After daredevil Nik Wallenda performed his latest high-wire stunt, on June 23, 2013, by tightrope walking across the Little River Gorge near the Grand Canyon, he credited his success to “mental toughness.”
While facing 48 mph winds, he balanced on a 20-inch wire that stretched 1,500 feet—and did it all without any safety equipment. Had he lost his balance, he would have plunged to his death.
But Wallenda didn’t focus on the danger. Danger is all in one’s head, he reminded his fans, and that is the kind of mental discipline that got him through the 23-minute ordeal.
I teach mental toughness to professional sports coaches, pro athletes, and top-level executives. Mental toughness boosts their performance in impossibly challenging situations that demand accountability, focus, and positive attitude.
Do you have moments when life or work feels like a tightrope walk? Here are seven ways to apply mental toughness to your life.
Recommended for YouWebcast: Growth at a Scale Up: How to Grow When You're No Longer a Startup
Know who you are and what you want. As part of the legendary “Flying Wallenda” family of daredevil performers, Nik Wallenda has been performing stunts since childhood. He knows who he is. Who are you? The first Mental Toughness rule is to develop a vision of self-image. Be able to name your purpose and priorities. This will solidify your ability to win in the important aspects of your life and work.
Picture the challenge in detail. In order to walk across the “Little Grand Canyon,” as it’s called, Nik Wallenda and his crew spent four years planning his stunt and took multiple trips to the Grand Canyon to study everything from wind speed to temperature changes. How detailed is your vision? To accomplish a major goal, you need to create a 30-second video in your head that stars you doing exactly what you want to do. Set an alert to remind you to replay this mental reel every day.
Be a “finisher” on a daily basis. The trait of accountability is necessary for success. Nik Wallenda had to be accountable for all of his actions during his high-wire act, from the securing of the cable to the fitness of his body. After you’ve identified the specific goal you want to achieve, determine precisely what needs to get done—on a daily basis—in order to get closer to your goal. The difference between wanting to win and actually winning is accountability and follow-through. Identify three smaller goals to finish every day that will help you achieve your larger end goal.
Go for your personal best. Nik Wallenda’s last stunt was walking across Niagara Falls. That time he wore a safety harness; this time he did not. What aspect of your life are you trying to outdo? Learn to look in the mirror every day for 15 full seconds—I call this “15 seconds of accountability.” Take this time on a daily basis to evaluate your personal progress and effort, and to identify areas where you can do better. Keeping written success logs is an effective way to maintain Mental Toughness.
Keep your eyes on the wire. If Nik Wallenda had lost his focus for one second, his life would have been over. One of the fundamentals of Mental Toughness is to have unwavering focus. Develop your focus by knowing and practicing what you’re going to say before you say it. You’ve already defined the tasks that deserve your focus. Now create and memorize scripts for key interactions to help you maintain focus. These scripts build confidence and reduce the anxiety that often gets in the way of performance.
Stay upbeat and hopeful. Cultivate optimism. Nik Wallenda, like all athletes and peak performers, knows that staying positive is crucial to mastering a difficult task. One way to do this is to replace all problem-focused thought with solution-focused thinking. Another technique for staying optimistic—and fending off negative, sabotaging thoughts—is to acknowledge, every day, something you did well. Also, look for areas you can continually improve. Ask yourself, “What is one thing I can do differently to make this better?” When you answer that question instead of thinking about problems, you demonstrate your Mental Toughness.
Practice unwavering discipline. When you set your mind to do something, find a way to get it done, no matter what. Limit temptation that erodes your discipline. Overpractice being disciplined so that it will eventually get easy and feel natural. Nik Wallenda has a family legacy to uphold, and that keeps him disciplined, but you can create the same self-motivation by internalizing someone whom you admire, and keep him or her in your mind’s eye as your own personal mental coach to motivate you and keep you on track.