After 20 Years Training Elite Soldiers, MTNTOUGH Coach, Retired Army Ranger Lieutenant Colonel and United States Military Academy Physical Education Instructor, Ara Megerdichian Shares How to Increase Mental Toughness
It was early morning in Arlington Virginia and I was just finishing up an amazing run from Fort Meyer Virginia (home of the Old Guard, Arlington National Cemetery, and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) watching the sun rise over the DC Monuments and back onto post to get ready for the workday as a senior officer in the 3rdUS Infantry Division (The Old Guard). As I was coming up the “small” hill that took me past the Marine Corps Memorial that stands outside the gate of Fort Meyer I knew I was on the last push of a 6 or 7 mile run – the biggest part, Cardiac Hill as we called it was still in front of me for the last mile where I knew I would, as I did several times a week, get to see if I could get 1 more beat past my currently recorded max heart rate of 193. But to be honest, I wasn’t looking to push that hard this time – I was tired and just wanted to finish well but as I came up the “smaller” hill past the memorial I could see the road intersecting mine leading to the gate and coming up that road was a young company commander from my regiment that I knew was finishing up a 3 mile run through the city of Arlington – and, to be honest…I didn’t feel like having a testosterone contest that morning. I knew he had run about half of my distance, was 5 to 7 years younger than me, and was a strong runner so I slowed my pace (I was already past 85% and knew if I did run into him before that hill I’d better have some left in my tank), kept my head low, and hoped he’d just move his way through the gate and up the hill…but no such luck – he had seen me as well and, of course, as I got to the gate I heard – “hey sir, want to run up the hill together?” That sounds so innocuous doesn’t it? But if you’re an infantry officer in any US Army unit you know very well that it’s not an innocuous invitation…welcome to yet another of many tests of your mettle – distance, age, how you’re feeling means nothing – a test is a test – toughness is toughness – and the timing is rarely of your choosing (or it probably wouldn’t be a test). So of course, I said “sure Mike, let’s go” all smiles – but inside the thought was – “well Ara, here we go again…you know what you’ve got in your tank…let’s see what he has in his.”
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” An interesting statement which is true in some cases but, as history and research has shown us, is not true in all cases. The question is…why not? Are some people born tougher than others? Are professional athletes, extreme hunters or outdoorsmen, military special operations professionals, first responders, or cancer survivors born or bred? Are people who bounce back from tremendous adversity born tougher than those who falter when facing the same level of adversity?
A lot of folks have spent a lot of time researching those questions – you can find articles and studies in Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today, fitness blogs (Rusty Whitt’s got a good one out with 98 Gym), and some great books on the subject (like Angela Duckworth’s tremendously researched book called Grit) and if you read through all of those you’ll definitely pick up some trends or themes that weave their way through the writings so my intent with this series is not necessarily to challenge the myriad of thoughts that are out there on this subject but to maybe enhance it a bit with my 30 years of experience teaching, training, and, for over 20 years, working with some of the toughest (and best) soldiers in the world by answering two key questions:
Can anybody become mentally tough? If the answer is yes…then how?
Let me start the series by answering the first question and giving you a first step towards the second then in following installments we’ll dive deeper into the “how” and I’ll share with you not only some of my experiences but the experiences of some of the great men and women I’ve been privileged to serve with, work with, strive with, and win with over the last 30 years.
Question 1: Can anybody become mentally tough?
Let’s hit the bottom line up front with this question – the answer is yes, absolutely, yes! The one key theme that stands out in every piece of research I’ve read and lines up with my 30 years of experience is that mental toughness is something that can be developed in anybody who chooses to pursue it.
Now you may ask the question: are there personality traits that we’re born with that may make it easier for some? The answer: Potentially. Every one of us is unique and is imbued with skills and traits that make each journey different – not easier - different. So, some personalities may have traits that make the journey a little easier in some areas but, to be honest, those same traits will make it tougher in other areas and vice versa so, yes, personality does make a difference but at the end of the day it’s what you do with your unique personality that matters the most. As Angela Duckworth states “Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another. [i]”
The second question then would be: does environment make a difference? Again, the answer is…potentially. Every one of us has a unique story that has contributed to where we are in this stage of our lives, some of which are tougher or longer than others. How your particular set of experiences influences your toughness is a question that is highly debatable and on which the research is pretty varied: some people with extremely difficult experiences and traumatic pasts rebound and seem to be incredibly resilient – others with similar experiences struggle and nosedive into depression and weakness. Trying to identify the specific line that separates one from the other is pretty difficult and, like I said, the research is pretty varied but the bottom line thread that weaves through all of it is actually pretty simple should we choose to see it: your past does not determine your future – it affects it, it shapes it, it may fuel it…but it does not determine it – and that is the key point. Mental toughness, from my perspective supported by both my research and experience, is not so much determined by your environment but in how you ultimately respond to it.
