Mental Flexibility Trumps Mental Toughness
Mental flexibility, not toughness, wins the game
A young client, an elite figure skater, once said to me, “I need to work on my mental toughness!” My heart sank for her, because her body language told me she thought she wasn’t good enough or tough enough, or that somehow her innate sensitivity would keep her from her goals and dreams. There is a pervasive belief in sports psychology that it’s through toughness that we overcome our fears and win. This way of viewing peak performance limits us; It’s like gritting your teeth when you smile.
True peak performance arises naturally from our focus on doing our best in the moment. When we bring our full selves - healthy body, honed intellect, emotional integrity, and soulful expression - to that moment, to that unique time and place, magic happens. For high performers, thinking about toughness just leads us to push through something difficult. There are appropriate times for that kind of approach, when we need to dig in and stay the course. However, always seeing the challenge as a challenge and ignoring the opportunity and ease within it, leads to limited fulfillment. It can feel like you are bumping your head up against the side of a box to get out, when you haven’t realized the lid is already off.
As a yogini, I’ve heard many people say they could never do yoga because they weren’t flexible enough. My response would always be the same, some version of: “Yoga will help you with your flexibility, you don’t have to be flexible to start! It will also help you gain balance and strength, so that you learn to feel structural integrity from the inside out.” The same is true for mental training in performance. The mental equivalent of structural integrity - focus and emotional clarity - comes from a healthy mix of balance, strength and flexibility, not toughness. Just like in yoga, where toughness and pushing through can lead to injury, forcing a state of peak performance can stifle creativity and human emotion, the key elements in artistic performance. In sports performance, the most effective zone is the one you allow yourself to enter, not one that comes from only toughness.
Optimal performance comes from a balance of yin and yang, allowing and creating, being and doing. It’s the state of humanness brought to a moment in time, fully expressed as only each person can.
This is living in your potential.