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However, does having “mental grit” mean the same as “mental toughness,” particularly when it comes to physical fitness?
Mental toughness is the ability to stay focused on your goal and persevere despite the obstacles you encounter while achieving it, says Kellie K. Middleton, MD/MPH, an orthopedic surgeon for Northside Hospital for Orthopedic Institute, in Atlanta, Ga. “It is about having the mental strength to stay in control and remain committed when things become difficult. Mental toughness also involves recovering quickly from setbacks, identifying what went wrong and working on solutions rather than feeling sorry for oneself. It’s about learning from failure and pushing forward instead of stagnating.”
Mental grit, on the other hand, is the sustained effort and tenacity used to stay on course toward achieving a specific goal, she says. “It involves staying focused despite difficulties, distractions, and discouragements. Unlike mental toughness, which deals with an athlete’s response to a difficult situation, mental grit focuses more on the actions taken by an athlete as they push through it.”
“It is easy to want to use terms synonymously, but ‘grit’ and ‘mental toughness’ are conceptually different, yet related,” says Stephen P. Gonzalez, PhD, CMPC, the Corrigan Family Assistant Athletics Director for Leadership and Mental Performance at Dartmouth College. “Grit refers to one’s passion and perseverance toward a goal, whereas mental toughness…can be about one’s capacity to have the 4C’s: commitment, control, confidence, and a challenge mindset to withstand stressors or pressure.”
Here, mental health experts and professionals as well as teen athletes discuss how to master the mental aspects of competition while powering through physical challenges.
Athletes need mental toughness to push past physical, mental and emotional limits in training and competition, says Amy Saltzman M.D. Author: Still Quiet Place for Athletes: Mindfulness Skills for Achieving Peak Performance and Finding Flow in Sports and in Life. “This mental toughness needs to be balanced with a healthy respect for those limits otherwise, athletes risk serious injury or mental health issues.”
Relying on mental toughness during a physical challenge, like fatigue or some pain, can help the athlete overcome limiting thoughts and beliefs, like, “I can’t do this” or “I’ve already lost.” This momentary mental toughness must be balanced with rest and recovery, otherwise, it leads to injury, burnout, and mental health issues,” says Dr. Salzman. Practicing mindfulness is an important practice for athletes, she says. “This can help them learn to be attuned to their bodies, hearts, and minds as they learn to push past the normal aches and pains of training and competition, while honoring the more concerning twinges and twangs of indicating serious injury or mental health issues.” Knowing the difference is so important!
“Having a developed mental game equips an athlete to meet the limit that the brain and body experience in challenging workouts and find a way to push back on it,” says Gonzalez. “Whenever an athlete experiences fatigue or stress, the mind immediately starts with thoughts that are usually questioning or counterproductive. Mental strength will enable one to have the poise and presence to recognize the thoughts, remain calm, lean in, and try to stay within that limit to keep it from pushing back.”
Making decisions and sticking to them requires more than simply resolve, says trainer and fitness writer Tom Miller, CPT. “Our cultural ideal is resiliency in the face of hardship. It is an ‘ideal’ since not everyone can achieve it. Additionally, it is far too simple to see resilience under duress as an innate trait.” The majority of people handle some circumstances well but struggle with others. For example, the training of a decathlete cannot overlook any of these qualities and requires sufficient time for success. If not, they will thrive in the shot put but may fail in the javelin throw and the 1,500-meter run, he says. “Similarly, if you wish to create mental muscle, you must capitalize on your strengths and address your inadequacies,” suggests Miller.
“I continually put myself in difficult and stressful situations, constantly developing myself both physically and mentally,” says Christopher Gielbeda, 17, senior, Glen Cove H.S. NY, wrestler. “I do this so that when I find myself in a difficult situation on the wrestling mat I have the confidence, grit and mental toughness to know I’m the one with the competitive edge and my opponent is outmatched.”
“I know that when I walk into the gym I may not be the fastest or most athletic or most talented, but the one thing I do know is that I will put forth my greatest effort to compete as well as I can,” says Kate Jackson, 17, senior, basketball player at Highland Park High School, Dallas, TX.
“‘Discipline is more important than motivation,’” is a quote I live by,” says Chase Magrisi, 18, US Navy ROTC Midshipman, University of South Carolina. “Physical fitness is an important component of the Navy training program and includes three weekly group workout sessions in addition to scheduled runs and fitness tests that are tracked as part of the overall performance measurement. Practicing motivation with rewards can only go so far. Those 5 a.m. report times come quickly after long hours at the library, so discipline is a key part of my mindset to staying fit, keeping up with our PT program and working toward top scores with the Navy and my education.”
“Training for the pentathlon multisport challenges me as I prepare for events, but I must stay positive and keep driving forward when elements do not go as planned during competition,” says pentathlete Kira Bardin, 15, The Madeira School in McLean, Virginia, Pentathlon Multisport, U-17 national champion for USA Pentathlon Multisport. “While it would be great to be in the leader position for an entire event [which includes horse jumping, epee fencing, running, laser shooting, and swimming] the most exciting outcomes have been where I have had to persevere and come from behind to win. As we say in my equestrian events, ‘When you fall off the horse, the most important thing is to get back on as soon as possible.’ [Athletes] can’t wallow in fear of failure, we need to harness the adrenaline to kick into high gear. The feeling of victory after facing obstacles is unmatched!”
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