Mental Fitness: How to Train Your Brain for Athletic Success, an Interview with Matt Fitzgerald

Most athletes and coaches agree that mental fitness is equally, if not more important than physical fitness. However, not many athletes and coaches know how to properly train the mind and build mental strength. The basics of physical fitness training are widely-known and practiced, but when it comes to mental fitness training, most athletes and coaches just "wing it." This is understandable, since the mental side of sports is much more intangible, but still, a lot needs to be done to help athletes and coaches learn how to effectively train the mind. This is why I'm excited to share with you my interview with Matt Fitzgerald, an author who has written multiple books on mental fitness. I hope you enjoy it!

SPT: Hello Matt, can you please give me your definition of mental fitness?


MF: I define mental fitness operationally, as the ability to make the best of a bad situation. This ability depends on an underlying capacity to fully face reality in challenging moments.


SPT: What are the basics of mental fitness training?


MF: As a coach, I like to use the normal problem-solving process to cultivate mental fitness in athletes. Problems are bound to arise in the course of training and competing. When they do arise, they must be dealt with. But problems are also opportunities to practice accepting, embracing, and addressing reality. An intentional approach to this process is all the mental fitness training most athletes need.


SPT: How does motivation relate to mental fitness?


MF: Motivation is a vital component of mental fitness. There is no facing reality without the will to face reality. Mental fitness is what gets athletes beyond the obstacles they encounter, and the more an athlete wants what's on the other side of each obstacle, the more of an effort they will make to get there.


SPT: What would you say are some of the best motivations to get the most out of yourself?


MF: The best motivations are those that give healthy personal meaning to athletic success. Such motivations come entirely from within, hence they are not the same for every athlete. To find their best motivations, athletes need to reflect on why it matters to them to test their physical and mental limits.


SPT: How do rest and recovery relate to mental fitness?


MF: Mental fitness is inherently pragmatic. When you're fully facing reality, you don't care what works, you just want to know what it is so you can do it. For many endurance athletes, hard work becomes a kind of security blanket. This maladaptive coping method stems from an inability to accept the complexity and uncertainty of training for maximum performance. Athletes who can accept these things embrace rest and recovery because they know these things are every bit as beneficial as hard work. 


SPT: How can you measure and keep track of mental fitness gains?


MF: Mental fitness is the ability to make the best of a bad situation. Therefore, measuring mental fitness is as straightforward as assessing how well an athlete does in making the best of the bad situations they encounter. All bad situations are signaled by negative emotions, so measuring mental fitness is also a matter of assessing how well the athlete does in managing the negative emotions they experience in training and competition. This can be done through introspection, journaling, or communicating with a coach or sports psychologist.


SPT: Lastly, how can mental fitness gained through sports be transferred over to life in general?

MF: Like all humans, athletes have only one mind. Because of this, the mental fitness development that an athlete experiences in the process of working through problems in their sport automatically bleeds over into other parts of their life. For example, an athlete who overcomes a tendency to choke under pressure in competition is likely to become calmer under other kinds of pressure. 

There are limits to this mental fitness carryover, however. Many mental skills and attributes are task-specific to a significant extent. For example, we all know athletes who exercise superb tactical judgment in competition but show poor judgment in life outside the competitive arena. That being said, mental fitness carryover can be facilitated by intentionality. An athlete who makes a conscious effort to transfer their mental fitness gains from sport to life will go further in this direction than one who doesn't.

If you want to learn more about mental fitness, I highly recommend you read Matt Fitzgerald's latest book, The Comeback Quotient. To connect with Matt Fitzgerald, you can use these links: