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Building Mental Toughness: Focus on the Process

So there I am with a fellow firefighter talking about an upcoming promotional testing process. He tells me how he wishes he could do the things I do physically, but he is just not as gifted.

Truth is, I'm not any more gifted than the next guy around the firehouse. I just want it more and am willing to endure more to achieve it. I have wanted whatever it is more than most other people since my early childhood years. That’s where my path to mental toughness began…years ago. At a young age, I was willing to outwork anyone for the things I wanted, most of the time it related to competitive sports participation. That perseverance translated into success at that age and still to this day. Now, I outwork others for career opportunities, financial opportunities, but most importantly for the opportunities to give my wife and kids open doors to pursue their endeavors.

So when someone wants to be the best, I have to give them an honest assessment. It’s not going to happen today, tomorrow, next month, or next year. To reach a performance level that only a small amount of people reach takes years, even decades. The easy part is getting there physically. The hard part is mentally, where patience and consistency start to play a role. People look in the mirror at times and see visible goals reflecting back at them, but they are still missing the bigger picture. They are focusing on the results, when they should be focusing on the process. If the process is managed and continually visited, the results take care of themselves.

It’s the intangibles that we don’t see in that reflection that truly define the characteristic of mental toughness. It’s the slideshow carousel of all the experiences, the trials and tribulations, which form the foundation for mental toughness. Most of my mental toughness has been built through physical experiences, but some has come from emotional and relational experiences (like losing a brother at the age of 17 or fighting for my marriage with two young children years ago). Regardless, all these experiences add up over time and become the motivation to keep getting after it every day. They have solidified my lifestyle and ensure consistency in my actions.

I liken it to marriage. My parents have been married for over 40 years, and my grandparents were married for over 50 years. Do you think when they look in the mirror after decades together, that the picture is as pleasing to the eye as it was when they were engaged? But they aren’t concerned with the result in the mirror after all these years together; they are focused on the process that brought them to this point, and that process is what made their marriage solid and unbreakable. Their mental toughness within their marriage is gold. It’s their key to success.

If you want to be solid and unbreakable, focus on the process. Mental toughness is the ability to say “I’ve been here before and made it through.” When I’m climbing stairs and exhausted, “I’ve been here before.” When I’m waking up at 0430 to lead recruit workouts and I’ve got a torn groin muscle or dislocated finger, “I’ve been here before.” When I’m pulling a dummy out of the basement after 20 minutes of work, “I’ve been here before.” When life gets tough, “I’ve been here before.” And I have only “been here before” because I am always willing to go wherever whenever. I have embraced these seeming limitations, and view them as challenges.

Turn those limitations into challenges. Fatigue is not a limitation, it’s a challenge. Soreness is not a limitation, it’s a challenge. Training in hot and cold environments are challenges. A workout lasting two air bottles is a challenge. The fire ground is a challenge. If you welcome these challenges every day, you begin to tell yourself in the middle of these tough times, arduous trainings, or difficult calls, “I’ve been here before.”  Now you’ve started to build your foundation of mental toughness.

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