Mental Toughness vs Mental Health

Leading Sports Psychologist Gareth J. Mole explains the difference between Mental Toughness for Performance and Clinical Mental Health.

Mental Health and Mental Toughness are not the same.
Being Mentally Well and Mentally Tough are not the same thing.

There is a very encouraging change taking place behind the scenes in Australian sport whereby “Wellbeing” is starting to be considered an important part of sporting excellence. This is a welcome change from the win-at-all-cost Winning Edge program that thankfully has been disbanded. But it’s not all roses and bubblegum. With this “Wellbeing Movement” there are a growing number of people who mistakenly are being lead to believe that Mental Health and Mental Toughness are one and the same. But they’re not, and here’s why. 

As regulars readers of the Mental Toughness Digest will know the “model” that we use in our daily work as sport and performance psychologists is called Metuf. In very simple terms my colleagues and I work for Condor Performance but we use Metuf to guide our (mostly) 1-on-1 work with athletes, coaches, officials and non-sporting performers.

Because we’re all registered psychologists we are more than cable of assisting those we work with with any mental health issues that may present (e.g. severe depression) – but the majority of our clients are what might loosely be called the “mentally well”. These are individuals who do not present with any signs of a mental heath problem. In other words they function well and are happy but … 

…. they correctly believe that general wellbeing and happiness are probably not the complete psychological requirements needed to reach their many lofty goals and ambitions. There are other psychological ingredients that may not be that useful for normal, everyday people but are prerequisites when it comes to achieving consistent success in sporting competitions and the umbrella term for them is Mental Toughness. 

And although Metuf has always been and will always be about these latter psychological ingredients it’s evolved heavily along the way and undergone its most significant updates in years only towards the latter part of this year (2018).

One part of Metuf that’s changed recently is its “order” so to speak. We used to believe Metuf would only really work on the mentally well and therefore we often referred our clients to clinical psychologists for “fixing” (don’t think we used that word but you know what I mean) because passing them back to us for “lifting”. But eventually we worked out that many people where quite capable of working on their mental health and mental toughness at the same time. We also worked out that despite not being clinical psychologists as part of the process that all of us at Condor Performance undertook (are undertaking) to becoming fully registered psychologists meant we were pretty good at “the messy stuff”. 

The second batch of major, recent changes to Metuf resulted in a consolidation of exactly which psychological aspects of performance it was trying to assist with. Feedback from our current and past clients, lengthly internal discussions and a good, hard look at the most recent research (both sports science and sport psychology) resulted in an unanimous agreement that Metuf would target “The Big Five”. You can imagine our excitement when with only swapping in one or two synonyms the Big Five spell Metuf.

Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus. 

If we look at these five words / labels we can see where the confusion between MH and MT comes from – the first three in particular look like they’d be pretty handy for anyone struggling with their mental health (think depression and motivation, or severe anxiety and emotions). 

But the M in Metuf that stands for motivation is from the context of performance more so than daily life. The kinds of interventions that a clinical psychologist might use to motivate someone with clinical depression don’t resemble the kind of Mental Methods we use to motivate mentally well athletes, coaches, officials and performers. And the same applies for the E, T, U and F.

The analogy that we have been using more and more recently is that you are like an aeroplane. Your overall wellbeing is like the main body of the aircraft – Mental Toughness is like one of the engines. In other words there is no point in having Rolls Royce engines if they’re attached to an aeroplane that is falling to bits.

So why bother working 1-on-1 with a sports psychologist if it’s possible to do an entire Mental Toughness Training Course online for only $20. Excellent question. The simple answer – the psychologist (if he or she is one of ours) will tailor the Metuf principles specifically to your challenges and goals. Another way to put it – as good as the self-help verion of Metuf is – you can’t ask it any questions.