“Ask yourself: ‘Can I give more?’ The answer is usually: ‘Yes’”
– Paul Tergat
Top level athletes across all sports have mental toughness, but it’s a term that conjures up images of power lifters or heavyweight boxers psyching themselves up − or psyching their opponents out − in an outward display of “don’t-mess-with-me-cold-hard-stares”! So what does the term really mean and of what benefit is mental toughness to athletes in running sports?
The best way to demonstrate the importance of mental toughness in running might be to think of a 100 metre sprint start line. Let’s say it’s a qualifying race for a place in the final so it’s a high pressure environment, but let’s pile on even more pressure and say it’s in the Olympic arena − it’s the BIG one, the event that you’ve devoted the past four years of your life to training for, and this race really matters. If you don’t qualify, you’re out! Visualise it, imagine you’re there…how does it feel?
At top level, the difference between qualifying and going out is going to be a fraction of a second. Every competitor on that start line has earned their place. All of you are in peak physical condition; all of you have your sights set on winning an Olympic medal, and all of you have devoted hour upon hour of physical and mental training to preparing for this event. But, only one of you will qualify for the final. So, with all else being equal, what makes the difference between going through and going out? The answer is mental toughness. It’s mental toughness that allows you to line up on that start line believing that you are in the form of your life and knowing that you are prepared; you are ready for this; you are prepared for success − no matter what’s going on around you on the start line, and no matter how hard your competitors stare at you!
Of course, you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to benefit from mental toughness. The benefits are there for all runners at every level of competition. It’s mental toughness that allows you to give every event your best shot. For example, let’s say you’ve entered a local 5k fun run. There’s no Olympic medal at stake but you have worked hard in your training and preparation, and you’re gunning for a new personal best time. You’ve dedicated yourself to your training programme, you’ve gone out running in all weathers, you’ve even sacrificed your Thursday night take-away-on-the-sofa nights for the past few months in order to fit another training run in! You have dedicated yourself to achieving your goal; you have remained focused on what you needed to do, avoiding all distractions. You have kept your mind, as well as your body, focused on achieving your best and you’re going to be able to line up on that start line on race day knowing that you are prepared…you are ready for this. It takes mental toughness to prepare for success and it’s mental toughness that gives you the “edge” over your competitors on the day.