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Extraordinary Mental Strength

Curious how an athlete competes? Mental strength can contribute to success.

"Dream no small dreams." - Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

 Used With Permission
Source: Dean Karnazes: Used With Permission

If you're watching the 2018 Olympics, you are witnessing dreams coming true. And chances are, wonder fills you as you watch your favorite athlete compete. You may even shake your head in disbelief at how they can withstand extreme conditions and still succeed. It goes without saying that these athletes are disciplined with their physical training, and it is not unusual for them to continue some form of training after suffering a serious injury. In addition to adhering to a strict physical regime, mental strength can also be the critical "x factor" in determining who even qualifies for the Olympics.

For this piece about athletes and mental strength, I could think of no better person to share their thoughts than ultra-marathon champion and bestselling author Dean Karnazes. For those of you unfamiliar with Karnazes, he is well-known within the ultramarathon community for running 350 continuous miles without sleeping for three nights. He also ran 50 marathons in 50 consecutive days, that is one marathon in each state. Karnazes also caught the attention of those outside of running circles. In 2006, Time magazine named Karnazes as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Determination, focus, and mental strength are three things that Karnazes integrates into his training, as well as races. In Greece, he ran a 153-mile race, recreating the epic run that inspired the world's largest footrace. Just qualifying for the Spartathlon in and of itself is an accomplishment. In The Road To Sparta, Karnazes writes, "Only the most elite athletes are eligible — yet no matter how many ultramarathons you'd previously completed, no matter how fit and experienced you were, the odds of finishing this race were no better than the odds of not finishing, perhaps worse."

Throughout this race, runners, including Karnazes, struggled with the grueling terrain. In The Road To Sparta, he writes, "Your muscles and micromuscles make calculated adjustments to help stabilize your body, whether you perceive these subtleties or not."

Stabilizing your brain's thoughts during any competition is just as critical. This is why mental strength can be so important to an athlete's performance. In my interview with Karnazes, he reflects back on the Spartahlon and says,"Your mind needs to be very acute."

Staying in the present moment is one of the key factors to success. Karnazes says in any type of competition, "I try to be in the present moment, in the here and the now."

For example, in running a marathon, if you're thinking about the next mile marker, then this is a sign you are not in the present moment. "Think about one step at a time. Take your next best step and don't let your mind wander, and this takes some training," advises Karnazes.

As far as physical and mental challenges are concerned, getting your ego out of the way clears your path to success. Karnazes offers, "You have to strip away the ego. We tend to be threatened by everything and then (in doing so) trying not confront our fears. When your ego is in the way, you don't process (challenges) as growth."

When it comes down to the overall training process, as well as competition day, one's belief is a golden thread to success. Karnazes adds, "You have to believe in yourself."