What Is Mental Toughness, and Can You Increase It?

(R)Evolutionary Endurance

What Is Mental Toughness, and Can You Increase It?

When we talk of someone being mentally tough, we typically describe them as self-assured, confident, courageous, and bold. Ask any athlete what the concept means in sport, and they will answer, ‘you need to be resilient,’ ‘thrive in competition,’ ‘be self-confident,’ and ‘handle the pressure.’

But these statements describe behaviour, rather than what’s going on inside the head. They fail to tell us what mental toughness is and how it develops.

In 2002, Graham Jones, Professor of Elite Performance Psychology at the University of Wales, set out to answer the question: ‘What is this thing called Mental Toughness?’ He interviewed ten sports professionals competing at an international level — swimmers, sprinters, gymnasts, triathletes, rugby players, and runners – and asked what the concept means to them.

After analysing their answers, Jones concluded that to be mentally tough in sports takes an unshakeable self-belief in the ability to achieve goals, and the determination to bounce back from performance setbacks. A mentally tough athlete is confident that their skills are unique and is recognizable by an insatiable desire to succeed, Jones writes. 

Peter Clough, professor of psychology at the University of Hull, looks beyond the elite athlete and the context of sport. He considers mental toughness as an actual personality trait — fundamental to the performance, well-being, and development of everyone — that determines “how people deal effectively with challenges, stressors, and pressure… irrespective of circumstances.”

According to his model, mental toughness is made up of four components which psychologists call the “4Cs”: challenge, control, commitment, and confidence. A mentally tough person interprets challenges as opportunities, and they believe they can maintain control in their life. They are committed to achieving their goals and remain confident in their abilities.

Clough also developed a questionnaire to measure mental toughness – though applicable in any context, including education, health, and business – it was subsequently used to learn about the concept’s impact on athletic performance. When 41 sports students were assessed and asked to hold weights, at arm’s length, for as long as possible, Clough discovered that those who scored better in mental toughness – based on his questionnaire’s psychometric measures of challenge, control, commitment, and confidence – experienced less discomfort and pain, and an improved physical performance. 

In sports, mental toughness provides the athlete with an advantage over opponents by enabling them to cope better with the demands of physical activity — maintaining consistency in their determination and focus, and a feeling of control. And in everyday life, to manage stress, overcome challenges, and increase contentment, particularly when applied to strenuous work situations, family life, and education.

Where does mental toughness come from?

Evidence suggests both upbringing and experience shapes human psyche and plays a role in how mentally tough someone is. Positive experiences, along with life events — parental support, injury, wins, and failure — influence mental toughness. A 2011 paper by Peter Clough and Lee Crust, Senior Lecturer in Sports and Exercise Psychology at the University of Lincoln, confirmed that a challenging, yet supportive, environment, promoting self-reflection, while developing independent problem-solving skills and personal responsibility, can boost mental toughness.

And even if you didn’t grow up in an environment that nurtured mental toughness — including supportive parenting — it can be learned later in life. The human psyche is strongly influenced by both positive and negative, external and internal, voices — our mental state can benefit from positive thinking, visualization, attentional control, and goal setting.

According to Alistair McCormick, a lecturer at Plymouth University, the use of psychological tools — including imagery, self-talk, and goal setting — improves endurance performance. Peter Clough agrees, “there are very many tools, techniques, and approaches that seem to make a difference” to the development of mental toughness, but “they don’t all work for everyone and they don’t work all the time.” Their use affects overall mental toughness by impacting, one or more, of the 4C’s — challenge, control, commitment, and confidence.

Positive thinking influences internal thoughts and impacts, what is known, felt and believed to be true. Affirmations – repeating short statements, such as “I am ready for this,” or “I am in control” —provide a means by which an athlete can mirror the effect of hearing positive messages from a friend or coach. While self-talk— creating an inner dialogue, for example, ‘I have planned for this,’ ‘My training has prepared me,’ ‘I know how to control these feelings’ — provides a way of handling nerves and stress. Successful performance can also be re-enforced at the end of each day by writing down, and reviewing, three achievements from the last 24-hours. The simple, but effective, daily closure activity can re-focus our psyche on what went well rather than dwell on disappointments, or perceived failures.

Visualization, an internal focus on positive mental images, can favourably impact both our mind and our body. Mental rehearsal is a proven way to prepare the mind for challenges and assert control over the inner voice. Mentally working through the steps in as much detail as possible — the start of a 100-meter sprint, a serve in tennis, or low times during an ultra-marathon — can be as real to the mind as doing it.

Attentional control increases the capacity to focus. For some, this may be the difference between winning and losing a contest. “If there is one factor that underpins people’s ability to perform at their best,” says Clough, it is their ability to “control their focus of attention effectively.” Concentrating on the right thing, especially under pressure, can be learned through setting clear goals, removing distractions, and using routines to reduce cognitive load.

Indeed, goal setting, using clear, realistic, and achievable goals, can focus and energize the individual, and provide long-lasting motivation. In Achieve the impossible, Greg Whyte, ex-Olympian, and professor of Applied Sport and Exercise Science at Liverpool John Moore’s University says, “irrespective of the size and complexity of the challenge, one overarching truth remains: success is not a chance event.” he says. “Each challenge must be broken down into a set of manageable sub-tasks”.  Training sessions can then be used to target a particular aspect of the challenge and provide feedback to recognize improvement opportunities for growth.

To survive, and thrive, athletes must learn how to cope with stress — in life, training, and competition — and perceive negative events as positive opportunities. Mental toughness remains an integral part of the mindset of the athlete. A robust mental toolkit can overcome stressful challenges while ensuring consistently high levels of performance. But, like any skill, even one we are born with, it must be developed and maintained.

Originally published on medium.

Picture included above by Scafeli – Unsplash

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