Mental toughness: Nature vs. Nurture?2 Opinions
Having a strong psychological foundation will allow athletes to achieve the greatest execution of a skill can during a performance (Gucciardi et al, 2008). Ŝukys and Jansoniene (2012) reported, when the competition level of an individual increases the pressure to succeed intensifies, hence the importance of a solid mental core. This pressure of being successful has led to the development of psychological skills training and an attitude towards athletes being mentally tough (Gould et al, 1987; Bull et al, 2005; Connaughton et al, 2008; Weinberg et al, 2009, Crust & Clough, 2011).
Current studies suggest that coaches and athletes believe that being mentally tough is vital to success in their sport (Gould et al, 1987; Bull et al, 2005; Weinberg et al, 2009). Over recent years there have been various scholarly articles which debate what mental toughness actually is, and subsequently the best way to define it. Clough, Earle and Sewell (2002, p. 38) for one stated;
“Mentally tough individuals tend to be sociable and outgoing; as they are able to remain calm and relaxed, they are competitive in many situations and have lower anxiety levels than others. With a high sense of self-belief and an unshakeable faith that they control their own destiny, these individuals can remain relatively unaffected by competition or adversity.”
When examining this definition it specifically pin points personal behaviours that can be associated with mentally tough athletes (e.g. high self-belief, having faith and being sociable). Even though this is regarded as a worthy beginning for other studies (see Horsburgh et al, 2009), some researchers have decided to work with alternative definitions (see Jones et al, 2007).
With mental toughness being notoriously hard to define (Jones et al, 2002), it has given other academics a chance to generate additional meanings. Each of which offer something slightly different to Clough and colleagues attempt (see Jones et al, 2002; Gucciardi et al, 2008; Madrigal et al, 2013). Further efforts include the following;
“Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to, generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer and, specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure.” (Jones et al, 2002, p. 211)
If Jones et al. (2002) definition is taken into consideration it implies that being mentally tough can be down to a natural or environmental occurrence (Thelwell et al, 2005; Crust & Clough, 2011). This is another factor that this essay will inspect, looking into whether or not mental toughness is innate or accomplishable through training.
Prior to defining the term, research on mental toughness has been said to have derived from Kobasa and associates prospective study on hardiness in 1982 (Horsburgh et al, 2009). Gould et al. (1987) later advanced this theory, and subsequently worked with wrestling coaches to find if they thought mental toughness could be developed. Yet this was as far as the study went, and the possibility of nurturing athletes to be mentally tough was not investigated until later years (see Bull et al, 2005; Connaughton et al, 2008; Gucciardi, Gordon et al, 2009). These earlier studies, such as Gould et al. (1987), have been said to be lacking in “scientific rigour” when approaching this topic (Jones et al, 2002, p. 206).
Exploration into mental toughness since has advanced its “rigorous” nature and approach to scientific discovery (Crust, 2008, p. 576). It is widely regarded that the catalyst to further enquiry came from Jones and colleagues (2002), and the development of the Mental Toughness Questionnaire (Jones et al, 2007; Weinberg et al, 2009; Madrigal et al, 2013; Crust, 2008). This particular study aided the expansion of another principal piece of literature from Jones et al (2007), whereby a Mental Toughness Framework was formulated. Prior to the framework of 2007, in the 2002 study a 12 attribute model to show characteristics present in mentally tough individuals was expressed. This was one of the first studies that put a major emphasis on the personality traits for mentally tough individuals (Crust, 2008), and therefore directed research towards a likely framework. Over the following years further assessments have been developed in order to evaluate mental toughness with similar concepts to the MTQ48 (see Madgrigal et al, 2013, for comprehensive list).
However the validity of some of these assessments, especially the MTQ48, has divided some sports psychologists. A paper released in 2012 by Gucciardi, Hanton and Mallett called for a comprehensive inspection of the MTQ48 before it is taken as the perfect assessment. Gucciardi et al. (2012) disputed the low factorial validity of the questionnaire which led a further study to specifically examine this construct (see Perry et al, 2013), though after further research an article underlined limitations to the inspection (Clough et al, 2012).
Now research has progressed from the notion of conceptualising mental toughness and more to its applications in sport with developing athletes. Examination is also heading towards the post-positivism approach and qualitative forms of analysis. One of the current debates centres on whether it can be natural or taught.
The basis of mental toughness and the inherent side in particular, has developed from the theories of Cattle (1957). This however has since pushed research away from nature-verses-nurture and more towards how the two concepts working together (Crust & Clough, 2011). An example of this can be found in the study by Weinberg and colleagues (2011), whereby coaches were reported to select national track athletes based on them already showing signs of mental toughness. This leads to further debate as to where the participants established these displayed traits. Was it in fact taught prior to selection, or is it in the DNA of the athletes?
