Getting Game: Developing Mental Toughness

I’m a wuss.

Until recently, I routinely cracked under pressure. Rejections decimated me. Revisions terrified me. Getting a bad review meant a week of sleepless nights (okay, there were some really bad reviews).

You’d think I’d be tougher, considering it “only” took me fifteen years to sell my first book, and in that time I received more than fifty rejection letters on 10+ books. You’d think those hard knocks would have taught me something… turned me into a veritable warrior, poster girl of tough talk, the Navy Seal of RWA.

They didn’t. Sadly, those hard knocks just reinforced what I suspected deep down: I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t a real writer. Anything I sold happened to be a fluke. (Editors that have bought me: please stop reading now.)

Nothing in my life prepared me for the wild roller coaster of being a published author. I was selling well, getting noticed, hitting charts but on the inside I was brittle. The career I wanted so desperately was eating me alive.

Little League to the Rescue

It took a Little League baseball game to save me. Last April I sat in our infamous Seattle rain watching my seven-year-old’s baseball game As Jake headed out to bat, Jake’s coach called out last minute instructions, “Big hit, Jake. Big hit here, buddy. You know how to do this. You can do this. Keep your eye on the ball.”

Pitcher threw. Jake swung. Jake missed.

Coach clapped.”Nice cut, great cut, Jake. That’s the way to do it. This next one is yours. It’s your ball. You own this ball.”

Pitcher threw. Jake didn’t swing. Umpire called strike.

“This is it, Jake,” the coach called. “This is yours. This ball has your name written all over it. This one’s yours. You can do it. Hit it now.”

Pitcher threw. Jake swung, cracking the ball into the outfield.

As Jake reached base I sat there in the stands thinking, Jake has no idea how lucky he is. How many kids get coached like that? How many little girls get coached like that? Wouldn’t it be fantastic if every time we sat down at the computer someone cheered for us: “You got this. You own this. You know how to do this.”

Unfortunately many of us lose confidence at the computer. We start thinking too much-God knows we’re nearly always alone with our thoughts-but when we’re struggling, every negative thought is amplified. The negative becomes a mantra.

It’s easy to obsess about the writing business, easy to obsess about rejections, revisions, deadlines, reviews, sales numbers, publicity, conferences, pitching, finances, agents, editors. But negative, obsessive thoughts won’t help us meet our goals. Negative, obsessive thoughts kill the muse and decimate confidence.

If we want to succeed in this business, we need mental toughness.What I experienced-years of rejection, negative reviews, personal attacks on internet sites-isn’t abnormal. This is a tough business. We’ve got to be tough. We need to think positive…think strong. And if we’re not there yet, maybe it’s time we started getting our game faces on.

Baseball Again

Back in my twenties I dated a professional athlete and elite athletes are seriously coached. Elite athletes constantly strive to improve physical and mental strength. They don’t just train their bodies. They work on their mental strength, too, improving focus, confidence, stamina, and endurance.

Huddling in my coat in the April rain, I knew I wasn’t an elite athlete, but I recognized I needed help. Not counseling. Not pills. Just some plain old-fashioned coaching. I needed someone who’d help me work on my mental toughness, someone who’d push me, someone who’d demand something from me that didn’t have to do with deadlines or GMC.

That week I hired a sports and fitness trainer. I was blunt. (Make that desperate.) I told him I had only two goals: to get physically stronger, and mentally tougher. I wanted to be able to handle my job better-primarily making the tight deadlines, speaking at conferences, doing the promo necessary-without turning into a head case. My trainer took my goals seriously. He worked me hard, pushed me beyond what I thought I could ever do, and six months later, I’m a different Jane. I’m sleeping again. The headaches are gone. I’m happy. Productive. I can concentrate longer. I can sit and write all day without pain.

Inevitably there are days-weeks-where I still struggle. There are books that don’t come together the way I’d envisioned, commitments I’ve made that I should have said no to, family stresses that don’t go away, but my six months working with a trainer has taught me to compartmentalize better. I’ve applied behaviors from the gym to life at home: you have to properly water, feed and rest the body, anything is possible with time and effort, complaining solves nothing, and “I can’t” results in another round of push ups, even if it means doing push ups in “sets of one”. (One, collapse on stinky mat. Two, eat stinky mat again. Three…)

There are still days where I don’t want to be G.I. Jane, but I know now that exercise gets me out of my head. Through working with my trainer at the gym I’ve discovered I’m not a wuss. I don’t quit. I don’t make excuses. I’ll fight for those last two curls, that extra ab crunch, the very last pull up. And maybe I’ve needed someone in my corner clapping, “This one is yours. You own this machine.” (Okay, I’m dreaming. My trainer would never be so gooey.) But the coaching has paid off. I realized I’m a player. I refuse to let my head take me out of the game.

