Why do some people fail under the pressure of athletic competition, whereas others seem to excel? Most martial artists, martial arts instructors, and fitness trainers agree that mental toughness is the most important psychological characteristic that determines success. What is mental toughness and what do mentally tough athletes think about or do when they are competing?
Mental toughness is many things and rather difficult to explain. Its qualities are sacrifice and self-denial. Also, most importantly, it is combined with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s a state of mind – you could call it character in action. - Vince Lombardi
It’s something you have to find from within. You have to keep pushing yourself from within. It's not about what other people think and what other people say. It’s about what you want to accomplish and whether you want to go out there and be prepared to beat everyone you play or face. - Tiger Woods
Four Cs of mental toughness
Mental toughness is a product of:
- Challenge. Seeing a challenge as an opportunity.
- Confidence. Having a high level of self-belief.
- Commitment. Being about to stick with tasks.
- Control. Believing you control your destiny.
Characteristics of mental toughness
Mentally tough athletes seem to have complete trust in their ability and believe they will be successful, no matter how much stress they encounter. Researchers from the University of Hull, in the United Kingdom, studied hundreds of athletes and identified some characteristics of mental toughness:
- Coping strategies
- Coping self-efficacy
- Stress intensity
- Stress control
Coping refers to the thoughts and behaviors we use to manage the stress we experience while competing or training in sports. The researchers found great differences between how the most and least mentally tough athletes cope with stress during sports competitions and training.
Coping strategies used by the MOST mentally tough athletes:
- Mental imagery. Create images in your mind where you see and feel yourself performing a specific task successfully, without doing it, such as performing a perfect spin side thrust kick. You should practice imaging both when competing or training and when not.
- Effort expenditure. When performing your sport, always exert 100% of your effort, no matter if it is the first or last minute of a match or training session.
- Thought control. Do not dwell on negative thoughts, such as “I should have blocked that kick!” Instead, replace them with positive thoughts, such as “No kick is getting by me again!”
- Relaxation. Relax at appropriate times during competition or training, such as between rounds or matches. Relax and stretch muscles to avoid any unwanted tension, and do breathing exercises, such as inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of eight.
- Logical analysis. Analyze your past performances and the weaknesses of opponents. Think about possible solutions to any potential problems before competing. Analyze the demands of completion and how to deal with them.
- Distancing. This involves removing yourself from a situation, such as avoiding possible opponents during a competition or not engaging in conversation with teammates during training.
- Mental distraction. This refers to thinking about things that are not related to the competition in which you are currently competing.
- Resignation. This is accepting that you are not going to achieve your goals, and not believing in your ability to achieve the goals. It is letting yourself feel hopeless and discouraged and wishing the completion would end soon.
Coping self-efficacy refers to the belief in one’s ability to cope effectively with stress during competition. Hull researchers found a positive relationship between coping self-efficacy and mental toughness. The most mentally tough athletes were noticeably confident that their coping strategies would be able to manage stress effectively, compared to the least mentally tough athletes who were not noticeably confident.
Hull researchers found that the most mentally tough athletes were also the most optimistic. Optimism refers to the hopefulness and confidence a person has regarding any uncertain outcomes and is thought to be a major factor in determining which of two types of behavior are adopted: continued striving or giving up. More optimistic athletes are likely to exhibit increased effort to attain goals, whereas the more pessimistic are likely to withdraw from situations and disengage from attempts to attain goals
An ‘ABCDE’ model to help people enhance their levels of optimism has been proposed by a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.
- During times of stress, we encounter Adversity, such as falling after a missed spin kick attempt.
- Thinking about what has just happened can then influence our Beliefs, such as causing you to think your balance is off while spinning,
- which has Consequences, such as your avoiding using any more spin kicks.
- To improve optimism levels you should think of examples in the past where you were successful, such as remembering the hundreds of successful spin kicks you have performed and thus find evidence against your negative beliefs, which is referred to as Disputation. The way to deal with setbacks is to dispute the negative thoughts that emerge from them.
- Finally, Energisation occurs after you disputed the negative thoughts and you feel energized and ready to succeed.
The most pessimistic athletes are the least mentally tough. They tend to lack confidence and always predict the worst when faced with any uncertainty. Pessimists think differently compared to optimistic people when setbacks occur during a competition, such as receiving a warning. Pessimists tend to blame themselves and their ability for the setback. Telling themselves that “I am not good enough” or “None of the guys want me on the team.”
The three Ps of pessimism:
- Personal. Pessimists believe that any misfortune they encounter lies within themselves rather than being external, so the misfortune is always personal.
- Permanent. Pessimists believe that their misfortune is long lasting or permanent, such as “I always forget the front kick in this pattern.’
- Pervasive. Pessimists believe that if they experience misfortune in one part of their life, they will experience it in other parts of their lives.
If you feel that you have a pessimistic mindset, there are strategies you can use:
- Attribute any setbacks that occur to external sources, such as “I fell during the spin kick because of a wet spot on the floor.”
- View all setbacks as being temporary and remind yourself that they are temporary because you can improve your technique enough to prevent such setbacks from occurring regularly.
Hull researchers found that the most mentally tough athletes did not rate the stress they experienced as being as intense as did the less mentally tough athletes. To perform to your potential, you must reduce the intensity of the stress you experience while competing.
Tips for reducing stress intensity:
- View all competition as challenging, not just the current one.
- Focus on the elements of competition you may influence.
- Think through in advance what you are going to do during a competition.
- Think through in advance scenarios that may occur during the completion and how you will respond to them.
Stress control refers to the degree of control a person has over the stress they encounter. Hull researchers found that the most mentally tough athletes were more in control of the stress they experienced than were the less mentally tough.
Ways to enhance your stress control:
- Break a stressful situation down into manageable parts, rather than focusing overall.
- Figure out what you can and cannot control and direct your energy toward that which you can control.
- Present a sense of being in control toward your opponents and teammates.
- Control your emotional reactions to stress by using relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing.
Remember that all skills, including psychological skills, require practice and time to develop. The more you practice being mentally tough, the more mentally tough you will be when you need to be, and the better you will be able to perform!
- Nicholls. A. Are you mentally tough enough? Available: http://www.pponline.co.uk/encyc/are-you-mentally-tough-enough-42023