Coming up with a simple definition for mental strength or toughness isn't easy.
It's a subject that's both complex and highly individual, as we'll often draw upon our own experiences and observations when attempting to define it.
This explains why one's definition of mental strength could be surviving two stress-filled tours in Iraq, while another's might be growing up watching their single mother support a family by working 60-hour weeks.
Mental strength is something I've been forced to develop throughout my lifting career and my life, and in my opinion the best approach is to identify what composes it, namely the following five things:
- Confidence and belief in oneself
- The ability to overcome adversity
- The ability to tolerate or endure pain
- The desire and determination to keep going no matter the cost (read sacrifice)
- The ability to overcome fear.
The Foundation of Mental Strength
You must have this, and in abundance, if you wish to reach the top of any sport or achieve any lofty endeavor.
You must believe absolutely and without waver that you're not only capable of achieving your desired goal, but also that it's only a matter of time before you do so.
You must believe this in the face of any opposition to your goals. You can never let negative influences shake your confidence or cause even the smallest amount of self doubt.
It doesn't matter if every person you've ever met has told you that your goals are ridiculous and the idea that you could even come close to achieving them is totally absurd, you must still believe in your ability to achieve them with 100% confidence.
This is something that every champion from every sport or profession shares and there are countless stories of people overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to accomplish their dreams.
Bill Kazmaier is a legend in the strength world and for good reason. First, he dominated powerlifting and established the all-time total record of 2425 lbs. This was in 1981, well before the advanced supportive gear that's currently available.
Kaz benched 661 lbs. in a T-shirt and deadlifted 887 lbs. in a wrestling singlet. Kaz also possessed an equally singular physique, more closely resembling a giant 330-pound bodybuilder than a powerlifter.
Kaz achieved the majority of his fame by winning the World's Strongest Man competition for three consecutive years (1980-1982) and was so dominant that, according to Kaz, he wasn't invited back for the next six years.
However, what's most impressive to me, and I'm certain was vital to Kaz's success, was his mental strength. His self confidence was extreme, even to the point that Kaz had T-shirts made up that he wore in competition stating "There Can Be Only One," and there was no doubting that Kaz believed that he was that one.
2. Ability to Overcome Adversity
We all face adversity at one time or another, and for some it will come more often and be more difficult than for others.
It may present itself as injuries, professional or family commitments, opposition from someone in our lives, or even our own self doubt and weakness. Regardless of the form it takes, you must be able to overcome adversity and do so in convincing fashion.
I've witnessed many top powerlifters suffer major injuries that instantly ended their careers – tendons ripped off bones, muscles torn apart, and bones fractured. But for every athlete that's fallen from a particular injury, I know of others with the same injury that have returned to or exceeded their prior form.
It wasn't the severity of the injury that determined if it was career ending, rather it was the inability of the person to cope with it psychologically. For some, major injuries are seen as devastating and career ending. Psychically damaged lifters aren't able to overcome the fear of suffering the same or similar injuries ever again.
Yet others see any injury, no matter how severe, as just a small bump in the road on their way to success. It's this ability to overcome adversity that often separates the great from the good and the very best from the rest of the elite.
Adversity is something that I know a bit about.
From the way I grew up, to the time I spent in the Marines, to putting myself through college while supporting a wife and three children, I've faced adversity in many forms.
I've also faced it in the name of serious lifting related injuries on multiple occasions. I've now had three surgeries related to the iron game, and the first two happened only nine months apart.
First, I detached my right biceps tendon while lifting up a truck (yes, smart I know) and then I blew my left biceps deadlifting three weeks out from nationals. And believe it or not, six months before the first tear, I underwent surgery and radiation to treat testicular cancer.
I've also suffered muscular tears to my left calf, right quad, left pec, left lat, both triceps multiple times, and separated my right acromioclavicular joint deadlifting in a meet.
Many, many times I've had to listen to people talk about how I was done and my lifting career was over. After my quad tear, I remember reading one particular comment that stuck in my head. Some anonymous coward on a forum ripped me apart, and then finished by writing, "Stick a fork in him because Kroc's done!"
Is that so?
I'd torn my quad in January of 2008, and went from not even being able to walk to squatting a personal record 1014 lbs. at the UPA Pro-Am in July of the same year.
The entire time I was rehabbing, I let that coward's words fuel my motivation to come back stronger than ever.
3. Pain Tolerance
Just about anyone reading this article knows that in order to become otherworldly strong and freakishly huge, you're going to have to be able to endure great amounts of pain.
The pain will come in many forms, and not just pain from injury or training, but mental fatigue and fear of pain as well.
Pain in the gym is routine. You have to endure it on a daily basis due to the strenuous nature of training. Pushing through this pain barrier on a continual basis is mandatory in order to reap the rewards of pushing your body to new limits.
Every day is a battle to lift more weight, perform more reps, and exceed what you did the day before. If you can't tolerate this basic level of required suffering, then you might as well turn in your barbells for knitting needles.
Overcoming the Pain of An Injury
While nearly all of us who endeavor to better ourselves through lifting have little trouble pushing ourselves every day, the pain of injuries both chronic and acute is an obstacle that derails many.
As strength athletes, frequent tendonitis, painful elbows, shoulders, and lower back, and often extreme levels of delayed onset muscle soreness are all just par for the course. If you stop training or scale things back constantly due to minor irritations like these, than be assured that you'll never reach the levels of strength and size that you desire, or are truly capable of.
Even competing in strength sports often results in muscle and tendon ruptures and occasionally even broken bones that may require surgery. Ask any top powerlifter, strongman, or hard training bodybuilder and they'll tell you injuries like these are just part of the game – and if you aspire to be one of the best, then injuries are just a toll you'll have to pay on your road to the top.
