One of the exciting things about watching sport is it can give such a powerful illustration of overcoming adversity. No matter which game or sport it is there is something truly inspiring and exhilarating about watching a player or team turn a situation around that seemed hopeless or beyond rescue.

Recently in the world of T20 cricket in April 2016, West Indies were able to pull off a stunning victory over England in the final when Carlos Brathwaite in the last over was able to hit four successive 6s. What had only a few minutes earlier appeared to be a certain England victory was transformed into an amazing West Indian victory. But that is not the example I want to focus on.

The video below is from the 2001 Wimbledon Tennis Final  between the Croatian Goran Ivanisevic and Australian Patrick Rafter. To put this in context Ivansevic had played in 3 previous Wimbledon finals (1992, 1994 and 1998) and lost each time. Now aged 30 he had slipped to a world ranking of 125 and had only qualified to play at Wimbledon because as a three time runner-up he was entitled to a wild card entry. With the incredible demands on players at this level this would be his last chance at the title.

The video is the last 7 minutes of Ivanisevic playing Patrick Rafter in an epic five-set match at the 2001 Wimbledon Men’s Final. As you watch it get ready to be drawn into the emotional and dramatic final 7 minutes of the match.

This is  arguably one of the most dramatic matches in tennis history with intense displays of passion and emotion. Only twelve points are played, but no more than 7 strokes are exchanged. Ivanisevic serves at over 200km/h both his first and second serve, but becomes the only player in tennis history to miss two match points with double faults. His hunger and desperation to win are so evident as he prays and looks for lucky balls. He starts crying at 40-30, but he needs three more Championship points to finally be able to win the title.

Psychologists agree that what separates the good players from the truly great players at the highest level in any sport is not skill or technical ability, but something described as mental strength. Another way to put it more vividly is the phrase mental toughness.

What are the elements of mental toughness?

The ability to:
– regulate your emotions
– manage your thoughts
– behave in a positive manner despite your circumstances.

Mental toughness is about finding the courage to live according to your values and being bold enough to create your own definition of success. To underline this Tim Twietmeyer who has completed the Western States Endurance Run (the world’s oldest 100 mile race) 25 times, on each occasion in under 24 hours is quoted as saying:

“There is nothing noble in being superior to some other man. The true nobility is being superior to your previous self.”

To further explore this researchers from Temple University (Jaeschke and Sachs) studying 408 marathon runners who had completed at least one race of 50 miles or longer teased out the following three characteristics of mental toughness:

  1. The ability to use failure to drive themselves to greater success.
  2. When training becomes physically and mentally tough due to obstacles they keep on going by reminding themselves of their goals and aspirations and why they are putting themselves through this.
  3. The ability to recognise and rationalise failure while at the same time picking out the learning points to take forward.

Also because the outcome of a match is usually revealed in only a few hours, sport provides a useful learning example on the development of mental toughness in any area of life.

John Ryan, President of the Center for Creative Leadership, shares three concrete steps you could take to increase your mental toughness.

1. Read biographies.
Reading the life stories of people from the past who have overcome adversity provides an alternative perspective to the challenges in our own lives. It’s easy to look at successful people from Abraham Lincoln to Eleanor Roosevelt to Steve Jobs and assume everything came easily to them. But when you study their lives, you see not only that they had to grapple with hard times but also that those very experiences gave them the mental resources and habits they needed to lead at a high level. Lincoln was raised in a poor family, struggled with depression and had to educate himself. (See Lincoln: How Depression Moulded A Great Leader and Failure and Depression: The Other Side of Lincoln’s Life). Eleanor Roosevelt battled blatant sexism. And Jobs was forced out of the company he founded (see Lessons On Life From Steve Jobs). Each of these leaders demonstrated an ability to withstand adversity and to move forward in the face of frustration. Whose biography could inspire and challenge you in the challenges you are facing?

2. Build a strong support community.
Contrary to popular opinion, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Jobs were not lone rangers who succeeded on their own. At crucial junctures, there were family, friends, teachers and colleagues who offered the encouragement, wisdom and resources to keep going. These giants also stood on the shoulders of others as they climbed to the top. It takes resilience and composure to manage the full range of negative emotions that often surface when facing difficult challenges. Have you surrounded yourself with a support team? And, just as importantly, on whose support team are you serving?

3. Look for and accept challenges.
There is great value from intentionally putting ourselves in challenging circumstances and staying open to learning in these situations without becoming defensive.  I know how naturally I want to run away from challenges, but it is only outside our comfort zone that true growth happens. Where in your life could you tackle a substantive challenge – a new professional experience, a positive change in your family life, adopting a new fitness regimen, in your spiritual life or in cultivating a new hobby?

As Churchill has said, “Success is going from failure to failure without any loss of enthusiasm.” (See more on the Law of Victory and the life of Churchill in the post Can You Find A Way To Win?). You may also enjoy the video and story of The Impossible Football Club.

I close with Paul’s advice to Timothy in the 4th chapter of his letter (taken from the Message translation of the original Greek:

“Stay clear of silly stories that get dressed up as religion. Exercise daily in God – no spiritual flabbiness please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever.”

What examples of mental toughness have you seen or experienced?