Talent is a given at elite level as is a willingness to work hard day in and day out. Along with this, athletes need deep focus and a positive mental attitude towards everything that might be thrown at them as top-level sport is characterized by a demand for athletes to excel while performing under pressure. Mental toughness dictates an athlete’s ability to cope with the stress and anxiety that inevitably come from high-pressure situations and to overcome adversity to prevail in high-pressure situations. Athletes, coaches, fans, and the media have widely acknowledged that this mental toughness is a key ingredient of sporting success and durability, however it is perhaps the least understood term in sport psychology.
Characteristics of mentally tough performers
There is much debate in the sport psychology literature over the definition and measurement of mental toughness. One of the more extensive definitions is ‘the presence of some or the entire collection of experientially developed and inherent values, attitudes, emotions, cognitions, and behaviours that influence the way in which an individual approaches, responds to, and appraises both negatively and positively construed pressures, challenges, and adversities to consistently achieve his or her goals (Coulter et al., 2010, p.715)’. Resilience, desire, determination, commitment, refusal to quit in the face of adversity and the ability to bounce back following the experience of failure have all been labelled as mental toughness at one time or other. Mental toughness provides performers with a psychological advantage over opponents. It leads to superior self-regulatory skills, as well as an ability to see things in perspective. Mentally tough performers are consistently more determined, focused, confident, and in control under the various demands that sport can throw at them.
Why is mental toughness important?
Mentally tough athletes respond in ways that enable them to be suitably focussed and energised because they have mastered two key skills. The first is increasing their flow of positive energy; they use their energy in a positive way in times of crisis and adversity, and secondly, they’ve mastered the ability to structure their thinking to give them the right approach to dealing with problems, pressure, mistakes, and tough competition. Essentially, mental toughness allows athletes to cope with the many demands placed upon them and to be consistent in remaining determined, focussed, confident, and in control.
Mental toughness is the shield that protects athletes in the theatre of unpredictability that is competitive sport.
The US Navy Seals Mental Toughness Programme
There’s no better place to explore the development of mental toughness than with the US Navy SEALs special warfare command in San Diego, California. Much of their training revolves around the effect that fear has on the brain. Recruits are put through specialised training to change the way their brains react to fear. In their training, students are introduced to absolute chaos from day one and they struggle. The rationale behind this is that when you examine historic mistakes on the battlefield they’re almost always associated with fear or with panic, so the capacity to control these impulses is extremely important. For the Navy SEALs, various exercises and drills are designed to induce panic and teach students to condition their responses to these panic signals. One drill, known as the hooded box drill, has recruits covered with a hood and earpieces so in effect they’re deaf and blind – instructors set up various scenarios, and then the hood comes off and the student has to respond to whatever’s put in their way. It simulates quick, snap-shot situations, high-risk scenarios that might happen in an instant and students need to respond correctly. Out of 140 candidates who start each class, on average, only 36 make the final cut. Successful recruits are better able to adapt their brains to the demands of the job and it’s not necessarily the most physically capable people who get through – Olympic athletes have failed whilst 140lb farm boys from Nebraska have graduated. The Navy turned to neuroscience to find out why.
When confronted with fear, one part of the brain, the amygdala, responds to information from our senses, and instinctively presses the body’s panic button, you start to sweat, your heart races, you might freeze for a while, you might run away. This can be applied to sport as fear, panic and a loss of emotional control are exactly what happens to athletes in pressurised situations. Another part of the brain, the frontal cortex, controls rational decision making, and problem solving. The fear signals reach the amygdala first, almost twice as quickly as they take to reach the frontal lobe, which explains why our instinctive reaction is to panic. This is a survival instinct – fight or flight or freeze. One of the issues with fear is not knowing what to do next – your brain freezes like a rabbit caught in the headlight. When panicked, we can make irrational decisions. Training is designed to minimise the delay of the rational part of the brain over-riding the panic signals, so students can make fast and accurate decisions about a situation.
Some primal or super fears seem to be programmed into our brain and the US navy makes recruits tackle these fears head on. One of our main primal fears is drowning. Evolution has hard-wired our brain to dread being trapped under water and as a result it’s almost impossible to control the brains overwhelming need to try to surface for air. It is why students struggle to pass Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL school or BUDS, one of the most dreaded elements of the training process. In one test, students have to stay under water for twenty minutes with breathing apparatus, but being constantly attacked. Instructors check how students cope and respond to constant controlled and planned harassment under water. The instructors repeatedly attack the students’ breathing equipment and for half of the time students are without air – the air is shut off, the breathing apparatus is manoeuvred into difficult positions, the students’ masks are pulled off. They must respond to those problems with a series of emergency procedures. Step-by-step instructions on how to untangle their gear is drilled into recruits beforehand and they need to follow these instructions to the letter. As the student runs out of air, the panic sets in and they feel the urge to go to the surface. The rational brain needs to win the battle in the mind if they’re to stay in control. Students are taken to breaking point, holding their breath longer than they are comfortable to, and are subject to repeated attacks, so that no sooner have they untangled one set of knots, the instructor’s back to attack again and again. More seals fail BUDS than any other test, mainly due to panic and loss of control.
The US Navy Seals highly pressurised training and exposure to dangerous situations trains the part of the brain that deals with rational and strategic thinking (the frontal lobe). This helps SEALS to overcome instinctive panic reactions, enabling them to deliver in highly pressurised situations. Through constant exposure to terrifying situations, recruits learn how to supress fear that could otherwise make them react the wrong way and ultimately get them, and their comrades, killed. The ground-breaking Mental Toughness Programme includes the Big Four techniques:
- Goal setting
- Mental rehearsal
- Arousal control
Breaking overwhelming challenges down into little bite-sized chunks makes them much more manageable and research has shown time and time again that goal setting works. The brain’s supervisor, the frontal lobe is responsible for reasoning and planning and this is the part that deals with goals. Setting specific goals allow the brain to bring structure to chaos and keep the emotional part of the brain in check. See the MYND goal setting blog for more information on goal-setting.
Mental Rehearsal (Also referred to a visualisation).
With mental rehearsal, you play out a scenario in your mind before actually doing it. This allows a scenario to come more naturally when you do face it for real. See the MYND visualisation blog for more information.
Self-talk has been shown to help Navy recruits to control their thoughts. The average person speaks to themselves at a rate of three hundred to one thousand words a minute; If these words are positive instead of negative – can instead of can’t – they help override the messages coming form the panic centre of the brain.
Its’ very easy to think of something difficult in a negative way – ‘I’m going to fail’ Effective self talk can replace these negative thoughts with positive thoughts ‘I can do this’. MYND’s self-talk blog is coming soon J
This is centred on breathing. Deliberate slow breathing helps combat the onset of panic;
long exhales in particular mimic the body’s relaxation process and get more oxygen to the brain so that you can concentrate better.
When used together, the Big 4 techniques gave the best results in helping to develop mental toughness and made a significant difference in the pass rate of recruits through the highly demanding US Navy SEALs selection process.
A successful recruit said:
“It was about transcending thoughts on what you believed your limitations were”. After successfully completing their training most of the former students spoke about their confidence going through the roof, seeing and doing things they could not have imagined before the training.
The SEALS mental toughness programme can be of great use to athletes who also need to ensure they can control their fear and perform in highly pressurised situations.