Friday, January 15, 2016

Mental Toughness

My husband is a coach. No, let me correct that: my husband is a Coach Extraordinaire, especially when it comes to softball. Although my own athletic ability starts and ends with bowling, I have always loved watching sports. I got my daddy to explain football to me when I was 13 years old. Okay, sure. It was mainly because the Minnesota Vikings were in the Super Bowl that year and I had a crush on Fran Tarkenton, but I also wanted to know what I was watching him do instead of just admiring the way all the players looked in their football pants. (Holla, Lee Ann Ward!)

Anyway, I said all that to make the point that I understand sports and coaching and the dynamics of being a successful athlete even though I’m not one myself. One of the main things my husband stresses to his players is their need to develop mental toughness. And trust me, none of his players will last on his team if they can’t become mentally tough.

But it occurred to me recently that the same principles of mental toughness apply to writers, so I wanted to pass on my brilliance to the blogosphere.

These are the key psychological characteristics associated with mentally tough elite athletes.

~ Have an unshakable belief in your ability to achieve competition goals
~ Have unique qualities that make you better than your opponents

~ Have an insatiable desire and internalized motivation to succeed. (You’ve really got to want it!)
~ Be able to bounce back from performance setbacks with increased determination to succeed

~ Remain fully focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions
~ Don’t be adversely affected by others’ performance or your own internal distractions, such as worry or negative mind chatter

Composure/Handling Pressure:
~ Be able to regain psychological control following unexpected events or distractions
~ Thrive on the pressure of competition
~ Accept that anxiety is inevitable in competition and know you can cope with it

And the MAIN COMPONENT of mental toughness is learning to condition your mind to think confidently and overcome frustration/self-critical negativity.

Okay, so how do these things apply to writing?

~ If you don’t believe in your writing ability and love what you write, how can you expect anyone else to believe in it or want to read it?

~ Develop a unique voice that sets your writing apart from any other writer, so much so that when people read unattributed excerpts, they will immediately recognize your work.

~ Writing needs to be as much a part of who you are as your eye color or your sense of humor. It needs to be something inside you that HAS to come out regardless of whether you want it to or not. Everyone doesn’t have the luxury of being able to write full time, but when you’re not able to write, you should be thinking about what to write the next time you get the chance.

~ Know WHY you write. Is it for your own fulfillment, because you want to be famous, or (gasp!) because you want to make money? Or are you like me and write because you want the world to meet your characters? Whatever it is, let that be your driving force.

~ Unless your motivation is writing only for yourself, remember that writing is HARD WORK, and you must take it seriously if you want to succeed. Don’t expect anyone to do your homework for you and tell you what you need to do to get published. As my nephew Aaron used to say, “It’s Googlable.”

~ Again, not everyone has the luxury of writing full time or having their own private writing space. Most of us have to write around family life, some more than others. I wrote my first two books between the hours of 10:00 pm and 2:00 am, after my kids and husband went to bed. But whenever and wherever you have to write, immerse yourself in the world you create for your characters.

~ As Stephen King says: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the tools to write.” Make time to read your favorite authors’ new books and other books in the same genre as yours, but don’t be dismayed by their talent. Even when I was an adolescent, there were some books I read and thought, “I can do better than this.” Then there were those I read and thought, “I’ll never be able to write this well.” The more I write, fewer and fewer books fall into the latter category, but I don’t ever expect it to be empty. I will never stop feeling that I can still improve.

Composure/Handling Pressure:
~ You CANNOT let rejections stop you or lessen your belief in yourself. If your self esteem is based on other people’s opinions, you will never make it as a writer. If you somehow manage to survive the submission process, you’ll crash and burn when you read your first negative review (everybody gets them!) and you’ll end up a suicidal, drug-addicted alcoholic. I guess that could be good if you’ve always dreamed of being famous posthumously, but that’s not for me. From what I’ve heard, suicide is frowned on in the Afterlife Admissions Office, and I definitely don’t want Flo on my case! (You’ll understand this if you read my novel After Me.)

~ Yeah, I know there are millions of books out there and the competition is harder than ever. But if you don’t think there is something about your book that makes it different and worthy of the time and money you want readers to spend on it, DON’T WRITE IT. There’s enough crap out there already. Sorry if that’s harsh, but I get tired of people flooding the market with mediocrity that even the authors themselves don’t want to read. I read my own books over and over because I love the characters and the stories. I wouldn’t have published them if I didn’t.

~ Does this mean I don’t get nervous when I have to pitch my books at conferences or through query letters? Of course not. I’m petrified, but I do it because I believe in my books and want as many people as possible to read them. I had to develop a tough skin early on in my writing career. That doesn’t mean I don’t still get mad or cry if I get a rejection from an agent or editor and they criticize something specific about my precious baby, but I do it in private (or on my BFF’s shoulder) and then get over it. And when I go back and look objectively at what they said, I find some way to put it to use and make my baby shine even brighter for the next submission.

So you can see that the principles of mental toughness are basically the same for athletes and writers, but I’ll summarize to remove all ambiguity:


~Stay true to yourself and your dreams will come true!

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  1. I love this post, Joyce! What a well thought out pep talk, and loads of good advice. Thank you!

  2. I love the post and sayings. Please if possible, email me at

    Will appreciate to seek your help on writing skills.

    God bless and thank you.