There is no road to mental toughness that involves being bogged down in your past and if you’re willing to accept that premise then regardless of where you are today you can move forward to a more mentally tough tomorrow.
What was your journey like?
I’ll share parts of my journey with you as we go but in a nutshell I was not a person anybody (to include myself) would have expected to become an Airborne Ranger. I say that with no pride because I feel very honored, humbled, and blessed to have spent a portion of my life with some of the greatest soldiers on earth: I take no credit for it – but if you knew me as a high school kid you may have pegged me to be a lot of different things down the road but an Airborne Ranger, West Point Physical Education Instructor, or an Infantry Lieutenant Colonel would not have been among them. I was skinny, small, relatively athletic (I was the guy you gave the ball to in the hopes that I could run fast enough to not get creamed before I gained a few yards), and overall not one of the toughest guys in the class. I went to a military school for a couple of years and I was definitely the guy picked on and probably voted the least likely to succeed. We had a “Ranger Club” – I joined because I wanted to be in that group…but I was pretty much the back end of the group – I took a lot of heat and I remember specifically thinking – no kidding – “there is no way I could ever be a real Ranger. There is just no way I could do that!” That thought has seared in my memory for over 30 years now.
When I got to college I wanted an ROTC scholarship – no chance – so I joined ROTC as a freshman “walk-on” and took the first physical fitness exam…I’m not sure if there is a scale low enough for my score. I bombed the pushups, failed the sit-ups…and I’m not even sure if I finished the two-mile run. Once again…I wanted to be part of the group…and found myself at the back end.
But a funny thing about life - it doesn’t really matter where you start – what matters is where you finish: five years later I would get to stand on the field as a lifelong friend of the family who was a Vietnam Vet pinned my Ranger Tab on my shoulder. Of my group of officers numbering somewhere around 100 that entered that class only 5 of us had made it through (I went in at lean, tough 165 pounds…and still lost 35 pounds). Two years later I would get the honor of actually serving in one of the Ranger Battalions and hearing one of the NCOs who went through Ranger School with me say “I knew I’d see you here one day sir.”
So the bottom line again for question 1: Can anybody become mentally tough?
The answer from my perspective is yes. Mental toughness is a lifestyle – it can grow, it can be developed, it can be trained, tested, and demonstrated…and, it can even see, to be “lost” for a time as we hit new experiences in life but at the end of the day mental toughness is something that can become a core tenant of what you display because it can truly become a key component of who you are.
So having said all of that let’s dive into question number 2:
How do I develop mental toughness?
This is where we’re going to spend the bulk of our time in this series – I’m assuming that you’re still reading because you agree with me that regardless of where you are today a more mentally tough you is where you want to be tomorrow and is also where you believe you can be tomorrow so, for this first installment of the series let’s hit one of the many lessons I’ve learned over the years which is something you can start working on right now:
Find your “thing.”
I want to illustrate this with a story – and I am definitely the bad guy in this story. Have you ever asked yourself why you do what you do? Why are you working so hard or training so hard? What’s your motivation? Every one of us needs that fuel – the “why” behind what we do…but not everyone of us has taken the time to pause and identify it.
As a captain I spent a couple of years as a lead instructor at the Army’s Infantry Officer Basic course. Basically, our role was to train, teach, mold, and prepare new 2 lieutenants in the US Army Infantry to move from college graduates to leaders of soldiers. Not an assignment I took lightly and, having made a pretty tough journey myself, not something I expected anybody else to take lightly either. I was not very forgiving – if you didn’t make the cut…you weren’t making it through and unfortunately at that one particular aspect of the job…I was pretty good.
But in one class we had this young man that was, on the surface, heading to the back end of the class – sound familiar? Not only was he clearly unprepared for the program he wasn’t making any progress in it either – and he very quickly came on my radar as somebody who was not going to make it through. Day after day he was taking a beating from me and I knew it was wearing him down – it was just a matter of time until his training would be cut short and he would be sent home…
But one morning that young man taught me a lesson I would never forget!
Like any other week on most infantry posts Friday morning started at about 0400 with a 10 mile road march (full gear) and he was, as usual, falling to the back of the pack. As usual…he was also catching non-stop heat from me to get himself in gear. Things were not looking good for him and while he “survived” the road march to the end he did it with a lot of pushing, “kicking,” and harassing from me.
