Embrace the Suck! The 4C’s of Mental Toughness

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Embrace the suck is advice used by the military when pushing through difficult situations. With the 4C's of mental toughness, you too can be mentally tough.

Embrace the Suck! Adapt and Grow

Today, individuals looking for success are bound to find hot takes on the internet and in the popular press, on how to be resilient, have grit, improve performance, and be mentally tough. In essence, what these terms and phrases have in common, is the willingness to preserve through difficult times and overcome adversity.

This, however, is often much easier said than done. Those looking for advice on how to push through difficult and adverse situations should think of taking on the perspective of the military. It definitely qualifies as a hot take, but more importantly, it gets to the point. Their advice is simply to embrace the suck!

What does embrace the suck mean? Basically, the “suck” is the point during a situation or task, in which you want to give up and quit. It’s when your body becomes weak, your will becomes depleted, and the only thing you want to do is concede and throw in the towel.

This is an experience that athletes and exercises are all too familiar with, however, it is also a state that executives, physicians, performing artists, and students experience from time to time. It’s when you feel as though there is nothing more you can do. You’ve reached your limit. Your physical and mental energy has been zapped and your metaphorical “gas tank” is running on empty.

The easiest thing to do in a situation like this is to give up. However, to do so, would be a mistake, because by quitting and giving in to the adversity, you’d be missing out on an opportunity for growth.

Personal growth rarely happens when we are comfortable. Instead, physical and mental growth tends to occur when we are “uncomfortable”. It is this uncomfortable feeling that can push us to new heights and performance accomplishments.

“These (FOUR) components form the foundation of mental toughness and include one’s degree of control, perception of challenge, willingness to commit, and feelings of confidence.

This is why the military encourages its soldiers to “embrace the suck”, and get used to being “uncomfortable”.

By acknowledging that you are uncomfortable, tired, fatigued, or even miserable, you can allow yourself to focus your attention on adapting to the situation and growing as a person. Your physical abilities and mental strength will be tested by embracing the suck, and suck (i.e., the process) it probably will. However, you will be providing yourself with the knowledge that you can achieve much more than you thought you were capable of.

This is what overcoming adversity really is all about, and this is what most people mean when they refer to being “mentally tough”.

What is Mental Toughness?

There are many ways to conceptualize mental toughness. One way to think of it, is a state in which you are more consistent and determined, as well as more focused, confident and in control of yourself, while in the midst of experiencing a pressure-packed or stressful situation (Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, 2002).

Some of the common themes regarding the idea of mental toughness include being committed, self-motivated, having an ability to cope effectively and maintain concentration in stressful situations, being persistent in difficult times, and maintaining a high degree of confidence, especially during or after setbacks or failure (Crest & Clough, 2011). Generally speaking, a mentally tough person is one who possesses the ability to negate the negative effects of stress and remain relatively unfazed by it.

Although such descriptions of mental toughness can be helpful in better understanding exactly what it is, they don’t actually provide individuals with any concrete tips or strategies to help develop or facilitate a process of becoming “mentally tough”.

Luckily, a group of sport psychology researchers (Clough, Earle, & Sewell, 2002) have simplified the process for us, by identifying four specific components of mental toughness. These components form the foundation of mental toughness and include one’s degree of control, perception of challenge, willingness to commit, and feelings of confidence. Colloquially, they are referred to as the 4C’s of Mental Toughness.

Developing the 4Cs of Mental Toughness

Control

Being able to process multiple things at once and remain calm and under control, is a vital aspect of not only being able to “embrace the suck”, but also of gaining the ability to become “comfortable being uncomfortable”.

Distractions are everywhere when you are trying to perform, execute or compete. These could be physical distractions, such as discomfort, fatigue, or increased arousal, or psychological ones such as thinking of the past/future, ruminating over previous mistakes, or over-analyzing the situation.

Regardless of the type, these distractions can make you feel uncomfortable and take away your attentional focus from the task or situation at hand, resulting in either a performance decrement or perhaps a willingness to quit and just move on.

One strategy that can help you to regain control, and begin the process of becoming comfortable, is to be mindful of, and more deliberate with, your breathing. Breathing is an essential aspect of life, yet also very important in regards to performance. It can regulate your arousal level, give you something to focus on, activate your recovery process, and more importantly, give you a sense of control within the moment.

“Personal growth rarely happens when we are comfortable.”

There are many different ways to engage in deliberate breathing, however, one that seems to be effective, as well as easy to use, is ratio breathing. Maintaining an even ratio of inhaling through your nose and exhaling out of your mouth, tends to be optimal.

If you know that you are about to face an adverse or challenging situation, try a 5:5 ratio breathe to prepare yourself for action. Begin about 1-3 minutes prior to entering the situation and focus just on your breathing. If you are in the middle of an adverse situation, you will most likely need to adapt your ratio. Choose something that is right for you. It could be 1:1, 2:2, or 3:3, depending on what your current situation is and whatever feels best for you.

This type of breathing can help you to focus attention and to distract you from things such as discomfort or fatigue, or worrisome or negative thoughts. Once you’ve resolved the situation, take another 1-3 minutes and begin your recovery process by engaging in more deliberate breathing.

Challenge

Creating a positive outlook and mindset for personal growth is an often overlooked aspect of mental toughness. If you approach a situation with a pessimistic attitude or begin to think that the situation is an impossible or insurmountable one, then your actions in regards to that situation will soon reflect these beliefs.

