The end of the Tour de France 2014 has arrived and around 170 cyclists have battled their way through a lively, atmospheric Yorkshire to the mountainous region of Southern France.
The riders have had to fight their way against heavy rain, hail, temperatures reaching 30 degrees Celsius and strong cross winds, whilst tricky surfaces including cobbles, mud and winding roads demanded their full attention.
The ability to perform through the harsh conditions for a total of 3,664 kilometres requires immense mental toughness, one of the most important psychological attributes in achieving performance excellence (Williams, 1998).
Although there is a lack of clarity with regards to the definition of mental toughness, it has been suggested to encompass 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).
Mental toughness allows an athlete to relax and persist in the face of failure, consciously increasing their positive energy flow and having the right attitude towards problems that they come across (Loehr, 1982).
Certain characteristics are associated with individuals who are mentally tough. A performer with mental toughness may have high levels of optimism, confidence, self-belief and self esteem (Bull et al., 1996; Goldberg, 1998). These individuals may also exhibit desire, determination and commitment to all aspects of the sport (Tunny, 1987; Williams, 1988).
There are many positive characteristics associated with mental toughness within the literature, but one consistency is the agreement amongst researchers that mental toughness is reflected in an athlete’s ability to cope with stress and anxiety associated with the high pressured environment of competition (Goldberg, 1998; Gould et al., 1987).
One such environment is the Tour de France, during which athletes withdrew due to being injured and no longer being able to carry on.
Stage 1 of the tour in Yorkshire saw Mark Cavendish crash in the finishing sprint against the German racing cyclist, Marcel Kittel. Even with a dislocated shoulder that needed surgery, he still cycled through to the finish of the stage and crossed the finish line.
Despite Cavendish still having optimism after the crash that it would feel better the following morning, he withdrew. However, in the adverse conditions he still remained optimistic and persevered to the end, showing the mental toughness and resilience spoken about in the literature.
Team Sky rider, Chris Froome, crashed for the first time only 5 km from the start of stage 4 during this year’s tour, continuing after receiving medical attention. Confidently, he still finished the stage and remained 2 seconds behind the overall leader Vincenzo Nibali.
Coming into the 5th stage, Froome already had his knee bandaged up and his wrist supported by a splint. However, Froome crashed twice more before he even reached the notorious cobbles along the road to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut.
Froome showed great mental toughness to get back on the bike again after two serious crashes and even after the 2nd crash he remained positive and hopeful he would carry on to the cobbles, according to his team mate Geraint Thomas.
Comments were made on Twitter stating that Chris Froome had ‘given up’ and withdrew from the tour. He and many others don’t just ‘give up’. He fought again and again, crash after crash, putting in every mental and physical effort to stay in the race and perform as well as he could, riding through injury, pain and horrendous weather conditions.
He showed courageous mental toughness and determination to “bounce back” (Jones, 2002), even with the odds against him. From watching each stage with great interest, it must take tremendous amounts of mental toughness to even get on the start line day after day, let alone get back on the bike after crashing.
Mental toughness is researched profusely, with different definitions and dimensions analysed across a number of sporting samples. Each sport performer may have their own idea of what mental toughness is for them and how they would define the characteristics of this psychological construct.
A study conducted on 10 international sport performers (Olympic and Commonwealth Games athletes) participated in either a focus group or a one-to-one interview to qualitatively assess mental toughness and the attributes of an ideal mentally tough performer (Jones, 2002). Athletes defined mental toughness as coping better than their opponents and being consistent whilst remaining determined, focused and confident. The athletes identified attributes of mentally tough performers that included self belief, desire, motivation, focus, dealing with competition pressures, anxiety and dealing with physical and emotional pain.
All of these characteristics of being a mentally tough performer that are listed numerously within the literature are evident consistently in each and every rider in the Tour de France. It’s what makes them able to train vigorously in the months coming up to the event, gives them the ability to get on the start line each day no matter how much their bodies hurt from the previous days’ work, and to get all the way to the finish even if it means crashing and being in physical and mental pain.
Being mentally tough, as described in the literature, can give you an edge over competitors, driving a desire to train hard and reap the rewards of successful performance outcomes. However, no matter how mentally tough an athlete may be, there may be times where the situation is too much and it over powers the built up psychological strength that got the athlete to the start of the race in the first place. This does not mean the athlete is in any way ‘weak’. The mind is a powerful tool, but one which has its limitations along with the rest of the human body.