Klessinger: Understanding toughness will help you reach your goals

Updated: February 22, 2023

Photo: Coach John Klessinger, like most coaches, reaches out to get the best from his South River High School team in Maryland.

By John Klessinger

There is a legend or folklore about a Spanish explorer named Hernan Cortes. In the story, Cortes orders his crew to burn all the boats when hitting shore before attempting to conquer the Aztec Empire. The point was simple. It was a psychological tool for inspiring commitment and urgency in his men. If there were no boats, they had to win or die. 

Life is not as dramatic as the legend. Few circumstances in life require such a conviction. If we do not give our best, the consequence is little. At least on the surface, that is. The real result of giving anything less than your best is dealing with the beast within. A strong analogy I know of our psyche. But, our minds can be our greatest ally or most significant foe if it goes untamed.

Wrestling is such a mental battle. It is often an oversight that it has so much importance compared to physical gifts and athleticism. But ask any wrestler who has invested years of time and pain and they will probably say physical challenges pale compared to mental difficulties. 

It is a feeling we have inside about the performance. The match. A career. You feel contentment. A certain level of peace in what you did. That is if you gave all you had. People can live with disappointment when they don’t leave any stone unturned. 

However, when there is a knowing that “if I only did this” or “I should’ve, could’ve, would’ve,” that is when there is a gnawing sensation in the background. That is much tougher than any workout or physical challenge. The voice in your head that relentlessly reminds you you left some things on the table. 

To some, even this is dramatic, leading to thoughts like: “Wrestling is supposed to be fun,” or “It teaches young men and women to be the best version of themselves.” 

No debate here on those points. We all know, though, if you put the time, effort, and commitment into anything, there are high stakes involved. Mainly, the stakes are how you will feel about yourself when it ends. That is really why we want anything. A championship, career, family, money, anything. It is the feeling inside we have when we get something we want. Whether that feeling is love, satisfaction, or pride, we strive for things because of what it does to us inside. Not outside.

Congratulatory cheers and admiration invoke an emotion that people enjoy. Not for all but many. Money allows you to buy things that ultimately will fulfill a want that burns within you. In other words, everything we do is motivated by how we will feel before, during, and afterward. It is not the medal, social media following, or car that does it. It is the feelings we get that we are after. 

This gets me to the message of this column. Most things in life are a result of toughness. So, whether we call it mental toughness, physical toughness or anything else, it comes down to what we are willing to do to attain that feeling. 

First, I want to break down the idea of toughness. Then I provide steps to get tougher. Lastly, I impress on you the need to make a commitment. “Burn your boats.” Ensure that regardless of the circumstance, you will stay committed. Then, and only then, you will have the emotions you desire. Without commitment, even if you get what you want, the feelings will not last. Nothing without struggle, sacrifice, and hard work usually brings you lasting contentment. 

What is Toughness?

First, let’s break down everything that defines being tough. Toughness comprises four parts: dealing with adversity, mental toughness, physical toughness and mindset.

Adversity is something difficult that causes physical and mental pressure. It is relative. What is difficult for you may not be for someone else. 

Mental toughness is the ability to keep going when adversity is present. Keep going. It is still wrestling hard if you lose or have a tough opponent. It is fighting even though you have physical pain. 

It is also taking risks and being aggressive even when you are afraid. As they say, bravery isn’t action without fear. Bravery is action despite being afraid. A big difference. 

Mindset is what you say to yourself when you have adversity. Do you make excuses? My opponent is strong. I am tired from the weekend. My knee hurts. I am losing weight. I have only wrestled for two years. The ref could be better. My opponent stalled. I don’t have a ride. 

Physical toughness measures how your body can endure the pain caused by fatigue and adverse conditions.

Use these steps to help you develop toughness.

Step #1: Your inner dialogue is a habit. It has been engrained since you were a small child (3-5 years old). It is not that you lack confidence or mental toughness. It is that you are conditioned to avoid challenges and adversity. Who is to blame (if anyone)? Your parents, society, schools, etc. Everyone wants you to be OK and have protected you from dealing with difficult situations. Now, you must change that to be tougher on the mat and in every area of your life. 

Step #2: If you want to get stronger, you must first be consistent in your training and second, you must keep adding weight or increasing the demands you place on the body. That explains why some people are tough and others are not. Those who are tough have been exposed more than you to challenging physical or mental situations. 

So, you need to start staring fear in the face and do things that are “hard” for you. The more you do that, the tougher (physically and/or mentally) you become. Fear is an acronym that stands for “FALSE EVIDENCE APPEARING REAL.” There are only a few legitimate fears in life. A near-car accident. An animal is attacking you. Not a wrestling match or test.

Step #3: What will you do each day to develop toughness? Have an ongoing mantra in your head? “I am relentless and aggressive.” Will you start to challenge yourself physically by doing extra each day after practice? Physical and mental toughness go hand in hand and affect toughness. Will you take cold showers each day for at least 30 seconds? Will you set aside 10 minutes a day to work on your mindset? Will you commit to no longer making excuses and avoiding difficult things? 

It is simple and hard to get tougher. It is simple because all it takes is regularly doing things that cause you fear. It is hard because it requires you to consistently do uncomfortable things. 

Over time, you will develop resilience to what you are afraid of and have been conditioned to. You may not call it fear. It could be pain. Embarrassment. Lack of self-belief. It is all the same. You are afraid of facing those emotions, so you avoid them by not taking risks, giving up, or making excuses. 

What commitment can you make to yourself today? This is far from making a difference only in wrestling. COVID has hurt our younger generation. I mean it and see it every day. It has caused entitlement (expecting something without earning it), laziness (someone else will do it for me), and lack of accountability (a learned behavior that it is not your fault if things don’t go well.)

It is not your fault if you are not mentally or physically tough, run from adversity, or have a poor mindset. However, it is NOW your responsibility to change it. 

(John Klessinger is a teacher and wrestling coach at South River High School in Maryland. You can follow him on Instagram @coachkless and like his Facebook page “Coach Kless”.)