Several years ago I was introduced to the sport of high altitude mountain climbing when my neighbor suggested that I read the book, Into Thin Air.
Before I read this book, I was like most people who have asked the question, “Why would anyone want to do that?”…put themselves through the agony of climbing at those altitudes.
But, once I read this book, I was absolutely hooked.
This started a several year saga of reading many high altitude mountain climbing books. The more I read, the more I wanted to read about it.
I had this realization that these professional high altitude mountain climbers are amazing elite athletes and have serious mental toughness.
In the process of reading these books I was introduced to Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks without supplemental oxygen.
I was in awe of Ed’s accomplishments and I really consider him to be a true hero in many respects.
It’s been my desire to meet Ed in person and hear him talk about his adventures and have the chance to ask him about his mental toughness.
I had the good fortune to fulfill that dream in October when Ed was in town to promote his new book, The Mountain, My Time on Everest.
He was down to earth, funny, intelligent, and very humble. He gave about an hour presentation sharing fabulous pictures of Mount Everest and then he opened the floor to questions.
I asked him to speak about his mental toughness…specifically what was his inner dialogue or self-talk when he is in the death zone and it feels like he can’t take one more step.
Ed smiled and said the following:
“That’s a great question. It’s really hard because you are really suffering and every part of your body hurts and you can’t think clearly; you just feel miserable. What I’ll do is I’ll count…I take a step and stop to catch my breath and then I say to myself ‘on breath 15 I take the next step no matter what’. I really focus in the moment and give my mind the task of counting.
The second thing I do is to remind myself of the big picture and why I’m really here. I think about my experience of what it will be like when I arrive on the summit and what it took to get here and the bigger picture of this whole thing that motivated me to do this in the first place. That also helps me push on towards my goal when it gets really hard.”
So, how can you bring mental toughness to your sports performance (and your life)?
First, be in the moment by giving your conscious mind a simple task to do. Ask yourself, “What is the only thing I need to do right NOW?” and focus on doing that one task. When that is completed, move on to the next task.
For example, if you’re playing tournament golf, you can count your steps to your next shot.
Then, focus on determining yardage.
Then, focus on pulling your club out of your bag.
Then, focus on doing your pre-shot routine, etc.
Break it down by saying to yourself, “The only thing I have to do right now is ____.” This will help stop your monkey mind from focusing on the future.
Second, remind yourself of the larger picture and what your overall goal is in playing your sport. Think about the times you’ve played your best and the immense personal satisfaction you receive from this. Remember why you chose to play in the first place and the joy this brings you!