The problem with Mental Toughness

Everyone loves a bit of mental toughness. Coaches will often tell you they only want athletes who are mentally TOUGH. Athletes strive to develop their mental STRENGTH. Sports journalists write and debate about which athletes are mentally TOUGHER than others.

Badass
Badass

In fact, mental toughness has become one of the most commonly used phrases in sports. I should point out here that I have no evidence whatsoever to support that last statement, but it seems like it’s probably true. Just search twitter for mental toughness or mental strength and you’ll see what I mean.

The fact that the sporting world is becoming ever more aware of the benefits of taking care of the mind as well as the body is absolutely a good thing, but is “mental toughness”, which has become so ingrained in our sporting lexicon, actually damaging to athletes and, indeed, to the profession of sport psychology? Let me explain what I mean…

What is mental toughness?

It’s probably a good idea to start with a definition of mental toughness, but that in itself, is problematic. Researchers have been interested in the ‘psychological characteristics of elite performers’ for years (I won’t go into the history of mental toughness here, but there’s a list of papers at the end of this post that you might find useful).

Way back in 2002, Jones, Hanton, and Connaughton defined mental toughness as “having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to:

  • a) Generally cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on the performer, and
  • b) Specifically be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.”1

Based on interviews with ten international athletes, Jones and his colleagues also identified several important (but diverse) attributes that were thought to make up mental toughness. Although there have been some developments, later definitions of mental toughness have more or less supported Jones’ ideas.

Furthermore, while the number of attributes could be debated (Jones et al. 2007 interviewed a “super-elite” sample of athletes, coaches and sport psychologists and identified 30 distinct attributes), the make-up of mental toughness is generally thought to include a variety of attributes and abilities related to self-belief, motivation, focus, thriving under pressure, recovering from setbacks, and pushing yourself to the limit.2 To be honest, that all sounds great.

What exactly is Mental Toughness?
What exactly is Mental Toughness?

So what’s the problem?

Well, as I said at the start, everyone loves a bit of mental toughness. But there are two big issues that I can see in using the term toughness or strength to describe a collection of very different psychological attributes, skills, and abilities.

The first issue relates to the perception of mental toughness in sport. Because mental toughness is associated with the best of the best, the “super-elite”, if athletes aren’t achieving, they can often be described as lacking mental toughness, or even worse, they’re called mentally weak or soft.

Despite the academic definitions, people tend to think of mental toughness as being innate, some ‘thing’ that you either have or don’t, and that if you don’t have it, you’ll never make it, you’ll cave under pressure. As one young boxer once said to me, “you’re either a pussy or you aint, innit!”

Performance Enhancement Coach(?), Jason Ferrugia, typifies this macho attitude towards toughness in a Men’s Health article (that I found very quickly by googling “mental toughness”). He argues that “it’s hard to take a wuss and make him a hardcore no matter what you do—unless you throw him in prison.” I mean, seriously, what the fuck?

It’s a dangerous and damaging mindset to have. If an athlete has great self-belief, is confident under pressure, but is having difficulty focusing in practice, does that make her mentally weak? Of course it doesn’t!

If a young athlete is full of confidence, highly motivated, pushes himself in every practice, but is struggling when the competition lights come on, is he mentally soft? No, of course not.

These things can be worked on and developed, but the athlete might already be written off as mentally soft. They may even begin to believe it, but there’s a second issue with using toughness to describe mental attributes that can prevent athletes and coaches from reaching their potential.

Hibbert, now with the Lakers, works on his mental game.
Hibbert, now with the Lakers, works on his mental game.

This second issue has more to do with the perception of sport psychology in general. Paradoxically, by holding up mental toughness and strength as the ideal, it’s possible that in the eyes of many athletes and coaches, seeking the help of a psychologist becomes an admission that you’re not mentally tough.

NBA Centre, Roy Hibbert, discussed his own experiences with sport psychology. Having now embraced it as an essential part of his own development, he still feels that there’s a taboo, and that if you work with a psychologist “people just think you’re mentally weak.” Now, stand up if you want your teammates and coaches to think you’re mentally weak.

Still sitting?

The misconceptions around sport psychology are slowly being diminished, but I think the persistence with ideas of toughness and strength being held up as the ideal are outdated and potentially damaging for the reasons described above.

Why Mental ‘Fitness’ might be better than Mental ‘Toughness’

I propose an alternative. I’ve started using the term MENTAL FITNESS. Honestly, I’m not sure yet if it’s quite right. I’m just trying it out for size, but I think it sits better with me. Think about what it means to be physically fit. Strength absolutely yes, but also flexibility, stamina, speed.

Who's tougher?
Who’s tougher?

Different athletes and sports require varying combinations and different types of strength, stamina, speed, flexibility. Because Jo Pavey can’t deadlift 350kg (I assume!), would you call her physically weak? I sure as hell wouldn’t.

So when it comes to the mental aspects of sport, why are we so quick to label people as strong or weak, as tough or soft?

While TOUGHNESS seems to be this intangible quality, FITNESS is something that we know can always be worked on, and there’s much less stigma attached to working on various aspects of fitness.

We do it all the time in training, in practice, at the gym. So Mental Fitness makes sense to me. Maybe I’m alone on this, I don’t know. It’d be great to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment below if you like.

References

  • 1 Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2002). What is this thing called mental toughness? An investigation of elite sport performers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology14, 205-218.
  • 2 Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2007). A framework of mental toughness in the world’s best performers. The Sport Psychologist, 21, 243-264.

Other readings…

  • Andersen, M. B. (2011). 5 Who’s mental, who’s tough and who’s both? Mental toughness in sport: Developments in theory and research, 69.
  • Gucciardi, D. F., Gordon, S., & Dimmock, J. A. (2009). Advancing mental toughness research and theory using personal construct psychology. International review of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 2, 54-72.
  • Thelwell, R., Weston, N., & Greenlees, I. (2005). Defining and understanding mental toughness within soccer. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology17, 326-332.

  4 comments for “The problem with Mental Toughness

  1. Dave Rogerson
    August 7, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    Really interesting Pete, although I am not qualified to have an opinion. I like the idea shift in thinking. Seems to make sense. I wonder as well, would mental fitness/toughness be a finite quality similar conceptually to willpower? So, we have x amount of willpower that we can ‘spend’. Once we have spent that willpower, our resources are essentially depleted. Would this be similar?

    • August 8, 2015 at 11:18 am

      Thanks Dave, and just so you know, you’re more than qualified to have an opinion. In fairness, I think there has been a bit of a move away from studying Mental Toughness as a discrete ‘entity’ and more towards exploring the specific behaviours and cognitions associated with what is considered to be the mentally tough athlete. But even so, I wouldn’t necessarily consider it a finite quality that we use up.
      I don’t know though – from experience, it is harder to maintain these cognitions and behaviours as the pressure builds, which is where the fitness analogy comes in. The fitter you are mentally, the more capable you are of displaying these thoughts and behaviours. I just prefer it to toughness because needing to improve an aspect of fitness, is different to being thought of as weak. It’s just semantics really, but something worth thinking about.

  2. August 8, 2015 at 4:39 am

    For a Dr. with your amount of experience you don’t say much and it appears you haven’t really leaned any more than what you’ve read about. Pitty.

    • August 8, 2015 at 11:06 am

      Hi Coach, and thanks for your comment. I wonder whether you could expand on it a little though, as I’m not sure exactly what you mean. I try to keep these posts pretty short and to the point, but am always happy to discuss further if you have an opinion that you’d like to share. What are your thoughts on mental “toughness”?

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