Health, Wellness & Performance Coaching

Mental Toughness: Strategies to optimize your personal, professional and athletic pursuits - #058

November 11, 2019 Dr. Bradford Cooper Season 2 Episode 42
Health, Wellness & Performance Coaching
Mental Toughness: Strategies to optimize your personal, professional and athletic pursuits - #058
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Health, Wellness & Performance Coaching
Mental Toughness: Strategies to optimize your personal, professional and athletic pursuits - #058
Nov 11, 2019 Season 2 Episode 42
Dr. Bradford Cooper

Is mental toughness all about gritting your teeth, ignoring the broken bones and gutting it out? Or are there cognitive strategies that can allow anyone to increase their levels of functional mental toughness and thus improve their outcomes? In this episode, Dr. Bradford Cooper will share the latest research on the concept of functional mental toughness (fMT) and introduce some of the strategies you can implement in your own life to further optimize your performance - regardless of the pursuit (from athletics to finances, relationships to personal habits). 

Show Notes Transcript

Is mental toughness all about gritting your teeth, ignoring the broken bones and gutting it out? Or are there cognitive strategies that can allow anyone to increase their levels of functional mental toughness and thus improve their outcomes? In this episode, Dr. Bradford Cooper will share the latest research on the concept of functional mental toughness (fMT) and introduce some of the strategies you can implement in your own life to further optimize your performance - regardless of the pursuit (from athletics to finances, relationships to personal habits). 

Dr. Cooper:

Welcome to the latest episode of the catalyst health and wellness coaching podcast. My name is Dr. Bradford Cooper and I am typically your host. Today, 'm going to be sharing with you some of the practical aspects from my research on mental toughness and what that looks like regardless of what you're trying to pursue on a practical level. We did a cross publication with Dr. I an D ennicon when he interviewed me about a year ago and it ended up being one of our top five programs ever so we thought we would come back and give you a little deeper dive. Try to give you a little bit more of the research that's come out since that original interview and we'll see what you think. For those of you who are coaching and have your eye on our 2020 Rocky mountain coaching retreat and symposium, it's not only a chance to get away, but it's also CEUs and a great chance to meet coaches from all organizations around the country. That is now open for registration. And there's a super early registration discount through December 31st so if that's something you're thinking about for next year, jump on there, CatalystCoachingInstitute.com click the retreats tab, you'll find all the details, but again, before December 31st big discount, if you want to take a run at that. Feel free to reach out anytime. If you have questions about coaching, the changes taking place with the national board certification or anything else that's coaching related career related, [email protected] now let's jump into the discussion about mental toughness and whether we historically put too much emphasis on the toughness side and not enough emphasis on the mental side. Okay, so the question on the table today is what if mental toughness involved more mental and less toughness? What if our historical view of mental toughness, you know the Hollywood hero grit your teeth? I know your legs about to fall off, but get in there, you can do it. What if that was a distraction from the cognitive strategies that any of us could apply to enhance our mental toughness and thus enhance our outcomes? That's the direction I want to go today. I think historically we've put the focus too much on that anomaly, that extreme outlier that's great for movies, but doesn't help us in terms of mimicking that in our daily lives. Now if I do a good job today, you'll walk away from this saying, all right , I don't have it all figured out, but I've got a few things that I can implement that will enhance my mental toughness by focusing on the cognitive side of mental toughness. I think we've forgotten the mental side, this idea of mental toughness. Now, just some brief background of how I got here. In 2015 I had an opportunity to compete in a series of endurance races. The first was a 3000 mile bike race, two person race across America with my teammate Jerry Schemel, who you'll hear in a couple of weeks. That was followed by trying to qualify for the Hawaii Ironman world championship. 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile marathon and that was followed by trying to run a three hour marathon two weeks after the ironman at the age of 49. S o those three things I thought were going to be a physiological test. And then I got in a bike wreck and I broke eight bones, some of the pelvis, clavicle, ribs, and a minor concussion. That was six weeks before this whole thing started. And so suddenly it changed from being a physiological test to being a psychological test. And I learned so much through that process and became so curious through that process that that pushed me into pursuing this PhD and studying this topic of mental toughness. If you'd like to get some more information on this idea of mental toughness, a few of the researchers that definitely set a stage for a lot of the things that I've done out there. I'd encourage you to take a look at Dan Guchiardi, Martin Jones, Mark Wilson, Stuart