Essay on the so-called Mental “Strength”

“You don’t need to be a rower to row an ocean. It’s all about mental strength”, so they said.

After having rowed from California to Hawaii, I guess I must have it, that thing called “mental strength”. But what’s funny is that I would not call it “Strength”. I would call it many other words: Mental flexibility, mental malleability, mental adaptability, mental understanding, mental “trick-eability”, mental “discipline”, etc.

I feel like “mental” isn’t that much about “strength”, which would call for a muscle and physical solution to issues encountered. I think “mental” calls for more of an “intelligent” solution, originating from our brain. I feel like reaching Hawaii was more about winning 1,000 small mental battles. It was more about control, patience, consistency, perseverance, resilience, which are more “cerebral” qualities.

Here are a few tricks that will make you mentally “performant” when you need it:

  1. Be balanced in all compartments of your life: be balance in your work, relationship, love, family. Surround yourself with strength and support. You can’t perform at your best if you start unbalanced.
  2. Train your mind. Look straight at your own weaknesses, and anticipate your answers to them. For instance, I didn’t know how I would react in the confined, hot and humid environment of our cabin, with low oxygen and no possibility to open the hatches. Would I be ok or freak out? I decided to train for it. I started meditation to quiet my mind in stressed time. I started to stay longer and longer in the sauna and push my time limits and heat resistance. Be creative: how about staying in the trunk of your car, longer and longer time. No matter what you think you will face, find ways to train your mind for it, pushing that threshold again.
  3. Train yourself to suffer better: yes, you can train yourself to suffer better. It’s all a question of threshold. Everyone suffers, what you must do is suffer better. Better than your competitor. Better than yourself a few years ago, better than a few weeks ago, better than a few days ago, better than a few hours ago. Train for being able to sustain your suffering to another level. “The sweat you put in your training will save you from the blood in the race”.
  4. Train hard so you don’t weaken your mind at any point: Make sure you arrive at your event with your maximum potential. Nobody likes to arrive unprepared at a meeting. Train as hard as you can, according to your own personal potential. You don’t want to ever think: “I wish I had trained more”. Knowing you could’ve done better would weaken your mental.
  5. Practice self-awareness. At all times, be aware of your body, your feelings, your emotions, your actions and reactions. These are clues you have to follow. Use them to anticipate your immediate and future needs. Be 100% one with your body. See when you’re having a tough time. See when you’re having a good time. Give yourself a break. Reward yourself. Feel yourself, attend yourself, and treat yourself.
  6. Practice patience to the extreme, “before”, so that you are ready “during”. Be philosophical about being patient. Imagine yourself being the quietest monk or zen master. Accept whatever comes at you without reacting or even thinking. Stay in control mentally. Be physically stressed maybe, but be mentally peaceful and in control.
  7. Focus on the now. Don’t let your mind drift and think too much. Just be in the moment, be in the now. Do what you do, now. If you are rowing, focus on your form and the excellence of your technique. If you are walking, just walk and focus on putting one foot in front of the other, in your best energy saving pattern and the best balance. Practice awareness of your actions, to the max.
  8. Trick your mind: See the issue from a different point of view. If it rains, trick you mind in loving the rain. If it shines, trick your mind in thinking you need the sun rays. No matter what happens, trick your mind in thinking that it was exactly what you needed.
  9. Remember that time passes, and whatever you face will not last. Every suffering or pain has an end. Even if it’s hard, it will not last. Focus on how you will feel looking back, once you’re done with the suffering. You’ve done this before and you’ll do it again.
  10. Find your real motivations: when times are tough and you question your own reasons for doing “it”, through suffering and pain, remind yourself the “why” that took you there in the first place. Remember that what took you there can take you out of there.
  11. Do you best, no matter what. Even if you are tired and underperforming, doing your best is always the right choice. If you are slow, it doesn’t matter if you do your best. You can never regret any action if you always tried your best.
  12. Laugh about it. Humor is my best tool against any adversity. On the ocean row, I hated to be wet during my shift and have to go back in the cabin wet with salty water. One day I had a shift on the oars for 2 hours and I was super dry at all times,… just to receive a big rogue side wave just as I was changing team. Arghhh. I just laughed about it and it became “the” joke between Thiago and I, on how the ocean would play tricks on me.
  13. Focus on smaller, intermediary goals. Rowing 40 days is hard. At first you focus on reaching the first half of the distance. When it gets tough, you focus on finishing that week. Then focus on finishing that day. Then that first half-day. Then that next shift. Focus on smaller targets, and keep going once you reach them.
  14. Be grateful: I remembered during the row that I had chosen to do this. I can’t really complain as I actually searched for that situation! How about those who suffer and didn’t chose it? They must be even tougher, they have no choice.
  15. Remember other battles you have won: Pick moments in your life when you have struggled and how you overcame those struggles, and how they made you stronger. Could be a divorce, the loss of a loved one, losing the company you started, a friend batting an illness, etc. Find comfort in remembering that this fight is smaller that these other battles.
  16. Find a higher purpose: Do it for others that are following you and getting inspired by you. Do it in remembrance of your lost ones. Do it as an example to follow, for your kids. Do it for a higher purpose, which ever it is.
  17. Do it for the team: Be altruistic. Go the extra mile for your team. Look at your teammates that are sharing your adventure and be there for them. Find energy in feeling how you impact them and make them feel , seeing them being touched by your positive actions. But,… remember that sometimes working for the team will mean focusing on yourself first. Just like they say in the security videos in airplanes: “wear the oxygen mask on yourself first, then help the kid next to you”. If you allow yourself to be weak, you will under-perform, then you are a detriment the team and you are not helping. Focus on yourself, get better, then focus on the team again.
  18. Pick your fights: Ask yourself: “Can I control this?”. If you can’t, change your focus right away. For example, the bad weather, the cold and stormy conditions on the boat. There is no need to be angry or fuss about the weather or the size of the waves. They are not changing for you no matter what you say or think. Instead, focus on parameters that you can control, like being well dressed against the grain. Like being ready to be wet and welcoming it! Like laughing about it…
  19. Be realistic. Something bad or tough is going to happen. You don’t know when, but it will. Don’t let fear or anticipation paralyze you. Be ready for any event and you will just have to deal with it when it arrives. Not before. Not after. Once it’s dealt with, just leave it behind and move on.
  20. You’ll never be 100% ready. Just know you’ll have to adapt and modify your plan. Even with the best preparation, you will have to adapt. And again this time, you will be successful, because adapting is your biggest strength.
  21. Be proud. Be stubborn. Decide soon what lines you will not cross easily. For instance, I decided very soon that I wouldn’t allow myself to lose one shift of rowing. It doesn’t matter if I were tired, hungry, not ready, not willing, not happy, struggling, hurt or injured, etc…. I would keep going. Just be proud to never give up.
  22. Raise to the occasion: remember that you are one that loves challenges and you over-perform when challenged. Raise yourself to the occasion. Just do it.

All this being said… It’s not because you know all these tricks that it’s not gonna be hard. You are going to hurt. Everyone hurts. You are going to be miserable. You’re going to face challenges. Because it’s the nature of being human and life itself. When you do, use those tools above. Over and over again. And you’ll be just fine.

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