Have you heard of mental toughness? Often talked about in relation to sport, mental toughness is characterised by an ability to consistently perform well under pressure and stress. Research has shown that it is also a useful quality for students, with benefits for school achievement, classroom behaviour, and relationships with peers.
However, mental toughness is often misunderstood. And when it is, it can probably do more harm than good. So it’s important to first address some common misconceptions about it.‘Toughness' is sometimes associated with hiding your feelings, or not admitting to any weaknesses. However, suppressing emotions can harm student well-being, as well as academic performance and socialising. Mental toughness is much more about being aware of your emotions, and acknowledging your weaknesses so that you can improve. It is not wanting to be the best, believing you are always right, or being over-confident and loud.
So, what actually is mental toughness, and how can it be developed in schools?
Mental toughness is…
Being aware of your emotions
Students who show mental toughness are aware of and able to control their emotions. This helps them to think clearly under pressure, in the lead up to and on the day of exams for example. One strategy to help with this is to encourage students to talk to themselves in a positive and helpful way. Students may be frustrated if they don’t do as well on an assignment as they had hoped. By asking themselves good questions, such as ‘what would I do differently next time?’, they can stop focusing on the negatives and concentrate on doing better next time.
Asking for help
Many students are too embarrassed to ask for help, for fear they would show weakness by acknowledging they don’t understand something or are struggling. The Spotlight Effect may worsen this, whereby people think that other people notice and judge their behaviour more than they actually do. However, recent research has shown that many people falsely believe that admitting to their own weaknesses makes them seem vulnerable - whereas others actually perceive it as a positive trait. Recognising when they are struggling takes courage for students, but it also shows a willingness to learn and get better.
Wanting to do well
With the excessive pressures piled on students to do well at school and in their exams, fear of failure may hold students back from advancing their learning and achieving their full potential. Mentally tough students are not afraid to make mistakes, and are able to learn from them, seeing them as an opportunity to improve.
Talking to others when you are down
When we are upset, we tend to isolate ourselves. But getting through the stresses of school and exams can be challenging enough, let alone by yourself. Talking to others, be it teachers, parents or friends, allows students to gain new perspectives which will help them to deal with upcoming challenges more effectively.
Learning from your mistakes
Mistakes, if used correctly, can be an opportunity to learn and improve. Rather than dwelling on mistakes and letting unhelpful beliefs overcome them, mentally tough students are resilient and able to bounce back from these low points, having a positive, ‘can do’ attitude (also known as a growth mindset). Students with mental toughness are able to see mistakes as a motivator, encouraging them to improve. This will help them to know exactly how to solve similar problems should they arise again.
Being true to yourself
In those gruelling teenage years of exam stresses, peer pressures and insecurities, students may often find themselves trying to act in certain ways to impress and conform with their friends. They might be torn between doing what they think friends would want them to do, and doing what they think parents or teachers would want them to. Learning to accept themselves is a skill that many students may struggle with. True confidence and motivation come from being comfortable in your own skin and being the best version of yourself, not an inferior version of someone else.
Being curious and asking questions
Mental toughness is all about being open to learning, not being a ‘know it all’. Over time, the students who grow the most are those who ask questions and listen well to others, seeking and responding to feedback effectively. Accepting that you have more to learn puts you in the right path.
Wanting to help others
As Michael Jordan famously stated, ‘there is no “I” in team’. Competing with peers can breed jealousy, distrust, and an unhealthy classroom environment. Working with and supporting friends through the school years is likely to make it a more enjoyable experience for everyone. Rather than striving to be ‘top of the class,’ mentally tough students work together, celebrating each others’ successes and helping one another on things they struggle with.
Mentally tough teaching
It’s worth noting mental toughness shouldn’t be the aim only for students. To create mentally tough students and classrooms, it is important for teachers themselves to be role models. Teachers can develop their mental toughness in much the same way as students. Mentally tough teaching has been found to promote a more positive classroom environment, as well as higher student performance. Research has also shown that mental toughness can help to protect teachers from the stress surrounding challenging classroom behaviours.
In order to develop ‘mental toughness’, students (and teachers!) should recognise that it is not about hiding your emotions and being the best. It’s about having the positive behaviours and attitudes that help them to learn and perform to their potential.