How do top athletes instantly rebound from a setback? What is it that keeps them going in the face of impossible odds? Where do they get their tenacity, courage, and confidence? It’s simply mental toughness.
Mental toughness is defined as having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to cope better than your opponents and to be more consistent in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.
4 Elements of Mental Toughness
There are a lot of ways to outline the elements of mental toughness, but let’s keep it simple. According to 2013 study conducted by Félix Guillén and Sylvain Laborde, there are
4 areas that differentiate a mentally tough athlete from the rest of the pack:
What does it meant to have hope in sports? Hope is very closely related to confidence; it’s the ability to believe in yourself and your own talents, skills and training. However, hope precedes self-confidence because it takes into account your circumstances. For instance, you must have hope that a goal is achievable in order to fully develop your confidence in achieving it. If you don’t have hope that something is doable, how can you have confidence in being able to do it?
To get a better idea of how hope and self-confidence work together, imagine you are playing in a state championship game. The other team has won every game of the season and is truly the team to beat. While you’re confident in your own skills and even in your teammates, you wonder if it’s even possible to beat such an accomplished team. As soon as your hope begins to wane, your confidence fades. That’s why it’s important to have hope in the “impossible.”
Optimism is positive thinking. This is perhaps the most important aspect of mentally tough athletes. The ability to shut down negative thoughts and replace them with positive, focused affirmations is the foundation on which the rest of the necessary psychological and physical skills must build.
Perseverance is consistent dedication to a goal. It is the ability to push through difficulties and not give up Perseverance is what you rely on to get your training in and to perform your best even when your willpower or enthusiasm are depleted.
When you are resilient, nothing stops your drive to improve or to win. Setbacks, mistakes and even embarrassing failures roll off your back. They don’t faze, upset or distract you. You immediately bounce back into high performance mode with your confidence and determination intact.
With these 4 elements, athletes are able to embody all of the core skills they need to succeed. Some of these skills can also be considered elements of mental toughness. These include confidence, courage, commitment, control, flexibility, focus and sportsmanship.
So just how important is mental toughness?
83% of coaches in a Sports Psychologist Journal study say mental toughness is the most important psychological characteristic for success. Sports psychologist James E. Loehr reports that 50% of superior athletic performance is the result of mental and psychological factors. That means focusing on physical training alone is nowhere near enough to reach your highest potential.
How to Build Mental Toughness
Determine Your Current Mental Toughness
Try taking this quiz from Scientific American. Rate yourself honestly on each statement’s accuracy. Then add up the points, reverse scoring (5=1, 4=2, 3=3, 2=4, and 1=5) for questions 2, 3, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 16, and 17. For instance, if you answered 5 on question 2, score this as 1 point.
When you have your total, know that a score of 70-90 indicates high mental toughness, 58-69 equals average mental toughness, and anything below 57 is rated as low mental toughness.
Start by Defining What Mental Toughness is to You.
Be specific You will need to examine your own flaws. Do you have a hard time showing up for practice? If so, mental toughness for you may include the ability to drag yourself to practice and put in 100% effort even when you really don’t want to.
You can outline specific goals, but don’t focus on results. Instead, focus on attempting things with all of your effort, making sure to keep the goals reasonable and achievable. For example, set a goal to start training at 6 a.m. for 3 days per week.
Use Positive Thinking, Verbalization & Visualization.
The most dangerous enemy of mental toughness is negativity. Negativity eats away at your hope, your optimism, and your confidence. Without these, the rest of your mental toughness starts to unravel. It is imperative to get negative thinking under control.
Sound easier said than done? That’s okay. Take it one step at a time. Begin by practicing off-field by replacing negative thinking with positivity. For instance, imagine being in a situation in your sport that frustrates or intimidates you. This could be fumbling the football, missing the game winning basket, striking out with the bases loaded, etc. Then tell yourself a positive, task-oriented statement that would help you calm down, refocus, and get back on track.
David Yukelson, the coordinator of Sport Psychology Services at Penn State, suggests a rephrasing process. Instead of thinking “I couldn’t hit this shot if my life depended on it,” relax, breathe, and tell yourself, “Get a good look at the basket. See it, feel it, trust, it.”
If you practice positive thinking during your downtime, you’re giving yourself a mental workout. You’re training your brain how to respond to high stress situations by programming the words and phrases that will help you get back in the game. Positive thinking may also involve positive verbalization, where you speak aloud to yourself, or positive visualization (or “mental imagery”), which involves a lucid imaginative process.
Change How You View Failure.
Before you are in the situation of facing an error or failure, change the way you think about these problems. Reframing your perception of and reaction to failure can help you improve your hope, optimism and resilience.
Michael Jordan is well-known for his positive attitude about failure. He pointed out that he missed 9,000 shots in his career, lost 300 games and missed dozens of game-winning shots. However, he said, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
The point is simply to accept failure as part and parcel of success. Nobody, not even the best athletes in the world, can avoid failure. Your attitude toward failure is what determines how successful you will be. Do you accept the setback and refocus? How long does it take for you to get over the failure? As part of your positive thinking practice, remind yourself that failure is inevitable and is not to be feared. Giving up or giving in to the negative thoughts after failure, on the other hand, are to be feared. Luckily, whether or not you give up or give in is entirely within your control.
Eat the Frog.
Mental toughness derives a large portion of its power from the ability to stick with tight schedules, endless training, tiring practices, and stressful competitions. It can be easy to procrastinate or to skip a session of training here or there. So how do you build your mental toughness to help you stick to all the work? “Eating the frog” is a scheduling tactic that helps you persevere while keeping your motivation and willpower running high.
Imagine that each day, you had to eat a slimy frog. If you decided to wait until bedtime to eat the frog, you’ll dread it all day. It will be on your mind constantly. If you decide to do it in the afternoon, you’ll dread eating the frog all morning, and you may end up pushing the event later and later into the day. However, if you wake up and eat the frog first thing in the morning, it’s over and done. You can go about your day knowing you’ve done the worst part already, so the rest of the day seems comparably easier and more enjoyable.
In short, schedule your day so that the hardest and most dreaded task is completed first thing. Get it over with, and then move onto things that you want and need to do. Finally, end with things that you don’t need to do but simply want to do. This built-in reward system allows you to enjoy your favorite things without the guilt of procrastination. Your dreaded tasks then become rewarding tasks, which helps build your mental toughness toward completing things you don’t otherwise want to do.
Don’t forget that there are innumerable ways to help build mental toughness. Find out what elements you’re lacking, and be creative in your approaches to fixing them. Also remember that mental toughness is like a muscle: you have to flex it once in a while. Seek out challenges and practice controlling your mental and emotional responses. You’ll begin developing mental toughness in no time.
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