Learning from Ironmen – Forging mental toughness

Determined, highly driven and tough minded are the character traits needed when competing in ultra-marathons, ironman triathlons or long distance endurance adventures. These can be beneficial to us all and translated to non-sport related activities. I have been fascinated for many years by Ironman Triathletes and adventurers who push themselves to their physical limit.  Although I have never really had the inclination myself to climb the highest peaks on each continent, run round the world on my own or compete in an Ironman Triathlon, I find those who do very inspirational.  Like my husband who competed in an Ironman Triathlon several years ago, many individuals who do these events are not top athletes.  However, they have developed the qualities professional sports people use every day in order to succeed.  Whether your goal for this year is to lose weight, get fit by running your first half marathon or start learning to play a new musical instrument, self-discipline, mental toughness, grit, high self- efficacy are all qualities that help us to achieve our goals. Blog Post originally contributed by Sue Tetley.


Self Discipline

Professional sports people have this in spades. Without it they would not be able to get up at 5.00 am to go and train in the pool or the gym.  It’s about delayed gratification and impulse control.   The idea of waiting for a greater reward instead of some instant gratification is something that affects us all to a lesser or greater extent.  There have been some interesting studies on impulse control, the most famous being the Marshmallow Test (Mischel et al 1970, Mischel, 1978, Mischel et al, 1989) where a group of 4-6 year old children were asked individually to go in a room with no distractions.  In the room was a table with a marshmallow, the child could either choose a treat straight away or they could wait and then get two treats.  Only about 30% of the children were able to delay their gratification until the stipulated time. These children were followed up as teenagers and then as adults. There were increased behavioural problems, lower academic ability and more difficulty maintaining relationships for the children who would only wait less than 30 seconds.  A lack of self-discipline can have huge implications on our lives.  We make poor financial decisions and get into debt as a result. By setting ourselves achievable goals, working towards a main goal, we can keep ourselves motivated.  If we are motivated and determined to achieve a goal, we are more likely to be self-disciplined.

Mental Toughness and Grit

Mental toughness and GRIT

Ironman triathletes completing their 2.5 mile open water swim

Seligman (2011) describes Grit as a ‘never yielding form of self-discipline’ and a form of ‘extreme persistence’.  Those who score high on Grit are highly passionate about their sport or their specific discipline. They persist and persevere to achieve their goal no matter how difficult.  According to Professor Anders Ericsson, high expertise is not god given genius, it’s about deliberate practice.  Those who score high on Grit spend 1000’s of hours honing their skills to be the best.

Scores on the Duckworth and Seligman, (2005) grit test has shown strong predictions for final grades, test scores, school attendance, hours doing homework and hours watching TV.  These have been shown to be better predictors than a teenage IQ. Many teenagers do not reach their academic potential not because they are not bright enough, but because they don’t put in the time and lack the self-discipline (Duckworth and Seligman, 2005)



This is very much connected to Grit. This is a person’s belief in their ability to achieve a particular goal.  A professional athlete or a professional musician has a firm conviction in their own skill within their specialist field.  They have years of evidence in support of their ability. According to Maddux, (2002) there are huge benefits to having high self-efficacy: reduced likelihood of depression and anxiety and success of healthy behaviour changes, including exercise, diet, safe sex and alcohol abuse.  When people have high levels of self -efficacy they do more goal setting (Hefferon and Boniwell, 2011).  The greater goal setting is down to their self-belief that if they stick to the goal and work hard, they will succeed.  If you firmly believe you have the ability to succeed at a given task you have been trained for, then you generally will.  As soon as you start doubting yourself and those negative thoughts creep in, it won’t happen. As Coue’s Law of reversed effort states:

‘When the imagination and the will are in conflict, the imagination invariably gains the day’ (Brooks, 1922)

If you imagine failing or not being able to complete a race; falling off your bike, missing a golf shot; tripping up etc then this is what will happen.  The key is to get your imagination to be your friend so you are able visualise what you want to happen, rather than what you fear will happen.


What can we do?

