‘Mental toughness’ is probably the most over-used phrase in sport. It is often held up as this magical quality that will ensure success to all those who have it. But despite its importance, many athletes are still left feeling short-changed when they don’t know how to actually develop it.
‘Mental toughness’ is also one of the most damaging phrases in sport. This is because it conjures up images of having a stiff upper lip and not admitting to having any weaknesses. There is often a fundamental misunderstanding of what mental toughness actually is: it isn’t simply ‘wanting it’, it’s not always being confident, and it’s not being a loud leader. If athletes thought that was all it was, they would spend their time chasing the wrong thing.
So, what actually is mental toughness, and how can it be developed? Here’s what our sport psychologists say…
Mental toughness is…
Athletes who demonstrate mental toughness are those who are aware of and able to control their emotions. This ensures that they are able to think clearly and correctly under pressure. One strategy to help with this is to encourage athletes to talk to themselves in a positive and helpful way. By asking themselves good questions, such as ‘what would I do differently next time?’ and ‘how can I maximise my strengths?’, they can stop dwelling on mistakes and focus on learning for the future.
Asking for help
Many people often perceive asking for help to be a sign of weakness, rather than a sign of strength. However, recent research has shown that people often falsely believe that admitting to their own weaknesses makes them seem vulnerable - whereas it is actually perceived as a positive trait by others. Asking for help is an act of courage and demonstrates a willingness to learn and improve.
Wanting to get better
Fear of failure can stop some athletes from attempting new skills or taking much needed risks when they play. However, athletes who have high levels of mental toughness are able to learn from their mistakes and see them as an opportunity to improve.
Talking to others when you are down
When we are upset, we tend to isolate ourselves. But as the old proverb states: ‘if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’. Talking to others (be it coaches, parents or team-mates) allows us to gain new perspectives which will help us deal with upcoming challenges more effectively.
Learning from your mistakes
Mistakes, if used correctly, can be an opportunity to learn and improve. There is a danger though that people over-romanticise failure. We don’t necessarily want athletes to fail more, but we do want them to fail better. Mistakes can also boost an athlete’s motivation levels and encourage them to make improvements, so that when they encounter a similar problem again, they know exactly how to solve it.
Being authentic and true to yourself
Oscar Wilde once wrote that you should ‘be yourself, everyone else is already taken’. In the quest to develop mental toughness, athletes may try to act in a way that they think they should. 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
Being mentally tough is all about being coachable and open to learning. Over time, athletes who make the most progress are the ones who are willing to engage and action the feedback they’re given. Those who are mentally tough listen well to others around them. It therefore makes sense to educate our athletes on common mistakes people make when asking for feedback and also how to receive feedback better.
Helping others to play well
Michael Jordan stated that ‘talent wins games, but teams win championships’. Truly great leaders put themselves before the team. They dedicate themselves to a higher cause. It is far easier to tell others what they need to be doing, but it is far more effective to inspire them to do it. Humility and self-sacrifice are a much truer hallmark of mental toughness than scrambling for the limelight.
In order to develop ‘mental toughness’, it is important that athletes understand that it is more than just passion or ‘wanting it’. It’s about the behaviours and attitudes that lead to them getting better and performing to their potential. By focusing on the skills and strategies to do this, athletes have the best chance of succeeding and maximising their abilities.