Research into athletes’ mindsets can help every person become psychologically stronger
When someone is described as being “mentally tough,” it typically signals that they’re resilient, self-assured, and bold. Ask any athlete what the concept means in sports, and they will answer, “you thrive in competition,” “you’re self-confident,” and “you can handle the pressure.” But all these statements describe behavior, rather than what’s going on inside one’s head. They fail to define what mental toughness actually 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 10 sports professionals competing at an international level — swimmers, sprinters, gymnasts, triathletes, rugby players, and runners — and asked what the concept means to them.
After analyzing 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, a professor of psychology at the University of Hull, looks at mental toughness beyond elite athletes and the context of sports. He considers it an actual personality trait, fundamental to the performance, well-being, and personal development of everyone, that determines “how people deal effectively with challenges, stressors, and pressure… irrespective of circumstances.”
Since the human psyche is strongly influenced not only by external but also internal voices, our mental state can benefit from psychological tools including positive thinking, visualization, attentional control, and goal setting.
According to Clough’s model, mental toughness is made up of four components that psychologists call the “4Cs:” challenge, control, commitment, and confidence. A mentally tough person interprets challenges as opportunities and believes they can maintain control in their life.
Clough also developed a questionnaire to measure mental toughness in sports and used it to learn about the concept’s impact on athletic performance. When 41 undergraduate sports students were assessed and then 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 measures of challenge, control, commitment, and confidence) experienced less discomfort and pain and performed better physically.
In sports, mental toughness gives someone an advantage over opponents by enabling them to cope better with the demands of physical activity. And in everyday life, mental toughness allows someone to better manage stress, overcome challenges, and increase contentment.
Can you develop mental toughness?
Evidence suggests both upbringing and life experiences shape the human psyche and play a role in how mentally tough someone is. A 2011 paper in Journal of Sport Psychology in Action confirmed that — no surprise here — a challenging-yet-supportive environment that promotes self-reflection, personal responsibility, and the development of independent problem-solving skills can boost mental toughness.
But even if you didn’t grow up in an environment that nurtured mental toughness, it can be learned later in life. Since the human psyche is strongly influenced not only by external voices but internal ones, too, one’s mental state can benefit from psychological tools including positive thinking, visualization, attentional control, and goal setting.
Positive thinking 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 positive effects of hearing positive messages from a friend or coach. Self-talk — an inner dialogue of “I have planned for this,” “my training has prepared me,” or “I know how to control these feelings” — provides a way of handling nerves and stress. Successful performance can also be positively reinforced at the end of each day by writing down, and reviewing, three achievements from the last 24 hours. This daily closure activity can help you refocus on what went well, rather than dwelling on disappointments or perceived failures.
Visualization, an internal focus on positive mental images, can favorably impact both mind and body. Mental rehearsal is a proven way to prepare for challenges and assert control over your inner voice. Mentally working through the steps in as much detail as possible (the start of a 100-meter sprint, a serve in tennis, questions in a job interview, or presenting in front of an audience) can be as real to your mind as actually doing the activity.
Attentional control increases your capacity to focus. For some, this may be the difference between success and failure. “If there is one factor that underpins people’s ability to perform at their best,” says Clough, it is their capacity to “control their focus of attention effectively.” Concentrating on the right thing, especially under pressure, can be learned through setting goals, removing distractions, and using routines to better embed knowledge.
Finally, when it comes to goal setting, using clear, realistic, and achievable goals can focus and energize you, and provide long-lasting motivation. In other words: Chunking the bigger challenge into smaller manageable components that can be tackled individually, is key. In his book Achieve the Impossible, Greg Whyte, a former Olympian and professor of applied sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University says, “irrespective of the size and complexity of the challenge, one overarching truth remains: success is not a chance event. Each challenge must be broken down into a set of manageable sub-tasks.”
A robust mental toolkit can help you overcome stressful challenges while ensuring consistently high levels of performance. But, like any skill, even one that you’re born with, mental toughness must be developed and maintained.
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