Kaz provides us with another great example of this type of mental toughness. In the 1982 World's Strongest Man contest, Kaz was attempting to bend cold rolled steel bars and suffered a very severe pec tear. So severe was the injury that it resulted in him never benching close to 600 lbs. again (he'd been close to 700).
Of course, at the time it occurred, it was immediately recommended that Kaz go straight to the hospital. Kaz' response was legendary: "I can't do that! There are still four events left."
Not only did Kaz continue to compete, he dominated, fighting through the pain and discomfort to successfully defend his World's Strongest Man title.
4. Desire and Determination
This type of mental strength can be effectively summed up by one word: sacrifice.
In order to achieve something greater than the masses, you're going to have to be able to sacrifice more than they can.
Take any sport, business, or challenging endeavor in life and look at those that are at the pinnacle of their respective trades. The one trait they're almost certain to share is that they're all singular in focus when it comes to goals.
What this means is that you must be able to push aside the temptations in life that, while enjoyable, will ultimately prevent you from achieving what is your most important goal. Sacrifice is really about prioritizing. Are your goals important enough for you to sacrifice some ordinary pleasures in life, like partying with your buddies?
There's no right or wrong answer to this question, nor is anything wrong with an average or ordinary life. But my guess is, if you're on this website, being average or ordinary is something you despise. When I think of sacrifice, I think about a story I read about Ted Arcidi, the first man to officially bench press over 700 lbs. in competition by pressing 705 lbs. in 1985.
Ted Arcidi was an enormous man, and as a premier bench presser possessed a gargantuan chest (although his shoulders, arms, and upper back were just as impressive). After Ted broke the world record, another competitor commented that Ted had the upper body of a 400-pound man.
As the story goes, Ted dropped out of dental school – much to the dismay of his orthodontist father – because he felt it was getting in the way of him becoming the first man to bench over 700 lbs.
While few may have agreed with him then, Ted himself knew what his priorities were and what sacrifices he had to make to achieve his goals. After dropping out of school, Ted moved into a small, dark, damp basement with a single room and a pull chain toilet so that he could focus completely on breaking the record.
Now some of you may be thinking that's insane, but if you were to ask Ted today, I'm certain he doesn't regret the sacrifices he made that allowed him to make history.
Fear can be defined in many ways. For lifters, it can often be a fear of failure, of competition, of others, or even just fear of the unknown.
Whatever fear you have, it still must be conquered if you're to realize your true potential. Fear is purely a psychological process, and as such we can train ourselves to be mentally stronger to overcome it. Our minds can be trained to become fearless just as our muscles can be trained to become stronger.
Often the most successful method for overcoming a specific fear is repeated exposure to whatever frightens us. This is especially true concerning competition.
If competition terrifies you but you feel it's something that you'd really find rewarding, the best thing you can do is to enter a competition as soon as possible. You'll find that the more you compete, the less you'll fear the pressure of competing.
Rationalization is another technique that can be used to overcome many types of fear. For example, let's say you're an elite level powerlifter and you've easily squatted 980 lbs. in competition, but you just can't get past the idea of having 1000 lbs. on your back.
(Of course, this same scenario can apply to your first 300-pound bench press or 500-pound deadlift, or whatever numbers you currently struggle with.)
When you think about that number, you feel anxious and just can't seem to visualize yourself doing it. It just seems like an insurmountable barrier that you're stuck at and apparently will never be able to overcome.
First, recognize that others have surpassed that barrier and that you're not all that different from them, so logically there's no valid reason to believe that you can't do it.
Also, realize that before you squatted 900, you squatted 800, and before 800 came 700, etc. If you were capable of progressing from one of those strength levels to the next, then it's illogical to believe that progressing to the next level should be any more improbable.
This line of thinking not only applies to certain strength levels but to any type of goal, whether it's athletic, professional, or personal. It's also worth noting that for strength athletes, barriers to progress often revolve around certain "significant numbers."
Have you ever noticed how many people get stuck at 300, 315, 405, or 500 on different lifts? This is because these are psychological barriers and not physiological ones.
Defining fear as such is an important step in overcoming it.
I've feared many things in life. When I walked onto the mat for my first wrestling match in junior high, I was so scared that I nearly passed out.
I was claustrophobic when I was younger and really tight spaces would freak me out. Being alone in the middle of the night in the woods where I grew up used to scare the hell out of me as well.
Once, I even almost passed out because I was scared to talk to an attractive girl that liked me. As I walked up to talk to her my legs actually buckled and I nearly fell flat on my face. My friends at the time laughed so hard I thought they were going to fall down.
However, the important thing is that I always believed in facing my fears. I continued to wrestle through high school and into the Marines and even though it took years, I was eventually able to rid myself of that fear.
My younger brother Kurt and I dug numerous tunnels leading to full underground rooms in the same woods I found so terrifying as a child. I'd force myself to climb headfirst through dark and extremely tight dirt-walled tunnels, from which there was no way to turn around, until I could do it without hesitation.
I also forced myself to walk deep into the woods in the middle of the night alone until the darkness no longer bothered me.
And yes, I eventually learned how to talk to attractive women without losing consciousness.
At this point in my life, I can honestly say that I fear nothing, but if something in the future was to evoke that emotion in me, I know that I have the necessary tools to face it head on and overcome it.
Mental Strength: Do You Have It?
I've only touched upon the many facets of mental strength and how to develop them, but I think my point is clear, mental strength isn't just vitally important for success in all areas of our lives, it's also a skill that can be developed through training.
If you have lofty dreams and are seriously committed to achieving them, don't underestimate the value of developing your psychological strength, not only to complement, but also to enhance the development of your physical strength.