Five key attributes of the mentally tough athlete2 Opinions
Mental toughness is hard to quantify and define, and it is increasingly evident that the concept can mean different things to different people. UK researchers Jones et al. (2002) carried out an in-depth study with top international athletes and concluded mental toughness to be: ‘having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to a) cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer and b) being more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure’.
What drives human behaviour?
Jones’ well-rounded definition captures several critical factors under the umbrella term ‘mental toughness’ and echoes earlier definitions by Loehr (1995) and more recently, Thelwell, Weston et al., (2005). A pattern of key traits has clearly emerged around the concept of mental toughness, such as consistency, coping skills, resilience, control, and not least, motivation.
What is less clear, however, is how one actually goes about developing these key traits – which could arguably be called skills. For example, how does one actually develop good coping skills, or good self-control? Traits are both genetically determined and developed through environmental experiences (Cattell, 1982). One could argue that skills are what Cattell (1965) referred to as dynamic traits, that is, traits that ‘motivate us and energise our behaviour’. Consequently, as the following experts suggest, there are five non-negotiable dynamic traits or attributes one must start with in order to develop mental toughness:
The emergence of performance psychology exemplifies the key role the mind plays in performance, regardless of an athlete’s level of sport, their ability or their experience. A club runner can stand at the start line of a county cross country race with the same nervous tension as an elite athlete who stands uneasily in lane one on the track, preparing to run a world best – the demons may differ but the relevance (of the anxiety) to the athlete does not. What determines the outcome is their attitude, fostered through a strong sense of identity, self-belief and self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997). An athlete with a strong sense of self-efficacy and self-belief is more likely (than an athlete without these traits) to be equipped to develop a positive attitude, feel more confident and build resilience – key traits of the mentally tough – as experience has taught ultra runner and England Athletics Running Coach Sarah Russell.
“Mental toughness is about having the ability to get back up time and time again and face things head on no matter how many times you get knocked down. It’s about having the confidence that you can find a solution to a problem rather than seeing things as barriers. Whatever you might be facing, try to see it as a ‘challenge to overcome’ rather than something to stop you,” suggests Sarah.
To date, Sarah is the only person in the world with an ileostomy bag to have completed the Himalayan 100 mile stage race (2014). She survived a life threatening illness, underwent five major abdominal surgeries over two years and suffered numerous complications and setbacks. Although extremely painful at the time, both physically and mentally, the surgery and now (accepting) living with a colostomy bag has led Sarah to greater self-awareness, resilience and coping skills.
Learning to accept what life throws to you is an invaluable skill. It involves having the ability to be comfortable with a ‘trial and error’ approach to life where one learns from every experience, positive or negative, no matter what the outcome, echoes Olympic running coach and Irish Missionary Brother Colm O’Connell. O’Connell (who has spent 40 years developing rusty runners from the dirt tracks of Kenya into Olympic champions including 800m Olympic record holder David Rudisha at London 2012) acknowledges the progression and professionalism of his sport, yet he still firmly encourages his athletes to be mindful of several basic aspects when it comes to training: “A balanced lifestyle, the ability to relax and switch off, and to focus … being able to deal with failure, and being able to learn your event and its demands, are all still important,” he says.
Sarah agrees: “Accepting where you are right now and dealing with nothing else can help you stay focused on the ‘here and now’ rather then worrying about the future or comparing yourself to the past. It’s far better to be realistic and accepting of your situation rather than ‘fight’ it or stay in denial. Accept it, deal with it the best you can and move on.”
Developing an authentic sense of gratitude breeds humility and vice-versa, and both are required to maintain focus (on today’s goal) and a realistic perspective on your training and performance. In fact, research by Seibert (2005) suggests that both resilience and gratitude lead to greater empathy and the ability to see things from another person’s point of view. When we empathise with others, we feel less alone and less entrenched in pain. As a result, we recover faster and develop efficient coping skills (Sholl, 2011). In other words, having gratitude can create a knock-on effect: it helps build resilience; resilient people tend to be flexible and adaptable, and don’t balk at change; and they are confident that they can bounce back (Sholl, 2011).
Be (your own) best friend
This requires knowing all there is to know about ‘you’ – what makes you tick, your strengths, weaknesses, what motivates you, for example. It involves giving yourself a good talking to when necessary; being attuned to your needs, and paying attention. Not letting outside influences distract you from your goal. Basically, treat yourself as you would your best friend.
“And be honest with yourself,” advises Prof Martin Hagger, Director of the Health Psychology and Behavioural Medicine Research Group at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. “You can have a do or die, never quit attitude, yet this can be problematic … if you have a serious injury, for example, it may not be wise to keep going. Having a blinkered attitude can disadvantage you.”
Listening to your body and having the discipline to miss a training run if you are feeling poorly is actually a sign of strength, not weakness, agrees elite triathlete Holly Lawrence: “Mental toughness involves being able to stop, when you know you shouldn’t run while injured but everything within you wants you to indulge in the addiction that caused your injury in the first place. It can be at any level, even pushing yourself out the door when motivation is dwindling.”
Athletes and experts agree that really getting to grips with why you are running, training or striving for a PB, is crucial in terms of developing a healthy approach to your sport and consistent self-motivation. Having goals and a vision is great, as long as you are prepared for change. “Try to be creative in your approach to running … there is always a way,” says Sarah, who adds that having the ability to quickly adapt and be flexible is part of being ‘mentally strong’.
Elite British distance runner Chris Thompson agrees – the 2012 European 10,000m silver medallist has a mature approach to self-motivation and managing pressure: “Taking ownership, being clear about your personal goals, and being open to change, are crucial in terms of developing motivation and confidence,” he says. “When I started out, it was all about my personal goals, as it is for any runner at any level. It gets tricky when people set a goal based on what (they think) others think they should do – it just added pressure, however, pressure should always only be what you choose to put on yourself.”
Bandura, A. (1997). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Cattell, R. B. (1965). The scientific analysis of personality. Baltimore, MD: Penguin.
Cattell, R. B. (1982). The inheritance of personality and ability. New York: Academic Press.
Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (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. (1995). The New Toughness Training for Sport: Mental Emotional Physical Conditioning from one of the world’s premier Sports Psychologists. US: Plume; Reprint edition (Nov 1, 1995)
Siebert, A. (2005). The Resiliency Advantage. CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
Sholl, J. (2011). The 5 best ways to build resiliency, Experience L!fe, retrieved online on: 14 April 2015 from: https://experiencelife.com/article/the-5-best-ways-to-build-resiliency.
Thelwell, R., Weston, N., & Greenlees, I. (2005). Defining and understanding mental toughness in soccer. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 17, 326-332.
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About Evie Serventi
Evie is the deputy editor of Running Fitness magazine, and freelances in the health, fitness and psychology sectors. Having worked internationally for both the public and private sectors for over 15 years, Evie is now based in East Sussex and is completing a Masters in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Chichester University. As a mentor and support running coach, she particularly loves to help people build self-esteem and confidence; understand and manage their energy levels; develop coping skills; and foster self-motivation and emotional resilience through exercise and sport. Evie is a competitive runner, member of the Weald Tri Club, and a support coach at Sarah’s Runners.