Mental agility: A key ingredient for mental toughness

Change is tough. When you have a concrete plan, or even a rough idea of how something should unfold, you may perceive obstacles as a threat - and buckle under the pressure.

One characteristic of a mentally tough person is their ability to recognize challenges as neutral, make the necessary adjustments in a timely manner, and get back in the game. Instead of letting the stress consume them, they demonstrate resilience - leaning into the change, making shifts, and moving on.

So, how do you do that?

Like with any mental skill, practice is key. Practice building mental agility, or the ability to compensate and adjust. Note: I said “building”. I’m a firm believer that while a certain amount of resilience is inherent, the vast majority of it can be built over time.

On a micro level, develop the ability to be mentally flexible from moment to moment. You accept challenges as they come, make the necessary adjustments, and then refocus without losing too much time. The goal is to maintain the momentum of forward progress.

For a triathlete faced with a flat tire in a race, this may mean dealing with the immediate frustration (a deep breath always helps), changing the flat tire quickly, and getting back on the bike - letting go of that frustrating moment and refocusing on their cadence and power.

For an executive faced with a crisis situation, this may mean pausing momentarily to establish a level head, delegating as necessary, and then letting the situation go, so they can refocus on their main objectives for the day.

On a macro level, practice seeing change as different, instead of either good or bad, and then control the controllables (and nothing else). This is the key to building resilience.

For a basketball player with an ankle injury, they may be benched for 8+ weeks. Instead of being consumed by frustration, the mentally tough athlete manages the elements within their control (e.g. adhering to physical therapy, practicing imagery) and continues making forward progress, perhaps even recognizing that this injury allowed them to develop strength in other areas of their game or their body.

S*!# happens, but a mentally tough person doesn’t waste time or cognitive real estate reeling from every stressor. They create space for their emotions, recognize what needs to be done, make the necessary changes quickly, and keep moving forward.

As you apply this to your own life, pay attention to your response to stressful stimuli. When challenges arise, either big or small, are you able to make the necessary adjustments and get back on track toward your goal? Or, is the heightened stress overwhelming, causing you to stall any forward progression?