Mind-set key to performance – and to life

Learning to tolerate stress critical to success
October 12, 2017

I’ve worked for the past 20 years as a coach and personal trainer. In that time, I've obtained a master's degree in exercise science and human performance. However, I find one of the most valuable educational experiences I use, nearly every day, came from psychology classes I took while working on my bachelor's degree in coaching at the University of Delaware.

Every athlete has a different mental capacity to take into consideration when training or competing. I'm not referring to an individual's IQ, but rather the ability to deal with discomfort while performing a task or activity. Some individuals have a natural ability to excel under stress. For most people, however, this ability is foreign and needs to be cultivated over an extended period of time to see any type of improvements.

As a coach, I try to get my athletes to perform to the best of their physical and mental ability on race day. The mental side of that is getting each athlete to be able to deal with the discomfort of stress. New athletes or individuals with a low mental-stress capacity may need constant encouragement by an outside source to push themselves (music/group/coach) to get through a workout. The better an athlete gets at managing mental stress and discomfort, the more they will be able to create their own encouragement or inspiration,  no music or outside praise needed. There is often a direct correlation between an athlete's optimal performance level and their mental-stress capacity.

A great example of the importance of an individual's ability to perform under stress outside of athletics can be found with the Navy SEALs. BUDS/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal) training is a six-month program where every recruit is pushed to the breaking point physically and mentally. The individuals who are able to make it through this program become part of our nation's most elite special forces; they handle the most dangerous and demanding operations.

During BUDS/S training, instructors are looking for many attributes from potential recruits; leadership, teamwork and strength are all characteristics we think about with the Navy SEALs. However the one thing every SEAL must have is the ability to perform a task under discomfort or stress. 

If recruits have a low mental capacity for stress, they will be quickly weeded out of the program, while individuals who are seen to have the ability to deal with physical, mental or emotional stress have a better opportunity to get through the program. 

Individuals who have a low mental-stress capacity will always underperform, and as a result put themselves and the team at a disadvantage. In their line of work, that could be the difference between life or death. Even after an individual becomes a Navy SEAL, they constantly work on pushing their limits in order to handle whatever is thrown at them in any operation.

Lucky for us as athletes, our performance level does not determine our survival. It does, however, determine how successful we can be in many aspects of our lives, not just athletics. If individuals shut down because they are unable to handle physical discomfort during exercise, they are more likely to shut down during any type of mental or emotional stress as well – and that can make working or personal relationships a challenge. Individuals who are able to improve their capacity for dealing with physical discomfort are normally better equipped to cope with mental or emotional stress as well.

Let me clarify that stress and discomfort are oftentimes the same. Physical discomfort is a result of stress to the body, and mental/emotional stress will result in physical discomfort. In my next article, I will discuss some techniques that can be used by athletes and individuals to better cope with stress.

  • Kevin started Tricoach in 2007 after racing professionally for eight years. An endurance coach and personal trainer with a master's degree in exercise science and coaching, Kevin works with athletes of all ability levels, novice to professional. Contact Kevin at