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Defining Mental Toughness

Take a second, I want you to picture a moment when you witnessed mental toughness. 

Typically when we think about mental toughness, we tend to be drawn to moments of immense pressure. Those moments where games are back-and-forth and each play could result in victory or defeat. Those moments where an individual is on full display for others to judge their actions. Those moments when everything lines up and that individual rises to the moment. That is typically what we picture and we deem that as “mental toughness.” While yes, that can be an example of mental toughness, this type of image implies winning and perfection are the only ways to be mentally tough. These images get trapped in the minds of coaches and athletes, and any time they are less than perfect they believe they are mentally weak. 

The challenge today is to redefine or reframe the definition of mental toughness. Mental toughness is a psychological characteristic that many elite athletes deem necessary for a successful performance (Gould, Diffenbach, & Moffett, 2002; Weinberg & Gould, 2003). There is a relationship between mental toughness and finding success during competition. Unfortunately, mental toughness is a vague term and tends to be subjective. When you ask someone to define it, most will say, “I know it when I see it.” Many researchers have been attempting since the mid-1950s to make these intangible characteristics more tangible. 

According to Liew, Kuan, Chin, and Hashim (2019), the earliest academic conception of mental toughness was proposed by Cattell, Blewett, and Beloff in 1955. Dr. Raymond Cattell was one of the foremost psychological researchers in personality and intelligence. Cattell and his colleagues developed the Junior Personality Quiz measuring twelve personality factors (Cattell, et al., 1955). One of those factors was labeled as tender-minded vs. tough-minded. The authors defined tender-minded as being sensitive, anxious, or prone to emotionality. Whereas tough-minded was characterized as “tough poise.” Cattell (1957) went further to define tough-minded individuals as self-reliant, responsible, and realistic. 

From Cattell and his colleagues’ research, academics viewed mental toughness as a personality trait. Personality traits, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology are; 

A relatively stable, consistent, and enduring internal characteristic that is inferred from a pattern of behaviors, attitudes, feelings, and habits in the individual.

Let us backtrack for a second and pose a question. If mental toughness is a personality trait, and personality traits are relatively stable, can we train mental toughness? 

In 1986, Dr. Jim Loehr in his book, Mental Toughness Training for Sports: Achieving Athletic Excellence, created a model of mental toughness that included factors such as self-confidence, negative energy, and attitude control. While Dr. Loeh mostly uses anecdotal evidence to build his model, it is an important step forward in understanding if one can train mental toughness. 

Apologies for the academic history lesson thus far. I have always found it is important to backtrack before going forward. One of my favorite quotes from English writer, GK Chesterton states, “Don’t ever take down a fence until you know the reason why it was put up.” How can we redefine something when we haven’t properly understood why we define it a certain way in the first place? Academic research constantly gets reworked and updated. Though at its core there is a sustaining kernel of knowledge that gets passed on to those that are learning to apply that knowledge. In the area of mental toughness in sports, two continuing factors are still prevalent 69 years after Cattell’s research; (1) Mental Toughness is one factor that contributes to success, and (2) Mental Toughness is a characteristic valued by athletes and coaches.

In the early 2000s, several researchers clamored to find a more specific definition of mental toughness (Fourie & Potgieter, 2001; Golby & Sheard, 2004; Gucciardi & Gordon, 2009). Though the definition is still somewhat subjective, there is some agreement on the subcomponents that make up mental toughness. These subcomponents have been utilized to help define and train mental toughness.

  1. Hardiness: Responding to stressful situations with commitment (vs. alienation), control (vs. powerlessness), and challenge (vs. threat) (Quick, Macik-Frey, & Nelson, 2017). 

  2. Coping Skills: Coping refers to conscious strategies used to reduce unpleasant emotions. Coping strategies can be cognitions or behaviors and can be individual or social (Folkman & Lazarus, 1988). 

  3. Optimism: A major determinant of the disjunction between two classes of behavior; (a) continued striving vs. (b) giving up and turning away (Gould et al., 2002). 

  4. Resilience: Being able to bounce back from performance setbacks (Gucciardi & Gordon 2009). 

It is suggested by the definition of these subcomponents that mental toughness can be trained. While reading this blog post will not make you mentally tough, it can give you a good idea of where to start. Thank you for reading my long tangents this far. I know we are getting to the meat of this post and what you probably came here for. Here are a few tips to start training your mental toughness. You may even find that you already do a lot of this. The difference is, that doing it on purpose allows you to replicate it more often. 

  1. Keep showing up! Being tough is built through consistency. The more you keep your commitments the more progress you will see. 

  2. Set small manageable goals. Building up small wins over time increases your confidence as well as resiliency in case you encounter a setback. 

  3. Find coping skills you connect with. These coping skills should be practiced in your athletic setting. What coping skills can you incorporate during competition? Examples: Breathing techniques, visualization, challenging thoughts, engaging in problem-solving, using social support, etc. Find what works for you. 

  4. Understand your motivations. The more you understand your drives, the easier it will be to understand your potential obstacles and how to overcome them. Motivation can be internal or external, learn how to strike a balance between those two polarities. 

  5. Redefine success. Success can look different to a lot of people. Winning and losing is only one way to define success. The more often you see success, the more confident you will become in your abilities. 

This is just a small list of some things you can do to make yourself tough-minded. When we break down all the things that make you mentally tough, it makes it more manageable. It is no longer one image in our mind of a perfect moment that seems unattainable. Being mentally tough is a series of small actions you can do daily. It is something in your control and only you get to decide if you have successfully demonstrated toughness.


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