Growing up on a cattle ranch in Wyoming, I learned to survive by being scrappy enough to make-do and hungry enough to keep moving. Department stores were big buildings in places 100 miles away, and if a rattlesnake came between me and where I wanted to go, guess who came out on top?
As a kid I learned a lot about mental toughness. When I joined the FBI, I learned even more. My defensive tactics and firearms training drilled one thing into me: never choke when faced with an obstacle that looks bigger, meaner, or uglier than you.
In other words, always be game-ready so you can have the mental toughness to rebound from disappointments and missed opportunities. Our coaches trained us to have a hardiness for enduring the downside of a situation.
Entrepreneurs, leaders, and business owners have tough situations to face in today’s competitive environment. They need to be ready to meet those challenges with their best mental game.
Here are five evidence-based tips on how to develop a stronger mind:
Mental toughness tip No. 1: Set a super-clear goal
Research confirms that the more specific your goal, the better you will perform. General goals are too vague so take the time at the very beginning to think it through so it will become more clear to you.
The goal must be real and important for you to achieve. Do not speculate—that will do nothing but waste your time and valuable energy.
- Define your need and really mean it.
- Describe in detail exactly what you want.
- List what you want—it will help you visualize your success.
- Define what will interfere in achieving your goal.
- Determine the starting point.
- Establish a time frame for achieving your goal.
- Break down the tasks necessary for completion.
- Tell others what you plan to do.
Mental toughness tip No. 2: Learn to be OK with pain
We all know we are most motivated just before a deadline — our pulse quickens and our focus narrows. We can use the same principles of neurobiology to help us be mentally tough when it comes to meeting our goals.
Handling tough negotiations, dealing with competitors, and climbing the corporate ladder are not easy achievements, but if you are pursuing something that holds both value and meaning for you, you will embrace the discomfort that comes from pushing yourself past self-limiting barriers.
Whether it’s physical, psychological, or emotional discomfort, pushing past the pain of exertion will require you to suck it up. Leaders who have mental toughness are able to function when they hit their pain threshold because their minds are trained to ease their way through it.
My defensive tactics coach used to shout out, “No pain, no gain!” It captures the idea that we need to move past the point of comfort to achieve professional excellence.
- When you feel you are starting to hit the wall, stay in the moment and concentrate on the task in front of you. When you focus and concentrate on the task, it is easier to see where small steps can be taken to keep you moving through the wall you are facing. If you lose your concentration, all you will see is the wall! Your mind takes over and tells you that the task is impossible, so you crumble and wilt.
- Craft your goals as a target you are moving toward. Athletes are rarely thinking how far they are from the starting line but rather how much closer they are to the finish line.
Mental toughness tip No. 3: Get competitive
As badly as I hate to admit this, I was passed in a 6K run by a woman pushing a baby carriage. My pride took a real nosedive at that sorry moment, but it prompted a real competitive spirit within me.
I made sure the woman never got more than a few paces ahead of me for the rest of the race. I focused my eyes on her back and kept her pace until we crossed the finish line.
Inch by inch, life’s a cinch; yard by yard, life is hard.
- Identify your competitors.
- Gage where you stand against them.
- Pick out one competitor who is slightly ahead of you in terms of talent and skill set.
- Find the scrappiness to stay up with them, and eventually, move past.
- Throw your lasso around the next competitor ahead of you and do the same thing.
Mental toughness tip No. 4: Talk to yourself
The way in which we talk to ourselves can influence our behavior in both positive and negative ways.
Self-talk used by FBI agents and Navy Seals is not just a motivational message like “You can do it!” In studies published by Perspectives on Psychological Science, it was determined that the most useful mental message is the “instructional self-talk.”
This is the kind of running commentary we engage in when we’re carrying out a difficult task, especially one that’s unfamiliar to us, to keep us focused on what we are learning and what we need to do next.
Learning forces us to focus our attention on the task before us so we can screen out distractions. It also helps us regulate our effort so we can make better decisions about what to do, how to do it, and when.
- Recent studies have found that self-talk is most effective when incorporated into a series of thoughts and actions.
- First, comes a thought where you set a goal for yourself and make a plan on how to get there.
- Second, your performance follows where you enact the plan to the best of your ability.
- Third, spend time in self-reflection when you carefully evaluate what you’ve done and adjust your plan to be even better next time.
Mental toughness tip No. 5: Picture it
Visualizing your success is based on solid science. When you imagine yourself doing something before you do it, you are programming your mind to think you can. By visualizing your performance repeatedly, your brain will store that information as a success.
With each success, our brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This is the chemical that becomes active when we encounter situations that are linked to rewards from the past. Dopamine enables us to not only see rewards, but to move toward those rewards.
- Research has suggested that we need to repeat positive mental messages to ourselves at least five times before our brain begins to see an obstacle differently.
- Visualize your success three to five times a day.
- Hold those mental messages for 20 seconds at a time.
Mental toughness is the ability to manage our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in ways that will set us up for success. It’s truly about mind over matter.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. LaRae is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.
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