The Essential Building Blocks of Mental Strength


, by Sarah Broadhead

Photography by: Jacob Lund

Mental strength, grit, resilience. These are all popular terms but what do they mean and how can we develop them? Sports psychologist Sarah Broadhead looks at the three essential building blocks of mental strength.

Resilience is the ability to continue functioning when under pressure, and to bounce back from setbacks - we can persevere towards a goal even when it gets tough. This is helpful in both life and sports, and the good news is that it isn’t something you are born with or not, and it is something we can all improve.

Three areas play a role in determining how resilient we are, these are our thoughts and feelings, our support network, and our ability to know when and how to stop and recover.

Thoughts and feelings

Thoughts and feelings play a vital role in our resilience. We are not always aware of what these are, so the first step I often take with athletes is to recognize and write down what they think and feel when under pressure. What things do you say to yourself in those moments? Are they helpful or harmful?

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Being able to accept a situation as it is, focus on what we can control, and make appropriate plans is a key approach to developing resilience. We have a script in our heads of how we want life to go, but reality is often very different. Once we can accept what is in front of us, we are better able to problem-solve.

Being realistically optimistic is another important aspect of building resilience. It is normal to initially have thoughts or feelings that do not match this, but the ability to recognize and shift how you view the situation is an essential skill to practice. For example, you sustain an injury which means you will miss out on the event you have been training for for months. It would be understandable to feel angry, disappointed or sad. It is important to acknowledge these feelings, give yourself some time to feel like this then move on and focus on what you can control.

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Resilience is not about suppressing emotions; it is being able to accept and manage them. You could reframe the injury in the following ways: being injured can give you time to work on other areas of your body that need developing. You will have more time to see friends and family and engage in other hobbies. You can accept that this event - and your previous training plan - have gone, but there will be events in the future that you can enter, and many injured athletes come back stronger than they were before. Each day you are getting closer to being back to where you want to be.

Learning from setbacks and difficulties helps us become mentally stronger. We can objectively figure out what we did well and what we could improve in the future. Reframing failure to achieve a goal as learning is vital.

We have a script in our heads of how we want life to go, but reality is often very different. Once we can accept what is in front of us, we are better able to problem-solve.

Choosing to see a situation as a challenge rather than a threat is also a helpful mindset to develop. Remind yourself of other hard things you have done in your life and use this as a bank to draw on when things get difficult, helping you rise to the challenge. If you have chosen to complete an event or difficult workout, tell yourself that you are a person who thrives under pressure and picture how proud you will feel if you complete it.

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Support networks

Our support network and relationships play a big role in how mentally strong we can be. They can listen to how we are feeling, provide empathy and humor, and help us to figure out actions we can take. In short, the most resilient people don’t do hard things on their own.

Support networks are vital when it comes to building resilience.

Knowing you have the support and backing of your social network can push you to do more than you thought you were capable of. If you have mentally strong people around, it can inspire you to take on challenges and go out of your comfort zone. Other people can help remind us of why we are doing something for example fundraising for a charity event or becoming more active to improve our health.

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Knowing when to stop (and recover)

Finally, knowing when to stop and recover will help develop mental strength. If we never take time to rest and rejuvenate physically and mentally it becomes increasingly hard to be resilient. This includes pushing through a session when you have pain, leading to an injury that could have been prevented by stopping.

This is when mental strength can be overplayed, which doesn’t help in the long run. Learn to listen to your body and mind, and view recovery as being as important as work. This could be as simple as taking a few minutes in the day to take some breaths, going outside for a 5-minute walk to help you gain perspective, or simply getting a good night’s sleep.

In my next article, we will look at performance anxiety, and tips and advice for overcoming yours.

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