Mental Toughness Part 1
An introduction 1653
Top-level sport is characterized by the demand for athletes to excel while performing under trying circumstances.
In other words, top athletes are required to perform consistently under pressure.
For an athlete to overcome pressure, a number of personal qualities are required, including self-confidence and motivation.
Talent is a given, as is a willingness to work hard day in and day out.
Along with this, athletes need a deep focus and a positive mental attitude towards everything that might be thrown at them.
It’s no surprise then, that one of the personal characteristics that define all top performers is mental toughness.
Mental toughness has been described as one of the most used but least understood terms in sport psychology –
Even though it’s often perceived to be the singularly most important factor that determines sporting success and durability.
It dictates an athlete’s ability to cope with stress and the anxiety that inevitably comes from high-pressure situations.
Virtually all Olympic gold medallists state that mental toughness was crucial for athletic success.
Nonetheless, even though in a recent survey 82% of coaches rated mental toughness as the most important psychological attribute in determining success, only 9% stated that they were successful in developing or changing mental toughness among their athletes.
Mental toughness has to do with the ability to overcome adversity and to prevail in high-pressure situations, even when things aren’t going in your favour.
It provides performers with a psychological advantage over their opponents.
It leads to superior self-regulatory skills, as well as an ability to see things in perspective.
The legendary American sprinter Michael Johnson had been beset by a string of injuries in preparation for the 1997 World Athletics Championships in Athens.
After storming to a gold medal in the 400 metres, he told reporters
“I’m good when I’m good, and I’m good when I’m bad’.
Mentally tough performers are consistently more determined, focused, confident, and in control under the various demands that sport can throw at them.
So, what is this quality that is essential to consistent, high-level performances in the pressure cooker of elite sports?
What exactly are the characteristics of mentally tough performers, and how can you develop your mental toughness?
Characteristics of mentally tough performers
Mental toughness is measured in a number of ways.
Some define it as simply the ability to ‘perform under pressure’.
Another definition from the research is
‘having complete control over your emotions…and controlling situations that you can control’.
When we talk about someone being ‘mentally tough’ we might be referring to their:
- Resilience, desire, determination, will power, commitment and refusal to quit, particularly in the face of adversity.
It could also be their:
- Ability to cope, handle pressure and maintaining self-control; or their
- Ability to overcome or bounce back, following the experience of failure.
And so it appears that any desirable psychological
characteristic associated with sporting success has been labelled as mental toughness at one time or another.
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
Second, 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 you to cope better than your opponents with the many demands placed upon you and to be more consistent than your opponent 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.
Lessons from the US Navy Seals
There’s no better place to explore developing 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.
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 physical people who get through –
they’ve had Olympic athletes who’ve failed and then there may be a 140 lb farm boy from Nebraska who graduates
To find out why that was, the Navy turned to neuroscience.
They found that 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.
Now imagine the similarity with sport;
whilst not undermining the serious nature and consequences of what the US Navy SEALs do, fear, panic and a loss of emotional control are exactly what happens to athletes in pressurised situations.
For the Navy SEALs, various exercises and drills are designed to induce panic. They are set up to 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 straight away to whatever’s put in their way.
Sometimes the correct response is swift and lethal; sometimes it’s non-violent.
It simulates quick, snap-shot situations, high-risk scenarios that might happen in an instant and students need to respond correctly;
so they’re introduced to the fact that panic is going to be less and less an option throughout their career.
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.
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 fears seem to be programmed into our brain, primal or super fears 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 underwater –
there’s probably nothing as scary as not being able to breathe, 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 underwater for twenty minutes with breathing apparatus, but being constantly attacked.
Instructors check how students cope and respond to constant controlled and planned harassment underwater.
The instructors repeatedly attack the students’ breathing equipment and for half 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 are 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 with, and subjected 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, the main reason being panic and loss of control.
The US Navy SEAL training is based on exposing students to scary situations so they can learn how to deal with them if they arise.
Through constant exposure to these situations, recruits learn how to suppress fears that could otherwise make them react the wrong way, and ultimately get them, and their comrades, killed.
To prepare recruits, the US Navy SEALs came up with a mental toughness programme which I’ll share with you in the next module.
Mental toughness is about being able to deal with pressure.
It’s the ability to stay calm and in control when confronted with challenging situations so that you behave as you’ve been trained to.
In tennis, for example, it’s all well and good being able to make first serve in the comfort of a training session –
but you have to be able to recreate that serve at championship point in a Grand Slam final.
That is precisely what this programme is all about.
In the next module
We will look at how the US Navy trains their SEAL recruits to be mentally tough and we’ll begin our journey towards developing your mental toughness.
Your MYND activity today
Think of a time when you were confronted with a highly challenging situation and you saw yourself through it successfully.
What were you thinking at the time?
What did you focus on that stopped you from panicking and losing control?
And how did you feel after you successfully completed the challenge?