John Coumbe-Lilley


July 10, 2019

Mental Toughness

Recently, I was talking to my friend Alex Marinof in Barcelona (we co-wrote the book the Science of Swimming) about mental toughness and lessons we learned from our time researching, coaching, and being athletes.  Alex swam for Greece; coached Olympians and is a swimming program director these days. After chatting with Alex, I compiled a list of lessons athletes at all levels can learn from,  helping them consider how to help athletes to become mentally tough over time. After all, I believe toughness can be taught and learned.

13 Lessons for Developing Mental Toughness

Lesson 1. Good things happen outside of your comfort zone. Doing something that might make you uncomfortable helps build resilience. Being comfortable in unpleasant surroundings enables you to develop toughness. Doing what you have always done does not mean you are ready for challenges you have not faced before. Message: get out of your zone.

Lesson 2. Follow your motivation and allow your desire to lead you forward to your goals. If you’re not sure what you enjoy, if you don’t know what you like, things can make you pretty low.

Message: listen to your motivation and follow its direction.

Lesson 3. Allow yourself to grow and develop. Get away from the past; adopt new things and new ways of being and do it consciously.

Message: who you are is not who you can be.

Lesson 4. Think creatively and allow yourself to consider possibilities. Innovation can spring from any solution anyone has ever used before, and you can make it your own if you want to.  

Message: Let your imagination lead you to solutions.

Lesson 5. Sport is an emotional experience. Trying to be an unfeeling ‘robot’ is not the way for everyone. Too many folks don’t allow their personality to come up, or worse, they act who they are not. Emotionally engaging and using emotion immediately from the situation you’re in helps build energy and focus on achieving your goals. Sometimes the hardest thing to do in life is ourselves, and emotions are our own, and they are real.

Message: Emotional responses are human. Use them positively.

Lesson 6. Environment, support, and personal experience help shape and influence your sports experiences. Having supportive friends, family, and such is very helpful in progressing to your goals. Recognize how your environment helps or hurts you is crucial to helping make decisions to keep you doing something or go in a different direction.

Message: Raise your awareness about how people, situations, and experiences affect you positively and negatively. Keep the good, get rid of the bad, and invest in those that will become good for you.

Lesson 7. Let go of expectations, concentrate on the human experience. Focus on the experience and enjoying it. Message: Expectations get in the way of the process, it’s okay to have expectations, they are positive, but set them aside and put your attention to what you’re doing and get on with the things you should be doing to improve your performance.

Lesson 8. Use mantras and self-talk to focus on energy. Write them down and post them where you can see them.

Message: “Be brave enough to achieve new boundaries.” This an old idea that never losses value. It’s simple to say but hard to do every day. Language leads to belief and behavior.

Lesson 9: As success increases, so does the scrutiny and intensity from the outside world. But you have to moderate this and balance things out so you can enjoy your training and competition.

Message: Keep life and success in perspective. Don’t get drawn into the criticism and undermining from others, only yourself and the most important people around you. There will always be critics, but the people that know you best and know you give 100% effort are the ones to give your attention.

Lesson 10: Having a support team is critical. It would help if you had people around us that lift us and keep us going. It takes more than just ourselves to help us reach the level of performance we want for ourselves.

Message: You should have a team of individuals around you that will help you reach your goals, have your back when that’s needed, and recognize the type of relationship you have with them.

Lesson 11: Having a growth mindset is very important to accept setbacks and failures. Finding the best in a situation is vital to developing as a person and as an athlete.

Message: Personal growth has to be part of who you are and how you approach to sport and life. It should be a way you live your life. Learning how to learn, learning how to improve, and taking steps every day to look at how something you do can improve is a habit you develop a little bit every day.

Lesson 12: A relentless pursuit of your own best standard is necessary to be your best without regret. You need to focus and give what you can to every training session. You need to fight through disappointments and learn from them. But you have to keep going no matter what until it is time to call time on the effort because only when things have come to an inevitable end do you feel ready to move in a different direction.

Message: If you want to be your best, the cost you have to pay is all you can give in payment.

Lesson 13: Get a grip on your social media.

Message: Put your energy where it helps your preparation and adds to your performance. If you put effort into social media, have it serve a real purpose like showing your effort, announcing results, or sharing the good news. Please don’t allow it to distract you from your athletic purpose. Your time, energy, and emotional resources are valuable; don’t let them be exploited.

If you accepted any of these lessons and took them to heart for seven days, you would notice a difference in how you operated at the end of the week. You might start by doing your best for a week, then getting out of your comfort zone, and perhaps repeating these two and seeing how the results of your effort are different. I’ll leave you with this idea, if you want something different for yourself, do something different to get started. For example, if you have to make a 1% improvement in your performance to achieve your goal, figure out where the 1% in your performance will come from and do something different to reach the 1% improvement you need.

John Coumbe-Lilley

Having a growth mindset is very important to accept setbacks and failures. Finding the best in a situation is vital to developing as a person and as an athlete.