The great thing about self-discipline, grit, self-efficacy and any other psychological traits or intelligence is that our brain is very malleable. Only part of our brain is hard wired and controlled by genetics. This is very positive as we have the ability to change our mind-set. We are not all going to be top sports people or professional musicians, but we can certainly improve our performance.  We can practice different tasks and train our brains to think in a different way so new neural connections will grow and the unhelpful neural pathways will die (Davidson, 2012)

As discussed, mentally rehearsing what you want to achieve rather than what you fear will happen is a very powerful tool.   Positive visualisation is very beneficial and sports psychologists use this regularly to help professional athletes. By mentally rehearsing different scenarios on race day no matter what happens they know they have the skills to cope. We can all do this in our everyday lives imagining ourselves having a productive and stress free day at work where we are able to cope with any challenging situations calmly and effectively. It’s also a great strategy for exams, interviews, public speaking or driving test preparation.

I set myself two physical challenges over the next 6 months: to do a 70 mile bike ride and to teach myself how to do front crawl. I will use my Thrive Programme Journal to help me record realistic measurable short term goals.  If I only set myself one end goal, it would be very easy to become de-motivated.  However, by using short term goals I am increasing my self-efficacy and the belief I can succeed.  My husband did the same for his Ironman Triathlon training and used a short term goal strategy on the day itself.  On race day, he only ever looked 15-20 minutes ahead.  If he thought about having to swim 2.5 miles, cycle 112 miles and then run 26 miles, it would have been too overwhelming.  But if your goals are the next 20 minutes, this is a manageable chunk.  This is how he kept moving for 14 hours and his imagination remained on his side.  Long distance events are far more about being mentally tough than athletic ability.  There are many of our friends who are far more naturally athletic, but would never be able to complete an endurance event as they do not have the grit, motivation or will power to keep going and do the training.

Many people put themselves in a category and label themselves: “I’m not sporty, I would never be able to do this”.  But there are so many examples out there of people achieving amazing things through sheer will power and determination.  Even if you are naturally athletic, there is no way you could just go and run a marathon having done no training.  Look at Jo Brand who has just walked across the UK, this is extremely impressive or Andy Holgate, the author of ‘Can’t Swim, can’t Ride, Can’t Run: From Common Man to Ironman’.  He went from overweight librarian to an Ironman! So with a recipe of grit, touch mindedness, self-discipline, belief and motivation, the world is your oyster!


Brooks, C.H (1922).  The practice of autosuggestion, by the method of Emile Coue, Gresham Press in  Kelly, R. (2015)  Rob Kelly Thrive -Health. Happiness. Success. Cambridge: Rob Kelly Publishing

Davidson, R & Begley, S (2012)  The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How it’s Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and Live- and How You Can Change Them.London: Hodder and Stoughton

Duckworth  A. L & Seligman M.E.P. (2005).  Self-discipline outdoes IQ predicting academic performance in adolescents.  Psychological Science, 16, 939-944 (pdf)

Hefferon, K & Boniwell, I. (2011) Positive Psychology -Theory , Research and Applications.  Maidenhead: Open University Press

Maddux, J (2002)  Self-efficacy:  The power of believing you can. In C.R. Snyder and S.J. Lopez (eds)  Handbook of Positive Psychology (pp. 277-87). New York: Oxford University Press in Hefferon, K & Boniwell, I. (2011) Positive Psychology -Theory , Research and Applications.  Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Mischel, W. (1978)  How children postpone pleasureHuman Nature, 1 (12): 50-5. In Hefferon, K & Boniwell, I. (2011) Positive Psychology -Theory , Research and Applications.  Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Mischel, W. & Ebbesen, E.B. (1970)  Attention in delay of gratification.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16 (2):329-337 in Hefferon, K & Boniwell, I. (2011) Positive Psychology -Theory , Research and Applications.  Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Seligman, M. (2011).  Flourish: A New Understanding of HAPPINESS AND WELL-BEING- and How to Achieve Them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.


If you need help with goal setting in forging mental toughness, contact me for a chat on how to get started with The Thrive Programme.


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