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A synergistic effect: building mental toughness through “good pain”

Mental toughness can mean the difference between life and death in the realm of law enforcement. Those who reject the notion of “giving up” are more likely to survive a life threatening situation and better handle precarious situations.

January 25, 2018  By Isabelle Sauve

The topic of a “tough brain” is somewhat ambiguous. There is no single definition for mental toughness but it is explainable as:
“A measure of individual resilience and confidence that may predict success in sport, education, the workplace and in life.”

It is also known as “grit” or fortitude but it’s important to know it goes beyond physical performance and pain tolerance.

Can mental toughness be improved? Is it inherently acquired or can it be developed and strengthened?

Studies have shown that achievement in life is highly related to mental toughness, perseverance, passion and the willingness to go all in — even at the risk of failing. The same studies clearly show mental toughness can be strengthened with hard work (i.e. determination and commitment to seeing things through).


To train the mind one must first learn to control it. Practicing mindfulness and using techniques such as visualization, imagery, meditation and breath work can assist with this. Being challenged through direct exposure to demanding situations can also strengthen your ability to control your mind.

The mind and body have a synergistic effect on one another. Endurance sport athletes quickly learn that success is dependent on both mental and physical training.

A key factor in successfully strengthening the mind is the ability to embrace mental, emotional and physical discomfort. Finding a degree of comfort in being “uncomfortable,” knowing it will build strength, is counterintuitive but extremely effective. Stepping out of one’s comfort zone stimulates growth and mental toughness is often garnered through pushing beyond boundaries and challenging oneself.

One of the critical learning points for anyone undertaking physical training is the difference between “bad pain” and “good pain.” Bad pain arises out of a legitimate injury and requires the physical activity, which is further aggravating the injury, be stopped. Good pain is a natural injury-free response from our bodies when we challenge ourselves.

Physical effort in this discomfort zone can be sustained with mental toughness. Embracing a positive relationship with good pain permits one to push the body beyond perceived limits.

When it comes to training for a physical endeavour, unless there is an injury or illness at play, the easy way out should not be an option. Cutting training sessions short out of mere boredom or lack of motivation is counterproductive.

As the difficulty rises, do not allow yourself to quit — even when your brain is screaming at you to give up. Use positive self-talk and do not let negative messages like “I’m so tired” or “my legs are sore” creep in. For every negative thought that pops up, rehearse a positive one for a few seconds. Remind yourself of the reasons you took on the challenge and of the reasons you will be proud when you complete it. The Navy Seals operate with the notion that when we think we can’t keep going anymore we are only at 20 per cent of our full potential.

When you attempt something, whether in training or at home, give a true 100 per cent effort. Be willing to do what others are not willing to do. Most things that are difficult to achieve require dedication and sacrifice. Create a psychological advantage through training. Sacrificing to gain is not easy. It is about having the patience and will to delay gratification in order to ensure a better end result.

Prior to undertaking a monumental challenge, it is vital to set out the reasons why success is important. Knowing one’s emotional drivers, triggers and what makes one “tick” promotes resilience under challenging situations. Expanding mental, emotional and physical energy wisely is also critical. Negative thoughts deplete us of precious time and energy.

When faced with a significant challenge, breaking it into more manageable pieces can also be helpful. For instance, completing a marathon (42.2 km) may seem impossible, but undertaking 5 km at a time will eventually lead to that full distance. Acknowledging one’s successes, even small ones, is important as it strengthens confidence and is positive reinforcement.

Success in one area spills into other areas of one’s life and in order to succeed, we must first believe that we can.

Isabelle Sauve is a 10-year OPP veteran currently with the Emergency Response Team (ERT) at the Almaguin Highlands Detachment in Burks Falls, about 300 km north of Toronto. She can be contacted at:

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