Mental Toughness

Mental Toughness. What is it, can it be measured and most importantly for success-seekers; can it be improved? Sports psychologist Gareth J. Mole muses these questions and more in this edition of the MTD:

Mental toughness is the interplay between motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus.

What Is Mental Toughness?

The term mental toughness is getting used more and more across many domains but in particular in competitive sporting circles. On the one hand, this is great news as finally, the mental side of performance is getting the attention it deserves and requires. The downside is that it is increasingly used in the wrong way – for example as a synonym for mental health.

At Condor Performance we typically consider mental toughness and mental health as both being important to performance but referring to different areas that can be targeted. Mental toughness by our definition refers to the ‘extra mental abilities required by those trying to achieve abnormally hard goals’. The key here is the ‘extra’ part – the part that if improved would benefit elite athletes much more than everyone else. This is what makes mental toughness difference from mental health. Mental health is something that every person on earth would benefit from improving as described in more detail via this previous blog post.

This is not to say that mental toughness and mental health are 100% unrelated nor opposites. The fact that your mind (brain) is involved in both correctly suggests there is a degree of overlap between these two psychological concepts.

One way that I like to explain it to my sporting clients is by using physical health and physical strength as parallels. Elite athletes need to be much stronger than most people will ever need to be. If you took a normal, healthy woman and asked her to play an international woman’s rugby match she’d be found wanting from a physical point of view. Yet, her actual physical health (blood pressure, skin folds etc) may well be the same – if not better – than elite female rugby union players.

So mental health is more or less like the mental basics. If you have clinical depression then this will impact on all aspects of your life. However, if you get nervous before certain sporting contests then the rest of your life might well be completely unaffected by this rather specific mental challenge.

As explained in the Intro video via the free, online, self-guided Metuf for Sports program sporting mental toughness can be thought of a being like one of four engines on an aeroplane whereby the rest of the plane is like mental health and wellbeing:

Mental toughness is like one of four engines on an aeroplane whereby the rest of the plane is like mental health and wellbeing

And just like how one of the other engines – Physical Capabilities – can be broken down into subcomponents (such as fitness and flexibility) so too can Mental Toughness.

As explained in Metuf for Sports sporting mental toughness might better be considered as an interplay between motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus. In other words, when we, as sport and performance psychologists, assist our clients to improve their mental toughness what we are really doing is helping them improve or maintain these five areas.

And of course, we when say motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus in this context we are referring to these concepts as they relate to training and competing much more so than in everyday life.

For example, it’s quite possible for someone to have no signs of depression – which basically means their ‘motivation towards life’ is fine whilst at the same time not wanting to either train nor compete. Logically, interventions designed to improve clinical depression are not going to be much in this case. This athlete needs mental skills designed to help improve his/her motivation in the area(s) they lack motivation for – training and/or competing.

The same applies when referring to sporting emotions, thoughts, unity and focus. The emotions of walking down the 17th hole with a two-shot lead on the final day are not the same as those who experienced by general anxiety sufferers. The thoughts likely to trip up a Formula One driver before the light has turned green are unique and should be shaped accordingly. If you are part of a sporting team that lacks unity you will never be successful. And focus? The kind of focus needed to keep your eye on the ball as it’s coming towards your head at 100 km/h is not the same as the kind of focus that would help you do better at school.

Can Mental Toughness Be Measured?

If you’d like to read a full post dedicated to answering this question then click here. But in summary, the answer is ‘yes, but not directly’. When we measure mental toughness we do so by asking – normally via a questionnaire – about the five areas already mentioned (motivation, emotions, thoughts, unity and focus). There is no way to assess these directly in the same way that a physio can measure flexibility – for example. Some aspects of sporting mental toughness can be measured via observation by an astute onlooker but again this is just a best guess.

For example, when I first start working as a sports psychologist with a new sporting team I typically spend the first week or so just watching and taking notes. I make estimates on areas such as team unity but I am mindful of the fact that a) what you see is not always what you get and b) the week might not be a typical week.

Having said that when I combine the ‘data’ from my notes with the numbers produced after all athletes and coaches complete one of our Mental Toughness Questionnaires then this is certainly more than adequate.

How Can Mental Toughness Be Improved?

Of course it can and like so much in life how you go ahead it will likely depend on your budget. The expensive way is to work 1-on-1 with a qualified sport and performance psychologist like the ones that are part of the Condor Performance team. The cheap way – in fact so cheap it’s free – is to complete the Metuf for Sports online course.

This course should never be considered as a substitute to working with a psychologist in the same way that reading a book about driving a car should never be considered as a substitute to having driving lessons with a qualified driving instructor. But reading a book about how to drive a car is better than doing nothing at all!

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.