Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
“The Problem with Privilege”
With Gareth J. Mole (PSY0001372747)
Although I am delighted to see that the readers of the Mental Toughness Digest now comes from 27 countries around the world the vast majority of you are from wealthy, developed nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, USA and The United Kingdom.
I suspect you have probably never considered there to be any downside in living somewhere that is prosperous and highly developed. Well from a Mental Toughness point of view, there is.
The problem with privilege, especially in younger athletes, is there is much less “organic” mental conditioning taking place compared with their counterparts from less developed nations. By organic – I mean the natural way in which a place will produce challenges that basically force those from that location to “find a way” to overcome them.
One of the best examples of this has to be fact that most of the top long distance runners over the past fifty years have come from Central or Northern Africa. The simple theory is that many of the young school kids from Kenya and Ethiopia (for example) had to travel long distances to and from school without any form of transport so started running there and back from a young age. Obviously there are tremendous physical benefits to this but what about the psychological gains due to doing something so hard from such a young age. All of a sudden, a 5000 meter Olympics final isn’t that big a deal – just another 5 km stretch to be completed as fast as possible.
At Condor Performance one of the ways in which we try to overcome this is by the introduction of what we call Mentally Harder Practice (or “Influencing It” to give it it’s offical Metuf label). If done correctly this mental method can be just as effective – potentially more so – at boosting mental aspects of performance than the organic equivalents that occur more frequently in certain harsh / harder environments.
Mentally Harder Practice (MHP) is basically about doing anything during training that makes that practice session psychologically more challenging. I empathise mentally harder as it’s easy to incorrectly assume that physically harder means mentally harder. I recall once asking a high profile Rugby League coach what he did to make practice mental harder and he replied “to make the guys run up sand dunes in 35 degree heat”. I later asked his players about these sand dunes and more than half said they loved them. If you love it, it’s not mentally harder. In other words MHP is basically manipulating your daily training environment to be less comfortable and this is where individual differences really come into play.
For example, one easy way to do this might be by playing with the thermostat so that in hot places, instead of cooling down the training facility either do nothing or heat it up. Or, for our Kiwi and Canadian readers in particular, when it’s freezing cold just let it be that way or cool it down even more!
There are three huge benefits to this type of mental training and I will use the above temperature example to explain. First, it varies training and we know the fastest way to demotivate an athlete is by having the same kind of training week after week. Second, if during an actual competition it was to become much hotter or colder than expected – this mental method will lessen the impact. Finally, it will require a greater level of concentration along the lines of you’ll need to work harder not to let the “oh boy it’s cold/hot” derail your processes.
A double word of warning before you get too excited and ask your coach to start throwing rotten eggs at you during your next training session. First, make sure that none of your MHP ideas put you in physical danger and / or increase the risk of injury. Using the example above of practicing in the cold on purpose it would be essential to properly warm up your body before such a training session. Second, make sure your ideas don’t put you in psychological danger either. By psychological danger I mean creating an environment that is so hard it actual causes some kind of long term mental scarring to take place. The safest way to do this is by only adding small mental demands to training – a bit like increasing the overall weight of a dumbbell by a kilogram or two in certain physical training exercises to reduce the risk of tearing a muscle.
If in doubt about how to find the mental “sweet spot” (just testing enough to make it mentally harder but not so hard to risk issues) then please contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for details about our 1-on-1 sport psychology / mental training services – making sure to let us know which country you’re from so we can email you rates in your own currency.