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Mental Discipline: The Hardest Part is Making a Choice

March 4, 2012

A lot of my friends, especially the non-athletic ones, tell me how dedicated I am, how they cannot imagine the kind of discipline required to train for an Ironman. They see the hours I put into training, the snacks, drinks, and desserts I regularly forego at social gatherings, the time and money and inconvenience of shopping and cooking meals at home and to take with to school, and they honestly sometimes can’t understand it. Don’t I feel tempted to just try that cake? Is one bite really going to kill me? Don’t I have other things to do with my time? Am I ever tired and worn out?

And when friends tell me how much discipline I have, there’s almost always an implicit “and I can never imagine myself having enough discipline to do that.” But I don’t feel like I have any extraordinary amount of discipline. I struggle with these things myself. Sure, I love working out. But there are days where my body is sore and I’m tired, and all day I find myself trying to make excuses to skip my workout that night. There are mornings when my alarm goes off for a morning workout, and I’d much rather roll over and go back to bed. There are days that my muscles are still sore and aching from previous workouts, and I don’t know how I’m going to finish the next workout. There are plenty of days when I go into crossfit thinking about how much the workout is going to hurt, or worried about whether I can even do the movements required.

Maybe I’m lucky that I don’t have as much of a sweet tooth as a lot of people, but I’m not immune to temptation on my diet. There are times when I would really like to go home, sit in front of the TV, and have a couple beers with a big plate of pasta. There are times when I would like to be able to just pour a bowl of cereal for breakfast, and get out the door quicker. There are times when I’m busy and don’t want to make it to the grocery store, that I wish I could rely more on pasta and bread, which are easier than fresh produce to stock up on. And I might not seek out sweets, but I’ll admit, when they are put in front of me, I’m sometimes tempted by them too. Even if I know I will not derive a lot of satisfaction from them, I might still be looking at them wishing I could have them, knowing full well I would regret it if I did. Especially when I’m eating out with friends, it can be difficult. I find myself trying to rationalize why I could cheat, just a little.

And sure, I know why most of my friends say I have so much discipline. They read that list and say “but you still very rarely cheat.” And mental discipline comes to mean denying yourself things you want. So I have mental discipline because I deny myself foods that taste good and leisure time. But to me, I don’t see myself as denying myself things I want. I feel like I’ve made a choice between two things I do want, I’ve decided what I want more. And I also see that I’m not perfect. I know I struggle with my goals all the time. I might stay very close to them, but I’m not perfect.

I read this blog post the other day talking about what it means to be mentally tough.This blog post really captured, for me, a lot of what it means to be mentally tough, to have the mental discipline to persevere. The post said that the hardest part of mental toughness is making a choice about what you want to do. And that rings so true to me. Now, making a choice in this sense has to be much more than just deciding “Oh, I like that goal.” Making a choice, in this sense, is more involved than saying “I want to be healthy,” “I want to run this race,” “I want to lose weight.” Making a choice means really thinking carefully about what our goals are, really thinking about what it means to pursue those goals, thinking about ALL of the tradeoffs, the costs, the sacrifices. And with all of that in mind, choosing what goals we want to pursue. The only wrong choices at this stage are choosing goals that we are not willing to do what we have to do to complete.

As I’ve blogged about previously, when I finished college, I took a couple years off from competitive rowing. I still very much wanted to be a rower. I still used the ergs at the gym, and still would have loved to be out competing. But at that point, I wasn’t willing to commit to the long hours of training. And if I couldn’t commit 100%, I wasn’t going to do it at all. There are some recreational rowing teams, and for people that want that environment and have a recreational team, committing to work out 3 or 4 times a week might be fine. But even if I found a recreation team, it wasn’t what I wanted. If I was going to row, I wanted to row competitively. So I only chose to return to rowing when I was ready to commit to everything the training required.

I’ve blogged before (here and here) about my choice to pursue the Ironman. (I still have to write the promised third post in that series — I’ll get to that.) From the time I first thought about an Ironman, it was well over a year before I decided to register for one. It was a very long process of choosing to pursue the Ironman goal. It required being very honest with myself: can I commit to training for a year? are the costs of the equipment, training, and competition worth it? what else would I spend the money on? can I follow the right diet for a year? I had to really choose the goal. I had to really decide that yes, this is what I want to do.

But now it’s so much easier to face those daily obstacles. I’m not depriving myself. I’m choosing to pursue the goal I’ve set out. Everything else flows from that. I know that pursuing my Ironman goal is going to make me happiest in the long run. But I don’t have any special mental toughness that makes this easier for me than for anyone else. I have my own mental doubts, my own struggles, my own burdens to face. The key to my “mental discipline” was taking the time to really choose what my goals are. And everything else falls into place from that.

259 days till Ironman Arizona.


From → life, motivation

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