When I think of the word mental toughness, I think about Michael Jordan. Growing up, I was obsessed with Jordan, just like every other kid and adult who enjoyed sports.
I’m currently watching The Last Dance, a 10-part documentary series about Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls. The documentary is excellent, even if you’re not interested in basketball. It gives you an exclusive look inside the mind of one of the greatest athletes and competitors of all time.
Jordan is arguably the best basketball player in history. According to critics, Jordan is the best because he went to 6 NBA Finals and won every single time. In contrast, other legends like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, and Lebron James, have all lost championships.
Jordan never did. To many, he’s the embodiment of mental toughness. Nothing stopped him. One legendary story about Michael Jordan’s greatness is the “flu game.” In the 1997 NBA Finals, Jordan played a critical game with a stomach virus.
Anyone who’s had a stomach virus knows how shitty it feels. I had one last year, and it knocked me out for a week. But not Jordan. The man did not only show up at the game; he scored 38 points! Most healthy NBA players don’t have a single game with that many points.
The man’s journey has been full of setbacks, challenges, and factors that could distract any other person. Sure, Michael Jordan has unique talents. But he also has mental toughness.
What Is Mental Toughness?
The word mental toughness is a relatively new construct. It originates from professional sports. While it’s not clear who coined the term, by the early 2000s, it drew attention from the scientific community.
In 2002, Graham Jones, Sheldon Hanton, and Declan Connaughton published a paper in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, called “What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness?”1“This study addressed 2 fundamental issues surrounding mental toughness: How can it be defined? What are the essential attributes required to be a mentally tough performer?” They define mental toughness as follows:
“Having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to: generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer; specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.”
Put simply: Mental toughness is our ability to perform under pressure. In recent years, this concept received more attention because we’re steadily facing more pressure in all areas of our lives. People talk about having resilience, grit, perseverance, and so forth—but they all mean the same thing.
While some people pretend they invented this concept, it’s actually 2000 years old. You don’t need to read a book about mental toughness to develop it. Just try the following exercise that the Stoic emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius followed.
Mental Toughness Means Indifference To Indifferent Things
But first, let’s get back to Michael Jordan. So the word mental toughness comes from sports, and Jordan was the prime example of someone who performed under pressure. No matter what happened on or off the court, he did his job. The Last Dance documentary is a perfect demonstration of that.
But how can you and I, being mere mortals compared to Jordan, develop mental toughness? I don’t know about you, but I’d love to get some. Being able to perform under pressure is something we can all use—especially in this decade. We started 2020 with a pandemic, and the world is changing fast. Who knows how long we have to deal with the fallout? Mental toughness can help us to stay consistent.
When I was watching Michael Jordan talk in the documentary, I realized one thing: Mental toughness is exactly the same as a Stoic concept I read about, called “indifference to indifferent things.” Jordan’s words and actions reminded me of Marcus Aurelius, who wrote the following in his journal, also known as Meditations:
“To live one’s life in the best way: the power to do this resides within our soul, if we are capable of being indifferent to indifferent things.”
This idea is the first principle of Stoicism, as Pierre Hadot, a respected scholar, wrote in The Inner Citadel (a book about Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy for life):
“The principle of all Stoicism is, moreover, precisely indifference to indifferent things. This means, in the first place, that the only value is moral good.”
It comes down to this: Only worry about what matters to you. Everything else is noise. Simply shrug it off. When you’re dealing with emotions or situations that stand in the way of your highest aim in life, be indifferent to it.
For Marcus Aurelius, his highest aim was moral good, as preached by the Stoics. For Michael Jordan, it was winning championships. He was indifferent to everything else, and nothing could take away his focus.
How To Practice Indifference
I’ve been practicing Stoicism since 20152I also published a podcast series about my interpretations of Epictetus. Check that out if you want to learn more.. That’s when I started reading the classic stoic texts from Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca. All of them stress the importance of practicing. So what can you do if you want to become more mentally tough? Practice indifference in daily situations, like this:
- When something small happens that causes an inner disturbance, shrug it off
- Tell yourself: I’m indifferent to indifferent things
- Whatever happens, your goal is to fulfill your highest aim in life
- But avoid indifference to all things
- Take anything related to your highest aim dead serious
I’ll give you a few real-life situations and how I responded. Here’s how I practice this in my life:
- The other day, an expensive lens of my DSLR fell and broke—I’m Indifferent.
- A reader gave me constructive criticism on an article—I’m not indifferent.
- An internet troll left a nasty comment on an article—I’m indifferent
- My mother has a shoulder injury and doesn’t want to go to the hospital because of the risk of getting coronavirus—I’m not indifferent.
The practice is straight forward: Face something important? Give it your full attention. Is something not important? Move on. That’s the idea. But this only works if you know what’s important to you. In my experience, you can never become fully mentally tough if you have no aim or values in life.
That’s why having core values is so important. If you know who you are, it’s easy to live up to it. You focus on a few important things in life—the rest is noise.
Give this ancient method a try. That shouldn’t be difficult because we’re all facing challenges every single day. And we can use those challenges to practice indifference.
I can’t promise it will work instantly. But if you keep practicing, you should start noticing a positive effect on your mindset within a few weeks. When your behavior and actions become more consistent, you know you’re mentally tough.