Horsburgh et al (2009) decided to advance the notion of personality playing a role in mental toughness. In this study mental toughness conformed to normative data values shown from a psychological evaluation questionnaire (i.e. MTQ48). With the paper in question, groups of identical and non-identical twins completed questionnaires individually and separately (see Horsburgh et al, 2009). The study looked at relating mental toughness to the Big-5 factors of personality (see Capara et al, 1993). Even though the findings supported the hypothesis and showed that mental toughness exhibited strong associations to genetics, the reliability of such a test can be scrutinised. Initially due to the tests being completed in the participants own homes, the reliable nature of the results can be questioned. There were no researchers present to see whether the results were 100% the views of the individual.
Away from genetics, it is believed that gradual exposure to demanding situations will aid the development of mental toughness in younger athletes (Crust & Clough, 2011). A number of studies have considered ways in which to train the enhancement of mental toughness to a variety of participants (see Bull et al, 2005; Connaughton et al, 2008; Weinberg et al, 2011; Gucciardi et al, 2009). These studies have shown that, coaches in particular, report an understanding of the term and can admit that it plays a vital role in success, but admit there has to be an underlying foundation of toughness already (Weinberg et al, 2011).
Weinberg and colleagues’ article from 2011 follows with this idea of athletes having a mentally tough foundation prior to coaching. In particular this study reported that coaches play a pivotal role in the enhancement and nurturing of mental toughness. The coaching “style” and personal “influences” (Weinberg et al, 2011, p. 158) were seen as important when trying to develop the concept in NCAA athletes. Despite what seems a comprehensive evaluation of coaches’ opinions, there are limitations to the aforementioned study. The entirety of the work was based around subjective views from NCAA coaches, this is also a criticism that the authors make themselves (see Weinberg et al, 2011). This means that the study cannot be easily applied to real world situations and transferable across team sport for example.
The environment can also be a factor in supporting or enhancing mental toughness (Crust & Clough, 2011). In particular Bull et al (2005) reported influences from outside the sporting location that affected mental toughness in cricketers. From the findings the researchers developed the Mental Toughness Pyramid. For example a parents’ attitude towards failure along with the way in which they evaluated performance, would show an effect on the participants’; which in turn may lead to negative associations with criticism, which will not aid progression. It was stated that if the pressure of external entities (such as parents) was to be removed, the athlete would only concentrate on the performance and therefore accomplish more (Bull et al, 2005). A limitation to this nevertheless is that athletes were chosen from mental toughness assessments from two decades prior. This does not necessarily mean that were still mentally tough at the time of the test.
If the article from Connaughton et al (2010) is taken into reflection, the researchers have enhanced the understanding of mental toughness and its influences. During this study it was found that “critical incidents” (p. 190), whether the incidents were constructive or destructive, affected the participants mental toughness. This notion is supported by the earlier findings from Connaughton et al. (2008), showing that mental toughness can also be affected from external and subsequently environmental factors.
Another way to look at how mentally tough athletes differ is through the type of sport they play (e.g. team or individual). It has been theorised that models for different sports are need, due to individual sportspersons displaying greater mental toughness (Weinberg et al, 2011). This was a recommendation made from a study that led Nicholls et al. (2012) to investigate further. It was found that different levels of athletic performance had little effect on mental toughness. From this it can be hypothesised that being tough mentally can be sourced from genetics (Golby & Sheard, 2006).
When referring back to the earlier statement that NCAA coaches look for athletes who already show signs of mental toughness (see Weinberg et al, 2011), it leads to further debate. Having never stated that the athletes have ever received any sort of coaching in the area; does this not imply mental toughness can be a personality trait, unaffected by external influences? Conversely in a study of this type, fully analysing the participants history is not necessary, hence there could have potentially been previous psychological based skills training as reported in Bull et al (2005).
As is the nature of sport, the emphasised is placed on performance based results and competitively coherent game play. However it can be seen from a few studies that mental toughness could be a trait (Golb & Sheard, 2006; Nicholls et al, 2009; Horsburgh et al, 2009). Therefore could this not mean that coaches could be inclined to select players based on their genetic make-up over playing ability? Perhaps, it could potentially be the groundwork for a latter study in the nature based side of the current debate. From present research it may be worthwhile looking closely at these athletes who display traits of mental toughness (either through the use of the MTQ48, PPI or other) already.
However rationalising what mental toughness is has become clouded. Therefore it leads to a need for the development of a universal testing method, or an overriding definition of the term, as suggested by Weinberg et al (2011), to create a definitive understanding.
The current position for mental toughness is one that is evolving. New research is being published continually and will remain to do so until a definitive and universal understanding is achieved. However this may be a target that is unattainable. There will always be an individual or group prepared to prove or disprove theories coming forward. Essentially this is the foundation for generating knowledge and advancing the understanding of mental toughness. From here it is important to view mental toughness as both natural and developed in order to generate sound training strategies to help facilitate athletes at every level. This is down to the fact that both coaches and athletes have reported mental toughness as being vastly important to success (Gould et al, 1987; Bull et al, 2005; Weinberg et al, 2009).
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About Charles Gardiner
Current University Rugby Union coach and Sports Scientist with an interest in all things sport related, I have worked with Lincolnshire FA and the University of Lincoln.