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Mental Toughness

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By Dr. Tomi Wahlstrom |

Mental toughness is considered a desirable personality trait that tends to significantly determine how well athletes perform when exposed to stressors, pressures, and challenges, irrespective of prevailing circumstances. It is an important trait especially in today’s high-pressure environment where athletes must worry about much more than what happens during their athletic performance. Top athletes must face pressures of publicity and celebrity. They are required to attend news conferences and maintain their image and brand. In addition, sport is more competitive than ever. Loss is hard to accept and requires mental toughness. In some sports, athlete’s performance depends on equipment quality and other outside factors. For example, in motorsports a driver needs not only great driving skills but also a great car. It is stressful to cope with factors that are not under the athlete’s individual control. Doing so requires mental toughness.

Mental toughness is said to influence approximately 25% of individual’s performance. It helps athletes to work harder and to achieve more. This is a very significant margin of improvement. Mental toughness promotes positive behavior. It creates better engagement and more “can do” attitude. Athletes with mental toughness are also more likely to accept personal responsibility. In addition, mental toughness promotes wellbeing. Mentally tough individuals tend to experience more contentment and manage stress better. They are also less prone to bullying. Mentally tough people have higher aspirations, and they are more ambitious. They tend to have higher standards and are generally more confident and prepared to manage more risks.

To become more resilient, or mentally tough, an athlete needs a blend of control, commitment, challenge, and confidence. Control is defined as the feeling of one’s ability to manage whatever is happening within or around oneself. Commitment is the desire to keep on despite difficulties. Challenge involves understanding that stress is a normal part of life and an opportunity to learn and grow. Confidence means the belief that one can successfully do things. All of these four qualities are needed to possess mental toughness and they must be developed trough one’s life in a conscious manner. There are techniques that can be utilized to develop better mental toughness. Performance thinking, for example, includes the development of the proper mindset and internal locus of control. Anxiety management techniques, on the other hand, consist of the development of specific strategies to manage anxiety and stress. Additionally, attentional control and mindfulness meditation can be used to calm and focus the mind better. Goal setting and coaching can help to articulate and align values as well as identify and use one’s strengths. For some people, visualization and imagery can also be helpful tools. For those who have access to it, biofeedback can assist in monitoring the development of these skills. These are just a few tools that can used to acquire more mental toughness. For true searchers, reading Stoic philosophy can add an extra flavor.

Mental toughness is mostly a mindset. The lack of it does not mean mental weakness. Low mental toughness equates to mental sensitivity, not mental weakness. It is also possible for people with high mental toughness to cause problems and to be perceived as harsh and insensitive. Therefore, it is important for individuals to maintain the right level of mental toughness for each situation. It takes time to develop and master it, and to get the balance right.

Dr. Tomi Wahlstrom is the Provost at the United States Sports Academy.

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