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Can Being Mentally Strong Be DETRIMENTAL To Athletic Performance?

Now obviously there are infinite positives to being mentally strong and its importance in general life. I am looking through the lens of elite sport and where it's maybe possible to be 'too strong'.

Positive mental strength infographic

I’m writing this article as a brief thought piece, more for discussion than anything else, but basically as a response to conversations I’ve had with certain individuals recently about how being ‘mentally strong’ can be potentially detrimental in a sports performance training context.

The individuals I spoke to are military athletes. And not just any military athletes, members of the UK’s most elite fighting forces - The Royal Marines and Parachute Regiment.

The conversations tend to be around the unique mental shift these guys have had to navigate in moving their focus from being great soldiers to being great athletes.

Now, there are obvious crossovers and excellent military experiences these guys can - and do - bring to the sporting environment. They are without fear, in a team environment they guard their crew-mates ferociously and their work ethic is second to none.

That latter point is what I want to dwell on, however. Their work ethic. These guys go through a process in military training where they are deliberately physically pushed to the point of mental break. They are taught to get to these stages, and keep going. That level of perseverance is certainly an important mental quality when you’re on a genuine battlefield but in the arena of elite sport it can present problems.

From experience speaking to these guys, they put an enormous amount of pressure on themselves and when their body is crying for a break they struggle to listen to it.

Generally they need to be told by a coach to sit the fuck down and have a nap.

When you have the mental traits these guys have been beaten, battered and forced to achieve, it’s going to be difficult to listen to a fragile sprinter telling you to rest.

‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead, I need to train harder to get better.’

Don’t get me wrong, the individuals I’m describing are learning an awful lot and improving drastically.

The thought process I want them to take on is that whilst you are in the elite sporting environment you might be proudly and gratefully representing your military institution, but you are not a soldier here, you are now an athlete and adjustments need to be made.

I don’t want that to get lost in translation. Some soldier-athletes might reject that notion, but the point is not to renounce your soldiering or the standards you uphold as a serving soldier. It’s a MENTAL adjustment to give yourself the scope and capacity to change focus from physical perseverance against all odds, to resting when necessary for the sake of performance.

You’re not beasting yourself to be able to take on an assault course or 50 mile march with 50kg strapped to your back, you’re trying to achieve performances that can be determined in the hundredths or thousandths of a second. To achieve that you need to be firing on all cylinders - not exhausted.

I’m also not taking away from the virtues of the mental strength they’ve worked hard to earn.

What I liken it to, physically, is a naturally strong individual learning to Olympic lift as an adult. How often do you see these naturally strong lads and ladies struggle to separate their hench upper body from their lower? Instead of a powerclean you tend to end up with a power reverse-curl. Being naturally upper-body strong in this common example can be detrimental to learning a new physical skill that requires more finesse.

It’s the same mentally. If your mind is iron because of years of being forged in military training or other life experience, it is just as hard to let those instincts go in favour of resting, recovering or generally giving yourself a break if performances aren’t where you want them right now.

If you’re sitting here thinking, ‘I’m not a soldier, but this resonates with me’, then great.

There are many people with myriad life experiences that might have earned them an iron mental resolve. And that resolve can be lethal to performance in a sport that deals in such fine margins.

Perhaps you’re finding that since taking on speed and power training you’re tired and lethargic a lot more. Maybe you’re struggling to break free from the bonds of ‘cardio’ and crazy physical challenges in favour of fewer reps and sprints that don’t tend to exceed 50m.

You might also be someone with a ‘high pain threshold’. This is another potential kiss of death for high-performing athletes. I trained with a talented triple jumper once upon a time who basically wrote a book on this subject. His descent into injury could largely be traced back to his ability to push through pain when he likely shouldn’t have.

Yin and Yang

As with anything in life, balance is key.

The ‘Train Hard - Train Smart’ dichotomy is generally a continuum. You might be someone who is predisposed to training hard in which case leaning a little to training smart once in a while will probably yield a positive benefit. Conversely, if you’re someone that reads a lot of the latest performance research and has little time for DOMS, you can probably afford to train a little harder from time to time.

Be mentally strong on the macro level - that is - when you’ve got the vision of where you want to go and you know not to quit when it’s something you believe in with every fibre of yourself.

On the micro level however - the day to day grind - use it wisely and learn to say ‘enough’ when your body is screaming for it.

My old coach Linford Christie (name drop) used to say:

‘the patient man rides a donkey.’

At the time I never really understood this and it certainly didn’t make much sense to me when I’d ripped my hamstring off for the 4th time in a month. But I now realise it essentially means - take it easy sometimes, cut yourself some slack, if getting to your goal is your destiny, then let yourself get there in the time that it takes.

Trust the process and all that shit.

You won’t always get it right, and there will be enormous doubt and setback on a sporting journey. It is by no means easy.

Being mentally capable of shutting down a session when you’re exhausted can be a tough decision to make, but there will be times when you need to stop and times when you are capable of pushing on.

Be strong enough to know the difference.



What's your opinion? Load of shit or something worth thinking about?

Let us know in the comments that I think have been activated 😅

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