|Duncan Simpson, PHD|
Over to you Duncan!
In response to a Twitter comment I made regarding “Mental Toughness” (MT) Stu invited me to write a post on the concept. As a researcher, teacher and practitioner of sport psychology I’ve thought long and hard about this construct and what to talk about here. MT certainly isn’t a new term and has been widely researched and written about. To provide a historical account of research and a full theoretical explanation of MT is beyond this post but I do encourage readers to seek out a new book if they are interested in such topics “Mental Toughness in Sport” (Gucciardi & Gordon, 2012).
The aim of this post to present an overview of what mental toughness appears to be from the literature and to provide readers with some applied suggestions about how to become more mentally tough.
Based on research (e.g., Bull et al., 2005; Connaughton & Hanton, 2009; Crust, 2007; Jones et
al, 2002; 2007 etc.) mental toughness is a complex psychological construct that encompasses some of the following common attributes possessed by athletes that appear to not vary much from sport-to-sport. This is not an exhaustive list and basically any desirable psychological characteristic has been categorized under MT at some time or another.
• successfully managing anxiety, pressure, and other emotions
• staying focused, finding balance and keeping perspective
• being confident
• summoning motivation and desire
• effectively dealing with adversity and failure
• overcoming physical and/or emotional pain and hardship
Fairly recently Jones et al. (2007) developed a framework for MT based on 30 distinct attributes which divided down into 4 categories: Attitude/Mindset, Training, Competition and Post-Competition. I believe athletes can benefit from thinking about their performance using these 4 categories. For example, the type of MT needed in training (e.g., pushing yourself to the limit) is perhaps different than the type of MT required during competition (e.g., handling pressure). Therefore, I encourage readers to write down under these 4 categories what mental skills they need in each (skills will overlap). For example, a marathon runner might write under Competition: Regulating emotions, self belief, awareness and control of thoughts.
Moving away from such attributes, renowned researcher of MT, Professor. Bob Harmison, suggests mental toughness is more than just how much confidence, motivation, positive emotions, mental skills, etc. that an athlete possesses. Rather, the key to understanding and developing mental toughness is to view your level of mental toughness as a function of your whole personality that is comprised of interconnected and interacting thoughts and emotions. As these interact with each other and your environment, they manifest themselves in predictable patterns of behaviour (e.g., competing with poise, making good decisions) or mentally weak (e.g., competing with little composure, rushing decisions). These patterns are predictable in people i.e. they usually either give up or not. This makes them and/or significant others assume/and believe they are either mentally “strong” or “weak”. When in fact it’s not an all-or-nothing situation and you’re not “born” with it rather it can be developed. Once you start to recognize these patterns of behaviour you can start to change the undesirable moments (e.g. giving up when it gets tough) or you can build upon where you are strong (e.g. having worked at your mental toughness).
Furthermore, Harmison suggests that to be mentally tough you need to:
1) Adopt specific values (i.e. motives, goals, and desired outcomes regarding training and competition)
2) Attitudes (i.e. personal constructs about yourself and the competitive environment)
3) Beliefs (i.e., convictions and expectations about yourself)
4) Emotions (i.e., adaptive feeling states in response to competitive situations)
5) Self-regulations/awareness skills (i.e., plans, strategies, and actions to regulate thoughts, feelings, and behaviors).
I suggest that you write down your thoughts related to each of these 5 categories. Try to identify 1) Where you are strong and 2) Where you need to improve.
Once you’ve written these lists, take one page of paper and write “WHO I AM - PRESENT”, underneath it write about who you are as a person with your strengths and try to incorporate the list you’ve just generated. Create a secondary list entitled "HOW I WANT TO BE - FUTURE" and incorporate the skills you are intending to work at.
To develop mental toughness YOU need to make a commitment to shape these values, attitudes, beliefs, emotions, and self-regulation skills in yourself. It is a process that takes time and the reality is that some athletes will be able to develop some to all of these aspects of their personality while others will struggle.
As an example, I recently consulted with an elderly lady who was competing in her first ever marathon and was terrified she wouldn’t finish. She felt she gave up too easily in her training runs when things got tough and said she was “mentally weak”. After speaking to this lady at great length I was astounded to hear she was solely responsible for the daily care of her husband who had been battling progressive cancer for years, she had to raise 3 daughters single-handedly while also supporting the family financially. It quickly became apparent she was extremely mentally tough but just in a different domains of sport. I believe each of us have certain psychological strengths from daily life that we can build upon to facilitate our athletic performance. For this client we did numerous exercises that highlighted and utilized the MT she has in daily life to apply to her running. We talked at great lengths about her values, attitudes, beliefs, and worked on controlling her emotions, and on developing self-regulation skills. It was a great story and she finished the London Virgin Marathon in 2012.
While MT is certainly not a concept that is easy to pin down, it is one that athletes and coaches can relate to. So I suggest to readers to attempt some of the exercises mentioned and start working on becoming more mentally tough.