Emotional Toughness: The Real X Factor

"Mental toughness" is a misnomer. The real X Factor is "emotional toughness." Learn what it is and how to get it.

Rich Franklin

One major aspect of training that is often misunderstood is the concept of emotional toughness (ET). The common phrase, "mental toughness," is not only a misnomer, it defies logic. When a kicker approaches the tee for the potential game-winning field goal, or a rookie toes the free throw line for the deciding point, no one questions his IQ. The questions should be, "Can he control his emotions?" and "Will his emotions control him?"

If we assert that ET is real, is there anything an athlete or trainer can do to enhance it? The answer is "yes!" (Learn how the Navy SEALs use this principle.)

UFC fighter Rich Franklin told me, "I have always used the term 'mental conditioning,' but I do believe 'emotional conditioning' more accurately states the objective. I have always been a cerebral fighter, not letting my emotions get the best of me before or during a fight."

ET training is best (and perhaps fastest) catalyzed through the implementation of rigorous, often grueling, physical training. Much like military training and the use of "cognitive dissonance," trainers want to push athletes to the point of physical exhaustion. (This must be done in a regimented program, as a piece of the overall training protocol.) When an athlete's physicality begins to wage war with his emotions, when it would be easy to do "just enough," then and only then can we begin to achieve real growth. The growth occurs when "this is hard" becomes "I can't do this," and the athlete is left with the choice of self-discipline or self-regret. The emotions almost always wave the white flag before the body does. What athletes and trainers must realize is, there is virtually always more.

During ET training, it is imperative to challenge the notion that "moderation" is synonymous with "balance." Trainers need to light a path to greatness by occasionally pushing to the extreme, by beginning and continuing a physical training regimen that will develop and enhance their clients' physical and emotional robustness. When your athlete's body pleads with him to succumb to the discomfort and find refuge in mediocrity, that's when growth happens. Everything in moderation...unless you want to be great.

Once an athlete understands this, once she realizes she has the control, then she knows there is no inherent "power" in external factors. The only "power" granted is granted by the athlete. Whether the external factors are stadium noise, trash talk, inclement weather, a previous missed tackle or any number of other typical "reasons" for poor performance, the only way they can affect an athlete is if he or she allows it.

From Darren Hardy's book, The Compound Effect:

"During one of the important Majors, a psychologist timed Nicklaus from the moment he pulled the club out of the bag until the moment he hit the ball, and guess what? In each shot, from the first tee to the eighteenth green, the timing of Jack's routine supposedly never varied more than one second...The same psychologist measured Greg Norman during his unfortunate collapse at the 1996 Masters...his pre-shot routine got faster and faster as the round progressed...The moment Norman changed his routine, his performance became unpredictable and his results erratic."

What is the important lesson here? Power was given to the wrong things. Norman allowed factors outside of his control (prior bad shots) to negatively affect his actions in the moment.

Carolina Panthers DE Thomas Keiser commented, "The distinction you make about [ET] is spot on. Throughout my athletic career I've found that I've developed most not only as an athlete, but as a person, when my career hit rock bottom."

If we can get athletes to understand this, we can tap into the real "X factor" and enhance performance well beyond the purely physical. Everyone is looking for an edge. I believe the ability to control emotions at times of extreme stress and/or physical duress is that edge. It is what made Michael Jordan want the ball at the end of the game, even if he had missed his last six shots. It is what separates the good from the great. After all, who went to the gym today to get "good enough"?

Start your own emotional training by checking out the toughest workouts in STACK's Conditioning section.

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