Now I had a policy – every lieutenant had to have a certain amount of weight in their rucksack for the march (and I would increase it over the course of the training) – from 50 pounds up - and because I knew trainees well – I would have my NCOs weigh each rucksack after the road march – that way not only could they not get rid of gear during the march…they couldn’t count their water weight because in the Georgia heat you would drink most of it. They had to finish the road march with the assigned weight of 50+ pounds.
If a student failed to carry the allotted weight, by even 1 pound, then, since it was Friday, I would make them sleep on a cot in the guard shack that night (where the lights are on the and the radio is going all night) then the next morning – Saturday – redo the entire road march with the correct weight round and round a 1-mile track. Basically…it destroyed their weekend. And believe it or not – as simple as is it seems – I’d actually had somebody test it…he fell short by 1 pound…and paid the price.
So at the end of this road-march – as everybody is laid out having their gear weighed my NCO called me over and said “sir, you’ve got to see this.” I thought – “well, here we go – somebody else had to test the system…” and as I walked over, sure enough, there was this young man standing there and I thought “well, this is it – there is no way he is going to be able to redo this road march tomorrow morning – he’s done.” And as I walked up to him – he’s standing there soaking wet, shaking, and miserable – my NCO lifts the rucksack on the fish scale and says “look.” I looked – it was 75 pounds. I said, “there is no way that is his rucksack – weigh it again.” My NCO said – “sir, it’s his rucksack, I’ve weighed it twice, but I’ll weigh it again.” And he did – and once again – 75 pounds. That was over 20 pounds heavier than anybody else had been carrying – to include me!
I looked at that young man – about an inch or two from his face – and said “son, what in the world were you thinking? Yes, I wanted you to learn to carry extra – to leave a buffer – you never do the minimum – but 25 pounds??” And that young man looked at me and said “sir, I haven’t seen my wife in over 6 weeks – she’s flying in for the weekend and I knew that if I didn’t get this right I wouldn’t get to see her – so I shoved everything I could into that rucksack to make sure I had the right weight.”
I was speechless – I don’t remember if I actually said to him what was going through my mind – but the bottom line was that he had found his “thing.” He had found what motivated him – he was one of the weaker trainees in that class yet on that road march he was carrying more weight than anybody else in the class (to include the instructors who always carried more) and regardless of how much heat he was taking through the march…he had pushed through and finished!
He was never the same after that – in a good way. Now that he had crossed an invisible barrier he realized that he could cross the next one, and the next, and the next. I watched over the next 10 weeks as that platoon rallied around him – supported him – I watched him get stronger and stronger and stronger. That young man became an infantry officer – and ten weeks later he stood in my office – lean, cut – he looked like a soldier – and I, with a new level of humility and respect – had the honor of tearing up every negative counseling I had written on him. That young man had found what fueled him – he had found his “thing” - it was a love for his wife and a determination that he would never let her down. With that fuel burning in his heart…nothing – not even Darth Vader (as I was called) could stop him from becoming who he knew he could become (I told you I was the bad guy in this story).
What’s your fuel? Everybody has something that motivates them – it may be a desire to accomplish something, it may be a past failure, it may be a target that you’ve always wanted to reach…it may be your family, your spouse, your parents, your children – whatever it is – in another article at another time we can talk about a personal vision statement but for now– find it and identify it.
Angela Duckworth defines Grit as a combination of Passion and Perseverance [ii]- this is the passion piece: the “why” behind what you do. Kouzes and Posner in their great book on leadership identify that one of the essential traits of strong leaders is that they not only believe in what they’re doing but are able to share that passion and belief with those whom they serve. [iii]You have to believe that what you’re doing means something – whether as a leader, a mom, a dad, an athlete, a hunter, or just becoming a better, more rounded, and deeper you. Whatever the reason and whatever the thing – just like that young man needed the “why” to push himself through that difficult time your “why” is what will push you through yours – those who persevere must believe there is a reason to persevere – because if that’s not there you won’t keep going when things get tough…you won’t have a reason to.
So for today let’s do one thing – see if you can identify your “why” – your “thing” and then next time let’s take the next step of this journey together as we examine some of the many other steps we can take to develop that elusive goal of mental toughness.
Ara is a retired military officer and Army Ranger. He’s led some of the toughest and best soldiers in the world, trained Rangers and paratroopers, and taught physical education at the United States Military Academy. He believes in pushing the limits of physical, mental, and emotional endurance to find the strength to turn walls into hurdles. In addition to Army leadership schools, Ara holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Sociology and Criminology from Purdue University, a Master of Education (Physical Education) from the University of Georgia, and a Master of Science degree in Strategic Management from Indiana University's Kelly School of Business.
[i]DUCKWORTH, A. (2018). GRIT. TORONTO: HARPERCOLLINS CANADA.
[iii]Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (1987). The Leadership challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.