I strongly believe that you can train pretty much anything with some patience, whether that’s a physical or mental attribute. You might not manage to be a world champion Scrabble player, or runner, but unless you’ve been trying hard to improve it for a long time already you’ll have the capacity to improve.
While I was training for competitive kayaking, I knew on some level that it was building my mental toughness. We even used to do sessions that were mainly for the mental side. I remember doing ‘minute challenge’ once - 1 min bench pull, 1min rest, 1 min bench press, all times 6 (or 10 if you’re totally nuts) and finishing a couple of reps behind (from 500+) and that was certainly a mental exercise.
The whole point of that session was to hang on the edge for as long as possible. Not once in a session like that would I feel sorry for myself. The pain was never a bad thing, sure it was painful but it wasn’t suffering; it was something to be relished, experienced and embraced. We even did stupid things like swimming across the river in January (not a good idea, don’t do it, I now see how people can drown so quickly in cold water) purely to keep feeling the edge of our comfort zones.
It now seems obvious that we were training mentally as well as physically, but once you’ve got somewhere it’s very easy to forget what the process was like to get there. I didn’t fully appreciate just how much it helped in all sorts of other areas, and how quickly you can lose that toughness.
As an athlete I had a pretty decent level of grit, and certainly compared to average I'm good at grinding away. It’s a great asset; I’ve always been pretty good at being unflappable or not giving up when things aren’t going perfectly. Not having quitting be your first thought when things get hard is a great default position to start from. Missed the first stroke... get the next one right. Messed up the first portage... keep racing. Failed the first exam… keep studying.
After stopping paddling I’ve worked in a reasonably stressful job for a while. I quite like the stress in many ways; it’s the familiar feeling of competition, but gradually, or not so gradually, work pushed out sport.
Years of training gave me a great resource to fall back on. I spent a year where I was using that resource without training at all to maintain it, but if you don’t train something you’ll lose it. It was like trying to race every week for a year. Not taking time to look after myself ground me down. It left me drained, flat, and unable to draw on the very things I was making myself reliant on.
It’s taken an age to start to get some of the fire back in my eyes. That’s what I miss from racing, not the actual racing so much, great as it was. I miss feeling the lactic kicking in and, rather than feeling tired, feeling that fire lighting up and making you more focused. Leaning in to the effort. The feeling when you know you’re on the limit but the easiest way to complete the session is going to be to smash the next effort and show strength when you’re hurting the most. I lost that, and I want it back. The motivation to get a grip on it again wasn’t a race or some bragging rights, it was losing a treasured part of myself and one of my key abilities.
So what’s the best way to cultivate it? Certainly exercise plays a big part. But you’ve got to challenge yourself, not just do some physical activity. You need to know what you did last week and try to beat it. I “trained” for a bit just going through the motions, figuring I didn’t need to be super strong or super fast and just needed some exercise to keep fit, but the fire never came back. I never got excited for a run or scared for a set of squats. Flirting with the edge is the only way to move forwards. Pushing on when you think there’s no more to give is what trains you to be relentless.
For me there’s something special about running, swimming, paddling etc (this is a paddling blog after all!). They force you to push yourself where there’s nothing to stop you trying other than your own head. If you’re half way down a 500, you could just ease off a little… nothing will actually happen to you. Maybe no one will even notice; apart from you. You’ll know.
Anything worth being good at is worth training so surround yourself with good people, enter races, get outside and train in all weather, look after yourself but don't get soft on yourself. Never stop trying to improve or you'll find yourself sliding backwards.
P.S. I'm aware this could come across rather macho "suck it up and get on with it", that's not the aim at all. I absolutely think you should have down time, relax, do whatever self care works for you but I think it's a complement not an either or; being tougher makes life's ups and downs easier to take.