Mental Toughness in Sports

Athletes are confronted with a variety of stressors, challenges,  and  adversities,  external  (e.g.,  hostile crowds, referee errors, challenged by an opponent, sport  and  life  balance)  and  internal  (e.g.,  fatigue, self-doubt, emotional instability), which are characteristic of the training and competition contexts of  sport.  Some  athletes  manage  these  demands or  challenges  positively,  either  having  a  smooth progression  through  the  performance  cycle  or successfully  negotiating  these  challenges  in  constructive  ways.  However,  for  other  athletes,  such demands or challenges can overwhelm their coping resources,  creating  major  distress  and  negatively influencing their performance and goal attainment. What  accounts  for  these  individual  differences  in athletes’  ability  to  manage  both  negatively  (e.g., injury,  deselection)  and  positively  (e.g.,  winning streak, taking the lead in a match) construed challenges and demands? Most scholars, practitioners, and the general public suggest that the answer lies in an athlete’s mental toughness. Although mental toughness  remains  a  contested  concept,  common themes  among  most  contemporary  conceptualizations  reveal  that  mental  toughness  encapsulates a reservoir of personal resources that enable individuals  to  produce  consistently  high  levels  of performance  or  goal  attainment  despite  everyday challenges and significant adversities.

Historical Perspective

The  scientific  study  of  mental  toughness,  which has  its  evolutionary  roots  in  personality  research on   “tough-mindedness”   dating   back   to   the1950s,  has  garnered  a  modest  amount  of  empirical attention in recent years. Prior to this influx of research  and  theory  development,  much  of  what was known about mental toughness was based on anecdotal reports and disseminated predominantly through  the  popular  media.  The  result  was  a diverse  selection  of  definitions  and  explanations of  mental  toughness  that  largely  included  an assortment  of  beneficial  psychological  characteristics (e.g., resilience, insensitivity to criticism) and mental  skills  (e.g.,  arousal  regulation,  visualization). The conceptual confusion created from this lack of consistency and understanding resulted in numerous  beneficial  psychological  characteristics being incorrectly labeled as mental toughness, particularly as they were based on authors’ opinions rather  than  empirical  research.  Encouragingly, empirical  research  on  mental  toughness  has  blossomed over the last decade, with independent but related streams of research focused on its conceptualization, measurement, and development.

Conceptualizing Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is typically employed by scholars,  practitioners,  and  the  general  public  as  an umbrella  term  to  describe  a  multitude  of  facets, including   cognitive,   affective,   and   behavioral concepts that are pertinent to the attainment and sustainment  of  high  performance  despite  stress, challenge,  or  adversity.  Much  of  the  past  decade of scholarly activity has been concerned with elucidating  an  understanding  of  the  core  personal resources associated with mental toughness. Owing to the lack of prior theory and empirical research, most  researchers  have  approached  the  systematic task of generating insights into this elusive concept using an inductive process in which key stakeholders’  (e.g.,  athletes,  coaches,  sport  psychologists) perceptions  of  mental  toughness  were  generated and explored. With an emphasis on the rich, real-world context in which the concept occurs, these scholars  have  sought  to  identify  and  understand patterns of relationships within and across sources of  either  sport-general  (i.e.,  informants  from  a variety  of  sports)  or  sport-specific  samples  (e.g., informants  from  a  specific  sport  such  as  cricket, soccer or football). Other researchers have sought to  integrate  these  inductively  derived  data  with established theory and empirical research on hardiness, which is conceptualized as a cognitive personality  variable  consisting  of  a  sense  of  control, commitment, and challenge.