Instead, try and take a more optimistic and proactive approach. Attempt to view each aspect of the situation as something that is “doable” and within your reach.

A challenge is something that can be overcome and completed. Thus, envision how each aspect of your current situation can help you “grow” and “improve”, both in terms of your performance and your personal abilities. This type of attitude will help you to follow through and execute with effort and intensity, as well as increase your capability of being resilient in times of adversity.

“Personal growth rarely happens when we are comfortable.”

One way to achieve this type of attitude is to practice in new and novel ways. By increasing your familiarity and comfort level with change, you will be more likely to view new or unusual situations not as threats or with uncertainty, but instead as obstacles and hurdles that can be successfully overcome.

Individuals who are mentally tough, are those who are mindful that failure does not define who they are. Rather they understand that it provides them with valuable information regarding the areas in which they need to grow and improve. Try identifying at least one way in which you can challenge yourself in every situation you encounter. To do so, will increase your comfort level in these types of situations and help you to “embrace the suck”.

Commitment

Another way in which individuals develop and maintain mental toughness is by making sure that everything they do counts! Whether it is a routine, everyday occurrence or a new, exciting situation, you want to make sure that you are attempting to be deliberate and purposeful with your actions.

Being mentally tough means being so involved with whatever it is that you are doing, that you attempt to resolve each situation, regardless of how challenging or uncomfortable it is.

One way to be committed is by using goal-setting. Identify at least one specific goal that you want to accomplish within each and everything that you do. This can be a process goal (just going out and doing something, anything regardless of how well you do it), a performance goal (setting a level of achievement that you wish to meet) or an outcome goal (finishing a task, winning).

Setting goals help to focus your attention and can help keep your mind off of distractions. Process goals, in particular, are goals that are directly within your control, and goals that you can use to help you stay the course during trying or adverse situations.

Keep in mind that you can set multiple goals and those goals can, and often should be modified. Those who are mentally tough, are committed to taking advantage of every opportunity to improve and get better; Make everything you do count!

Embrace the suck is advice used by the military when pushing through difficult situations. With the 4C's of mental toughness, you too can be mentally tough.

Confidence

Confidence is the ability to maintain your belief in yourself, despite setbacks, mistakes, and failure. It is a belief in yourself that you possess the ability to be successful and overcome adversity. It is also one of the most important components of mental toughness.

There are several ways to develop and increase confidence. One of the most useful ways is by taking control of your self-talk or inner dialogue that you have with yourself. Be aware that everyone talks to him or herself. However, the manner in which you do can have either positive or negative effects on your performance and ability to overcome adversity.

Become more aware of what you are saying to yourself, and make every attempt to use your self-talk to direct you towards the outcome(s) that you want. If you want to keep going and finish a task, then tell yourself that. If you want to dig deep down and find some inner strength, then remind yourself that you do have that energy and will to overcome within yourself. Tell yourself that “You can do it!”

Sometimes, it can be helpful to create a personal slogan or affirmative, action-oriented statement to tell yourself in times of adversity. It is important that your slogan or statement is based on “evidence”, meaning that there is a concrete reason for believing in the words that you are saying to yourself.

“No one is born “mentally tough”. To believe so is denying yourself of the ability to develop and grow as a person.”

Without the “evidence” the words will lack meaning and effectiveness. Once you have created your slogan, use it by telling it to yourself; this can be throughout the day, just prior to engaging in a task, or during a challenging situation. The important thing is that it is rooted in your own past success and that you frame it in a positive, action-oriented way.

Another way to develop or maintain confidence is to refer to your own past memories of success (getting through a tough time, overcoming adversity, winning) for your “evidence”. Tap into your own personal “highlight reel” and use mental imagery to either recreate a past memory of success or create a new mental image of success to boost your confidence.

When engaging in imagery, be mindful to use all of your senses (sight, sounds, smells, touch, taste) and to create vivid, realistic images of what you want to see happen. Doing so will help your mind actually believe you are experiencing it and can help you to actually achieve the success you’ve “seen”.

Putting it All Together!

No one is born “mentally tough”. To believe so is denying yourself of the ability to develop and grow as a person. Everyone has the capability to develop a degree of mental toughness. Often, this process begins with a willingness to “embrace the suck” and “get comfortable being uncomfortable”.

If you desire to be more mentally tough, then start by developing your 4Cs. Before each and every opportunity you have, whether you are trying something new or returning to a routine, become aware of how you can take these components of mental toughness and integrate them into your process.

Over time and with practice, the 4Cs will become automatic and habitual. You will increase your perception of control over yourself and your situation, approach situations with an eye for challenges and opportunities for growth, develop a stick-to-it mentality and focus on being committed, and maintain your confidence in yourself and your abilities. If you can learn to “embrace the suck” and develop your mental toughness, you’ll put yourself in a great position to achieve success!

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Dr. Patrick Young
Dr. Patrick Young is a certified consult within the Association of Applied Sport Psychology (CC-AASP), and specializes in providing individuals with the psychological tools necessary to reach their full potential. He is an expert in sport, exercise, and performance psychology and has consulted with NCAA Division I and II athletes, junior college athletes, and amateur athletes of all ages. In addition to athletes, Dr. Young consults with students, business executives, and individuals within the performing arts. Dr. Young is also a Professor of Psychology at Wingate University, where he teaches Sport and Exercise Psychology, Performance Psychology and Health Psychology, and has authored several articles within peer-reviewed journals and regularly contributes sport and performance based articles on Shrinktank.com.

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