How to Become Mentally Tough

“Take a sprint ladies!” My trainer yells. We start on our stomachs, sprint to the 50 yard line, and return to our stomachs.

It’s dark, except for the rays of field lights. Practice was long and tough. It’s so cold that my lungs hurt and there is a sharp pain in my ears. I want to go home.

I can feel the turf digging in to my palms and knees, the joints there are taught, ready to spring. The moment is lingering over us like a cloud, and I look around at my teammates down on their stomachs with me at the end zone of the field, waiting for some form of punishment to rain down.

But the moment doesn’t come pouring down like a storm, the moment is silent, and after enjoying the sight of us in suspense, my trainer finally speaks.

“Why, after scoring point after point after point, do we lose the game?” She emphasizes the points with sharp t’s and ends the last word with an angry tone.

It’s true. We’re a great team. We practice hard, we play hard. But we get tired. We allow the other teams to make their comebacks.

We give up the game.

“This is no longer about physical endurance,” she yells, “this is about mental toughness. We lost it halfway through the last game. So take another sprint!”

We push off from the laying position into a full blown sprint, tap down at the line, and push at 100% until our last cleated foot makes hard contact with the painted goal line. Now I’m out of breath.

We sprawl back down on our stomachs, palms spread against the turf, elbows tucked ready to push, toes flexed under.

“What are you doing this for?” She asks. “Why are you here playing? You could be somewhere else, but you’re not. You’re playing a tough sport. Why is this important to you?”

Why am I here? I am here because I am an athlete. This is just what I do, who I am. There is no why, there just is.

But as her questions sink in, clips of moments in my life where I gave up or stood down start rolling in my mind. They remind me of my shame and helplessness: weakness that this sport might combat.

We take another sprint.

Finally, she is no longer radiating anger. Now there is something much deeper emanating out of her. Something powerful, almost sad.

“I want you to think of a teammate,” she says.

I think about the girl on my team who can’t play, yet comes to every game, practice, and 6am fitness. I think about everything she has given to the team for the sake of needing a family, people to belong to.

“Think of them in you mind. Take a sprint for them.”

As I complete my next sprint I do not see the turf ahead of me, I do not count the yards til the turn around, all I see is the face of my teammate. All I feel is the drive to lift her up, empower her like this sport has already done.

I lay back down on the goal line. My heart is pounding, but I don’t feel pain.

Why am I doing this? I’m doing this because it empowers me. It empowers others. It helps me empower others.

She speaks again. “What makes you angry? What makes you angry enough to fight for?”

A wide range of images flood my mind like a breaking wave. The emotion is so strong I’m afraid I will cry right there on the field in front of my team.

I can’t think of just one, but I think of all the people who’ve hurt me or the people I love, and all the faces morph into one.

“Sprint.” She states simply.

At this point, my legs should be giving out. I should be collapsing over, crying out, unable to move. But I am running through a tunnel, a channel. My periphery is black with a straight line in front and a morphed face pushing me. I don’t feel my legs, or chest, or head, but they are all pounding. My knees rising high and driving hard, trying to keep pace with my heart. Nothing else exists in that moment but the stride in front of me and the face glaring down at me. I must show it how strong I am.

I am angry, but it doesn’t explode out of me in all directions, hitting anything in its path within a set radius like it usually does. This time, my anger is a channel, and I am running through it.

Though I should be exhausted, I throw myself down, not just ready for the next push off, but excited for it.

To this day, I am excited for those sprints.

Mental imagery is a powerful thing. In tennis and volleyball, the clarity in which I imagine the serve acing the opposing court is like the perfect Hollywood film, and then I pull out my second image. I pull out a face. Sometimes it’s morphed, sometimes it’s singular. Sometimes it’s someone I love and sometimes it’s someone I hate. And my next action is for them.

I paint the picture onto the boxing bag, the goal line, the squat rack.

Some days I can’t always muster it, but when I do, it’s a scary powerful thing.

Whatever you do, know your why.

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