Experiencing Pain without Suffering: ‘The Journey to the Dark Side’ A Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) Approach to Mental Toughness


Experiencing Pain without Suffering: ‘The Journey to the Dark Side’ A Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) Approach to Mental Toughness

Yes, this struggle is real. Training through pure physical and mental pain. Definitely one I can relate to even early on in my indoor rowing career. I also know relative to others, my struggle is minor. Take my coach for example. Less than 6ft and still able to crush a 2k erg in 5.59.8. WTF. How does he do that? I’ll tell you how he does that. He goes to hell and back more times than you can imagine. He got me thinking about mental toughness in relation to sports generally rather than specifically to indoor rowing, although in my opinion rowing as a sport is one of the finest examples.


Developing mental toughness is one thing, but seriously how do you keep going when you consistently achieve the goals you set yourself. Where do you draw the line when it comes to volunteering for pain? Is there any way of increasing your capacity to apply yourself in this way longer term without giving in to the urges to crash? 

‘Mental toughness’… “the ability to act in a purposeful manner, systematically and consistently, in the pursuit of the values that underlie performance activities ,even (and especially) when faced with strong emotions that we as humans naturally want to control, eliminate, or reduce” *

Just reading this you get a sense of the enormity of this task. Easy to see therefore that developing the skill isn’t straightforward. Yet some people have the ability to go head on into things using this skill or some other slight variation of the ‘mentally tough’ definition, every day. They’re likely to be big achievers in whatever context they operate…but at what price? What’s the impact longer term of being someone with a level of toughness that means regardless of thinking and feeling you consistently throw yourself at incredibly physically and mentally demanding situations? And how do you maintain the ability to be ‘tough’?

If you are indeed tough enough to embark on the process regardless, then you’re over the first hurdle of acting willing in a situation where willfulness, non-acceptance, judgement and emotion are rife so fair play to you, you obviously have some strategies for getting there. It could be that these strategies have been along the lines of skills training interventions offered historically by sports/ performance psychology (goal setting, mental rehearsal, arousal control, positive self-talk and precompetitive routines) with the aim of creating a better performance state through greater self-control of internal experiences such as attention, emotion, cognition **. But how long is it possible to maintain ‘control’ over these intense experiences given the energy they consume prior to being energetic?

More recently there has been a huge amount of literature across a range of psychological disciplines that have questioned the assumption that negative internal experiences invariably lead to negative behavioural outcomes. Is it possible that athletes experiencing negative internal states can still perform optimally? Well actually yes it is. It is now believed that strategies aimed at suppressing unwanted thoughts and emotions can have a paradoxical effect, triggering metacognitive scanning that actively searches for signs of negative or unwanted cognitive activity and brings it to awareness***. Studies have identified the value of acceptance based strategies as an alternative to change and control focussed techniques where the goal is to recognize internal experiences of all kinds as something that will naturally come and go and that do not have to be judged, labelled, managed, controlled or in fact understood if performance is to be enhanced. Enter the Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) approach* which promotes acceptance of one’s internal experience, no matter what it might be, while at the same time focusing the performer on the contextually appropriate behaviours required to fully engage in the valued activities and achieve the determined goal. A fundamental underpinning to this approach is the idea that a flexible approach to experience including thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations is essential for optimal functioning. An unwillingness to remain in contact with difficult internal experiences is a central factor leading to reduced behavioural functioning. In other words the control or reduction of internal experiences is not necessary for creating the ideal performance state, in fact mindful, non-judging, awareness and acceptance of moment to moment cognitive, affective and sensory experiences is evidently more useful*.


 So in short there’s a useful way to move beyond the gates of hell day to day. Acceptance based strategies seem to fit nicely with the types of internal experience described earlier which occur in anticipation of the next ‘hard’ session whatever form that might take. Acquiring the knowledge and developing the skill obviously takes time, time that we don’t have here but at least we’ve identified the start line. In the absence of time here’s a couple of useful links to follow up at a later date about mindfulness and ‘Teflon Mind’.

