A Brief Guide to Mental Toughness

I have been working in Talent Identification and Development for a number of years and one common question coaches often ask me is: How do I develop my athletes Mental Toughness?

Let us start by considering what mental toughness is:

Having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to, generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer and, specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure. (Jones et al, 2002.)

With other researchers clinging to this definition so tightly (Thelwell, Weston & Greenlees, 2005), it is worth considering if talent is really “natural” or learnt. Of course it is both; a Universal capacity to develop mental toughness when presented with the right training scenarios. In academia, it is very well stating what something should be like, but on the front-line of sport, us – coaches have to make the most out of the athletes we are given, whether we recognise an element of Mental Toughness or not. Mental toughness is therefore “the way an individual performs under pressure”. This definition allows for positive or negative behaviours due to pressure, which can then be interoperated as – the individual does (or does not) perform well under pressure.

Going back to the coaches’ question – how do I make my athletes Mentally Tougher? – lets consider two factors. Firstly, mental skills are the first way to help with pressure. Mental skills such as imagery, self-talk and cues have been found to aid performance under pressure. Secondly, mindsets allow the individual to consider the approach to the situation as being constructive or destructive.

Mental Skills. The most widely researched area of mental skill is imagery (Thelwell, Such, Weston, Such & Greenlees, 2010). Findings have shown that imagery can not only increase skill acquisition but also enhance performance in pressure situations. Another aid to mental toughness is the use of goal setting (Thelwell, et al, 2010). Goals should be reverse engineered to start with the skill process in developing skills today. The goals should be challenging but equally achievable and in the coaches mind lead to a greater process/whole skill. These chains of skills must collate and for the majority, be fun to practice.

Mindset. A good starting point is Dweck (2006) who has not only identified what Mindset is, but also allowed the readers to discover how to enhance their Mindset. Simply put, Mindset is the way individuals view and cope with a situation. Athletes with a constructive, evaluative Mindset have been found to perform better under pressure situations than athletes who are destructive and blame others for failure. Dweck names the Mindsets, Fixed (not willing to change) and Growth (develops the individual). Similar to Peters (2012) book, The Chimp Paradox, the key to becoming Mentally Tough is accepting that you always have a choice, but it is the choice you take which denotes your end performance.

In a recent conversation with Tom Daley’s coach, Andy Banks said:

Diving is about repetition. Tom dives off the 10-meter board again and again, sometimes getting it wrong. When you get in wrong off the 10-meter it hurts, but Tom keeps going and that’s something you just can’t coach.

This is not quite so true. Factors such as parental, peer and coach influence all played a big part on the way Tom behaved, trained and performed. As we know, Mental Toughness can be learnt/enhanced, which is why Plymouth is slowly becoming a hotbed for talented Swimmers and Divers. Mental Toughness is being copied between athletes. Talent breads talent, and mental toughness breads mental toughness. Again, considering functional examples, British Cycling talent days do not recruit athletes based on Mentally Tough athletes; selection is primarily based on physiological data and performance results. It could be argued that performance results are an indication of Mental Toughness (therefore making the need for questionnaires/interviews irrelevant).

Finally, there is a need for Mental Toughness to be measured and developed in a functional way. From an early age, putting individuals in pressure situations. An example could include, starting 15-0 down in tennis, a staggered start in sprinting or a smaller playing field in rugby. The aim is to apply pressure to the young athlete, equipping them with sufficient “pressure connections” in their neural pathway, accelerating functional skill acquisition. Linking psychological and physiological pathways will enable the athlete to recognise pressure and learn to perform effectively when stressed. Training exercises like the above-mentioned are especially productive when the athlete is tired. It is worth mentioning that there should always be a fun factor for youngsters, introducing the seriousness of performance in the train-to-train/compete stage of development.

References

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: how you can fulfil your potential. Ballintine, NY:USA.

Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2002). What is this thing called mental toughness? An investigation of elite sport performers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14, 205–218.

Peters, S. (2012). The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success, Confidence and Happiness. Vermilion: UK

Thelwell, R., Such, B., Weston, N., Such, J., & Greenlees, I. (2010). Developing mental toughness: Perceptions of elite female gymnasts. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 8, 170–188.

Thelwell, R., Weston, N., & Greenlees, I. (2005). Defining and understanding mental toughness within soccer. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 17, 326–332.

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