Mental Toughness: not just for endurance athletes

Hard work doesn’t get any less hard. We adapt, and we get more efficient, but the next new challenge drives us right back to that edge where we’re not sure we can hold on. For me, feeling that edge when I am running is a little scary, because what if I can’t sustain this? But one of the things I have worked on in running is re-interpreting the physical signals of hard work. The hurt, the burn, the edge of panic that sets in: these are the sensations that mean I am working as hard as I should be. When I feel them, it means I am doing it right. What about the moments when I have to set a limit and hold it with a toddler? Is enduring a temper tantrum with grace and patience and firmness any less grueling than trying to nail a 1600-meter repeat at 5K pace? The former will almost certainly last longer, and I’m going to need more than just a mouthful of water and a recovery lap to get over it. But setting limits and reliably holding to them with little kids is everything. The fact that it feels hard, that I want to scream right back, that I’m not sure how much longer I can hang on…that means that I’m doing it right. I can’t explode and I can’t give in. But it. Is. Hard. I often feel like it should be getting easier, or like I am failing, and those feelings aren’t helping me.

“Doubt can creep into our thoughts, no matter how successful we are,” kara Goucher writes. “‘Am I doing it right? Have I prepared enough? What if I’m not ready? What if I’m making a mistake?’”

I’m reading Kara Goucher’s new book, Strong: A Runner’s Guide to Boosting Confidence and Becoming the Best Version of You, and while the runner in me is gobbling up all of the inspiring stories she has woven through its pages, the parent in me is the one waking up and saying, maybe I really need to hear this. My husband observed when our daughter turned three that it now feels like we’ve been ‘in it’ for a while; we’re no longer young cool people who happen to have had a baby recently. I see what he means, and yet I do not trust in my abilities and my endurance the way I assumed I would as a ‘more experienced’ parent. I have hoped that my low confidence would improve with time, but it isn’t happening as discernibly as I would like it to, and I am starting to feel like it matters more every day. I always know when I have screwed up, and when I should be letting go and moving on, I am stuck in my head wishing the screwup hadn’t happened. My 3-year-old now senses when I have lost my cool, and she sees through my feeble attempts at hiding it. It’s time to do better for us both.

In the foreword, Goucher’s sports psychologist Stephen Walker writes that “mental conditioning is increasingly recognized as an important part of an athlete’s training regimen. As the level of competition continues to rise, athletes are aided by the field of exercise science, better gear, and more sophisticated coaching. While physical differences are still a factor, winning and losing are more a matter of mental preparation and toughness.” Let’s talk about the rise in the level of competition in parenting for a minute! The science, the gear, the sophisticated coaching – it’s all there, and we amateurs (thankfully, not many of us are out there trying to go pro) are all trying to make sense of it. What if we took the focus off the outcomes – forget which sleep philosophy is the actual best one, please, for a second – and made our efforts about changing the conversation in our own heads? It feels obvious, or at least intuitive, that as the adults in the room we must be the resilient ones, modeling for our children how a person ideally should manage his or her emotions, but how to do that, beyond in-the-moment responses like “take space” and “take deep breaths,” hasn’t been as widely explored. In athletics, we can’t expect to successfully execute mental strategies when they are called for unless we have worked on them consistently, which is why athletes like Kara Goucher make confidence-building part of their everyday training. Dr. Justin Ross, a sports psychologist whose work I admire a great deal, teaches runners through writing, podcasts, seminars and one-on-one counseling that mental toughness is accessible to everyone, through practice, practice, practice.

What if we took our attention off the outcomes – forget which sleep philosophy is the best one – and focused our efforts on changing the conversation in our heads?

The core of the daily practice that Goucher is promoting within the pages of her book is that of keeping a confidence journal, which she began doing in preparation for the 2016 Olympic marathon trials. “Each day,” she writes, “I jotted down notes to myself about my workouts … focused purely on the positive, with the goal of building confidence.” Even if she had had a horrible day, she had to find one good thing about it and write it down. “It’s a way to put it all out there on the table and realize how much work I’ve done, how I have prepared, and how I deserve to be competing. Even when times were hard, I still pushed through.”

Now, I know that as a parent I am not training for an event that will determine the course of my life. Oh wait – yes I am. Let’s all agree that there’s a ton of science and research out there about the right way to parent, and there are vastly different interpretations of what it all means. And there is at least some reason to believe that how we choose to parent doesn’t actually matter a whole lot in terms of how our children will turn out. Little of this, however, addresses the question of how much I am going to like parenting in an everyday sense, and how resilient I will manage to be. Forget where or whether my kid goes to college; if I am an unhappy parent with low confidence, I can’t imagine 15 more years of that will be a great thing for me or for anyone else in my household.

She is contentedly and independently reading a book to one of my former dolls. If every minute were like this, I wouldn’t need a confidence journal.

She is contentedly and independently reading a book to one of my former dolls. If every minute were like this, I wouldn’t need a confidence journal.

“I have explained how my confidence journal has influenced me as an athlete, but I think we can all benefit from a confidence journal,” writes Goucher, “even outside of running. … We question all kinds of things, asking ourselves, ‘Am I doing it right? Have I prepared enough? What if I’m not ready? What if I’m making a mistake?’ Doubt can creep into our thoughts, no matter how successful we are.” Actual legitimate success is not in and of itself an antidote to doubt in parenting any more than it is in running. My kid is turning out fine! Rationally, I know this, but doesn’t help me when I am in a moment of “I don’t know what to do and I suck at this.” Maybe it could, though, if I really practiced the mental skills that I need as a parent.

So this is my experiment: I am keeping a confidence journal like Kara Goucher’s, and every night before I go to sleep I write one thing that I did well as a parent that day. I have worked hard to get my running right where I want it to be right now: consistent and automatic, work I look forward to doing every day. I have goals, and they are years away from being realized, and that’s okay, because just being on a reliable path towards them feels like enough. I want to love the process of parenting as much as I am hopeful about the outcomes. Sometimes I really do, and those times need to be the times that I hold onto the tightest.