You’ve most probably not heard of Shanna Armstrong or Alexandre Ribeiro. They have nothing in common except that they have climbed more than 10,000 feet, swum across 10 kilometres, ran and biked through another 505 kilometres in less than 36 hours. And they’ve finished first six times. These seasoned Ultraman champs do this and more every year, defying all bodily limits as they dare nature itself to bow. And they’re not alone.
Endurance sports are just taking their first steps towards achieving and challenging what was considered humanly impossible only some years back. The number of such events and stories of athletes who excel at resisting all logic to attain the impossible is growing by the second. Bodily compulsions now sound like faint complains of the past. The message is clear: if you put your head to it, no feat can be unconquered.
Surprisingly, it’s a message that’s been resounding in the words of most sports champions. Across all sports, even those that you’d consider absolutely physical most established athletes thank mental strength and not physical fortitude for their victory.
Why Victory Is Not All about Muscles
But how does that work? How can your head decide where you end up in the game, when training and practicing is all about honing physical strength? This question had been plaguing athletes and their coaches for decades before we realized the answer: fatigue. Where your mental strength really weighs in, apart from strategizing, is that time on the field when your body slows down or gives up.
For nearly a century, people had believed that fatigue or exhaustion is a purely physical phenomenon. Exhaustion was all about getting oxygen and energy to the muscles. The logic went as follows: players create an ‘oxygen debt’ in the body. They begin playing so hard and with such great speed right from the start of the game that their heart cannot keep up with their oxygen needs. The pumping of the heart slows down and your body nears a ‘catastrophe’ event: play any longer and your body will entirely break down. This idea went on to become so popular that ‘aerobic’ exercises became a part of every training regimen. But this theory doesn’t explain some of the things we see on the field.
Try to remember how you feel a great spurt of energy just as the game is about to draw to a close or runners who suddenly gain speed when they see the finishing line. If your body has reached a catastrophe point and your muscles aren’t getting any energy, where does that crazy spurt in the last few minutes come from? Why would your body suddenly light up with determination when it’s clearly past the physical point of retire?
And what about athletes who continue to feel tired, even after they’ve been through rehab? Chronic fatigue, that so many athletes experience, wouldn’t happen if keeping the muscles happy was all it took to not feel tired.
Burn-outs are not the same as slowing down. At no point of the game does an athlete cross his maximal point of energy use. There is always some energy lying dormant in the athlete’s body. So something like a catastrophe or a complete breakdown is more drastic than simple exhaustion. And neither of these can be understood entirely using physical explanations.
When It Comes To Fatigue It Really Is Mind over Matter
Exhaustion doesn’t just wash over your body in one big wave. It starts small and builds over time to get you to the point of completely slowing down or stopping. You don’t stop the minute you start feeling exhausted. In fact, you go on for quite some time after that.
This very common experience of fatigue tells us that it has very little to do with muscles breaking down and more to do with the brain signalling your body to stop before you harm yourself. The brain is simply watching out for the safety of your body.
It does that by setting limits beyond which it conveys the need to slow down to your muscles and exhaustion begins to set in. So fatigue isn’t a physical condition, it’s an emotion. It’s something your brain transmits to your muscles to keep your body safe.
The reason why athletes end up finding a magical reserve of energy during the decisive minutes of a game is because their need and determination to win grows stronger and trumps their emotions of fatigue. Emotional strength can help push your physical limits farther because those limits are also emotions.
Athletes who last longer on the field or feel exhausted much later than others don’t do that because they have bigger hearts that pump blood faster. They are simply the ones who have conquered their mental fears and made succeeding their primary mission. The body responds to such an emotional upsurge by pushing its limits father. It’s no surprise that champions practice longer, harder and tougher than others. They are able to do that because their mental strength allows them to challenge and push farther the limits their brain sets on their body.
Mental Strength: Just You and the Game
Most athletes who rank second do so not because of any physical disparity between them and those who rank first but rather the second position they accept at some point over the course of the game and their mind responds by pacing their body accordingly. At a certain advanced level, most athletes are at the same physical level. It’s the mind that makes all the difference.
The mind anticipates the level of exhaustion one will undergo in the game, and paces the athlete, aiming always to protect the athlete. All kinds of information affect this activity. A player’s knowledge of the time left in the game, his opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and other factors come together to help the brain determine what ‘pace’ the athlete must follow.
The need is to challenge the mind. Determination, desperation, a heart-breaking desire to win- all of these count in shaping a champion. It’s all about emotions, as you feel a strange sense of strength when playing for the home crowd or have people cheering for you.
Overcoming the mental barrier that is shaped by factors that you can’t control, like the strength of your opponents or a cheering crowd means letting go of your dependency on anything but the pure strength of your mind. Muhammad Ali explains this best when he says, “Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them-a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”
No wonder most champions feel completely removed from their surroundings and absolutely consumed by the game and the need to win.
Focus, determination, motivation, undying spirit, believing in yourself against all odds- there are many things people count on for mental toughness. Unlike physical exercises, mental toughness is all about individual action. People may disagree on what’s the best route to mental toughness but there is one thing everyone agrees on. No one can teach it to you. Mental toughness has to come from within. That’s what makes it special.