Stronger Athletes

June 5 "To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all." --Oscar Wilde

Toughness: An Acquired Trait

When asked to characterize toughness, people will give you a lot of answers. Is a football player tougher than a baseball player? Or is a father of two physically challenged children tougher than both? What is toughness? We won't waste time trying to define it. We can instinctually discern toughness within others. However, how does one acquire this trait, if possible?

In truth, toughness is not an genetic predisposition but rather a learned characteristic. The events in your life, the way you treat others and are treated by others, your lifestyle, your economic well being and your interests - these are all relevant variables in how "tough" your character may or may not be.

There are several common characteristics that psychologists observe in individuals who are respected and regarded as being "tough".

Performance psychologist James E. Loehr, author of the book "The New Toughness Training For Sports" (Penguin, 1994) notes one specific characteristic of tough individuals. They don't back away from problems, they seek them out and solve them. These kinds of individuals exist in all arenas of society - whether it be a highly decorated military officer, a top level athlete or the emergency room doctor. They don't wait for things to happen to them. They go straight for the jugular. The reason why: you don't improve on yourself when you work within your normal capacities. These individuals make themselves tougher - whether intellectually, physically or emotionally - by constantly seeking out things that will enhance these areas of their character.

For example, you don't get stronger by AVOIDING hard work in the gym. You must constantly push yourself further and further. You grunt and strain and make faces like someone is giving you a gravel enema. Every-time you do, the performance you must give to deal with that stress is pushed higher. Therefore, higher effort levels are necessitated. You can't experience any kind of growth - whether that be personal or career - until you have deliberately put yourself into stressful situations that make you better at what you do. This is one aspect that psychologists say make up "tough" characters. Nietzsche was definitely onto something when he said "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger". (Nietzsche, if alive today, would be a HIT practitioner. )

Another key point that they show - especially with people whose occupations are extremely competitive - is that tough people seek out tough competition. They don't choose puny opponents - they pick enemies whom they know will force them to step up their game. Whether on the basketball courts or the boardroom, tough individuals know that they must keep themselves sharp by taking on sharp challengers.

Tough individuals also know the importance of choosing the right friends. Rarely, you will find a tough individual who partners up with someone who brings out the worst of their character. I suppose that is why myself and my training partner click so well. Neither of us are willing to back down from each other and we always bring out the best in each when working out. Some people will argue that "toughness comes from within yourself, not from external sources" and this is 100% true - but a well chosen partner in your efforts can enhance your inner toughness all the more.

A practice which seems to be common to many top level athletes is visualization of goals. Visualizing yourself with the traits that you wish to posses seems to automatically program your subconscious to achieve those goals. I will honestly admit that I know nothing about how this exactly works - but I do know that it DOES work, from personal experience.

I use visualization daily - especially during workouts when psyching myself up and during the football season before practice and games. I can remember one instance where an individual in the gym challenged the fact that I was doing more on the Hammer Leg Press than anyone who had ever worked there. Being 16 years old, 5'10" and 200 lbs., this was obviously a hard pill for him to swallow. I didn't argue or complain, I just said that I was willing to show him (because I felt as though he was accusing me of being a liar). He stood behind me, I undid my shoes (it's a ritual of mine to do the Hammer Leg Press in bare feet as I feel this transfers power better than if it was dissipated through thick shoes) started breathing heavily and closed my eyes. I envisioned my legs being giant, mechanized, iron pistons, just pushing back and forth relentlessly. I didn't even realize it but the weight was already up and pumping away. I didn't even know where I was, and I couldn't hear anything around me - the only thing I saw was that image of the pistons in my mind. Back and forth, back and forth, mechanical and unstoppable. I finally grunted out the last rep with all of my energy possible, my legs shaking from the fatigue. The weight came down slowly. The man who had challenged me stood in disbelief, said nothing and walked away. I had just done 830 lbs. on the Hammer Leg Press for 9 reps - about a 100 lbs. more than I or anyone else in the gym (regardless of age or size) had ever done for the same number of reps. I still didn't realize the full implication of what I had accomplished. I just sat there, sucking wind, and didn't think anything. Only later that night I realized that I broke through a personal strength record strength record by over 100 lbs., not even thinking about how difficult it would be, in addition to the fact that someone who was challenging my integrity was standing by and just waiting for me to fail miserably. Such is the power of visualization.

Another aspect that psychologists note in tough people is the fact that they are always firmly focused on their goals. No matter what external factors (excuses, delays, forces working against them etc.) they come up against, they are always going to "finish the job". They also are willing to finish the job even when they don't like it. To achieve their goals, a lot of the people interviewed by the psychologists said that an effective technique is to ask yourself what you want (your goal) and then ask yourself how you can go from your present state to achieving your goal. This seems to plot things out very clearly for these people. Common sense dictates that it's much easier to get somewhere once you know how you're going to get there.

In his book, Loehr also recommends that your workouts are structured around intervals of intense activity followed by sufficient recovery periods. This simulates the stresses in life - that periods of high stress are often accompanied by periods of low stress. Structuring workouts in patterns similar to those in life makes you that much stronger against the stress of life. You become accustomed to certain behavioral patterns and deal with stress easier.

Toughness is also a function of your character. Stand up for yourself. Tough athletes and people NEVER blame others when something goes wrong or when they make a mistake. They accept the blame on themselves and move on, then thinking of ways how they can correct the problem. They realize that when wasting time pointing fingers, making excuses and trying to protect one's ego, nothing is done to resolve the problem. Blaming others makes yourself look weak, untrustworthy and spineless. Being able to stand up and say "Yes, I made a mistake" is consistently found to be one of the most highly respected traits in others. Toughness also refers to the strength of your character. Cheating, lying, stealing - these are all examples of where one's character was not strong enough to deal with temptations. This again, makes you appear weaker.

Toughness is certainly not something that is dispensed at birth - but something you have to consistently cultivate throughout your life.

***No Liability is assumed for any information written on the website. No medical advice is given on exercise. This advice should be obtained from a licensed health-care practitioner. Before anyone begins any exercise program, always consult your doctor. The articles are written by coaches that are giving advice on a safe, productive, and efficient method of strength training.***

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