Leadership Lessons from Endurance Sports: Mental Toughness

I am an outdoor and endurance sport enthusiast. I love to cycle (both road and gavel, weekly rides and centuries), to backpack (multiday, mountains and forests), and to trail run (10k to ultramarathons). I am not a professional by any measure, but I love the people, environment, and competition these events bring to me. I have found the direct application from my sports to my assignment as a servant leader in the ultramarathon of ministry. Many times, a lesson learned from a 2nd place medal in my age group to a DNF can be applied to the day-to-day endurance challenges of ministry. 

One aspect of endurance sports no matter the distance, terrain, or conditions that is essential to success (however you define it) is: Mental Toughness. Endurance sports force you to face your true self and wrestle with how you think about yourself and the circumstances you are in. Mile 18 of the marathon, mile 32 of a 50miler, mile 80 of a cycling century, 13,000 ft on scree below the summit of a 14er, these are the usual places you ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” or “Why am I even doing this?” This mental battle is true for leaders in the marathon of ministry too.  

I have learned from my endurance sports this truth: What you think does impact how you perform. Ask any successful endurance athlete (or, long-tenured leader).

Travis Macy, finisher of more than 100 ultradistance competitions in 16 countries, in his book The Ultra Mindset (1), writes as part of his first mindset: It’s all good mental training:

My advice is to think about training your mental toughness like you would train a muscle. Or, better yet, like you would train a system—heart and lungs, your cardiovascular system—to work together. To get them ready for a task or event, you would practice in intentional ways and undergo simulations to bring them closer to readiness for the final test.

He quotes Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, who identifies self-control as a foundational element of reaching success. She writes,

Attaining a goal, at the most fundamental level, essentially requires doing, in a given moment, what you often don’t feel like doing, or feels like you are not capable of doing. That’s where training in self-control kicks in.

Chris Warner, who has led over 150 international mountaineering expeditions and is one of only nine American climbers who have summited the world’s two tallest mountains: Mount Everest and K2, in his book High Altitude Leadership (2) explained the connection between a positive mental attitude and what he calls “skill-based luck,” 

We can’t say enough about the need to have a positive mental attitude to increase skill-based luck. Cynics and curmudgeons do not inspire peak performance in their teams. Depressed teams do not see possibilities. Ask anyone who is negative, and they’ll tell you they aren’t lucky.

Warner encourages team leads to speak truth “about the trials ahead. If the[team members] know what to expect, they can battle discomfort with a positive mental attitude.” 

Mental toughness and a positive mental attitude make the difference in your performance AND the performance of those you lead. 

You may ask, “Aren’t positive thinking and mental toughness just secular methods. Do we just add those to our spiritual way of living or what?”

Let me introduce you to Ryan Hall. 

Ryan Hall, who holds the USA half marathon record of under one hour and who represented the US in the marathon in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, in his book Run the Mile You’re In, “Mile 10: Belief,” coaches us to “train ourselves for those battleground moments and be ready to declare what is true.” To become a mentally tough runner, you must believe you are a mentally tough runner, he writes. 

As a follower of Jesus, Hall declares the truths that “…we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16) and that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Rom. 8:37) He incorporates the biblical teaching to “take captive every thought” (2 Cor. 10:5) in order to “flip thoughts” to their opposite in order to ignite hope. 

As a coach he tries to, “Put out the fire of self-doubt and declare what is true about that runner and guide them to a place where they can speak truth over themselves.” Hall concludes, “you already are mentally tough, stop doubting your mental capabilities.” Hall’s faith inspires his mental toughness. 

Hall suggests when telling of overcoming pain and negative thoughts in a race to “create simple declarations you can repeat when things get tough” like “I am a champion.” 

I believe we who follow the Christ, Jesus, don’t have to “create simple declarations” we can repeat when things get tough. Here are some:

“I am a child of God.”

“I am a co-heir with Christ”

“I am more than a conqueror in Christ”

“I am strong and courageous”

I could go on. 

Whether you are in a 100-mile ultramarathon in the hills of Arkansas or in ministry in County Seat, Texas, mental toughness and a positive attitude will serve you well to finish the mile you’re in. 


1  Travis Macy with John Hanc. The Ultra Mindset: An Endurance Champion’s 8 Core Principles for Success in Business, Sports, and Life. Hachette Books. Kindle Edition. Location 721.

2 Warner, Chris. High Altitude Leadership: What the World’s Most Forbidding Peaks Teach Us About Success (J-B US non-Franchise Leadership). (p. 177) Wiley. Kindle Edition. 

Published: Oct 15, 2019


Select Category