“It is mental power that separates the exceptional from the very good. When athletes are lining up to compete against each other at a high level, there will be nothing to choose between them, talent for talent, training for training. What separates them is what goes on behind the eyes”
Franck Dick. Former coach to the Great Britain track and field team
What is this thing called mental toughness? What exactly can we do to develop it?
I believe that most athletes, if given enough time and competitive opportunities, will use and practice mental skills on their own because they find that by doing so their performances are much more consistent. Unfortunately, many potentially outstanding athletes stop competing before they get near their potential because they could not perform at the highest level as a result of poor mental skills and lack of mental toughness.
The mental skills which are important in the performance of sport skills are those which enable the athlete to reach a state of mind which will prevent negative, and distracting, thoughts interfering with physical performance.
The mental skills to which I am referring are not new. In fact, many of them have been used for centuries. And it’s simpler than it sounds. The process of developing the mental skills is the same as the process for developing technical skills. You can learn them and, with practice, get better at them until they are a part of you and the way you think without thinking.
John Albinson PhD, in his book “The Mental Game Plan” talks about how mentally tough athletes possess a number of related attributes, each of which is an element of the overall mental toughness quality. These attributes are:
1. Strong Desire to Succeed
How badly do you really want to succeed? How often do you question your own commitment and desire? World champions often talk about how very clearly they had targeted their ultimate achievement long before it was achieved. You can also start having this approach by asking yourself questions such as “Does my training program have a real sense of purpose?”, “Do I know where I’m going and how I’m going to get there?”, “How badly do I want to improve and achieve in my sport?”, “Am I prepared to make the necessary sacrifices in order to progress?” Remember, you need to know where you are going in order to get there. And you need to know how badly you want to get there in order to endure and surpass the obstacles you may encounter.
2. Stay Positive in the Face of Challenge and Pressure
If you haven’t had the results you want, you just have to learn from it, rebuild and regroup. An integral part of competitive sport is challenge and pressure. If athletes cannot cope with this they are not mentally tough. Just because you have played badly doesn’t mean you should accept defeat. Jim Loehr (who worked with top tennis players at the Bollettieri Academy in Florida) talks about competition as a continuous presentation of problems. He claims that it is your emotional response to problems which brings either success or failure as a competitor.
So, How good are you at staying positive under pressure? Assess your sport-related thinking. Do you engage in pressure-producing thinking or are your thoughts more positive? How well do you cope with “bad luck”, hassles and adversity? Do you love the challenge of tough competition?… answer these questions honestly and you will be one step ahead of where you were before. Now you know what is it you need to work on in order to be mentally tougher!
3. Control the Controllable’s
It is a waste of valuable mental energy to worry about, talk about, or get angry about uncontrollable factors such as poor weather, inferior equipment or the experience of your competition. If you are going to place your attention somewhere, then focus on things you can do something about. This means putting effort into ensuring your technical, physical, and mental preparation is the best it can possibly be on competition day.
4. High Commitment with a Balance Attitude
Top sports performers get there through a long process of hard work. You need mental toughness in order to sustain an attitude and commitment to get where you want to go. Discipline, sacrifices, time, putting aside some other stuff you might want to do (like social life). This goes on and on until you get to your goal, but you have to remember to maintain a balanced outlook which will be crucial in the long term. Sport should not consume your life to the point where everything else loses meaning. Actually, family and friends can be the best antidotes for coping with sport disappointments.
5. High Level of Self Belief
Mentally tough athletes have a real sense of self-belief. They are extremely confident and believe that they have the capacity to perform well under the most challenging situations. When things start to go wrong, they have the ability to refocus and come back strong. They never give up even when it looks like it’s all over. So, ask yourself, DO you fight to the bitter end? Can you maintain self-belief when you are performing badly? Is confidence under stress one of your strengths? If not, you need to work hard on your mental toughness training.
6. Positive Body Language
In sport, as in other areas of life, body language conveys messages about confidence, commitment, motivation and attitude. When an athlete drops the head or demonstrates bodily signs of anxiety, frustration, or anger, strong messages are being given which can be extremely encouraging for opponents. It is far easier to be positive and confident when you know your opponent is feeling negative and dejected.
So, why not ask someone to observe your body language during training and competition? Watch yourself on video and compare your body language to that of a top performer in your sport. Do you look like you mean business? Do you look confident and ready to meet the demands of high pressure competition? And most importantly, Do you maintain positive body language even when you are losing or playing poorly?
I hope these six points help you to become mentally stronger and help you get closer to your goals. If you have any questions or would like to talk to me about mental strength, please do so, I am here to help.
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