In the 1988 Winter Olympics, American speed skater and World Sprint Champion, Dan Jansen was the favourite to win the 500 and 1000-metre races.

3 hours before the 500-meter Olympic race, Jansen was informed that his sister had died from Leukemia.

Despite this, Jansen still lined up to compete in both events. But, within the first turn of the 500-meter race, he slipped up and missed out on winning a medal.

Four days later, Jansen would get another shot at winning the Olympic gold medal at the 1000-meter race.

After 600 meters of the race, Jansen had the fastest time of all the skaters—with one more lap left to win the Olympic gold medal.

In the 800-meter mark, with 200-meters left to win, Jansen slipped and fell again—leaving the Olympics without a medal.

Mental Toughness In The Face of Adversity

Four years later, at the 1992 Winter Olympics, Dan Jansen was again the favourite to win both events.

Once again, he missed out on medals, finishing fourth in the 500 meter race and 26th in the 1,000 meter race.

When the 1994 Winter Olympics began, the world was skeptical of Jansens’ mental toughness and ability to win—due to his previous failures.

The ageing Olympian was also well aware that this was his last chance to win a medal.

During the 500-meter race, whilst approaching a tight turn, Jansens’ left skate slipped and slowed him down. History repeated itself again as he finishes 8th and missed out on a medal.

His last chance ever to win an Olympic medal was now the 1000-meter race.

During this race, like the 1988 Olympics, Jansen held the lead with the fastest skating time at the 600-meter mark.

As he approached an identical tight turn, Jansen slipped again. But, this time he didn’t stop and continued to skate.

After crossing the finish line, Jansen looked up to see his results—he anticipates failure and disappointment again. To his surprise, he had defied all the odds and silenced the critics.

Jansen shattered the world record and finally won the Olympic gold medal.

Jansen victory

The Mental Toughness of a Champion

“I’ve missed over 9,000 shots in my career.

I’ve lost almost 300 games.

26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed.

I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.

And that is why I succeed.”

—Michael Jordan

At first glance, it’s easy to attribute Jansens’ success to luck, talent and hard work. But, if you look closer, you’ll notice there was something different in his winning race.

In the face of adversity from his past failures and the deja vu moments of slipping in the final turn, most people would have given up hope. But, Jansen did something different this time.

He used his mental strength—grit, mental toughness and perseverance—to help him overcome adversity and succeed.

Jansen had intentionally developed his mental toughness over the previous years leading up to this Olympic race.

In fact, 3 years before his victory, Jansen had sought the help of Dr. Jim Loehr, world-renowned performance psychologist, for this reason.

According to Dr. Loehr,

“Mental toughness is the ability to bring to life whatever talent and skills you have — on demand.”

Over these years leading up to the Olympics, Loehr worked with Jansen to help him let go of the baggage from his past failures and refocus on his goals.

After Jansens’ failure in the 1994 Winter Olympics 500-meter race, Loehr told Jansen not to give interviews before the final 1,000 meter race. In his words…

“I wanted him in this last race to love the 1,000 and for it to love him….He had to postpone that grieving…If he had talked about (his disappointment), it would have taken him into a very dark place inside himself . . . He would also lose the 1,000.”

By training Jansen to develop his mental strength and let go of his pain from previous defeats, Loehr helped Janson uncover the missing link holding him back from success—mental toughness.

How to Develop Your Mental Toughness

Even if you’re not an athlete, mental toughness will help you to overcome adversity and successfully follow through on anything you set out to do—in your education, work, health and life.

Here are a 3 simple strategies that will help you do this…

1. Build positive mental habits that improve your mental toughness

“Men are disturbed not by things, but the view they take of them.” 

— Epictetus

In the same way that you would replace your bad eating habits with good ones to become physically healthy—you would also have to replace bad mental habits with good ones for mental toughness.

Bad mental habits that hurt your mental toughness include the following:

  • Jealousy over someone else’s success
  • Complaining and feeling sorry for yourself
  • Dwelling on past failures and struggles
  • Blaming others for your problems
  • Trying to control everything
  • Feeling like the world owes you something

Good mental habits that help you develop your mental toughness include:

  • Practicing gratitude
  • Reframing failure as an opportunity to grow and learn more
  • Accepting responsibility for your life
  • Maintaining integrity
  • Delaying immediate gratification
  • Making peace with your past

These are some of the mental habits that mentally tough people do that others don’t.

2. Push yourself beyond your normal limits

Initially, Jansen despised the 1,000-meter race because it was difficult for him. But, this would eventually become his Olympic winning event.

Developing your mental toughness is like building your muscles. You need to consistently push yourself to grow and improve.

The Navy SEALs have a 40% rule which they use to persevere through the moments when they want to give up. [2]

Jesse Itzler, Marquis Jet founder, first discovered this during a conversation with a Navy SEAL. He noted that…

“He would say that when your mind is telling you you’re done, you’re really only 40 percent done. And he had a motto: If it doesn’t suck, we don’t do it. And that was his way of every day forcing us to get uncomfortable to figure out what our baseline was and what our comfort level was and just turning it upside down. We all have that will. It’s just a matter of how we apply it not just to the once-a-year marathon, but to a variety of things in our daily lives.”

Pushing yourself beyond your usual limits is a matter of the mind. But, you don’t have to put yourself through hell to develop mental toughness.

Instead, focus on making small decisions every day that push you outside your comfort zone. And remember this the next time you think you’re done—you’ve still got 60 percent left.

3. Schedule Regular Recovery Time

In his book, The Power of Full Engagement, Dr.Loehr suggests that one of the secrets to developing mental toughness is recovery.

Loehr highlights several scenarios working with top athletes where he discovered that increasing their volume of recovery helped them deal with stressful situations and improve their performance.

Take a look at your life to see if you notice a pattern between your levels of recovery and mental toughness—you should see a positive relationship.

The less time spent away from work, sleeping and rest, the weaker your mental strength will be—and vice versa.

The best way to develop your mental toughness is to push yourself to the limit, stop, recover and then try again.

Losing Is For Winners

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.

—Thomas Edison

Mentally strong people aren’t superhuman. They’ve simply developed positive mental habits that support their mental toughness.

They have a self-identity that supports their goals, a consistent routine and effective strategies to get back on track when they slip-up.

They don’t let failure and adversity stop them from taking steps forward. Instead, they let go of the past, learn from their mistakes and use these to improve themselves.

Mental toughness is an acceptance that life isn’t always fair.

It is an acceptance that the world doesn’t owe you anything.

It is an acceptance that…

“Winners never quit, and quitters never win.”


Footnotes

1. Credit to Christine Brennan and Sandra Evans, who originally covered the story of Jansen, including the comments from Dr.Loehr.

2. The 40% rule originally came from the Jesse Itzers’ story on Big Think.

3. Image Credit.

4. End quote by Vince Lombardi

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