Want to start but don’t know where?

Brian Lydell, ACSM and Personal Fitness Trainer at the Bellevue Place Club in Bellevue, Washington says the first place to start is with goal setting. “You have to have goals. Goal setting is critical for everyone, and everyone will have different goals. While it’s normal for goals to change, its important to have clear goals from the outset–to know where you want to go and what you want to accomplish.”

Hire an Expert

If you’re finding it difficult to motivate, or are frustrated by the lack of progress in your fitness program, consult with a coach or trainer. A good trainer will listen to you, focus on your goals, and bring balance as well. “Everybody thinks they know their strengths” Lydell says, “but a coach by nature is always more objective. Most individuals don’t know their actual capabilities. They underestimate what they can do, or are afraid to push themselves.”

Be Realistic

Lydell believes it’ll take more than twenty minutes three times a week to combat the stress in our lives, at least the kind of stress we see in our society today. “With today’s lifestyle, you almost have to exercise every day you’re in the office working. If you’re working five days a day, you need five days stress release. Unfortunately, the work day has taken over peoples’ lives and work comes first, before our bodies’ needs.”

Challenge Yourself

According to Michelle Basta Boubion, NSCA-CPT and Exercise Editor with Muscle & Fitness Hers, we all have a comfort zone, a place we feel most comfortable physically and emotionally, “but to change your body, you have to move out of your comfort zone.” That twenty minute brisk walk three times a week will give you cardio benefits, but it won’t significantly change your body-or patterns of negative behavior.

Women, Basta Boubion says are experts in beating themselves up, but “you have to walk away from negative self-talk.” Exercise is great for combating negative self-talk, and releasing those wonderful chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins create a sense of well-being-something we all need in our careers.

But exercise isn’t just about beating stress, or bringing balance, but increasing one’s sense of control. Lydell has found that, “as people work towards new fitness goals, their bodies change, confidence changes, attitude changes. Inevitably my clients discover that exercise is a great preventive tool. They learn to use exercise to prepare for life. Exercise can help protect you-physically and mentally. “

Coaching’s for Everybody

Aron Branam, CSCS, ACSM and Fitness Director for Seattle Athletic Club recommends coaching for “all people in all walks of life.” He believes coaching can help writers in particular because “the first step in change learning to receive the mental stimulus, and then physically putting it into action.”

And the Bestsellers?

My own battle with confidence made me wonder about ‘the big girls’. Those best-selling authors with even bigger headaches than mine-authors with fatter contracts, larger advances, higher stakes. What have they learned about mental toughness?

I asked a number of best-selling authors to talk to me about mental toughness and surviving this business. I wanted to know if physical fitness played a role in their coping strategies. The authors were wonderfully candid, sharing with me turning points in their lives and how they’ve managed to stay sane (so far)

Consider this “coaching” advice from some of the best in the business:

1. Maturity Helps

Age and experience is a plus in this business. Debbie Macomber admits she’s far tougher now mentally than when she first published, “but also remember I’m twenty-five years older, too, and with those years comes a lot of wisdom and a lot of experience.” When asked about those changes, Debbie answered, “Life experiences changed me. Raising teenagers changed me.”

Like Macomber, Tara Taylor Quinn’s mental toughness is a result of “A series of life lessons. And they weren’t all writing related.” For Tara, “It’s all part of the journey-meeting challenges of all kinds, in all walks of your life…and finding the strength to keep on walking.

Heather Graham is another one who is tougher now then when she first sold, but she doesn’t know if it’s because of writing, or life in general. “I’ve had a few hard things happen, and learned that I can survive them!”

2. There’s Going to be Pain

Sometimes it takes being significantly hurt to toughen up. At one point Christine Feehan was being harassed on the internet through brutal reviews and personal attacks and her first reaction was to want to withdraw. “I cried a lot over it and then one night, when I sat there and read the horrible things they said, I realized it didn’t matter. I couldn’t stop them, but I could keep writing my books for the people who enjoyed them.”

