Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Mental Toughness

Below is an excerpt from an article about running and developing mental toughness. I used to be a distance runner and I consider the practice to be "Budo with a small 'b'." It's not strictly Budo, but is a practice that serves to enhance your budo training.

The full post may be read here.

A few years ago, scientist Ashley Samson embarked on a project aimed at accessing the darkest recesses of the runner’s mind. What goes on in the minds of people who voluntarily expose themselves on a regular basis to the rigors and stress of long-distance running? Samson is attached to California State University and also runs a private clinic for athletes who wish to avail themselves of her expertise as a sports psychologist. Samson was an athlete herself in her younger years and she still runs ultramarathons, so she knows all about the mental trials of running.

Up until recently the only way to get inside the heads of long-distance runners was to ask them to fill out a questionnaire after a race. Not exactly what you would call a reliable method, as it is always uncertain how well people remember specific information after the event. Samson and her colleagues decided to try something different. They fitted 10 runners with microphones and asked them to articulate their thoughts freely and without any self-observation while out on a long run. The scientists then listened to all 18 hours of the recorded material, searching for patterns. The thinking-aloud protocol allowed only immediate thoughts to be recorded; thinking aloud actually stops the mind from wandering. Nevertheless, the scientists must have had great fun listening to the recordings. “Holy shit, I’m so wet [from all the sweat],” reported Bill. “Breathe, try to relax. Relax your neck and shoulders,” said Jenny. Bill found the going very tough: “Hill, you’re a bitch . . . it’s long and hot. God damn it . . . mother eff-er.” Fred paid more attention to his surroundings: “Is that a rabbit at the end of the road? Oh yeah, how cute.”

Samson categorized the thoughts into a series of themes. Three themes in particular emerged: pace and distance; pain and discomfort; and environment. All of the participants in Samson’s experiment experienced some level of discomfort, especially at the beginning of their run. For example, they suffered from stiff legs and minor hip pain that became less severe the longer they ran. To cope with the pain and discomfort, the runners used a variety of mental strategies, including breathing techniques and urging themselves on.

There is more to running than just training your muscles and improving your stamina. It is also a mental sport, and maybe even more so than previously believed. Most runners appreciate the importance of mental strength. Those who decide to join their colleagues for a 10K run without any prior training are often able to show just how far you can get on motivation and perseverance alone. They run on “mental energy” and spur each other on. Keep going! Never mind the pain! As for ultramarathon runners, instead of ignoring pain they embrace it as part of the whole experience of long-distance running. “Pain is inevitable” is their mantra; it is an essential ingredient of the running experience. So what are the psychological qualities that make you a good runner? To what extent do they influence performance? And most importantly: Can you train mental toughness?

The Psychology of Performance

Anyone who wants to know more about the psychological side of sports would be well advised to talk to Vana Hutter. She is an expert on the mental health of top-class athletes, and she sums up all of the research on the matter as follows: Top-class athletes are armed with high levels of self-confidence, dedication, and focus, as well as the ability to concentrate and handle pressure. Their academic performance and social skills are also often better than that of nonathletic types. According to Hutter, athletes need self-regulation in order to perform. Everyone can learn, to some extent at least, to control their emotions, thoughts, and actions. And it is this aspect — learning to self-regulate — that is of particular interest to runners.

Funnily enough, Hutter began her scientific career at the “hardcore” end of exercise physiology: physical measurements of athletes’ bodies. “As time went on, however, I realized that athletic performance is determined by a combination of body and mind,” she tells me over coffee in Amsterdam. “I discovered that it is far more difficult to predict athletic performance than some physiologists would have you believe. There are so many factors that we just can’t account for.” For example, how do you explain the fact that the times athletes run are so different despite their being physically very similar?

If you were to subject the top 10 marathon runners to a physiological examination, they would probably all have a high VO₂max and excellent running economy. Some top athletes have something extra as well, however. “Measured over a longer period, the trainability of athletes is more or less the same. What really matters during competition is the extent to which their physiological systems are primed and ready to go, and how well those systems cooperate with each other,” explains Hutter. “Whether an athlete can avail of their maximum physical potential at the crucial moment is partly a mental matter.”

 She provides an example. “If your muscles are a little bit more tense because you are nervous, this will have an effect on your movement efficiency. You will need more energy to achieve the same kind of forward motion. This is the biomechanical explanation of the role of psychology in performance. On the other side of the spectrum, nervous anxiety can result in negative thoughts and fear of failure.” In other words, to go far as an athlete you need not only the right kind of physique but also to be mentally strong, primarily because of the influence the psyche has on how the physical body performs. Mental strength may in fact be the thing that separates the winners from the rest of us. Today, no one denies the role played by psychology in athletic performance. However, the extent to which coaches address mental toughness when training their athletes is a different matter, according to Hutter. Most of them do integrate it in their training, but opinions vary greatly on just how trainable mental toughness actually is.

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