Michael Mantell by Michael Mantell

Mental Toughness

When it comes to linking mind-body awareness for your clients, one key element to teach is a degree of “mental toughness.” That means, in part, exterminating “ANTs” that your client may bring to your training session.

Mental toughness, according to David Yukelson, Ph.D., of Penn State University, includes the following:

  • Self-belief
  • Motivation
  • Focus
  • Composure/Handling Pressure

One of Dr. Yukelson’s nuggets is, “Don’t allow frustration to undermine your confidence or focus.”

Your client’s readiness to exert the level of physical effort necessary to see and feel the gains he/she desires in physical training with you is in large measure determined by their ability to be free of frustration prior to and certainly during a well-developed workout routine. That means being free of ANTs.

OK, you’ve wondered long enough about what these ANTs are that I’m talking about. Here’s what they are: automatic negative thoughts.

First described by Albert Ellis, Ph.D., founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, and later expanded upon by Aaron Beck, M.D., David Burns, M.D., and most recently by Daniel Amen, M.D., these negative voices in your client’s head tell them they aren’t good enough, thin enough, strong enough, energetic enough, lack time to exercise, aren’t able to gain results, and many other erroneous beliefs that serve as mental impediments to your client’s fitness progress. These ANTs will erode adherence to continued training with you as well.

It’s well understood that the way we think can trigger a stress response and illness. Stress cardiomyopathy, the so-called “broken heart syndrome,” is an example of an emotional stressor filtered through our thoughts causing actual cardiac damage. In one recent study reported on in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 30% of cases of stress cardiomyopathy were due to emotional stressors.

What kind of thinking can have such powerful impact on the physical and emotional health and wellbeing of people? It’s those nasty ANTs. Cognitive-behavioral psychologists have consistently observed a number of such irrational kinds of thinking. Irrational is to say that the thinking does not match the reality, or what is actually there, compared to what is perceived or interpreted in a person's thinking.

Here's a partial list from David Burns, M.D.:

  1. All-or-nothing thinking: You look at things in absolute, black-and-white categories.
    “If I can’t do all of the reps in the set, I’m not cut out to exercise.”
  2. Overgeneralization: You view a negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.
    “Since I couldn’t get the lunges right today, I’ll never be good at them.”
  3. Mental filter: You dwell on the negatives and ignore the positives.
    “I may have been able to hold a plank for 30 seconds but so what? I can’t do a single leg glute bridge at all!”
  4. Discounting the positives: You insist that your accomplishments or positive qualities “don’t count.”
  5. Jumping to conclusions: (a) Mind reading — you assume that people are reacting negatively to you when there’s no evidence for this. (b) Fortune-telling — you arbitrarily predict that things will turn out badly.
    “I can tell Trainer Vic you think I’m doing a lousy job.”
    “I know I’ll fall and hurt myself in these plyometric jumps”
  6. Emotional reasoning: You reason from how you feel:
    “I feel like I look like an idiot doing these reverse flyes with supine 90-90s, so I must really be one.” Or “I don’t feel like exercising today, so I’ll put it off.”
  7. “Should” statements: You criticize yourself with “shoulds” or “shouldn’ts.” “Musts,” “oughts,” and “have-tos” are similar offenders.
    “I should be able to do a kneeling overhead toss without falling over.”
  8. Labeling: You identify with your shortcomings. Instead of saying “I made a mistake,” you tell yourself “I’m a jerk,” or “a fool” or “a loser.”
    “I dropped the barbell when I was doing a bent-over barbell row – UGH I’m such a jerk and a loser!”

These automatic negative thoughts distort reality, involve inaccurate ways of evaluating oneself, block the achievement of goals, create persistent extreme emotions, and may well lead to harmful emotional and physical distress.

Spend the next couple of weeks identifying these cognitive distortions in your clients and others around you. In my next blog post, I’ll teach you key ways to help your clients catch these ANTs and check them in the locker room. Here’s a hint: a key question to help your clients ponder is, “Are these beliefs true?”