M is for Mental Strength Making The Difference

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There are many models for doing fine work. One approach borrows from themes in sport. Great athletes often have mental strength, maintain high standards and add that touch of magic.

This article explores the first step, which is also sometimes called mental toughness. There are many ways to develop this ability. These include the following approaches to delivering the goods.

To stay calm, clarify your strategy and control the controllables … To prepare properly and perform at your best when it matters … To recall when you have performed brilliantly and follow these principles in the future … To follow your positive scripts rather than your negative scripts.

To demonstrate grace under pressure … To be resilient and deliver the required results … To welcome adversity because dealing with it better than others will give you an advantage … To use setbacks as a springboard for success … To show grit and use your gifts to do great work … To become the best you can be rather than compare yourself to others.

To master your Inner Game and then play the Outer Game – as described by Tim Gallwey … To channel your Inner Champ rather than your Inner Chimp – based on the work of Steve Peters … To keep following the standards of performance and then the score will take care of itself – as described by Bill Walsh … To use your Blue Head and be calm rather than your Red Head and be chaotic – as applied by the New Zealand All Blacks. 

To flow rather than freeze … To relax, re-centre and refocus … To rehearse and follow your rhythm to deliver results … To take the positive approach rather than the paralysis approach … To concentrate on the process rather than the prize … To follow the adage: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

Looking back, can you think of a situation when you showed mental strength? You may have been working to reach a goal, recovering from an illness, managing a crisis or whatever.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the past when you showed mental strength. 

Describe the specific things you did to show mental strength in the situation. 

Describe the specific things that happened as a result of taking these steps.

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During the 1970s there was an upsurge of interest in mental strength. Some of this stemmed from the advances in sports psychology and the use of mental rehearsal.

Charles Garfield applied these techniques and described them in his book Peak Performers, published in 1986. One example he gave was that of the pianist Liu Chi Kung, who was placed second in the 1958 Tchaikovsky Competition.

Liu was imprisoned for seven years during the Cultural Revolution in China and was denied the use of a piano. When Liu toured soon after his release critics were astonished to find his musicianship was better than ever. One asked:

“How did you do this? You had no chance to practice for seven years.”

“I did practice every day,” said Liu. “I rehearsed every piece I had played, note for note, in my mind.”

Mental rehearsal is one way to develop mental strength, but what happens when people meet a setback? Robert Kriegel and Marilyn Harris Kriegel described ways to deal with such challenges in their 1989 book  The C Zone: Peak Performance Under Pressure. They showed how it was possible to deal with pressure by becoming Calm, Controlled and Centred.

The C Zone

Many practitioners have expanded on these themes. Peter Clough and Doug Strycharczyk have developed a model for mental toughness. This highlights 4 Cs and the kinds of things a person might say at each stage.


“I can control my attitude in situations and shape my future.”


“I will commit myself fully and do my best to shape my future.”


“I can learn and develop through tackling challenges.”


“I have confidence in myself and my ability to shape my future.”

You can discover more about the approach taken by Doug and Peter via the following link.



Some people demonstrate mental strength in many situations. But for other people, however, it may depend on the context. A soccer player may show mental strength on the field, for example, but they may not show it when dealing with a gambling problem.

Different people use different techniques to stay calm, clarify their strategy and then work to achieve concrete results. Matthew Syed, author of Bounce, describes how some athletes do this at the height of competition.

He explains how Sarah Lindsay, the speed skater, achieved this state by maintaining a sense of perspective. She spent years focusing on reaching the final of her speed skating event in the Winter Olympics.

Sarah knew she must perform beyond her previous best to reach this goal. In order to do so, however, she knew it was important to flow and finish.

Sarah was seen preparing in the locker room before the final qualifying race saying to herself:

“It’s only speed skating. It’s only speed skating. It’s only bloody speed skating.”

She kept repeating the mantra. Sarah went out and performed beyond her previous best to reach the final.

Let’s return to your own life and work. Looking to the future, can you think of a situation when you may want to use your mental strength? This could be in your personal or professional life.

How can you choose your attitude in the situation? How can you stay calm and clarify your strategy? How can you maintain the necessary high standards? How can you do your best to achieve the desired results? How can you, if appropriate, add that touch of magic?

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe a specific situation in the future when you may want to show mental strength.

Describe the specific things you can do to show mental strength in the situation.

Describe the specific things that may happen as a result of taking these steps.

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