Mental Strength Training for Kokoda or other event

7 Mar 2024 11:25 AM

This blog looks at the 5 key indicators of success as identified by successful and experienced trekkers. When applied it makes sense to a wide variety of challenges where mental abilities are needed to be at their best.

Trekking Mental Strength: By Aidan Grimes, 131 Kokoda treks.

When I look at trekkers who take on the challenge of the Kokoda track, the key components are the ability to maintain consistency of mental focus day after day for nine days and concentration.

Regardless of the environmental conditions, physical condition, or personal challenge, they seem able to keep themselves focused on the task at hand as they walk up and down mountains. As the distance accumulates, trekkers become tired and often physically uncomfortable, but they never let this deter them. Whilst some will find legitimate excuses for needing more breaks, others can differentiate between an excuse for stopping and a reason for stopping.

"Experienced trekkers are able to differentiate between an excuse for stopping, and a reason for stopping."

From our own experiences, we've all become well aware of the important role that mental strength plays in trekking Kokoda, our mental state is often what determines whether we finish the walk successfully or pack it in early.

As I often say, "If your physical condition is still good but your mind is not, you will give up for sure".

But while everyone recognizes the importance of the mental aspect of trekking, few of us seem to do much to enhance this vital part of our performance. Indeed, many trekkers feel that the mental tenacity required to perform well on Kokoda is something that is innate to one's personality. Either you are blessed with such attributes, or you are not. This, however, is not the case. Just as we can train ourselves to be better physical beings, we can also train ourselves to be better mental athletes.


Research in the fields of personality and cognitive psychology, as well as sports psychology, has led to a better appreciation of what exactly can be done to enhance one's mental strength for the purpose of trekking. And coupling such general research data with what accomplished trekkers are telling us can go a long way in helping us to develop effective strategies for enhancing our own mental strength for extreme trekking.

We often refer to mental strength as being divided into five identifiable, but interrelated components. These are: 1) thought patterns; 2) motivation; 3) focus; 4) visualisation; and 5) confidence.


Applying this model to what accomplished trekkers say about their experiences may help us to understand better the mental side of trekking Kokoda.


Thought Patterns
Thought patterns, or cognitions, have to do with the ways in which we think about things. We do not all think about things, or approach events, in the same way. Two people, presented with the same situation, may respond in very different ways, based upon their different cognitions or thought patterns. An example of this is people's perceptions of pain. Two people, given a pain stimulus of the same magnitude, often report feeling different degrees of pain. While one person might report the pain to be almost non-existent, the other would report a great deal of pain. Further study reveals that the way a person thought about the event correlated highly with their reports of pain. Those who tended to see the experiment in a calm or positive manner (e.g., as a learning experience) reported little pain, while those whose cognitions were more exaggerated or negative (e.g., "it's going to hurt!") reported a great deal of pain for the same stimulus. This latter behaviour was labelled "catastrophising"; when seemingly inconsequential events are regarded essentially as catastrophes by the person.


The general conclusion we drew from these (and other) studies was that one's perception of an event is largely determined by one's cognitions, regardless of how "standard" the situation may appear. In this regard, cognitions have a profound effect on our general state of mind. Whether we view the proverbial glass of water as half-empty or half-full will go a long way to determining how we behave in a given situation.

Similarly, we get in trouble on Kokoda when our cognitions are overrun with catastrophising. When people from other trek groups don’t finish, what I observe is it's not usually because they cannot physically continue on the trek. More often, it's because they have mentally made the remaining task (finishing the trek) out to be too much to handle given the present circumstances. To echo my words noted above, if the mind is not good, you will give up for sure.

The key to successful Kokoda trekking, then, is how we deal with the bad times that we are inevitably going to encounter. Successful trekkers are well aware of this and prepare themselves accordingly. As one trekker noted, "I don't train for the good days; I train for the bad days".

"When people don’t finish, it's not usually because they cannot physically continue to walk. More often, it's because they have mentally made the remaining task (finishing the trek) out to be too much to handle given the present circumstances."

All of the successful trekkers who responded to my research clearly recognised the benefit of calm, positive cognitions over negative ones during a Kokoda trek. They were all individuals who employed the "glass is half-full" mentality as much as possible, in an attempt to minimize catastrophising during low points on the trek. Remaining calm and philosophical during bad times seemed to be the key to their success. As one trekker explained, "I just think that low points during the trek are part of the experience too, so I know they will disappear soon". Another trekker echoed these sentiments, stating that, "Things change every hour on Kokoda. So, after a low point there will surely be a high point at any time. So just wait... and keep walking".

