Ever ran a marathon or hiked up Mount Kinabalu? Or perhaps slaved away on a treadmill? If you’ve done physical activity of any sort, you’ll realise that the toughest part is not your limbs giving out, but rather your mind giving in. How often do you find yourself wanting to stop doing that push-up, or swimming that lap just because you feel like you can’t do it anymore?
Mental toughness is a prerequisite to success, be it in sports, in your career, or even in romantic relationships. While many people throw in the towel prematurely, the greatest sportspeople have found the secret to steeling their minds against difficult challenges. Through perseverance and hard work, they have managed to make it to the top.
Whatever your goal is — to lose weight, to eat healthier, to master the guitar — you need perseverance. But how do you cultivate it? We talked to pride and joy of Malaysia, and world no.1 squash player Datuk Nicol David to see what mental toughness is to her.
1. Share with us a typical day in your life.
I usually wake up between 8-8:30am to start my training sessions at 10am or 11am. I train two sessions a day between 2-4 hours a day, 6 days a week. Both training sessions are either a squash session or a physical session (physical session consists of gym, circuit training, track work, sprints, cardio and endurance runs) depending on my programme.
Breakfast would be around 8:30-9am, lunch right after my first training session around 12:30-1pm and dinner quite early around 6-6:30pm. Breakfast mostly revolves around cereal or some toast, for lunch I’ll have a variety of different sandwiches and for dinner I’ll have a big meal that goes according to the workload I’ve done.
If I have done some weights then more fish, chicken or meat dishes, and if it had been an endurance/physical squash session then I’ll have more pastas/rice or noodles to replace my energy with veggies in between. I have a nutritionist to guide me on pre and post meals during training/competitions just to replace enough energy after my workouts and eat the right foods to prep me for training/competition.
2. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done physically, that truly tested you mentally?
The hardest thing is to be down in a competition match and finding something more inside to keep believing that I can push through till the very end even when my body is hurting to get back on the winning end. However, it’s the most satisfying feeling when I can overcome that.
3. How did you overcome it?
At a young age I was fortunate to be given an opportunity to work with the National Team that provides mental trainers to guide our athletes on how to prepare mentally with visualisation and goal settings. Since then I have put this into practice and also brought in a sports psychologist, Frank Cabooter for the last 4-5 years to really customize methods to gather my focus on another level. It takes a lot of practice during training to get that sense of belief that it works and then applying it in competition. Certainly not easy but I like the challenge.
4. Sometimes, losing a match can demotivate you into performing less during your next match. How do you overcome the “mind-over-matter” issue and focus all your attention at playing your best game?
In squash it’s a knock-out system so players won’t necessarily get to experience playing straight after a loss. However, after losing a tournament it does take a toll in some way. At the moment the more time I have been in competition, the better I become at handling my losses with the help of my coach, Liz Irving and sports psychologist. We usually go through what went wrong and be ready to move forward for the next competition.
5. What was the lowest point in your career, and how did you overcome that?
It was in 2002 when I lost the Asian Games gold medal. That was tough especially when I won the gold 4 years before that. I took some time away from squash and made one of the best moves for my career to move to Amsterdam to work with my coach, Liz. It was the turning point of my squash career and Liz is still coaching me now after 11 and half years. She has been a true mentor to me in every sense and her experience translates in the way she coaches. I’m still learning a lot from her and she amazes me every time we work together.
6. Do you believe we’re stronger than we think we are?
Of course we are! The only thing that stops us from moving forward is ourselves if we don’t fully understand our capabilities.
7. How do you think we can unleash our best self?
We have to give ourselves a chance to try new things, explore various talents that we have and see how it goes for us. I strongly believe that everyone has a gift and we should find out what that is and make the most out of it. The moment something seems right and works naturally then take it forward for yourself. I’m passionate with squash and I know I can still improve to reach my full potential. I have a great team around me with my coach, physiotherapists, psychologist and the sports science expertise from the Sports Council of Malaysia that works together to keep me at my best shape mentally and physically in competitions.
8. How do you think we can train ourselves to be mentally tough and focus only on doing our best instead of giving in to the pain / negative thoughts etc?
I encourage more people to write down some goals for themselves to work towards. Everybody should have something to strive for in their lives. Then they can picture themselves or visualize doing the things in a positive way by seeing themselves achieving it whether it is in training, competing, at work or anything that they feel they would like to improve on. This takes practice and it’s a lot of hard work, belief and patience to achieve their ultimate goal.
9. Mental toughness is…
…self-belief in one’s capability to take on a challenge.