Mental Toughness: Success, Skiing, and How To Train Your Brain

Katy Shipley | | BrainsBrains
mental toughness
Many athletes have a vision of how their run is going to go before they step up to the entry. Visualization exercises allow them to look down the terrain confidently when it counts. Image: IFSA

What makes some athletes so successful?  What is the difference between crossing the finish line or buckling under pressure?  There’s no doubt that the physical training required to be a high level athlete takes a life of dedication.  However, one of the largest contributors to success in the sports world is mental strength. The mind and body are connected–and those who recognize the connection and utilize it are the ones who reach their goals.

Like any physical conditioning, mental strength is a discipline.  When practiced habitually, people reach the upper level of their talent no matter what circumstances they are in.   It is most evident in situations that call for focus under pressure and perseverance through non-ideal circumstances.  Mental strength keeps you going when physical strength has been consumed.

So what is mental strength exactly, and why should you practice it?  Well if you love to ski, you could learn a thing or two from the mentally fit.  If you want to take it to the next level–whatever that level is for you–mental strength could be the key to getting there.

Mental “grit” is the confidence to take calculated risks and step into new terrain.  It is the persistence needed to learn new tricks or techniques and master them over time. Next time you find yourself making up excuses and wanting to quit, use your most important tool of all– your brain.

mental toughness finish line
Mental toughness kicks in when your legs are beat but you have to make it to the bottom. Image: FWQ/Mia Maria Knoll

Mental Strength in Sports Psychology

Competition brings out the best and worst in athletes. It is the easiest way to take a look at mental toughness and try to describe it. There are many ways to define and explain mental toughness. Generally, it is seen in those who exude confidence, perseverance, emotional intelligence, and positive energy. Let’s take a look at how it applies to sports psychology.

According to a study in the Journal of Applied Sports Psychology called “What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers”, mental strength is the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to:

  • Generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer
  • Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure

In this study, 12 attributes emerged that contribute to an elite athletes’ grit.

  1. Having an unshakable self belief in your ability to achieve your competition goals.
  2. Bouncing back from performance set-backs as a result of increased determination to succeed.
  3. Belief that you possess unique qualities and abilities that make you better than your opponents.
  4. Having an insatiable desire and internalized motives to succeed.
  5. Remaining fully focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions
  6. Regaining psychological control following unexpected, uncontrollable events.
  7. Pushing back the boundaries of physical and emotional pain, while still maintaining technique and effort under distress in training and competition.
  8. Accepting that competition anxiety is inevitable and knowing that you can cope with it
  9. Not being adversely affected by others’ good and bad performances.
  10. Thriving on the pressure of competition.
  11. Remaining fully focused in the face of personal life distractions.
  12. Switching a sport focus on and off as required.
Bounce back mental toughness
CR Johnson is one of the most legendary skiing bounce backs. He recovered from a life threatening injury and continued to ski and film with production companies for years after his recovery. Image: Freeskier/Mattias Fredriksson

Mental Toughness in Skiing

Mental strength is particularly helpful in skiing, whether it’s the Olympics, a ski film, or your own.  It comes in handy when athletes face steep terrain, cold weather, and ever-changing conditions.  Here’s some skiers performing at their highest level and using mental toughness along the way.

A skier with some insane composure and grit: Sage Cattabriga-Alosa.  He is known for his positive attitude, calculated approach, and smooth execution of big lines. When put on top of a mountain with a blind entry and all cameras on him, he gets in the zone and makes it happen.  Watch Sage unleash some mental strength…

When there’s only one way out, and failure is not an option: Cody Townsend.  2014’s Line of the Year was given to him without question.  There’s an unwavering confidence in this line even though he says “That was the scariest line!” afterward.  Being able to have a vision, be scared, and still nail it is mental fitness in a nutshell…

A ski mountaineer who never gave up: Hilaree Nelson O’Neill.  She was obsessed with the Peak of Evil for nearly two decades.  After failing to summit Papsura in 2013, she bounced back and succeeded in 2017.  Pursuit of a long term goal even after failing is a prime example of grit.

How to Improve Your Own Mental Strength

While mental strength in high level sports is clearly evident, we aren’t all elite athletes with a mental skills coach.  However, we can still apply many of the same ideals to our own level of athletic ability and our daily lives in general.

  • Focus on becoming more goal-oriented, positive, and resilient.
  • Embrace change, fear, and the unknown.
  • Delay gratification and work towards long term goals.

Mental strength will help you win at life regardless of what you are doing. It can be developed by anyone who is willing to put the effort into it.  You might think certain people are born with it, but that is not necessarily true.  Anyone can make their life more successful through mental awareness.

So where do you start?  Check out the 8 Ways to Develop Mental Toughness with Tim Ferriss.  Take note of what these incredibly successful people have to say and try to apply it to your own life.  You might be surprised at how much willpower your mind is capable of…


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