By: Tim Bennett, MGCP
There is a lot of information about mental toughness and mental resilience. They often times get confused. This is a two part blog about each of those respectively and their similarities and differences.
Mental Toughness vs. Mental Resilience – Part I
What’s better? Every coach wants mentally tough players. Do they want mentally resilient players too? Are they the same thing? Can those traits be developed or coached or is a player just born with them? Can someone be both, mentally tough and resilient? Isn’t mental tough just purely physical, like getting through a difficult workout or overcoming an injury?
Good questions, huh? Are there answers though you ask? Yes!
Why is it so important for athletic performance?
50% of superior athletic performance is the result of mental toughness (Clough and Strycharczyk, 2019)
83% of elite-level coaches rate mental toughness as the most important characteristic for determining competitive success (Clough and Strycharczyk, 2019)
Athletes and people are more successful (emotionally, physically and in their sport) when they are mentally tough. Ok, so we know how important it is for competitive success. What is it though? The definition is pretty straightforward. It is a “personality trait which explains in large part how individuals respond differently to the same or similar stressors, pressures, opportunities and challenges irrespective of prevailing circumstances” (Clough and Strycharczyk 2015: 33). Mentally tough people are not better than anyone else; they are simply better at rebounding from adversity in a shorter period of time than those who are not mentally tough.
When we think of a mentally tough person, it conjures up images of bruised and battered competitors struggling against all physical odds to pull off successfully. We think it is purely physical. This is a very common example but it has created several myths about mental toughness:
- Mentally Tough athletes always think/feel positive – While mental toughness involves observable actions like the above; it also includes less visible behaviors such as thoughts and emotions. Athletes who show mental strength DO NOT always think self-affirming thoughts or feel 100% confident. More positivity does not translate into more mental toughness. Being overly positive and unrealistic in our thinking can undermine our performance and destabilize our confidence. When we set unrealistic expectations for success and continually fall short, we are less likely to work hard and persist through challenges. Instead, mental strength requires realistic beliefs about our abilities. It requires trusting in and focusing on our process—on improving rather than proving oneself— regardless of the situation. Mentally strong people are also aware of “negative” thoughts and emotions. They thrive through positive and negative situations, which can be external (e.g., game conditions) and internal (e.g., fearing failure). Athletes who show mental toughness dare to acknowledge and examine negative thoughts/emotions to gather information about their situation. AWARENESS of our thoughts and how we can respond and not react to them is the key to becoming mentally tough. When you choose to take notice of what’s passing through your mind, without attaching an inefficient response to those thoughts or feelings, that is the first step. Then, finding the determination to evoke productive thoughts about the situation at hand, is mentally tough. For example, if a player feels frustrated because of team conflict, that athlete shows mental toughness by attending to their “what” (emotion) and “why” (reasons for the feeling) rather than suppressing their frustration (which likely makes team dynamics worse). Mentally tough individuals don’t ignore negativity. They embrace all aspects of their experience to move forward and act following their values (e.g., use team conflict to strengthen group relationships).
- Mentally tough athletes are not emotional or sensitive – Being mentally tough does NOT mean that you feel fewer emotions or are less emotionally sensitive. As debunked in myth #1, mentally strong people are deeply aware of their emotions. In doing so, we recognize that emotions are a common aspect of being human and of being an athlete: we are not the only ones, and are not wrong for, feeling sadness, guilt, and fear. By mindfully processing emotions, mentally strong athletes can then decide how to best move toward accomplishing their goals. That is, they can consider why they feel the way that they do, and whether/how those emotions are helping or hurting them achieve their aims.
- Mentally strong athletes push themselves beyond natural physical limits. Mentally strong athletes train hard and smart. Training hard and smart means pushing physical limits inappropriate ways and also setting boundaries to ensure long-term performance, development, and well-being. Mentally tough athletes understand that proper rest and recovery are a part of their training process. They are disciplined, consistent, and patient. And, they have the humility and courage to step out of the game if injured when “just playing through it” for the short-term glory jeopardizes their long-term goals.
- Mental toughness stereotypes behavior. It gets confused with being completely rigid and unbreakable. However, if pressure is applied to something inflexible in the right place, it breaks. Mental tough athletes are psychologically flexible.
Over the past two years, we have seen so many great examples of mental toughness across our sports landscape. Simone Biles displayed every aspect of mental toughness in this past Olympics. She completely shattered the above myths and showed us what true mental toughness is and what it looks like.
There are 4 major traits of Mental Toughness, the 4 C’s as described by MJ Turner (2019):
- Control – Optimal individual performance is more likely to be predicted by one’s ability to control or manage emotion than technical or tactical abilities. This is where we set specific performance objectives, ones that we can control, to drive success. We can’t control the opponent, we can’t control how fast they are, we can’t control the condition of the pitch or the referee, etc. But what we can control are those actions that lead to success like running intently off the ball, scanning constantly, etc.
- Commitment – It is the inner drive that allows us to put our heart and soul into accomplishing goals regardless of obstacles or circumstances. It is grit, passion, and perseverance.
- Challenge – This aspect of mental toughness describes the extent to which we will push our boundaries, embrace the change, and accept the risk of success and failure. Challenges are opportunities.
- Confidence – This completes mental toughness. It is our stable and unwavering self-belief in our abilities to succeed.
Despite popular opinion to the contrary, mental toughness can be developed. It can be learned and grown! Some simple techniques like mindfulness, attentional control, breathing, self-talk, routines, goal setting/performance objectives, and viewing failures as data for growth.