Research on such a broad psychological concept has led to several different ideas about what mental toughness  encapsulates.  For  example,  as  depicted in one of the most widely employed conceptualizations,  mental  toughness  is  said  to  comprise  four distinct  components  of  confidence,  control,  commitment, and challenge. Other conceptualizations of mental toughness encompass a much wider net of personal resources to include key attributes such as  sport  knowledge,  attentional  regulation,  emotional awareness and regulation, and coping with failure  and  success.  Nevertheless,  despite  these differing  viewpoints  on  the  content  and  breadth of  its  key  facets,  several  core  components  have emerged across these studies and appear to capture the  essence  of  the  current  state  of  affairs.  These core components include general self-efficacy (i.e., generalized belief that one is capable of achieving his or her goals or producing high levels of performance), optimism (i.e., tendency to expect positive events in the future, and attribute positive causes and  outcomes  to  different  events),  success  mindset (i.e., desire to achieve success and ability to act upon  this  motive),  sport  knowledge  (i.e.,  knowledge  of  the  performance  context  and  its  application  for  goal  attainment  or  high  performance), self-regulation (i.e., capacity to optimally manage one’s  thoughts,  focus,  and  emotions),  resilience (i.e.,  perceived  capacity  to  successfully  cope  with or  bounce  back  from  potentially  significant  risks or adversities), and buoyancy (i.e., ability to effectively execute the required skills and processes in response to the challenges and pressures of everyday life). Interestingly, each of these key facets has a rich history of theory and empirical research that have not yet been adequately drawn upon for the conceptual  evolution  of  mental  toughness.  For example,  Charles  Snyder’s  theory  of  hope  offers a  useful  backdrop  upon  which  to  conceptually integrate  the  success  mind-set  (i.e.,  agency  thinking) and sport knowledge (i.e., pathways thinking) facets of mental toughness. Theoretical integration and development remains an important avenue of future work for this concept.

Measuring Mental Toughness

The debate over a common definition and conceptualization of mental toughness has not slowed the amount  of  research  on  its  measurement.  Indeed, the  methodological  development  of  measurement tools  for  key  facets  of  optimal  human  functioning  can  greatly  accelerate  scientific  advancements in  theory  (e.g.,  basis  for  rigorous  empirical  tests of   construct   conceptualization)   and   practice(e.g., monitoring and evaluation). As with efforts designed  to  generate  insights  into  its  key  components,  scholars  have  developed  self-report  measures  of  mental  toughness  that  are  designed  to generalize across all sports (e.g., Mental Toughness Questionnaire 48 [MTQ48]) or capture conceptualizations that are unique and specific to individual sports  such  as  cricket  (Cricket  Mental  Toughness Inventory)  and  Australian  football  (Australian Football Mental Toughness Inventory).

Conceptual   (e.g.,   clearly   articulated   model supported  by  empirical  evidence),  statistical  (e.g., analyses  performed  to  develop  and  substantiate reliability and validity), and practical (e.g., predict or  explain  behavior  or  performance)  issues  are inextricably linked to the construct validation process and fundamental to ascertaining the usefulness of a psychometric tool for theory and practice. An assessment of the currently available sport-general and  sport-specific  measures  against  these  three criteria  reveals  that  there  is  currently  no  “gold standard” tool for assessing mental toughness. For example, although the conceptual model underpinning the Cricket Mental Toughness Inventory has received  support  via  rigorous,  hypothesis-testing statistical  procedures  (i.e.,  confirmatory  factor analysis), it suffers from a major concern related to its ability to generalize to other sports and across most athletes (e.g., males and females). In contrast, the  MTQ48,  which  is  the  most  widely  employed measure of mental toughness, has been the subject of  debate  with  regard  to  its  conceptual  rationale and  factor  structure.  These  conceptual,  statistical,  and  practical  concerns  remain  the  primary focus  of  future  work  on  its  measurement.  In  the meantime, an alternative approach to the measurement of mental toughness in future research might involve the use of existing measures to capture the key  facets  (e.g.,  Generalized  Self-Efficacy  scale, Dispositional Hope Scale).

