The term mental toughness has plagued sport for a number of years. It panders to the macho realm of sport, where the performance of one person dominates another. I have heard of mental toughness being applied to swimming, rugby, running, cricket, combat sports, Barbell sports, Crossfit, and the GAA.
If we pick an athlete who you envisage is “mentally tough” it may be a champion of sorts or a high performing team player. The term “Mentally tough or strong” is placed on them because of their action or levels of achievement within sport/life.
Similarly we then judge other athletes against that standard they are below or at the opposite end of the spectrum of “toughness”, people use phrases like “they don’t have it”, they are “weak”, “a pussy” “mentally soft” etc.
The big issue is people view mental toughness as a real “thing” that someone can have. In fact it doesn’t exist. It is a fruit salad.
I can make a fruit salad, and so can you. Neither will be the same. I like pineapples you like apples, you cut your fruit into fancy polygons, I stick to basic cubes.
Yet both of us have a fruit salad.
The scientific research of mental toughness is like a fruit salad. And indeed coaches and journalists have their own understanding of how to make their mental toughness fruit salad.
One definition below of mental toughness states that you must be facing an opponent, this would mean that mental toughness only works in domains with competitors and this definition also takes into account being focused, confident, and in control under pressure.
“Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to, generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer and, specifically, be more consistent and better than your components in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.”
What if when you compete you don’t feel pressure? Then by this above definition you wouldn’t be mentally tough. Does Usain Bolt ever look under pressure?
From my experience it’s obvious that if I have been working with an athlete to reappraise threats as challenges then they don’t perceive the same level of pressure. Therefore by the above definition I must be making them mentally weak, yet they perform better.
A second definition
“Mental toughness in Australian Football is a collection of values, attitudes, behaviours, and emotions that enable you to persevere and overcome any obstacle, adversity, or pressure experienced, but also to maintain concentration and motivation when things are going well to consistently achieve your goals.”
This definition says mental toughness can be used to overcome ANY obstacle. So by extrapolation I just need to use mental toughness to overcome the obstacles provided by war and poverty and the lack of production of electricity by my glutes… Really…? Could mental toughness allow me to achieve world peace while shooting lightning bolts out of my arse? … doubtful. This mental toughness fruit salad does not taste good. Yet the definition contains good psychological fruits such as Motivation, Concentration.
The reason I use the fruit salad analogy is that it takes fruits to make a fruit salad. The fruits of confidence, controlling pressure, and many other psychological aspects have plenty of applied research on them. These fruits are the aspects of Sport and Performance psychology which help athletes improve and perform. They give us a common language with which to look for performance improvements.
Mental toughness as a fruit salad is confusing, but tasty and mysterious. It draws us in, but leaves us with no place to look for a new way to approach our understanding of how to improve the individual psychological fruits. Sometimes people mistake the fruit salad for a new fruit.
The reason I detest mental toughness as a term is because it has very severe downside. I had an athlete come to me who was doing everything right, training hard, performing exceptionally as a leader in the team, and juggling all the balls of life very well. But it got too much; being pulled different directions by different GAA teams they were on. They approached me and said
“I can’t cope, but I don’t want the team to see me as weak but I need a rest I have too much going on.”
Asking for help leaves us feeling emotionally vulnerable, it is sometimes made difficult to do, yet asking for help is the bravest thing an athlete can do. Asking for help is not “mental weakness or softness”, it is a high performance behaviour, if a team is made up of athletes who ask for help, support and understanding from their team and from their support staff/coaches, then that is a team that I want to work with, because that is a thing that creates success.
Someone who ascribes to the “keep going be mentally tough” is increasingly likely to fall foul of burnout by injury or increased injury. And if you create an environment where people are asked to be mentally tough their understanding of that fruit salad may cause poor improvement or worse.
Coaches can help athletes by creating an environment where they can broach all topics and issues with the coach.
And you can help develop your psychological fruits by consulting with a sport or performance psychologist and not a person selling fruit salad or mental toughness.
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Andersen, M. B. (2011). 5 Who’s mental, who’s tough and who’s both? Mental toughness in sport: Developments in theory and research, 69.