930s, and I’m reenergized.

We need more tough people in the world today – people who persevere without pity. Tough people show us the potential of the human spirit. Tough people show us how to handle adversity. Tough people keep us from feeling sorry for ourselves.

Wrestlers are tough people. Wrestling demands both physical and mental toughness. It’s difficult to understand the level of toughness involved in wrestling, if you’ve never wrestled. Most people see three two-minute rounds and mistakenly believe that their workouts of equal length are equivalent. Unless those workouts are against an adversary of comparable strength and size who is resisting your every move, they are wrong.

I made that mistake myself as a high school sophomore. It probably wasn’t wise, and though he refused to do it for football, my doctor signed off on my sports physical for wrestling. I was grateful for the opportunity to compete and excited to cash in on the hundreds of hours I had spent in the weight room. Then, reality struck.

Wrestling practices are brutal. We ran. We sometimes carried each other while we ran. We wrestled each other, and then we ran some more. Not only were we trying to increase our strength and stamina, we were also trying to eliminate any non-productive body weight. If we weighed more than we should, we would risk wrestling a better-conditioned opponent who weighed what he should. 160-pounders often played football at 180 pounds. You didn’t want to be at 160 pounds if you could be at 152 or 145. To avoid that, you had to be aware of your condition at all times, especially when your friends ordered pizza.

Tough people are disciplined. They can deny themselves comfort and resist temptations. Wrestlers drag themselves to practice almost every day, knowing that they could be going home for a nap and lounge time instead, and many do it on an empty stomach. Wrestling practices are a brutal affair, as coaches push their athletes to do more with their bodies and minds than they think they can. Athletes who have participated in multiple sports will tell you that nothing compares wrestling practice. A fairly successful and now retired wrestler recently told me, “Everyone hates practice, but everyone loves winning. Wrestling teaches that practice enables winning.” That’s a pretty good lesson for a high school or college athlete to learn.

It all culminates on the mat, in front of a crowd that is noticeably smaller than those who attend football and basketball games. Though the crowds are smaller, it’s hard to beat the passion of wrestling fans. Many of us have a history in the sport ourselves or we live with a wrestler and thus have a front-row seat to the struggles and sacrifices of a wrestling season. Our hearts are on the mats with the wrestlers we cheer for.

On the mat, wrestlers strain to make their burning muscles do things that their opponent’s burning muscles won’t or to make themselves endure discomfort that their opponent won’t. A wrestling match is often as much a match of will as it is a match of skill and physicality. Those who have conditioned their minds to overcome obstacles and to push back fear give themselves an edge. That’s why wrestling defeats hurt so much. It’s tough to realize that you gave everything and still came up short – another good life lesson.

Later this week, in Nebraska, the state’s best high school wrestlers will compete for state championships. There will be 16 wrestlers in 14 weight classes for each of the state’s four school classes – 896 young athletes who enter the big stage with a big dream. By the end of the first day of competition, that dream will be over for all but 224 of them who qualify for the semi-finals on day 2. When whistles blow over the semi-finals, that number will be cut in half. In the finals on day 3, 56 will have their hand raised as champions of their weight class.

Though only 56 will be crowned champions, they are all champions of toughness who made themselves elite through rugged exceptionalism. Though they might not walk off the mat with championship medals, they will have earned a toughness that should inspire us all.

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Dirty Harry Can’t Help

Some of my favorite movies, growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, were based on good guys restoring order and reestablishing justice with overwhelming force and bravery. Rocky, Rambo, Harry Callahan and Colonel James Braddock disposed of bad guys, like Pampers at a daycare. Cinematic effects enhanced their triumphs and erased any doubt that the bad guy and the injustices he inflicted could survive.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, justice was an early theme in my life, and that’s likely what drew me to these movies, as much as the action and special effects. I wanted to see people get what they deserved, whether it was punishment or reward, because I felt an injustice of my own, and I was powerless to change it.

We all suffer from injustices of varying degrees. Perhaps a parent was taken from us at a young age or we grew up without adequate financial or emotional resources. Maybe we watched as others succeeded by shortcutting the system while we gave our best effort, followed the rules and still didn’t find comparable success. Maybe someone just swiped your parking spot. My sense of injustice stems largely from a physical disability that, despite my best efforts and due to no fault of my own, makes life difficult for me. Whatever the case, though we might have convinced ourselves that we are over it, the experience of injustice often lingers in our subconscious, as it does with me.

I notice it most on those rare occasions when I attempt to watch the evening news. In the privacy of my bedroom, I curse at the criminals who inflict their selfishness on others. I glare at images of terrorists who want to kill me and my family for where we live and what we believe. I shake my head in disgust at cultural changes that seem to be weakening our country. Because I don’t want my feelings of injustice to rob me of mental energy and inner peace, I must consciously protect my subconscious from sensing them, and I turn off the TV.

Psychotherapist Amy Morin recently published a list of suggestions for developing mental toughness, 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. At the top of that list is “They Don’t Waste Time Feeling Sorry for Themselves.”

They don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves. Injustice leads to a sense of victimization, and wastes time and precious mental resources.

In his New York Times bestseller, “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10,” retired Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell recounts an experience in his SEAL “Hell Week” when one of the trainers randomly selected a trainee and completely trashed the trainee’s quarters when he was out training. This poor trainee had experienced more than 20 hours of grueling physical tests, and another 20-plus hours awaited after a couple of hours of sleep. Instead of sleep that night, the trainee had to restore order to his room, though its trashed condition was no fault of his own, before inspection the next morning. Imagine the injustice he must have felt. A mentally weak person, under such extreme physical and mental exhaustion, and experiencing such extreme injustice, would have lashed out or simply collapsed. A SEAL can’t do that. If someone makes a terrible mistake on a mission or the enemy foils a near-perfect plan, a SEAL can’t spend time and mental resources being angry at the injustice and feeling sorry for himself. Doing so would get him killed.

Likewise, when things are tough for us, and we are angry at the injustice we perceive, we need to summon whatever mental toughness we have in order to resist the urge to feel sorry for ourselves. Only when self-pity is behind us can we focus on improving our situation.

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