Mental toughness

 In Coaches, Confidence, Professional & Olympic Athletes

Athletes and sports psychologists use the mental toughness a lot but what does it mean? Generally when I work with athletes I ask them what that means versus defining it for them because ultimately what it means for an athlete is the bottom line however today I am going to use some research to help define and talk about mental toughness.

Mental toughness defined

This ‘definition’ actually came out of interviews with elite athletes which came out in an article entitled Psychological preparation for the Olympic Games (Journal of Sports Sciences, November 2009; 27(13): 1393–1408): 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, p. 209).

Given this definition where do fit on the scale of mental toughness. On a scale of 1-10 (1 being not mentally tough & 10 being completely mentally tough) where would you rate yourself?

And then break down the attributes: determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure and rate yourself on the same scale. Where do you need to put your focus to become more ‘mentally tough’?

Twelve mental toughness attributes were identified

These included possession of an unshakable self-belief in: one’s ability to achieve goals; one’s qualities needed to surpass opponents; an insatiable motive to achieve; being able to bounce back from setbacks; thriving under pressure; accepting anxiety as inevitable and being able to cope with it; not being adversely influenced by others’ performances; being able to fully focus in the face of life distractions; controlling one’s ability to focus; being able to focus in the face of competitive demands; effectively dealing with pain; and remaining in control following unexpected events.

The subcomponents

There were 4 subcomponents included:

  1. Attitude/mindset (belief and ability to focus)
  2. Training (using long-term goals as a source of motivation; controlling one’s environment, and pushing oneself to the limit)
  3. Competition (belief, ability to stay focused, regulating performance, handling pressure, thought and feeling awareness and control, controlling the environment)
  4. Post-competition (handling failure, handling success).

Attitudes and beliefs about training were viewed as key elements of mental toughness. Mentally tough athletes were reported to maintain high motivation for training by using long term goals as a source of motivation, while at the same time exhibiting the patience, discipline, and self-control required to work towards long-term objectives. These athletes also gained as much control as possible over their training and used every aspect of the training environment to their advantage. Finally, they were perceived as being particularly competitive in practice and pushing themselves to reach their potential in training.

The bottom line

When coupled with other research, these findings clearly suggest that considerable attention should be paid to mental preparation for practice and training sessions.

In my work with Olympic, elite and professional athletes they seem to generally always excel at #2 training but #1, #3 and #4 create problems and gaps and this is when they decide to reach out and get help.

Given my experiences with athletes the one element of the above definition of mental toughness that I think may vary from athlete to athlete is the natural ability versus the developed psychological edge. I don’t think that natural ability ‘carries’ an athlete through their career. What I think is more accurate is that initially most high level athletes have the natural psychological edge but that somewhere later down the road as they start to ‘lose’ a little bit of that they do need to develop it and probably in a slightly different way!

If you need help with your mental toughness or psychological edge let me know. I offer free initial consultations via Skype.

Happy Saturday!

Dr. Michelle

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