A wise and wonderful writer once told Debbie Macomber, “If you stay in publishing for long enough, sooner or later everything will happen to you.” Debbie adds that she’s discovered it’s true. “Both the good and the bad. As a professional one comes to expect it, move with the flow; take it on the chin and a whole bunch of other clich?s.”

3. Only the Strong Survive

Lori Foster is candid about the industry. “This is a business that will strip you of confidence if you let it. By nature it gives more rejections than affirmations, at least at first. Even though I was shy, I was never a quitter. So once I started this, I had to see it through. That meant I had to learn to take the rejection and turn them into something positive. For me, it was determination. Each and every time an editor turned me down, I became more determined to prove myself.”

Once Christine Feehan realized she wasn’t going to let others’ control or impact her writing, or her career choices, she was able to let go and move on. “I actually don’t think about them anymore…I can even joke about it now with my friends…but it’s a learning process like everything else and eventually you learn what is important and what is not.”

4. Accept the Risks

Penny Jordan toughened up considerably the day she decided to give up her day job to concentrate on writing. “With that decision I was accepting the awesome and frightening knowledge that from now on I would be solely financially dependent on what I earned as a writer…that decision made me far more focused on my writing. It was no longer a “hobby”, or a “game”. It was for real.”

5. Learn the Business

Susan Wiggs didn’t need toughening up to succeed, just experience. “There was no aha moment for me, but a slow growth of my skills at writing and knowledge of the business. ‘m a quick study. I make mistakes all the time, but I rarely make the same mistakes twice.”

Merline Lovelace, like Susan Wiggs, never found mental toughness the issue. “Coming from the military, I already possessed the discipline necessary to finish manuscripts and meet deadlines…but I was totally ignorant about publishing.” Yet her writing career has made her even stronger. “In my 10+ years as a writer I’ve developed the toughness needed to walk away from contracts that didn’t advance my career, to set a limit on the time and $$ put into PR, and-most importantly-to balance my writing and real life.”

6. Know Your Limits

Penny Jordan was thirty-one when she first sold and is fifty-six now. After several very difficult years-nursing her husband through his final illness, as well as the demands of a large house, and a huge amount of writing work-she’s ready “for a more balanced lifestyle. I am hoping to take up a yoga class and pilates which I feel would be an excellent balance for the amount of emotional energy I burn up when I am writing.”

7. Be Proactive

When asked to rate the importance of physical fitness in her life on a scale of 1-10, Susan Wiggs gave it a “259″ She adds, “Writing doesn’t seem like it’s physically demanding, but my fitness level has given me the energy to be prolific in short spans of time. For me, that’s really it-the energy level…staying fit gives me the energy and stamina to tackle something huge, like a book project.”

Merline Lovelace admits she’s a recent and reluctant convert on the issue. “It took an aching back and good look at my rear in the mirror to get me off my butt and onto a treadmill for 40 minutes a day. Since then I’ve lost most of the weight I gained during my ten years as a writer and can swing a gold club again without wincing.”

8. Free the Muse

Penny Jordan walks for twenty minutes first thing every morning. “Walking releases something inside my head that frees up the log jam of my thoughts, and calms when I feel hyper. It also gets my imagination running wild.”

Tara Taylor Quinn has found that exercise isn’t just about keeping fit, or keeping her weight where she wanted it, but has found that through exercise “the daily influx of seratonin makes a marked difference on my coping abilities and proactive and positive approach to the day’s requirements.”

9. Stay in Training

“Having a sedentary job I feel it’s important to get the old heart pumping and increase the blood flow to the brain,” says Debbie Macomber. “The older I get, the more I need that blood flowing, too.” Debbie swims. Christine Feehan holds a third degree black belt. Heather Graham says that just “moving is fun for an author to begin with-away from the computer screen,” and chooses to scuba dive and go ballroom dancing.

There are many kinds of exercise, and many different approaches. The secret is to move, regularly. Consistently. You’ve heard it before but Michelle Basta Boubion from Muscle & Fitness Hers thinks it’s worth hearing again, “the best activity is whatever you’ll stay with.”

Conclusion

If you’ve stuck this far with the writing, and you’re dedicated to perfecting craft, you owe it to yourself to be as healthy, and balanced, as possible.

As Lori Foster said, this business will strip you of confidence if you let it. So don’t let it. Be proactive. Treat yourself like an elite athlete. Get strong. Stay strong. Take care of your body, and your body will help take care of your head.