What is Mental Toughness and why do YOU need it?

Written By: Stuart Pattison

Until recently, enquiries into the phenomenon of Mental Toughness were inundated with the commonly-held notion that Mental Toughness was a ‘big cliché’ within the sporting world. Numerous researchers have pondered over how broadly applied the term Mental Toughness is, coupled with it being one of the least understood phrases in sport. The situation today is somewhat different. The concept of Mental Toughness is no longer new, and for some time now there have existed many applied texts devoted solely to the development and conceptualisation of Mental Toughness. The increased flow of academic interest in the Mental Toughness phenomenon clearly indicates the significance and importance that sport psychologists, coaches and athletes themselves place on Mental Toughness. The influence that psychological factors have on athletic performance is becoming increasingly important and prominent today, so much so that coaches, athletes and sport administrators recognise that success cannot be guaranteed by raw physical talent alone. In fact many researchers have attributed Mental Toughness as being a significant influencing factor contributing to successful performance excellence as well as a performance enhancer. Although this view is endorsed by various researchers, within a South African context there is still a concerning lack of belief in the influence of psychological intervention and the impact it has on performance. Researchers conducting studies using Mental Toughness and psychological intervention frameworks are still trying to capture the faith of a somewhat stubborn audience.

In today’s world, it is rare to see individuals competing for pure pleasure, relaxation and innocent recreation. Rare too is the phrase “it does not matter whether we win or lose” – a mantra which is considered increasingly old fashioned. The world in which we live today is seemingly more obsessed with success and with the desire and drive to “win”. Perhaps it is the thought of being the best, the thought of being the most powerful or the most intelligent that is captivating and encompasses our drive for success. In almost every endeavour that humankind embarks on there exists the drive to be at the top. Michael Sheard, in his book The Achievement Mindset: Understanding Mental Toughness, presents some thought provoking questions that we should all be considering. He uses an athletic context but the idea he promotes is applicable to all facets of life. He asks the following: What separates an athlete thriving on elite competition from one who disintegrates under pressure? Why is it that some athletes are able to succeed in the face of adversity while others cannot? Why can some athletes resist and disregard negative effect in competition while others let it influence and weaken their competitive performance? What is it that allows athletes to rebound after defeat and personal failure? Many suggest that the answers to these questions lie in the successful development, implementation and continuous maintenance of the concept of Mental Toughness. Top sportspeople today realise that winning goes far beyond just technique and further includes a new dimension known as the ‘psychology of winning’ which incorporates a magnitude of different mental ingredients such as context specific mental skills found in tailor-made Mental Toughness programmes.

When we encounter stressful situations or are faced with any kind of adversity, the resultant outcome in terms of positive or negative emotional responses and the effects these responses have on our performance will be influenced by our ability to successfully manage internal and external demands. This refers to the ability to go beyond pure physical talent, skill and ability and tap into the mental side of performance enhancement and optimisation. Too many people overlook mental elements when faced with difficulty in performances and whenever faced with situations that require an enhanced level of performance, the immediate reaction is generally to make an adjustment to all levels and phases of their ‘physical’ training routine long before the mental aspect of performance is even considered. Every athletic contest is a contest of control, control of the delicate mind and body connection, yet athletes consistently and persistently continue to train harder and harder physically at the expense of mental training.

Athletes that are able to engage in the mental side of training and performing have a greater advantage to those who are unable to do this. The biology of the human body is designed to regulate its very existence and this regulation stems directly from the central control system, the brain and the mind. Regardless of the physical attributes that athletes may possess, the ‘tougher’ athlete will most often prevail and the determining factor between success and failure is “often more easily, and perhaps more appropriately, attributable to psychological factors”. The determining factor between a good athlete and a great athlete can come down to the quality and extent of their psychological preparation and how well these athletes apply their skills during high pressure game situations. It has now become crucial for athletes, should they want to succeed, to obtain the ability to cope with the psychological stress that accompanies not only elite sports participation but sports participation in general. Gucciardi, Gordon, and Dimmock (2009) use the concept ‘Mental Toughness’ as an umbrella term for athletes who are considered to possess superior mental characteristics and they believe that it is the mental game that will differentiate the performers. It can be simply put that “Mental Toughness sets apart good and great athletes when physical, technical and tactical skills are equal”.

It is important to note, however, that developing and improving one’s mental side of performance by no means negates or trivialises the important role of developing and maintaining physical or technical abilities. The point being stressed here is that an athlete who has physical talent, skill and ability can become an even greater athlete and increase their chances of a more successful performance and career if they begin to train mentally. An athlete who does not share equal physical ability as other athletes and who is perhaps considered slightly weaker in this regard may even become a better athlete if they learn to engage in Mental Toughness development, improvement and maintenance. In sport, athletes often refer to the term fitness or a state of being fit and there are many different definitions and meanings associated with the term ‘fitness’. Generally speaking, an athlete who is considered fit would be one who is in a desired physical condition suitable for performing at the highest level possible for their particular role in a specific sporting environment. In modern day sporting contests athletes need to concentrate their efforts on becoming mentally fit and essentially getting themselves to a state of optimal mental fitness. “Coaches and athletes are becoming aware of the fact that in today’s world, competition is tough, even though athletes are physically fit, yet the margin for victory is slim”. Talent alone does not translate into success and there have been situations where highly talented athletes have experienced ‘burn out’ because of a breakdown in Mental Toughness and the, seemingly, less talented athletes have succeeded at professional levels because of their mental strength.

Coaches, as well as the athletes themselves, are slowly starting to realise that in order for them to get ahead of the competition an added resource is needed and that is to train mentally. “Competitive sports are 85-90% a mental game, but unfortunately, many times the physical aspect of the game is magnified at the expense of the other”. The premise of this article is that if athletes and coaches can combine the two elements of mental training and technical training they will establish a consistent peak performance every time they compete. They will open up an opportunity for superior and elite performance that otherwise was untapped, unheard of and somewhat unattainable. They will be breaking into unique realms of performance optimisation and enhancement. Therefore, developing and furthermore maintaining Mental Toughness is imperative in today’s sporting world and the difference between success and failure may be determined by this sole factor.


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