December 17

Building Mental Toughness, Part 2


Welcome to the second installment of our mental toughness series and I’m so excited that you’ve chosen to stick with it on this journey – welcome back!

I want to continue our thought from last time (and if you haven’t had the chance to read the first installment click here to do so) but if you remember we’ve already established the answer to the first key question “can anybody become mentally tough:” That answer is a resounding “yes!” Which means if you’re reading this today, whether you have doubts in your mind about that premise or not…you’ve chosen to pursue it. Which…is the first key step!

The good Lord gave you a body that can stand most anything. It’s your mind you have to convince.

vince lombardi

Congratulations on convincing your mind to do what I already know your body can do!

So, having established that premise we moved on to the question “how then can I become mentally tough” and to answer that we introduced the first key tenant: find your “thing” (or as author Simon Sinek states – your “why”) – and that tenant is where I want to pick up our journey as we look at 1 more tenant that weaves its way into that first one: discipline.

Tenant # 2: Discipline

There’s an awesome quote about courage by Franklin Roosevelt that states “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” That quote is amazing to me because it captures the essence of why people rise from ordinary to extraordinary.

  • Why do soldiers do the things they do – why do first responders walk out the door every morning – why do athletes press, drive, and push themselves forward – why do hunters spend their weekends (or entire weeks) pressing through the harshest terrain?
  • Why does anybody do anything that is special and beyond the ordinary? Because…in most cases the cost of doing the extraordinary (and there is always a cost) is outweighed by the value of achieving the extraordinary (and everything has some level of value). That is the key to discipline: discipline is not an arbitrary measure of the choices we make – discipline is character in action: it shows what we value.

Choosing to do what is right, tougher, scarier, or sometimes just plain crazier is not an arbitrary decision – doing those things requires a thought process that says the cost of doing those things is outweighed in my eyes by the benefit gained either by me, my family, my team, my community, my country…or all of the above.

Remember the “why” – discipline for the sake of discipline is pain; discipline for the sake of something…is purpose.

And being mentally tough in this life requires a purpose – and then the laser locked focus on pushing ourselves to achieve that purpose…even when it’s tough, even when it’s scary, even when it seems impossible, and even when it doesn’t look like it will end well…discipline says do it…because the value outweighs the cost.

When I was a young platoon leader (my first platoon, actually, so it was a long time ago) I had a young soldier in my unit that was a machine gunner. He was a great young man – I really liked him and I truly wanted him to do well (no Darth Vader in this story). The problem was that he just couldn’t get himself to stay in shape or to toughen his mind for the strenuousness of his job and that made things really difficult. No matter how much I wanted to support him and keep him in that job his consistent failure to carry his load was impacting his team and our unit.

My NCOs we’re pretty fired up that it was time to move him on but, honestly, I couldn’t get myself to do it – I really wanted to see him pull this out. Time after time he’d fail to carry his load yet time after time he’d ask for another chance to stay on promising to work harder and time after time I’d give him another shot.

The problem, though, was simple – and it usually is. Our lives rarely affect just us. As this young man was learning – doing poorly in a PT test, falling out of runs, or being a bit overweight were one thing. Those were individual events and he could always justify single failures in his mind.

The problem is that regardless of where you go or what you do…individual failures on your part eventually lead to team failures on the part of those around you or those who count on you. That’s the way of things – at some point your decision to accept personal failures means you’re also accepting the impact of those failures on those around you (remember…there’s always a cost).

And his failures had a high cost. As a machine gunner he carried one of only two machine guns in the platoon – the loss of which could literally mean the difference between life and death for many of his fellow infantrymen – which is why the NCO’s were fired up at him and which is why I knew that relieving him would be so devastating to him.

  • I truly hoped the reward of carrying the load for his team would outweigh the cost of pushing himself to be physically strong and mentally straight.

Unfortunately…I was wrong. After repeated warnings, tail-chewing, and threatening he was walking a pretty fine line and the time came – as it always does – when he least expected it. We were tasked as part of an enormous training evaluation to spearhead a larger organizational mission on a live fire exercise. Our objective was isolated and tough; the “enemy” were entrenched; the jungle was rough; the terrain was miserable; and the heat was intense. Our route took us a long way and since it was an evaluation (and a live fire exercise) we were carrying a full basic load of ammunition plus gear…which gets pretty heavy.

