It doesn’t seem that long since the London 2012 Olympic Games were gracing our TV screens in the Summer that saw Great Britain achieve 29 Olympic Gold medals across 26 sports. Fast forward to the present and we are edging ever so closer to another sport filled Summer, with the 2016 Olympic Games being held in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. With average temperatures at that time of the year approximately 24 degrees celsius and a 50% chance of a cloudy day, the weather conditions have potential to be close to perfect, or at least better than the UK.
There are a whole host of things that can play upon the performance of an athlete; the weather, travelling, diet, sleep, training and physical ability. One of the most important aspects of sporting performance, regardless of the type of sport, is the mental mind set of the athlete. The physical performance of an athlete can only take them so far; everyone at the Olympics trains hard, eats right, gets the right amount of sleep, and what sets an athlete apart from the rest is their mental game.
An athlete’s mental game comes in the form of mental toughness. A mentally tough performer can be thought of as an individual who makes fewer mistakes, who doesn’t deny the problem but is efficient with their response, and who does not dwell on defeat but accepts its inevitability graciously at some point in their career (Sheard, 2012).
“Every practise and competition begins with the way you think. The quality of your thoughts is critical; think in ways that promote the outcomes that you desire”
- Stephany Coakley
Across many sports athletes often attribute their success to mental toughness, but what exactly is mental toughness and how is it defined?
Unfortunately there are many different definitions of mental toughness in literature including: an ability to cope with pressure, stress and adversity (Goldberg, 1998), an ability to overcome or rebound from failures (Dennis, 1981), and the possession of superior mental skills (Bull, Albinson & Shambrook, 1996). There are also many characteristics of mentally tough athletes as proposed in literature, such as high levels of optimism, confidence, self belief, determination and concentration (Loehr, 1982). Despite the general lack of clarity surrounding mental toughness it has long since been one of the most important aspects of sporting performance (Gould et al., 1987). Research shows that sport performers achieving the best results are those with more mental toughness, as measured by commonly associated attributes (Crust & Clough, 2005; Golby & Sheard, 2004).
Research conducted on international athletes has attempted to define and identify key attributes of mental toughness in order to set fourth a universally accepted set of attributes (Jones, 2002). From the study, a definition of mental toughness emerged as having a psychological edge that enables:
- The athlete to cope better than opponents with the demands sport places on them
- The athlete to be more consistent than components in remaining determined, focused and confident
- The athlete to remain in control when under pressure (Jones, 2002).
The attribute of self belief emerged to be the most critical aspect of mental toughness closely followed by motivation in the form of desire and determination (Jones, 2002).
Other important attributes of mental toughness were:
- Being able to cope with an internally-derived anxiety response to the pressures of competition
- Being able to remain focused
- Being able to maintain technique and effort whilst experiencing physical and emotional pain resulting from failure (Jones, 2002).
This study made clear conclusions regarding a generally accepted view of mental toughness from the qualitative interviews of international athletes themselves, giving a valid representation of such an important sporting quality.
As mental toughness is so important for sporting performance, how does one become more mentally tough? Development of mental toughness is a long term process that requires many underlying mechanisms that operate in combination to achieve such a mind set (Connaughton, Wadey, Hanton & Jones, 2008). These underlying mechanisms are associated with the motivational climate of an athlete (whether they are involved in sport for enjoyment or for rewards). In addition, coaches, parents and peers are amongst many individuals who affect the mental toughness of an athlete with the work of a sport psychologist playing a pivotal role too (Connaughton et al., 2008). Experiences in and outside of sport and internalised motives to succeed are also important aspects of developing mental toughness (Connaughton et al., 2008). Once mental toughness has been developed the maintenance relies on an internalised desire and motivation to succeed, a support network within and outside of the sporting environment and effective use of basic and advanced psychological skills (Connaughton et al., 2008).
Whilst it is not certain what exactly may equate to mental toughness, it is a commonly accepted view that mental toughness is as important to sporting performance as physical ability. Perhaps mental toughness is different for every individual and what defines it is not something that can be put into words but something you know is there inside of your mind that gives you the strength to push on when it gets tough, ignoring the pain and the opposition’s determination. When it seems the world is against you and everything is set out to destroy your performance, the mental toughness inside of you persists and does not give in.
There are many aspects of sport that can impact upon performance and the important thing to remember is that every single athlete there at that moment may also be competing against those setbacks too, whether it be bad weather conditions, tiredness and fatigue from travelling, not having enough sleep or not eating the right food prior to performance. What makes an athlete a champion is that regardless of all those implications that are standing in the way of the athlete and success, they stand tall in the face of adversity and remain in belief of their ability to win. Success does not come with time, it comes with toil and to those who persevere, compete with guts, dignity and integrity, holding themselves together when things are trying to tear their performance apart. Believe in yourself and the rest will follow.
“Mental toughness is the stuff of champions”
Bull, S. J., Albinson, J. G., & Shambrook, C. J. (1996). The mental game plan: Getting psyched for sport. Eastbourne, UK: Sports Dynamics.
Connaughton, D., Wadey, R., Hanton, S., & Jones, G. (2008). The development and maintenance of mental toughness: Perceptions of elite performers. Journal of Sports Sciences, 26, 83-95.
Crust, L., & Clough, P. J. (2005). Relationship between mental toughness and physical endurance 1. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 100, 192-194.
Dennis, P. W. (1981). Mental toughness and the athlete. Ontario Physical and Health Education Association, 7, 37–40.
Golby, J., & Sheard, M. (2004). Mental toughness and hardiness at different levels of rugby league. Personality and individual differences, 37, 933-942.
Goldberg, A. S. (1998). Sports slump busting: 10 steps to mental toughness and peak performance. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Gould, D., Hodge, K., Peterson, K., & Petlichkoff, L. (1987). Psychological foundations of coaching: similarities and differences among intercollegiate wrestling coaches. The Sport Psychologist, 1, 293–308.
Jones, G. (2002). What is this thing called mental toughness? An investigation of elite sport performers. Journal of applied sport psychology, 14, 205-218.
Loehr, J. E. (1982). Athletic excellence: Mental toughness training for sports. New York: Plume.
Sheard, M. (2012). Mental toughness: The mindset behind sporting achievement. Routledge.
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Tags:AdversityCommitmentConfidenceCopingExerciseExercise PsychologyIntrinsic MotivationMental HealthMental ToughnessMindsetMotivationResilienceSports Psychology
About Sarah Griffiths
BSc Sport Science graduate, MSc Psychology graduate, MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology at UCLAN. Athlete and coach at Leigh Harriers Athletics Club.