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Mental Toughness with Justin Su’a

Yesterday I was very lucky to be able to speak with Justin Su’a on the phone. Justin Su’a is a mental performance and leadership coach for the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Browns. Justin also produces a weekday podcast called INCREASE YOUR IMPACT – for me one of the best podcasts around. Each day Justin discusses a different topic or drops knowledge bombs giving you focus and something to think about for the up coming day. Justin’s podcast has become part of my morning ritual.

Alongside working with sports teams and individuals Justin travels around the world giving talks, helping people and organisations to cultivate mental toughness and build a workplace of excellence. Justin has also written various books and is known as a leading expert in his area of mental performance and leadership.

I asked Justin if he would be able to take a little time out of his busy schedule to chat with me as I have begun to realise just how important mindset and being happy within your own mind/head is and how much this is overlooked by a lot of athletes/people. Mindfulness and being mentally strong relates not just to when you are training or competing but also in your everyday life.

From speaking to Justin, I was able to learn a great deal and to think about my mental game and strength in a very different way. I could write a massive blog around everything we discussed but here are the best bits. I hope you can enjoy and learn as much as I did

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What makes a mentally strong athlete/person? 

I think the same components and principles that make someone physically tough also make them mentally tough. For example, strength and conditioning, by which I mean the ability to respond to failure, to recover from adversity, to embrace obstacles and hardships, to be able to take feedback and work with that. You have to think of mental toughness as training your brain to grow and become stronger and help it recover just like you would your body when you train.

Interestingly, some people have some parts of mental toughness but struggle with others; we are not always the full package. You can be confident but lack focus, have good focus but lack performance, be a great athlete in the gym but when it comes to a competition be unable to perform. There needs to be confidence but not arrogance in all areas. To be mentally strong you have to work on your areas of weakness and teach your mind how to be able to perform at its best when it most matters

What are the best two ways to work on your mental game? 

You might be able to guess my answer as I say it many times on my podcast – IT DEPENDS. There are many ways to work on your mental game and strength and most of the time it depends on the individual and which area they most struggle with. However, my top two ways are:

  1. Mindfulness – Mindfulness can help your brain to relax and it can help you train your brain to be where you want it to be and how you want it to think in a given situation. The best places to start with mindfulness are apps like Headspace, Calm and 10% Happier. 10% Happier is my favourite as it has teaching components where it helps to teach you how to quiet your mind and well as use meditation. All these apps can be used anywhere so there are no excuses.
  2. Journaling – Writing a journal everyday can help to teach self-awareness and it can help you to become aware of certain things in the day that went well or not so well that perhaps had not occurred to you before then. This is very important as how can you change things if you are not aware of them? When you are journaling try to answer these 3 questions everyday:
  • – What was the best part about today? This helps to show optimism and gratitude for what you achieved that day.
  • – What did I learn? Always look at successes and failures as this helps you to move forward, learn and reflect.
  • – What am I going to do better tomorrow? This is the activation piece allowing us to move forward with the lessons we learnt and put them into action the next day.

Should we make a daily list of things to achieve to keep us on track? 

Again, I would answer this with IT DEPENDS. Some people work really well having lists they can tick things off from but for others who are more open and fluid it can cause even more stress to their day. Each individual needs to find something that works for them and stick with that.

I try and create a HIT list – HIGH IMPORTANCE TASK LIST. I figure out the things that are the most important that need to be done that day or over the next few days and try to tick them off. This does not give a direct timeframe in which they need to be done but it just reminds me of the most important things.

How do you know the best way to find what works for you?

Experiment and try out different things. You will never know until you have tried, but never get angry or frustrated if the first thing doesn’t work.

Do you think meditation and mindfulness are important?

Yes, I believe that meditation and mindfulness is very important. There is a lack of awareness around this topic and people do not tend to participate in it because they don’t understand it and find it hard. You do not get any direct feedback so it can be hard to see if it is helping or if it is changing your mental toughness.

People find it hard to change habits and are not always keen to take time to work on new approaches. If you take even just 5-10 minutes a day even 1 minute you can really start to see a change in the way you are able to think and deal with situations.

If you are not an athlete should you still take part in mindfulness and meditation?

Everyone should take time to give back to their body and mind. It is so important to stay healthy and well within your mind as well as your body. Knowing where you want to be able to put your mind or how you want it to think at a certain time is so important, not just in a workout, but in general life.

Taking time to meditate can help you to process what has happened in your day, what is going on in your life and how you feel about certain things that are going on in your life that maybe you are trying to push to the back of your mind. It is essentially time to reflect and think, giving you time to process and cope with feelings.

The longer you hold onto things the heavier they become.

It is so important that we recognise how we are feeling and know how to deal with those feelings.

Do people need a mind coach?

It is always good to have a coach, just like in sport, as they can help you to learn, to know you personally, are someone to talk to and they can help to direct your thoughts, feelings and emotions in the right direction. However, it is not imperative and you can work on all of this on your own through the apps mentioned above


Favourite book on this topic?

10% happier by Dan Harris

Is mental training as important as physical training, nutrition and recovery? 

Yes, for sure, especially for the more elite athletes. It can be even more important for some as potentially they are physically strong and very fit but their mind is lacking strength. If they work on that they will become better without changing anything but their mind.

Final thoughts!

Our mind tries to protect us and tell us not to hurt ourselves – if we keep pushing it we hit flight or freeze. We need to train our brain to say “No, it’s OK”. It will be OK and push through our mental freezes. You need to be able to quiet one voice (bad chimp) in your mind and allow the other (good chimp) to come through. We need to be able to allow our chimps to have a debate and see that the bad chimp is not always right. For more on good and bad chimp see The Chimp Paradox by Prof Steve Peters.

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