Mental Toughness in Strength Training: How Bad Do You Want It?

Fighting & Fitness / Saturday, January 6th, 2018

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by Dylan Frye – Guest Blogger

What determines the difference between success or failure in the gym? Or the difference between hitting a personal record or tapping out when the weight gets heavier? Although there are several factors that influence progress, mental toughness is undeniably one of them.

Mental toughness is an important part of the strength-training equation to obtain the gains that a person desires. One of the best mental practices to employ is look at yourself in a mirror and address these questions:

  • “Did I exercise and develop my body today?”

  • “Did I eat well today?”

  • “Did I learn something new today?”

  • “Did I make someone feel better today?”

  • “Did I take a positive step toward a major goal today?”

All of these self-evaluation questions are part of the Rooney Mirror Test, which is one of the best ways to ask yourself, “How bad do you want it?” The Rooney Mirror Test is a tool to evaluate self-mental toughness.

How important is mental toughness? Bryan Mann, University of Missouri Strength and Conditioning Coach, correctly stated in a podcast with the National Strength and Conditioning Association, “Sometimes people fail because they don’t really want it.” Imagine this scenario: one athlete is a potential All-American with all the God-given talent there is but has the worst attitude in the weight room and is an absolute head-case. Meanwhile there is a redshirt athlete that comes in everyday doing what is asked to be done, asks multiple questions, and gives all he or she has to the program day in and day out. Which athlete would YOU rather coach? Any coach that truly implements mental toughness will pick the redshirt athlete every single time. An athlete with superior mental toughness has the ability to adapt, adjust to adversity, and absorb knowledge. Such an athlete is a coach’s dream because said athlete can be developed.

Mental toughness exercises must be implemented in all athletes, especially collegiate athletes. Student-athletes that have great mental toughness will be able to take on and overcome the adversity that comes along with being a collegiate student-athlete (e.g., striving for independence, financial issues, time management struggles, inadequate sleep).

Everyone faces adversity in their lives, and the weight room is no exception. For instance, breaking a personal record deadlift max. Breaking a personal lifting record is not always easy and failure will be inevitable at some point in every weightlifter. In the process of discovering just how much you can lift, you will likely discover how much you cannot lift (i.e., the ceiling). Mental toughness is not only important in student-athletes, but in any individual that steps into a weight room. The whole point of strength training is to improve your overall health and wellness while even becoming a better person throughout the journey because many life lessons will be learned in the weight room on different occasions. Lifting with others is also a good idea for an extra boost of motivation, but they must be on the same mission as each other; just like a pack of lions thirsty for blood, individuals in the weight room should have the exact same mentality.

“Mindfulness” is the simple process of actively noticing new things which is the same as paying attention to details. An individual using mindfulness understands situations more attentively and becomes more aware of new situations. This awareness goes hand in hand with mental toughness because a positive and determined mindset is important in the weight room in order to understand your mistakes on certain movements, figure out how to correct them, and move towards success. This is a great life lesson because it must be used everyday in life.

Mindfulness can be implemented in five steps:

  1. Seek out, create, and actively notice new things.

  2. Realize how behavior can be understood differently in different context.

  3. Reframe mistakes into success.

  4. Be aware that all emotion result or view on event.

  5. Finally, be authentic with yourself.

So, in evaluating your own program, it’s very simple: are you performing with purpose or are you just going through the routine motions? If there is no purpose in performing, failure is on the horizon–plain and simple. An individual that is mentally tough always performs with a purpose and embraces the sacrifices required in order to reach ultimate success–not only in the weight room, but also in life.

The weight room holds no prisoners: either an individual has developed mental toughness or has not. The difference between these instances is either learning from mistakes or a failure to view mistakes as lessons. One path leads to success, and the other to constant failure. Therefore, it’s YOUR decision on whether to be the predator or the prey; perform with a mission.


Dylan Frye is senior Exercise Science major at West Virginia Wesleyan College who plans to pursue a graduate program in strength and conditioning

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