Beatty , James Hardy, many, many other people, but those would be great folks to start with. In terms of looking into the, the more detailed research. Now, let me give you a little context about this concept of mental toughness, because I think it gets mixed in with ideas of resilience and grit pretty frequently. You're hearing about these ideas of resilience and grit. Every conference in multiple books, in every newspaper magazine you pull up. So where does mental toughness fit in this spectrum of resilience and grit? Lot of ways you can look at this. The way I try to fold it in for folks to make it understandable is if you look at the original definition of resilience, it's past , it's what you've come from. So you go through a tough childhood, your parents are abusive, you have a boss that's just dog on mean to you. You have a coach that doesn't treat you right.That breaks a lot of people, but if you survive that, that helps you build resilience. So resilience is past oriented. Grit, Angela Duckworth, wonderful book, or if you haven't read her book, at least pull up herTed talk, does a great job with this concept of grit, but she's very clear. It's future oriented, it's where you're heading. It's a longterm commitment to those goals. Mental toughness on the other hand, that exists in the now. So if you can picture this, resilience is past. Grit is future. Mental toughness is right now. And so that brings us back to today's question. Is mental toughness more mental or is it more toughness? Now, in the research that we did, we started off looking at some of these different events and what was happening in those. But then we moved very quickly into studying 13 masters runners, elite masters, runners. They demonstrated a pretty significant variability in their mental toughness. Well, when you see variability like that, your natural question is what? What's causing it? Why ? Why is it so up and down for these elite masters runners? You know, if anybody, they're going to be higher, right? And yet they show this extreme variability up and down. So that begged the question, what's causing that? And that's what we did next is we looked into what could be driving this mental toughness variability. And from that we came up with this model of functional mental toughness. Now we posted about this. We've got the model on the blog, so you can go to the CatalystCoachingInstitute.com if you want, you can see the model. We may post another one to go with this, but it's relatively easy to visualize. So let me just kind of walk it through with you. In the middle, so picture a circle. Inside that circle, you have FMT, functional mental toughness, and that functional mental toughness exists as a bank. So think of your bank account. What do you want to have happen with that bank account? Well, you want to fill it up. You want to make sure the fees are not draining you . You don't want to , you know , pull up your bank statement three months from now and go, Oh my gosh, what was this 25 bucks? Why is that $10 being trimmed off? Why did I lose $3 there ? All these little dumb fees that aren't helping you at all. So we want to fill it up as much as we can. We want to limit those fees and then when we need that money, when the refrigerator breaks down, when we need those new tires, when we're, whatever we need that money for that it's available. And so that's the concept of functional mental toughness is this ability to build it up, limit the fees, the things that are draining it, and then when you need it, be able to activate it. And that feeds into the rest of the model. So that's in the center, and then around that, almost like three planets circling this big sun, the three planets, are thrive, prepare and activate. So you have the bank, the FMT bank in the middle, and then the three planets that are circling the sun, you have thrive, prepare and activate. Now we're not going to go deeply into these things, but I want to give you enough that you can start to pull some tips out, start to apply some of this stuff. And then if you want to dig into it, we've got references to the research studies that go into the deep side of it are readily available. Just let us know [email protected], happy to send you links to those, but I want to give you enough to kind of get the ball rolling and start thinking through for you. How can you pull this aspect and how can you apply more the mental side to enhance your mental toughness? Let's start with thrive. One of the primary aspects that came out in our initial study was this idea of foundational wellbeing and its influence on functional mental toughness. Four of the primary things that came out here were move, fuel, rest, and connect. Now, this is a wellness audience. You're not listening to this podcast without having at least one foot in the wellness world. You're very familiar with the importance of moving. It does not mean run a marathon. It's specific to you, but it's active, you're active. Fueling. It's very different than eating. You're satisfying the body, not just the tongue includes hydration. Rest. We've had multiple guests talking about the importance of sleep, and we will continue to do that. Those are quite popular podcasts . We need help in that area, myself included. But we found that rest, sleep made an impact in that thrive aspect of developing mental toughness. And then finally connect, the connection with other people. Those people that are important around you actually influenced your functional mental toughness. So that's the first piece. Move, fuel, rest, and connect. And if you think about it, it makes