Developing Mental Toughness

Attempts  to  understand  mental  toughness  often lead to discussions or questions about its development. These questions on mental toughness development  raise  some  of  the  most  interesting  issues facing  this  scholarly  field  of  inquiry.  Among  the most  heated  discussions  are  those  that  concern the  “nature”  versus  “nurture”  debate.  Although aspects  of  mental  toughness  may  be  considered heritable,  as  with  related  research  on  personality, one  cannot  deny  that  a  significant  amount  of variance  remains  unexplained  by  nature,  thereby implicating  the  important  role  of  environments (e.g.,  home  environment,  sport  environment)  and social agents (e.g., parents, coaches) for its development  or  enhancement.  Indeed,  the  centrality of  both  nature  and  nature  is  evident  among  key stakeholders’  retrospective  perceptions  of  mental toughness.

Several important findings can be gleaned from the  existing  research  on  mental  toughness  development.  First,  individuals  seem  to  acquire  some degree of mental toughness from their family network (e.g., offering social support, providing reinforcement  and  encouragement,  having  realistic beliefs  in  their  child’s  abilities,  serving  as  a  positive role model) during their formative years prior to participating in sport. This “generalized form” of  mental  toughness  is  subsequently  refined  into a  “sport-specific  form”  and  maintained  through one’s  interactions  with  key  social  agents  such  as coaches  (e.g.,  coach–athlete  relationship,  player development  vs.  coaching  success,  motivational climate) and teammates (e.g., mentoring, competitive rivalry, role models). Second, there is evidence to  suggest  that  some  mechanisms  of  influence facilitate (e.g., simulation training, social support) the  developmental  process,  whereas  others  (e.g., controlling  coaching,  low  and  unrealistic  expectations)  thwart  or  undermine  efforts  to  develop mental  toughness.  In  particular,  these  underlying mechanisms  are  said  to  operate  in  a  combined, rather  than  an  independent  manner,  to  facilitate the  development  of  mental  toughness.  Third,  the most  beneficial  learning  and  motivational  climates appear to differ throughout this long-term developmental process as athletes gain experience and transition into higher levels or different types of competitions. For example, enjoyment and skill mastery  are  considered  key  to  the  early  years  or the period in which one initially becomes involved in sport, whereas competitive rivalries and performance setbacks become prominent features in the middle  years  when  sport  demands  greater  discipline  from  individuals  owing  to  structured  training  regimes  and  sport  specialization.  Finally,  it appears that mental toughness can be both caught indirectly  through  experience  and  taught  directly via coaching, education, psychological skills training (PST), or strengths-based approaches. In other words, mental skills training alone should not be considered “mental toughness development.”

Conclusion

Mental  toughness  is  the  umbrella  term  often employed to describe one’s capacity to deal effectively  with  both  major  assaults  on  one’s  normal level of functioning and “everyday” challenges in the pursuit of high performance. Despite entering its  second  decade  of  empirical  research  activity, what  constitutes  mental  toughness  and  therefore how  it  is  assessed  remains  a  complicated  area  of study.  Some  consistencies  across  the  available research  have  emerged  with  regard  to  its  core facets  and  important  development  influences,  yet debate  still  exists  as  to  a  precise  or  commonly accepted definition and conceptualization of mental toughness. Although recent advancements in its conceptualization, measurement, and development are  important,  mental  toughness,  as  a  scholarly field  of  inquiry,  is  still  in  its  infancy  when  compared  with  the  literatures  on  its  key  components (e.g.,  self-efficacy,  optimism).  Thus,  future  work on  mental  toughness  could  do  well  to  leverage off  such  established  theory  and  research.  Mental toughness has the potential to become an influential concept in the field of sport and exercise psychology  (SEP),  yet  much  scholarly  work  remains to  be  done  to  better  understand  its  makeup  and influence on behavior.

References:

  1. Connaughton, D., & Hanton, S. (2009). Mental toughness in sport: Conceptual and practical issues. In S. D. Mellalieu & S. Hanton (Eds.), Advances in applied sport psychology: A review (pp. 317–346). London: Routledge.
  2. Gucciardi, D. F., & Gordon, S. (Eds.). (2011). Mental toughness in sport: Developments in theory and research. Oxford, UK: Routledge.

 

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