A lot of the greatest soccer players are not just skillful and athletic, but they have strong minds and bodies that are resistant to fatigue, immune to quitting, and can’t comprehend the idea settling for anything less than their best. They don’t just handle the pressure, they live for it. I think a lot of the best players come from either really good upbringings and they have a lot of confidence to handle any situation, or they came from difficult situations (poverty, hunger, parents not around, etc.) that make everything else in life seem like a walk in the park. Either way, can we make ourselves tougher? Absolutely. In the last article called “Stop Being a Pussy: Real Talk On Developing Toughness” we took a deep dive into toughness, one of my favorite topics. In this article I will give you some things you can do starting TODAY to get the toughening process going. They are not fun in the short term, but over time they will lead to a better version of you. “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”
“The tough mind is sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the true from the false. The tough-minded individual is astute and discerning. He has a strong austere quality that makes for firmness of purpose and solidness of commitment. Who doubts that this toughness is one of man's greatest needs?”
― Martin Luther King Jr., The Strength To Love
Fasting: Not eating is addition through subtraction. One way to understand this concept is by thinking about money- your bank account grows by not spending money. Similarly, you will gain in certain mental and physical aspects by not eating for periods of time. Wait, isn’t food required to get bigger and recover? Yes, that is not what I mean. Although, many soccer players would do well to get stronger and leaner, not necessarily bigger. Fasting can be used as a weight loss strategy, but that is not the point here. It is to voluntarily deprive oneself of a comfort to build appreciation and resilience. The benefits of fasting are related to a phenomenon known as via negativa, a Latin phrase that means instead of concentrating on what you do, the focus shifts to what you don’t do. But how do we add by not eating? First of all, I am definitely not recommending starving yourself or drastically reduce calories for an extended period of time. In fact, as footballers, that is a surefire way to lower performance. But, if timed correctly and executed well, not eating for a stretch of time does have a lot to offer. For one, it may actually help your body use the food you do eat more effectively and help repair your body by lowering inflammation through a process called autophagy. In college, a lot of my teammates who did not get sore would wait hours after the game or training before they felt like eating. I always found that strange considering the 30 minute window to refuel that many nutritionists advocate. Dr. Art De Vany has talked about how not eating immediately after training gives the body’s cells a chance to cleanse themselves instead of metabolizing the new food ingested. Even if that is a load of crap (which its not since the Nobel Prize was won by discovering this —>https://www.bluezones.com/2018/10/fasting-for-health-and-longevity-nobel-prize-winning-research-on-cell-aging/Cold water) then fasting will build mental toughness as you forgo the comfort of eating and feel some real hunger. It will also make what eventually you do eat taste much better is fasting resets your taste buds. Don’t eat for long enough and things like vegetables, almonds, steak, and bananas will taste amazing and you won’t have the same craving for pizza, Skittles, and Taco Bell.
How to implement it?
Pick a morning and don’t eat breakfast but eat a bigger lunch and/or dinner (this is called intermittent fasting)
Eat bigger meals earlier in the day and skip dinner one night
Fast for a day on an off day with no important games coming up
Cold Exposure - The underlying premise of cold exposure (usually involving water) is that exposing the body to certain kinds of stresses can enhance health. It has been shown to boost immune function, decrease inflammation and pain, and increase blood flow. Being cold makes people uncomfortable, and it is through exposing ourself to this discomfort that we can become tougher.
How to implement it:
Take a normal shower and finish with cold water for 10-30s and progress to a couple of minutes
Just take a cold shower and gradually decrease the temperature
Immerse yourself in cold water and each time either increase the surface area (submerge yourself deeper) or make it colder. (Not exactly sure, but making it longer could be dangerous so stick to around 10 minutes or less)
Meditation: There is so much out on the internet and Youtube about meditating right now that i won’t spend too much time talking about it. But yes, sitting down and focusing on your breathe is HARD. Many people think they are meditating but really they are just sleeping in a vertical posture. In addition to making your tougher by sitting through physical and mental discomfort, meditation will help you enter the peak performance state when play soccer more easily by getting you into the present moment instead of being caught up in thought.
How to implement it:
Start with going through your senses- hearing, feeling, smelling, and then focus on your breath for a few minutes.
You can try counting breaths as well.
You can try guided meditation on Youtube for 5 minutes and progress up to 10.
Go Barefoot- There are a lot of nerve endings in the foot, and going barefoot on a hike, run, or a walk will be a mild source of discomfort. Further, you will strengthen little muscles and joints that never get stimulation or challenge when they are stuck in shoes. Shoes are like casts or crutches for our feet. When I was in Thailand and saw the feet that are barefoot more often I couldn’t believe how thick and strong they looked. Kids who grew up barefoot or martial artists and gymnasts almost always have good feet since they train barefoot. Less sensitive, tougher feet, and perhaps greater athleticism: “I can’t prove this, but I believe when my runners train barefoot, they run faster and suffer fewer injuries…We’ve shielded our feet from their natural position by providing more and more support…If you strengthen the foot by going barefoot, I think you reduce the risk of Achilles and knee and plantar fascia problems.” - Stanford track coach Vin Lananna
Just don’t rush it and be smart. I had to miss a few practices because I trained barefoot on hot pavement and burnt the soles of my feet. I also did a track workout barefoot once and slightly strained my calf. Slow and steady wins the barefoot race.
How to implement it:
Walk or jog on sand and progress to grass and then perhaps a track and then a trail as the harder surfaces require more work from your feet and more bending of the toes- progress time and intensity as possible
You can kick the ball around barefoot like kids in Brazil
Run far- I am always discussing the importance of speed and explosiveness for players to dominate soccer games, but nothing will test your physical and mental fortitude like a long run. Like I said about the barefoot training, it is probably not smart nor good for your fast twitch fibers to run miles on miles with no build up, but every now and then go out and push it on a run that is far enough to get you out of your comfort zone (a cramp, muscle aches, or just heavy breathing will be some signs). It will make those long practices and the final minutes of the match seem easier.
High intensity training - another way of using exercise to get tougher is to take the intensity up. Michael Jordan was known for staying after practice and running “suicides”. Maybe that is why he would normally take over the game in the fourth quarter. There are plenty of ways to increase exercise intensity, but they mostly involve maintaining something like 70% effort for a duration of 20 seconds to 2 minutes and repeating it. For example, you can run 200m at 80%, rest 1-2 minutes, and do it again. I can guarantee your heart, lungs, and muscles will be screaming at you.
Give one, some, or all of those things a try. They should give you added mental and physical fortitude, as well as the confidence from knowing you put yourself through things that others won’t. When everyone else is slowing down, you can be speeding up.