sense logically, doesn't it? You might have somebody that's incredibly tough, let's say, and very respectfully, somebody who is a Navy seal, retired from being a Navy seal and goes into MMA fighting. I mean, we're, we're kind of creating this picture of this ultimate mentally tough person, right? But what if that person who may have, what we call, and I won't get into details of this, but we would call that capacity, mental toughness. So they have a high potential mental toughness as compared to somebody else who may be their capacity is not as high. But if that individual is not sleeping well, they're not feeling, they're not staying hydrated, they're not developing those connections with people around them, or they're constantly stressed about those things. You see what's happening to that function, mental toughness, don't you? They may have a very high capacity, but functionally speaking, they are functioning at a much lower level. So this makes perfect sense. But to put this into the model helps bring it to the forefront and helps people see, Oh wow, yeah. If I want to be mentally tough, it starts with this foundation of thriving, this foundational wellbeing of move, fuel, rest, and connect. So I'm not going to go into a lot more details with that. You get that. This audience understands that, but I want to encourage you that the things you're doing, the things you're pursuing, the things you're listening to here and applying in your life. The things for those of you who are coaches, that you're helping other people do in their lives, that is enhancing their mental toughness, their functional mental toughness. So that's the first little planet that floats around our, our FMT Bank. The second one is prepare. Prepare. Now, a lot of components that go into this, we'll certainly come back to this over time. Lot of cognitive strategies, a lot of the sports psychology literature frankly, is all about this preparation phase. I'm going to hit three different aspects. The first one is Callousing. That's putting yourself in a situation where you start to adapt to it. Where you start getting used to it. I think of the word, if you look at your feet, you've got callouses that build up. That's a result of what you've been doing. Same thing with the callousing for functiononal mental toughness. When you put yourself in a situation, a simple example is, is an athlete, a runner. When you go out to the track and you run ten eight hundreds you are callousing for that race. You may not be an 800 meter runner, maybe you're a 10,000 meter runner. Maybe you're a marathoner, but by doing those eight hundreds you prepare your body to run at a faster pace than you would be racing. Or a a long pace run. Tomorrow I've got a 24 mile on the calendar at a specific pace. I'm gonna try to sit right around sevens that is callousing. It's not a race, but it's putting myself in a situation where I'm trying to get my body adjusted, calloused for that upcoming marathon. So that's the idea of callouses. Second thing I want to talk about is challenge threat. We've had two previous guests, Dr Karla Mahan and Dr Chris Bryan , who specifically did their research on this idea of challenge threat. So if this is intriguing to you, those would be two great episodes to go back and listen to again. Let me give you the short version. When you see something as a challenge versus a threat, your body responds different. It's not just a mindset, folks. Your body actually dilates, the vessels dilate and allows the blood flow to move more rapidly. It allows you to perform at a higher level when you see it as a challenge versus a threat. It's really that perspective of do I have the ability to do this or do I not? And you can see how the calllousing would potentially tie into this, but this idea of challenge threat, that's something that we can prepare. We can think through, we can ponder and reflect on all the resources that we do have available and how we can work through those and how we can utilize those to achieve those things. So this concept of challenge threat is a big part of the prepare phase in the functional mental toughness model. The last one I want to share with you is something called strategic optimization. It comes from Gollwitzer and Shell 1998 study and they talk about this concept of when you strategically automate things, it takes less energy to do them. I like to describe it as it changes from what you do to who you are. What I do is something that's on my list. It takes extra energy. I have to think about, I have to ponder it, I have to plan for it. I have to do all these things. Once it becomes me, you just do it. Again, using the running example, I don't think, am I going to go run today? I just enjoy running. Now I might think through, well what's the specific workout, but in terms of do I run? Yeah, that's just who I am. So that's just automated. Lunchtime, I don't think through, Hmm, what should I have for lunch today? Lunch is just strategically automated. It's, a big honkin salad with a ton of veggies and some sort of protein source. It's easy. It's automated. I don't have to think about it. And that's the concept, those kinds of things, if you build those in, allow you, here we are talking about that leakage, those fees in the bank, less leakage. You're able to devote more of your mental toughness to the things that matter to you instead of having it leak off for all these other things. So strategic automization, very powerful, very valuable. And it's the second aspect within the prepare phase of functional mental toughness. The third piece is the activate. Now