By Michael Krueger

Toughness isn’t something you are born with. It is a skill acquired over time through targeted training, both mental and physical. Don’t confuse toughness with bullying, meanness, intimidation, or working through serious injury. These are the products of flawed training, mental and emotional weakness, and a lack of character and discipline. Nearly every performance mistake, failure, or disappointment can be traced back to a lack of toughness. Now, how do you become tough?

It’s in Your Head

Through proper training, your body, your emotions, and your mind will adapt by becoming more resilient and responsive during times of stress. This training allows you to remain calm and effective no matter what is going on around you. I like the definition of toughness as consistent performance in the upper range of your abilities, coupled with a calm assertiveness in all circumstances.

Most of us first encountered the need to be tough while participating in sports. A lack of toughness was usually insinuated by a coach and frequently in the context of playing through pain and injury. Real toughness has nothing to do with playing through physical pain caused by injury. It has more to do with coping with emotional and psychological pain, primarily self-doubt and fear. Anxiety, panic, and worry are what cause performance breakdowns. Add a good dose of physical stress to an undertrained body, and things can get ugly.

…But in your Body, Too

Toughness happens in your head, but your head needs your body to complete the circle. If you don’t have sufficient strength and endurance to get the job done, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve trained your mind. If you can’t physically do the job, you are toast.

A healthy heart and lungs along with a strong responsive body are needed to build self-confidence so that you don’t question whether you are physically up to the task at hand. We’ve all known people who were good with theory but couldn’t physically perform and vice versa. Your body can’t use its strengths if your mind isn’t tough enough, but your mind can’t will physical performance out of a less than adequately trained body.

Body and Mind Together: A Case Study

I had a client who was working on becoming a stronger runner. She had a particular route she ran four times a week. It was a challenging course that included a formidable hill. Each week she would show me her running log and each week it would note continued failure on the hill, with no further explanation. We would talk about it in generic terms, with her just saying it is scary how hard it is to push up that hill. One day I finally asked her for more specific details. I asked if her legs collapsed underneath her and she said, “No.” I asked if she threw up, and she said, “No.” Finally, I asked if she passed out, and she said, “Of course not.” Then I said, “So, you quit.”

She was somewhat taken aback and perhaps a tad offended by my statement. I then explained that I only asked so that she would understand that it was a conscious choice on her part to stop running and walk up that hill. Her body simply complied with the request. I don’t recommend pushing until you vomit, pass out, or have your legs give out, but you need to understand that if you stop before any of those things happen, you chose to quit.

A few weeks of hard work later, she conquered her fears and the hill.

The Zone

Most people have experienced being in “the zone” while performing in a sport. It is where everything seems to happen in slow motion and you can’t do anything wrong. Every shot, every swing, every throw, every move is perfect. For most of us, it has happened only a few times, but you can train yourself to get there more often than not.

The “zone” is known to sports psychologists as the “Ideal Performance State.” Training for this state actually elicits changes in brain chemistry that switch your primitive default response to stress from fearful to confident. Fight or flight has always been our body’s natural response to danger. Modern people don’t encounter that level of danger too often, but we have replaced immediate life-threatening danger with job and personal life-based performance stress. The primitive response has many positive physical changes associated with it, including improved coordination, balance, and energy, thanks in part to an adrenaline surge. The modern equivalent has more negative responses associated with it in part because we don’t get any physical release from running or fighting. These negative effects include high blood pressure, diabetes, increased stress, hormone production, and metabolic syndrome issues.

By switching the stimulus response from fear to confidence, you can add more positive psychological responses to the mix and reduce the negative. These positive responses include improved focus, calmness, enjoyment, and determination. Though repetition and practice, this then becomes your new stress response.

Training and Practice

Toughness training involves balancing the needs of the real self and the needs of the performer self. The real self experiences all stimuli raw and unfiltered, wanting to react to stress in the moment, regardless of the appropriateness of the response or the consequence of the action. The trained performer self analyzes the situation and responds in a disciplined, practiced, and appropriate manner. (For example, most people don’t move toward a burning building, but because of your training and practice, you do.) This practiced response temporarily suppresses the needs of the real self to allow you to continue performing at a physical and emotional peak regardless of the circumstances. It is obvious to anyone who has had to perform, be it on a court, stage, public venue, or fire scene, that if there is any fear or self-doubt, then these states are not in sync and the experience can go very wrong, resulting in very negative consequences.

When the real self experiences negative feelings, it is interpreted as a crisis. All the real self knows is that it’s not happy and it wants relief immediately. Some of these feelings indicate “needs” that are important, such as food, sleep, and attention to injury, while others are petty “wants,” such as the craving for attention or the desire to act out from frustration, fear, or anger. The goal of toughness training is to be able to instantly differentiate the important needs from the trivial wants and respond appropriately to both stimuli regardless of the circumstances.

Important needs must recognized as such and be addressed as soon as possible. “As soon as possible” does not necessarily mean “now” but quite literally means as soon as it is feasible, given the circumstances, to do so. Trivial wants must also be acknowledged, but only so that they may be dismissed. This puts them out of your mind and keeps them from distracting you in the moment. You may address them later at a more appropriate time or, more likely, they will become unimportant and simply disappear.

Simply put, toughness hinges on a physically and emotionally prepared real self, integrated with a highly skilled, trained, and practiced performer self, coupled with the personal ability to endure great physical, emotional, and mental stress.

The one factor that will render all other toughness training moot is a deficit of physical conditioning. A lack of fitness will lose the battle for toughness even before it has begun. A low tolerance for physical stress will immediately block the mental pathways necessary for the mind/body connection to occur. Aside from the obvious physical benefits, fitness training instills discipline, produces a positive self-image, and boosts self-esteem, thereby contributing to an overall feeling of confidence and ease.

Physical Training

The place to start toughness training is on the track, in the gym, and on the training ground. Setting up and following a training program gives you the opportunity to establish the framework for building the discipline needed to get the mental toughness ball rolling. Setting and accomplishing goals, both physical and skills-based, builds your confidence by giving you quantifiable and visible improvements. Once you’ve seen what you are a capable of doing physically, you can see that the mental, emotional, and psychological aspects of toughness are well within your grasp.

Learning to attack your workouts with high intensity, adapting to the discomfort of hard physical exertion while maintaining your focus and composure, will take you a long way toward achieving toughness. The use of high-intensity physical training in a safe and controlled environment develops the confidence and skills needed to respond in the appropriate manner when the moment arrives where the environment you need to perform in is neither safe nor controlled.

Finally, addressing your physical shortcomings such as the need to lose fat, build strength, and improve your endurance is absolutely necessary to achieving toughness. Being able to unquestionably rely on your body in all circumstances alleviates a huge amount of performance stress. When you know that you are physically strong and fit, your self-confidence goes way up, and this allows you to mentally and emotionally focus on the current situation. This ideal performance state allows you to instinctively employ the skills you have painstakingly acquired through hours of repetition and practice.

A firefighter needs a fit, tough, and trained body, coupled with a fit, tough, and trained mind; the lives of too many people are depending on you for you to settle for anything less.


Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at 


No posts to display