How To Measure Mental Toughness

Mental aspects of training, mental aspects of competing, general functioning / mental health and wellbeing can all be measured.

Measuring Mental Toughness is hard but that doesn’t mean we can’t attempt it.

“I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition”

Bill Gates

Okay, I’ll admit it – we’re a little jealous of professionals who assist athletes, coaches and teams with the physical side of performance. Tests like the VO2 max for cardiovascular endurance, stretch and reach tests to measure the flexibility of various regions of the body and even the humble bathroom scales used in order to find out body weight simply don’t have objective mental equivalents.

In fact, assessing mental toughness is so tricky that when Condor Performance first started offering sport and performance psychology services back in 2005 we didn’t even attempt to measure anything with any real conviction – preferring to simply ask a series of questions at the start of the coaching journey.

But if not bothering with something because it was hard was something we did frequently then we’d be in the wrong business – so over the years, we have tried on an ongoing basis to improve how we assess the very areas we help our clients with – mental health and mental toughness.

As the overwhelming majority of 5000+ readers of the Mental Toughness Digest are actual athletes, coaches and sporting parents rather than fellow psychologists then it’s worth quickly explaining that there is no direct way to measure anything psychological. We can try to assess a number of areas via questions and/or observations but at best the results to these will act as a “guide” to one or more psychological variables.

The exception to this would be a formal intelligence test (such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale). Although it would be easy to fake a poor score on the WAIS (by giving incorrect answers on purpose) it would not be possible to get a high score without actually possessing those abilities. This makes tests such as the WAIS more objective than most other psychometrics which relies 100% on opinions and/or observation. Unfortunately, in the work we do knowing how intelligent someone is just isn’t that useful.

With the luxury of time (something we rarely have in our consulting) the reliability of the information collected can be improved through asking the opinions of those close to the client (e.g. their family, coach) and/or via direct observation. Observing the athletes, official, coach or performer in real life situations can be invaluable. Imagine how useful it is to watch a tennis player smash her racket during a match compared with just a couple of questions about her emotions.

But just because the answers and scores are being made up of the opinions of people doesn’t render these tool useless by any means. It’s just we need to be mindfulness of their relative subjectivity when interpreting the results.

“What exactly are we trying to measure here” is normally a great question when either choosing, designing or reviewing any psychological assessment. At Condor Performance we have always believed that the main purpose of the questionnaires – typically taken before now well know “Kick Start Session” – is as a massive time saver. In other words instead of spending that first 30 minutes with the client finding out what makes them tick we already have a pretty good idea. This then allows us to move onto ‘solutions’ much earlier in the process than might otherwise have been possible with the recently completed questionnaire.

For us, the sport and performance psychologists at Condor Performance, what we’re most eager to find out about before and during the journey fall into four general groups:

  • Mental aspects of training
  • Mental aspects of competing (if competing)
  • General functioning / mental health and wellbeing
  • Other important stuff like age, sport and long term goals

I will not go into any detail about why we measure mental aspects of performance (mental toughness) and mental health separately as you can read a full explanation of this in my recent blog post on this very subject here.

The open and closed questions about mental toughness then generate scores for the five areas of mental toughness – Motivation, Emotions, Thoughts, Unity and Focus. This provides the sports psychologist or performance psychologist with incredible insight into how to assist this performer. For example, the conversation and suggested solutions for an athlete who has high motivation but poor levels of focus are going to be very different compared with if those two areas were the other way around.

Mental Health is also assessed (screened) due to the inclusion of The Depression, Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS-21) at the end of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires. Due to the fact that 99% of our work is done 1-on-1 then we can work on both mental toughness and mental health at the same time without pretending they are the same thing!

I have to admit the name of our four questionnaires – all which start with the words Mental Toughness – have become misleading due to the fact that they measure more than just mental toughness now (they didn’t at the start – hence a bit like a nickname – it has stuck).

The four questionnaires – which can be completed by anyone for free looking to gain insight into the areas already mentions – are listed below. The questionnaires are all similar but use language relevant to that role (for example, officiating instead of performing). The coaches’ questionnaire is the most different as this also includes a section asking about the coaches’ perceived mental coaching abilities. Let’s not pretend or assume that being mentally tough and mentally well automatically makes you a good mental coach.

Author: Gareth J. Mole

Gareth J. Mole is an endorsed Sport and Exercise Psychologist. He is the founder of Condor Performance and co-creator of Metuf™. He lives between Canberra and Sydney (Australia) with his wife, their two children and their fourteen chickens.

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