the spotlight's on it's go time. The gun sounds, the race is on. Now what? Now, there are two primary aspects I want to talk about in this section that I think you can build in some application. The first one is a associative and the second is dissociative. Now associative is when you zero in on something. So picture your focus goes from the wide angle down into the narrowing and you focus in on something specifically. Things like strategic self talk, very valuable. That's where you're picking out cue words and this would fit into the prepare phase obviously. We had several athletes that said, I know I should do self-talk, but I don't. So they knew it was important once they got to the activate phase, but because they didn't do it in the prepare phase, it never happened in the activate phase. So that's where it's important for you to be preparing some of these things that we're talking about. But then once you get inthere, what is that element that you're pulling in to enhance your outcomes? So strategic self-talk , this could be a cue word. This could be some simple phrase that you think of that you remind yourself of . We have a research article in review right now where we looked at 800 meter runners and we had them do four to six baseline runs, just run as fast as you can and then we gave them a self talk strategy personalized to them and we had them do it again and it was impressive. They showed significant improvement, significant improvement. Stay tuned for the results on that, but it was really, really interesting to see. Self-talk is established very strongly in the literature. It's not something you want to leave out, regardless of what it is that you're pursuing. So strategic self-talk is a great associative aspect and you can frankly, you can use it for dissociative also you can, you can get off of what you're doing and and move your focus somewhere else. But in this context we're talking about it as an associative tool. The second one is the idea of process focus. Now, I'm not a good example of this. I tend to be extremely goal oriented. I tend to get too caught up in the goal, whether it's a race or pursuit at work or it doesn't matter. That goal becomes too much of a focus. And I've learned, and I'm trying to build on this, that if I can focus more on the process in the midst of it, the goal leading up to it. So if you're training for a race, yes, set those aggressive goals, set those targets, use those targets to plan your workouts, to plan your training, to plan the splits that you're wanting to hit, those kinds of things, the mileage that you're gonna put in. Or again, this is not just athletics oriented, whatever it is you're pursuing, set those goals, keep your eye on those. But once the race starts, take those goals and set them way over here in the corner, almost like barely in your peripheral vision. You don't want to completely ignore them, but you don't want to focus on it. Because what happens when that goal hits a hiccup? So staying with our running example, you're going along, you're running a 10 K and you fall 15 seconds off pace. Well, if you're process focused , you may tune into the fact that it is really windy today or I just went up a Hill or you know, it drops down at the end, I'm gonna make up that time, it's going to be just fine. If you're goal oriented, all of a sudden remember that challenged threat thing we were talking about before, that extreme goal orientation flips you from being in a challenge state to suddenly, Oh no, I'm off pace. I don't think I can make that up. 15 seconds per mile. That's a lot. We only have four more miles to go. How am I gonna? See what happens? So we want to keep the focus on the challenge threat, which we practice in the prepare phase, but now it comes to life in this activate phase through the process focus. So goal orientation is fantastic. A lot of value to goals, leading up to it. But once it starts, take those goals, set them off to the side and focus on the process and yes, I'll let you know how it's going for me as I continue to work on that second option. Under the activate phase that we're going to talk about today is this idea of dissociative. If you're not a professional runner, if you're not doing a triathlon, if you're simply running a 10 K, a marathon, half marathon, whatever, music's allowed . And for some people music is a powerful dissociative tool. It allows you to take your focus and say, I'm really hurting right now but I'm going to focus over on this song that keeps me pumped up. So that's a very valuable dissociative strategy. Now I'm playing around, I haven't done any research on this yet. This is just a an N of one with myself, I'm playing around with the strategy that I'll just pass along here,it might be helpful. Where I'm going back and forth between the associative dissociative , associative , dissociative . So let's say for example, I'm running a half marathon, 13.1 miles. It's a little crowded at the beginning. So I don't like to have music on the first couple of miles cause you don't want to mess somebody else up. So I'll leave the music off for the first two to three miles. And then once we settle in, everybody's kind of in their place. And as far as the race goes, then I'll flip it on around mile three and I'll use it for a mile, maybe two miles, and then I'll turn it back off and I'll leave it off for a couple of miles . And that'll take me through about mile eight or nine and then every other mile, so on for mile eight off from mile nine on from mile 10 off for mile 11 and then the last two miles, I'll just leave it on. I just, I need that