The most effective way that these trekkers minimised catastrophising during bad times, then, was to remain as calm and relaxed as possible. As one trekker noted, "being relaxed helps me to get through the low points; I can [then] use my mind the way I need it for the remainder".

Though no specific relaxation techniques were mentioned by any of the trekkers, one can easily imagine that formal training in techniques such as meditation, yoga, or guided imagery would also be an effective strategy to help keep the mind relaxed and positive in times of stress. Indeed, critical research has indicated that when such techniques are practiced over a long-term period, it becomes more habitual for one's cognitions to be calm, relaxed, and positive. This, then, could be a powerful tool for extreme trekking, since in times of stress it is one's habitualised thought patterns that surface first.

Most trekkers also used music in the evening to help keep their thoughts and moods as positive and upbeat as possible. Many noted that music was "a good distraction" to help get them through low points. As one pointed out, "how can I feel sorry for myself with the story of the Diggers all around me!".

Accomplished trekkers are well aware of the connection between their cognitions and their general state of mind. Regardless of the specific method, each employed strategies which minimised negative thoughts as much as possible while simultaneously producing calm and positive thoughts. This was exemplified no better than by the trekker who explained, "I also think about the bad experiences I had in my life as well as people who were bad with me. They would be happy if I did poorly so that motivates me to be better. I try to transform those bad experiences into positive ones".

As I often say…."finding ways to frame your thoughts in a positive manner provides an invaluable tool to begin to build your mental skills".

Directly related to thought patterns is motivation. We are motivated to perform an activity (and perform it well) when we have a sense of purpose as to why we are doing what we are doing. This sense of purpose is derived by setting goals for ourselves. These goals can be as simple and general as "I want to see how well I can do", or as specific and lofty as "I want to finish the trek". Whatever they may be, it is important to keep in mind that the goals we set for ourselves will go a long way in determining whether we view what we are doing as a success or a failure. When we define our goals, we are de facto defining what we consider to be a success and what we consider to be a failure. In this regard, goals are a double-edged sword: they can provide us with the motivation to keep moving toward success, or they can stop us in our tracks by reminding us that we have failed. As such, the goals that we set for ourselves will directly influence our cognitions and state of mind at any given point in an event.

"The goals we set for ourselves will go a long way in determining whether we view what we are doing as a success or a failure."

Given this connection between goals and cognitions, it is vitally important that the goals we set for ourselves be both realistic and attainable. There is nothing more demoralising than to be in the middle of a trek with the realisation that you are not going to meet your goals. In such situations, thoughts quickly are encompassed with a sense of failure, and it is only a short time from there before you inevitably become a “can’t finish”.

The solution, then, is to set goals that keep you motivated to be the best that you can be on the trek. The optimal goals for maintaining a high level of motivation are those that are neither too easy nor too difficult for you to achieve. If a goal is too easily achievable, the sense of accomplishment that comes from completing the task will not be there, and your motivation will suffer. Similarly, if the goal is so difficult that it is (or becomes) unattainable, you will also lose motivation. The key to setting reasonable and attainable goals is to be honest with yourself with respect to your abilities (past experiences, recent training, etc.), and determine your goals accordingly. Indeed, if your goals are correctly set within these parameters, you can actually use your goals to help maintain a high level of motivation throughout the Kokoda trek. And maintaining a high level of motivation means that your resultant cognitions will typically be framed in a more positive manner. In this way, your thought patterns and motivation will feed off each other to help you to achieve your best results.

As one trekker noted, "in my opinion, the most important mental attributes for Kokoda are great concentration and a strong feeling of your goal". Correspondingly, this trekker considered "my determination and strength in reaching my goal" as his best attribute for being a successful Kokoda trekker.

The consensus among trekkers was that too many trekkers make the mistake of focusing on the top goal in their hierarchy of goals. Then, should this top goal become unattainable at some point, the other (lesser) goals will seem insignificant in comparison. The corresponding result will be that you lose motivation, and failure often follows. But with a bottom-up approach, you are more likely to keep your motivation level high throughout the trek, since you are moving up through your goals, and each one becomes more significant than the last. In this way, your attitude, and subsequent thought patterns, are always more positive.