Our platoon did really well but the objective was tougher than we thought and it was on a hilltop literally out in the blazing sun surrounded by jungle and Kuna Grass (a story for another time). Not only was the heat of the sun absolutely intense but our firepower during the assault had lit the entire area around us on fire so I knew we needed to finish the assault, repel the “counterattack,” and get out of the area or we’d have some serious problems: I could see the fire raging in the low ground between me (on the objective) and my support team (which is where the machine guns were). In fact, there was so much smoke we could no longer use our primary signals – we were relying on backups and standard operating procedures.

The problem was that I desperately needed the machine guns on the objective. We had numerous “casualties” and the enemy “counterattack” was imminent – my biggest weapons and best defense were separated from us where they could not protect us and as I called for them over and over all I could get from my NCO on the radio was “wait, out!”

I could see the fire raging all around them but for some reason they couldn’t get themselves out of the area which now raised a whole second concern…they could become trapped in the middle of the blaze loaded down with ammo and pyrotechnics: on the one hand I had the training mission to complete but I was also getting worried about my soldiers getting trapped on that hill and there would be no way to get them out – that fire was moving fast!

After what seemed like an eternity I saw through the smoke behind me (which was also masking my objective) the assistant gunner staggering onto our objective. He was carrying the machine gun, all the ammo, the bipod, the tripod, and all his gear – he was loaded down with more weight than he could reasonably carry – dehydrated – covered with smoke – and I swear it looked like parts of his uniform were smoking.

  • I grabbed him by the collar and yelled “where’s the gunner?” He was too tired to respond – but pointed behind him with his head.
  • I pushed him forward to one of my NCO’s and told him where to deploy the machine gun – then I went back to look for my support team…

And there they came – all of them – carrying my gunner over their heads, through the jungle, through the smoke, through the flames…carrying their gear, their weapons, his gear…and him.

  • They had almost lost everything on the support line (and I had almost lost them) – they couldn’t move off because in the middle of the chaos he had passed out from the heat and from exhaustion leaving them not only his burden to carry…but him as well.

He had finally fallen out one too many times…and this time it really counted. My NCOs were livid and by this time…so was I. There had come a point, as there does for all of us, where the choices we make to count the cost of discipline come due and that time is rarely when we expect it to be.

Whether as a leader, a team member, a parent, a boss, an employee, an athlete, or just doing what we do every day we have to make choices: will we take the easy road, the comfortable road, the fearful road or will we step up to the plate and decide that the value of living to our full potential; carrying our load; caring for our family (in some cases by caring for ourselves); being a solid team mate and partner are worth the cost of disciplining ourselves to drive to the finish, walk the road less traveled, and truly pursue excellence.

That’s the great thing about discipline – it doesn’t have to wait until tomorrow nor is it dependent upon what you did yesterday – discipline starts with the decisions we make today and over time you’ll notice something special about discipline:

  • Discipline fueled by “why” becomes purpose…and discipline tempered with wisdom, humility, and passion becomes…unstoppable.

And that’s where I’d love to see you go…but at the end of the day it’s a choice only you can make. Like my young soldier – the value of his “want” just couldn’t override the cost of getting there and it was a tough lesson learned. We all have those lessons – the question isn’t whether we have experienced them…the question is whether we plan to experience them again…or change the habits that got us into them.

Remember discipline doesn’t define character – it demonstrates it…and it’s a choice we make every day.

Whether you are a leader, a team member, a parent, or an individual trying to chart your path – identifying your “why” is a key first step but reaching it will require a daily set of sacrifices and decisions that keep you (and your team or organization) laser locked on getting there. As CS Lewis so wisely stated: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” Every day every one of us get’s to choose our ending.

I’m excited to be on this journey as I hope you are as well and I can’t wait until the next installment where we’ll get to talk about two more tenets: managing expectations and pushing the limits.

Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it. But along the way, we shall catch excellence.

vince lombardi

Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn’t even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back.


Be the one!


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