What about staying on track without derailing at some point though? Once we’ve developed the skills of mindfulness and acceptance as a means to get on the train day in day out, how do we maintain the commitment to keep driving it in the right direction? When something really hurts, like physically, mentally, everything, how do we find the energy to invest in keeping going? When the going gets ugggggghhhhhh…can the tough really just keep on going?

How about setting goals? Surely when we lose the plot, the point, the purpose, the place to start is being clear on the goal because once we know that, we then know the ‘why’…actually maybe not. Despite the universal belief that goal-setting procedures are gold standard techniques for the enhancement of performance, only six studies have been found that evaluate the value of goal setting and only 2 met the necessary criteria for adequate research design, and NEITHER of these two studies found and significant performance enhancing effects for goal setting procedures* #noway #whoknew.

It’s a good job there’s an alternative. Let’s leave goals and look at VALUES and value-driven behaviour. According to MAC * “Personal values are the anchor point for all behavioural decisions that need to be made in the course of enhancing performance and achieving goals”. They’re the thing that keeps us committed to behaving consistently in line with things that have real worth. If something has REAL worth then obviously it’s much harder to dismiss or lose sight of when the going gets tough right? That makes total sense to me.

By being able to define values and live a life that is directed by these values (including performance related components of life) means the likelihood of performance goals being met is increased. The flip side to a ‘value-directed’ life is an ‘emotion-directed life’ where actions are not in line with what really matters to the individual but instead are in line with what the individual feels or is looking to avoiding feeling/experiencing at any given point…cue inconsistency!!!

“Remember, the JOURNEY is the value. The DESTINATION, is the goal” * If you can define values then you’re on a fast track to staying committed. Simply by asking the question ‘Am I acting in line with my values or am I choosing to respond in line with what might make me feel good right now?’ This ultimately leads to behavioural choices being made not on internal rules or emotions in the moment but instead on more consistent values.


The first step then is surely to know what your values are. If you were to put me on the spot and ask me, I’d probably struggle to answer and I imagine it would be similar for most people unless they’ve undergone a thorough process of determining what’s important to them in their life and written it down at some point.

The following are some useful questions to consider in the process of defining values:*

  • What do you really want out of your competitive performance EXPERIENCE?
  • How to do you want to be known and remembered by co-workers/team mates/ clients?
  • What journey do you want to experience on the way to the destination?
  • Why is being a solid team member / co-worker important to you
  • What do you value about your activity? The challenge? The prestige? The enjoyment? The interaction with your team? Helping people?
  • Is developing your skill important to you? Why is this meaningful to you? Are there any skills you would like to develop more fully?
  • What issues or behaviours related to skill do you care about? What would you like to do more of?
  • What issues or behaviours related to tactical skill development do you care about? What would you like to do more of?
  • What types of activities do you enjoy? Why do you enjoy them?


It’s important to remember that the answers aren’t meant to be a statement of goals you want to achieve. They are instead things of real value which you’re able to reflect on, that serve as the anchor when the ‘why’s’ and ‘what for’s’ start to creep in. Spend time on determining values and you will have your anchor. It’s much easier to stay committed when you know it’s because something holds value. Performance and in fact most human behaviour can occur “regardless of the content of thoughts and feelings as long as one stays focussed on the task relevant environment and continues to engage in value driven actions” *. If you’re scared of the dark then values offer a comfort, whether that be a blanket or a night light.

In short, mindfulness and acceptance based strategies along with consistent value directed choices and behaviours NOT emotion focused and directed behaviours are the essence of the elusive ‘mental toughness’ and therefore offer potential light in that often very dark place. So, go find your light and shine it…




Fitness Matters Indoor Rowing



~Inspired by Sam Blythe




* Gardner. F. L., and Moore. Z. E. (2007) The Psychology of Enhancing Human Performance. The Mindfulness- Acceptance-Commitment (MAC) Approach.

**Hardy. L. et al (1996) Understanding Psychological Preparation for Sport: Theory and Practice of Elite Performers.

*** Gardner. F. L., and Moore. Z. E. (2006) Clinical Sport Psychology.



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