"A number of accomplished Kokoda trekkers also found it helpful to dissect the trek into smaller, incremental goals (e.g., steps, height attained, villages) that could be achieved along the way."

“A lot of trekkers go wrong focussing purely on the finish as that is a long way away and there are many goals to achieve along the journey”.


Clearly related to motivation, focus refers to the ability to concentrate on a task to the exclusion of everything else around us. When we are fully absorbed in what we are doing, external stimuli that might otherwise be distractions seem to melt away. We've all experienced those moments trekking when everything seems to be just right; we're in a "zone", completely absorbed in walking, and performing to the best of our physical abilities. We seem invincible, and nothing can stand in our way. This is the ultimate in focus and concentration.

The aim, of course, is to maintain such conditions of ultimate focus and concentration for as long as possible. As one accomplished trekker has noted, "to have a clear mind during the trek is very important". The problem, though, is that these moments of being "in the zone" often come and go with little advance warning.

Accomplished trekkers recognise this, and employ techniques designed to help them initiate and maintain such conditions of complete mental focus. Music was by far the most commonly employed of these techniques as well as other mindfulness techniques. Additional techniques that could aid one in maintaining focus, concentration, and a clear mind include those mentioned previously in the discussion of thought patterns. Indeed, mental disciplines such as meditation and yoga, as well as other techniques such as guided imagery and breathing exercises, have as their goal not only a quieting of the mind, but also an increase in pointed concentration and focus. Such techniques would seem natural as aids to maintain clarity of mind, focus, and concentration while trekking.

Not surprisingly, accomplished trekkers noted that what also helps to keep their minds focused is a clear sense of their goals. Many reported that when they are mindful of their specific goals, this helps them better to concentrate and to focus on trekking.

As with the symbiotic relationship between cognitions and motivation, focus and motivation feed off each other. When you have a clear sense of your goals, and you are highly motivated to achieve them, it is much easier to maintain focus and concentration. Likewise, when your focus and concentration are good, it is much easier to stay motivated to achieve your goals.

"the most important mental attributes for Kokoda trekkers are great concentration and a strong feeling of your goal".

Visualisation refers to the practice of creating specified images in our minds. Once created, and if attended to sufficiently, such images can have a profound effect on our cognitions, as well as on our focus and concentration, and even on our physiological systems. If there's one thing I've learned in my years of research and teaching in sport and high performance, its that mental imagery is a very powerful tool.

In recent years, many athletes, both amateur and professional, have begun to employ guided imagery and visualisation as a means to help enhance their performances. The chief benefits that they report include an increase in the ability to focus and concentrate, a sense of being better prepared mentally for the various situations that arise during competition, and a better overall sense of their fears, anxieties, strengths, and weaknesses with respect to themselves and their events.

Though few Kokoda trekkers appear to be using specific visualisation or guided imagery techniques, most of these trekkers were employing free-form visualisation in some way. Many trekkers, for example, spoke of envisioning the track over and over well before the event, in an attempt to ascertain at what points specific things needed to be done, or where they could expect their strengths and weaknesses to emerge. On these training walks, they would often imagine themselves climbing the most difficult mountain of the Kokoda track, or walking through the endless flat stretches of the valleys.

These imagined scenarios are more than simple fantasy. They can be used quite effectively for problem solving, and perhaps more importantly as "practice runs", which can ultimately help you to cope better with actual situations when they arise during the trek. Though nothing can perfectly simulate the extreme conditions of actually doing Kokoda, such techniques can serve as effective training tools, which may ultimately help your concentration, focus, and frame of mind during the trek.


Confidence refers to the belief in one's ability to perform successfully. If we determine success by whether we have attained our goals (as outlined in the motivation discussion), then we can more specifically say that confidence is the belief in our ability to achieve our goals successfully. As such, our confidence is determined largely by the goals that we set for ourselves. If our goals are realistic and attainable, our confidence level will be relatively high. If our goals are unrealistic and largely unattainable, or we are not so sure of our abilities, our confidence will suffer. (Parents take note here)

Confidence is an important component to consider here because it has a direct influence on our cognitions and thought patterns. If we are confident in our abilities to achieve our goals, then we are going to be much calmer and relaxed and have a much more positive attitude than if we lack confidence.