help. But what that does, it goes back and forth. My hypothesis is that it resets that benefit on both sides. So I go into the value of the dissociative with the music, and then I go back into the value of the associative and I'm able to use that self-talk. Doing the same self-talk phrase for 13.1 miles, I don't know about you, it doesn't last for me. I need that on, off, on, off. So again, N of one, take it for what it's worth, something I've been playing with. The other dissociative technique I want to share with you is called future self. And this is simply where you can get yourself out of your current situation and you picture what you're going to be like at the end of the race, which can be like a week from now, what you're going to want to share with your family, those kinds of things. My son is a really good runner, Joshua, and we have fun doing races together and sometimes if I'm in the middle of a really tough workout and I'm out there by myself and there's nobody to play off of, I'll think about him. And I'll think, you know, I would really like to bag it right now, but I'm probably going to check in with Joshua later. And you know what, there's something about being a dad. You want to be the best dad you can be. You want to set a good example. And , and that's important to me. And so I want to be able to say to him, not that I ran certain speed but that I gave it my all, that I gave everything I could to that training session, that race or whatever, and so I'll use that future self knowing that I'll at some point probably check in with him as a dissociative strategy under that activate phase. So that's the, the guts of the FMT model, a functional mental toughness model. Again, you've got the FMT bank in the middle. You want to increase what's in that account, so you want to bump that up as much as you can. You want to limit the leakage and you want to, when you need it, be able to access that money or in this case, mental toughness. You're not using mental toughness all the time folks, while you're sitting listening to this, you're probably not using it. If you're in the middle of a track workout, you're probably using it. If you're going into a big meeting, you're probably using it. If you've got a big conversation with a family member coming up, you're probably using it, but you're not using all the time. And so you want that bank account available for when it's time. Around that we have our three planets thrive, that's your foundational well being. Prepare, it's doing all the things you can do in advance to be ready for that big day. And activate, the things you can do in the moment. And keep in mind they influence each other. So thrive doesn't just affect functional mental toughness. The more your thriving, the more likely you are to prepare, the more you're activating, the more likely you are to use that to increase your thrive. So these things, there's an arrow between all of them as they influence one another. So mental toughness, is it more mental? Was it more toughness? I don't know about you. I think it's a lot more mental than we give it credit to be. Yes, yes. There are those studs out there that are just doggone crazy tough and yes, they're worth looking up to and saying, wow. But to think I'm going to be that person, probably not going to happen, but to think I can optimize my own capacity that I can get as close, get my functional mental toughness as close to my capacity, mental toughness as possible, absolutely. And that's the kind of thing we're talking about here. Now, quick side note before we wrap this up, mental toughness folks, it's the icing on the cake. It's not the cake. I have lot of folks that come to me now, especially post PhD saying, can you, can you help me achieve this? Have you put the work in? Like we need to put the work in first. And then that that functional mental toughness strategy that we'll put together that can make a, you know, two, three, 5% impact. But if you don't put the work in, we're just pretending. So yes, mental toughness strategies, cognitive strategies to increase your functional mental toughness, they can make a significant difference. But first, we've got to put the work in first. We've got to make the cake and then we can put that icing on it. So mental toughness. It's not the cake, but it's some pretty good icing. Can you see the application? Again, we'll post a picture of the functional mental toughness model at catalystcoachinginstitute .com if you think you'd find that helpful, but in the meantime, simply think of the bank in the middle and then thrive, prepare and activate around the outside. And how moving the dial in, just one subcategory of any of those three aspects can help enhance your outcomes likely in just about any pursuit you might have in front of you. For those of you looking to pursue the wellness coach certification before the changes in the national board certification take place in 2020 our next fast track is February 8th and ninth in Colorado. That's the weekend that follows the Superbowl and for the physical therapists that are listening, it's the weekend before the combined sections meeting conference that takes place in Denver. If you'd like to double dip then maybe plan some skiing in between the two. Now let's go get better and let's help those around us do the same, and maybe now we have one more tool, some mental icing to help us along the way. Thanks again for joining us. This is Dr. Bradford Cooper signing off. Make it a great rest of your day and I'll speak with you soon on the next episode of the catalyst health and wellness coaching podcast.