By Scott Barry Kaufman
Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute & researcher in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania
“Mental toughness” is a phrase that is commonly used in sports to describe the superior mental qualities of the competitor. Most elite athletes report that at least 50% of superior athletic performance is the result of mental or psychological factors, and a whopping 83% of coaches rate mental toughness as the most important set of psychological characteristics for determining competitive success.
One of the first descriptions of mental toughness was made by sports psychologist James Loeher. Based on his extensive work with elite athletes and coaches, he proposed seven dimensions of mental toughness that he argued are developed: self-confidence, attention control, minimizing negative energy, increasing positive energy, maintaining motivation levels, attitude control, and visual and imagery control.
Following up this work with a more systematic analysis in 2002, Graham Jones and colleagues interviewed ten international performers (seven males and three females) from a variety of sports. The elite performers were asked to define mental toughness in their own words and describe the central characteristics of mental toughness. The following definition naturally emerged from the interviews:
People who are mentally tough have a psychological edge that enables them to cope better than their opponents with the many demands that sports place on a performer, and they are also more consistent and better than their opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.
The athletes identified 12 key attributes as key to mental toughness in sport, ranked in order of importance:
- Unshakeable self-belief in your ability to achieve competition goals (“Mental toughness is about your self belief and not being shaken from your path. . . . It is producing the goods and having the self belief in your head to produce the goods”).
- Ability to bounce back from performance set-backs as a result of an increased determination to succeed (“Yea, we all have them (setbacks), the mentally tough performer doesn’t let them affect him, he uses them”).
- Unshakeable self-belief that you possess unique qualities and abilities that make you better than your opponents (“I am better than everyone else by a long way because I have something that sets me apart from other performers”).
- Insatiable desire and internalized motives to succeed (“You’ve really got to want it, but you’ve also got to want to do it for yourself. Once you start doing it for anyone else . . . you’re in trouble. You’ve also got to really understand why you’re in it . . . and constantly reminding yourself is vital”).
- Remaining fully focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions (“There are inevitable distractions and you just have to be able to focus on what you need to focus on”).
- Regaining psychological control following unexpected, uncontrollable events (comeptition-specific) (“It’s definitely about not getting unsettled by things you didn’t expect or can’t control. You’ve got to be able to switch back into control mode”).
- Pushing back the boundaries of physical and emotional pain, while still maintaining technique and effort under distress during training and competition (“In my sport you have to deal with the physical pain from fatigue, dehydration, and tiredness . . . you are depleting your body of so many different things. It is a question of pushing yourself . . . it’s mind over matter, just trying to hold your technique and perform while under this distress and go beyond your limits”).
- Accepting that competition anxiety is inevitable and knowing that you can cope with it. (“I accept that I’m going to get nervous, particularly when the pressure’s on, but keeping the lid on it and being in control is crucial”).
- Not being adversely affected by other’s good and bad performances (“There have been cases where people have set world records and people have gone out 5 or 6 minutes later, and improved the world record again. The mentally tough performer uses others ‘good performances as a spur rather than say “I can’t go that fast.” They say “well, he is no better than me, so I’m going to go out there and beat that”).
- Thriving on the pressure of competition (“If you are going to achieve anything worthwhile, there is bound to be pressure. Mental toughness is being resilient to and using the competition pressure to get the best out of yourself”).
- Remaining fully focused in the face of personal life distractions (“Once you’re in the competition, you cannot let you mind wander to other things”; and, “it doesn’t matter what has happened to you, you can’t bring the problem into the performance arena”).
- Switching sport focus on and off as required (“You need to be able to switch it [i.e., focus] on and off, especially between games during a tournament. The mentally tough performer succeeds by having control of the on/off switch”).
Stay tuned for more from Mr. Kaufman on mental toughness.
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