How to Build Mental Toughness

Even if you’re not an Adam Sandler fan, you’d have to admit that Happy Gilmore was one of his better movies.

I mean, who doesn’t love Shooter McGavin? Arrogant, scheming, self-aggrandizing – a real charmer! So why does he end up losing in the end?

Sure, no one wants the bad guy to win.

But if you like to over-analyze and contort fictional movie plots to fit into your preconceived beliefs like I do, then there’s also another reason – his mindset.

Shooter McGavin Gif

Me when I scratch in pool.

Whereas Shooter was motivated by personal glory (winning the gold jacket), Happy was motivated by familial bonds (getting his grandmother’s house back).

Shooter’s mindset made him angry, jealous, and desperate; Happy’s mindset made him persistent, focused, and it helped him control his temper.

You may be asking, “But Uncle Curtis, how does this apply to us?”

Well, maybe we’re starting a business, or we set a goal to lose 50 pounds, or we want to double our income in the next year.

Whatever it is, our mindset determines whether we stagnate or improve, whether we’re doubtful or certain, and whether we give up or try again.

A weak mindset supports weak actions; a strong mindset supports strong actions.

So just how do we go about creating a strong mindset?

To answer that, let’s take a look at a few key points from the Way of the SEAL, the best-selling book by retired Navy SEAL commander Mark Divine.

The Way of the SEAL by Mark Divine

The Way of the SEAL, by Mark Divine

What is your why?

Navy SEALs go through some intense physical training, and I’m not talking P-90X, CrossFit, or even Prancercise. I mean six straight days of non-stop training, all on a mere four hours of sleep (called Hell Week).

Mark writes that during one of their first grueling workouts, despite the pain he felt, “life seemed pretty good.”

Far Side Why Now Brown Cow

The Far Side, by Gary Larson

His friend Bush, however, who regularly outdid Mark, was doubting whether he could keep going, and before the workout was even over, Bush had quit.

Bush’s rationalization: “I always wanted to be a veterinarian anyway.” After all, if you can’t be a SEAL, why not be a seal doctor?

When we focus on our struggle, it just makes things more difficult, and it makes it easier to find an excuse to quit.

So here’s the key: instead of focusing on how difficult something is, we should focus on our reason for doing it in the first place – our why.

Our why should be based on our core values, not external factors like material gain, approval from others, or beating someone else.

For example:

  • Weak Why: “To prove to my father than I am worthy.”
  • Strong Why: “To become a better person so I can be a better father.”

Our why should come from a place of power, not force.

Before continuing, take a few moments to think about this idea. What is your why?

Embrace the Suck

Curtis Yungen Human Flag Seattle

The Splay of the SEAL

It took me 15 months of training to learn the human flag.

One of the key exercises I did was a 21-minute plank, an idea I adopted from Ramit Sethi’s Hell Week.

The first time I did it, I collapsed after three minutes and spent the next eighteen doing a sorry impression of Galloping Gertie. When I do it now, I’m shaking uncontrollably at 15 minutes and sore for a whole week afterward.

What I like about this exercise is that it’s great for training yourself to do what Mark calls “embracing the suck.”

Embracing the suck means giving your attention to your pain, breathing deeply into it, and then focusing on something positive such as how much stronger you’re getting.

By embracing the suck, we learn to endure pain and face our fear of suffering, and this builds our mental stamina.

PHYSICAL CHALLENGE: check out the video below and then see if you can do TEN reps.

Could you do ten? Easy?

Okay then, Arnold, how about fifty? One hundred??

Well get this – during SEAL training, Mark had to do one thousand! Most of us would crumple at the very thought. But after doing 700, Mark laughed and told his instructor, “Easy day. This is fun.”

Yeah, I know. What a sicko.

By choosing to embrace the suck, Mark was able to overcome the pain and push his body to extraordinary limits. His mindset was simply unbeatable.

Try this during your next workout. Feel the burn in your muscles, breathe deeply, and refocus onto something uplifting.

Then smile, maybe even laugh, and think of how you’re improving.

Pain sucks. Embrace it.

You guys are capable of at least twenty times what you think you are. Now get off your sorry asses and hit the surf!

Lieutenant Zinke, Navy Seal Trainer

Visualize the outcome.

October 28, 2006: I stood on the starting line of a 5000-meter (3.1 mile) cross-country race.

I was a junior in high school, and my fastest 5K time was 16 minutes, 32 seconds.

I had run this course a few weeks before and finished with a time of 17:11. Now, it was the District meet, and I had spent a whole week mentally running through the course and picturing myself finishing in a scorching 16:25.

The starting gun went off. My running rival trailed behind me for the first mile, giving jovial high fives to his teammates standing on the sidelines. Yeah, great racing strategy you got there, Shooter.

On top of that, I got a bloody nose midway through the race. Not exactly what I had visualized.

Usain Bolt Olympic Finish

Hardly even broke a sweat

But when I sprinted through the finish line (well ahead of my rival), I looked up and saw the clock: 16 minutes…11 seconds!

Not only had I crushed my old time, I’d beaten my goal as well, and while mortally wounded!

After the race, I found my rival and gave him a high five.

I’ve always remembered that race as a demonstration of the power of visualization, or as Mark calls it, “dirt-driving the mission.” It means mentally rehearsing something in great detail before actually doing it.

It helps you focus and feel more comfortable having practiced it in your head several times before.

Mark suggests visualizing in a mind gym, which is an imaginary room in which you have dedicated spaces for certain tasks. You can design it to have areas for visualization, reflection, meditation, martial arts, public speaking, chess, 21-minute planks, Prancercise, lat pull-downs – whatever you want. Just be creative.

Then, visit this private mental place daily to rehearse and replay those activities that are most important to you. With practice and discipline, you’ll find that the impact of mental rehearsal has an invaluable impact on your real life performance.

To win at anything, we must first win control over our minds.

Mark Divine

145 Hudson Street #PH New York City

Make your mind gym as inspiring as possible: 145 Hudson Street, #PH, New York City, NY

It ain’t over yet, McGavin.

Defining our purpose, embracing the suck, and visualizing are just three basic ways to start building an unbeatable mind.

Simply understanding these ideas at a common sense level will not bring about mental toughness.

But if we study these tools and use them regularly, we can create some astonishing results in our lives – physically, financially, or socially – by learning to master our minds.

***For many more incredible ways to build mental toughness as well as inspiring stories from Navy SEAL training, check out the best-selling book, the Way of the SEAL, by Mark Divine.***

***Be sure to FOLLOW this blog for more posts on business, psychology, and personal development.***

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