Accomplished trekkers are very much aware of this and set their goals accordingly. As we observed with the discussion of motivation above, successful trekkers focus their attention primarily on the most attainable of their stated goals. All of these trekkers have demonstrated their ability to complete kokoda very successfully, yet most continue to view completion of the trek as their initial goal each year. As with motivation, the benefit of this bottom-up approach is that as each goal on their list is accomplished, and they move on to the next goal, their overall confidence in their performance and ability increases.

This is an important element of confidence. We must endeavour not only to have confidence at the beginning of the Kokoda trek, but throughout the entire walk. We can all exhibit confidence at the start in Kokoda. But these are long treks, and once it becomes apparent that you may not achieve your primary goal, confidence in your performance will inevitably drop. The result is a concomitant drop in motivation, commonly followed by a deluge of negative thought patterns (and maybe a non finish).

Confidence is important, then, because it is so closely related to both motivation and thought patterns. Our confidence is determined largely by the goals that we set for ourselves, and this resultant level of confidence will in turn influence our cognitions and thought patterns during a trek. When we truly know that our goals are within reach and attainable, we are confident, and our thought patterns will be predominantly positive.

Mental Strength Training for Kokoda or other eventAlan Silburn

In my experience as a paramedic and avid traveller, I can honestly say that Kokoda was the hardest adventure of my life thus far. More physically challenging than Everest Base Camp and Kilimanjaro combined – something I experienced in 2019, and more mentally demanding than any university degree. To that, it remains one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had.

For me, I spend a lot of time within my internal headspace, talking, talking, talking to myself (no, I don’t have a mental disorder – the guy who answers does). My conversations are of encouragement. For example, when at the start of something challenging, I think “You’ve got everything, You’ve got this, Ready, Game on!”. Kokoda was no different. I recall standing up on the field at Kokoda, putting my pack on, doing up the straps, and thinking the same thing. *Thought patterns.

My goal in travel is generally linked to my work. Kokoda was one such as I had the opportunity to represent my organisation alongside others of neighbouring emergency services. I intended to complete the track to the best of my ability, help those I could along the way - in a medical sense, and report on the experience. However, this changed on the first day. I heard why others had joined the trek. Stories from strangers about true loss, about struggles, and about connection. Something I didn’t have. My goal became not about me and my success, but that of the group, no matter how slow they walked, injured or not, I would see everyone reach those arches on the hill. *Motivation.

Mindfulness and a need to be present are often thrown around but I find it almost impossible to stop the inner dialogue, stop planning, stop thinking, just stop in general and be present. A time when this was not a problem was on the track. Seeing a target to get to as the ridgeline looming above you in the distance, looking at your foot placement and driving upwards, the only thought is getting to that spot to stop for a breath, being in the jungle, being present. *Focus.

Imagination is a powerful tool. I can’t recall how many times I visualised walking under the arches at Owers' Corner. Sometimes it was raining, sometimes at night, in a group, and single. When it was getting hard, I saw myself there and knew it wasn’t a matter of if, but when. Something I am now fortunate to know. How will it look when you get there? *Visualisation.

Believing in one's ability is hard. Did I train enough? Am I too old? Overweight?, What if I’m last? For me, I think it's about putting in ‘your’ best effort. Have trust in the advice from those before you. Believe the team has your back. You will because you’ve earned it. *Confidence.

Aidan, a great read and it was a pleasure walking the track together.

Til next time. Al.

Alan Silburn JP

Paramedic, Nurse, and some other things.

Wow How good is this article!?

It made me think about walking Kokoda with Aidan & Our Spirit & what parts of the 5 components I (unknowingly) implemented.

Honestly it was a bit of all of them, but obviously some were more prevalent than others.

Thought patterns & visualisation were 2 that I didn't even realise I'd used, but I had, especially in the training program you set.

The other 3 were massive to me, but hands down the main one was Focus.

Reflecting on our trip, I think I was "in the zone" most of the way. Sure I was hurting at different stages, but it was just a case of focusing on the next leg we had. Get to the next stop, then go again.

A lot of the time I never even took my backpack off, especially the shorter drinks stop. Cause my brain was saying "nope. Not yet. Keep going" & taking my pack off was like a signal I'd reached another milestone. & for me, stopping for 5mins for a drink WAS NOT a milestone.

Great article.

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