When the going gets tough: 4 strategies to boost mental toughness

What is mental toughness and how can athletes develop it to enhance performance? Sports psychologist and researcher Josie Perry provides four key strategies

Endurance sports give us numerous opportunities to quit. Keeping going when your body hurts, your equipment breaks down, your biggest rival shoots past you, or when you realise you are behind on your target, is not easy. It takes confidence, tenacity, high levels of control and a lot of resilience to not only keep going, but to keep going at the pace you’d planned to.

Much of our ability to cope with these stresses has been attributed to mental toughness. This is a trait which materialises when we have unwavering confidence, constancy in achieving whatever we set our mind to and high levels of control. Some say we are born with the genes which create this ‘mental stress buffer’(1). However, research tells us it is also a trait we can develop with the right training, although it is not always easy to do so(2).

In my research, I have tried to gauge their mental toughness levels of hundreds of athletes, interviewing a few of athletes right at the top of the scale. Something that struck me was that they were incredibly robust. This is mirrored in the idea that the opposite of mental toughness isn’t mental weakness. It is mental fragility. So with mental toughness being difficult to develop, perhaps instead we can look to boost our robustness by putting in place strategies which make us feel less flimsy or fragile, and more confident and concerted.

Get focused on goals

Mentally robust athletes know what they want and have become experts in breaking down their ambitions into clear, achievable goals. The process of setting and following these goals can increase motivation, commitment, concentration and confidence. It can also reduce negative anxiety and ultimately improve performance(3). To do the same you, need follow four steps:

1) The first step is the fun bit; to identify your outcome goal. If it is more than six months away, find a staging post where you can start working towards it immediately. Make sure you have direct control over being able to achieve it. If you want to win a race, pick the race, study previous results, see what time you think it will take to win. Make that time your goal. An ex-pro may show up and beat you but you will still be able to be happy with your own achievement.

2) Next, decide on some performance goals; races or important sessions which will show whether you are on track to hit your bigger goal.

3) Now create your process goals. These sit underneath each performance goal and are the specific actions you need to take in order to achieve it.

4) Finally, look back through all the goals you’ve created and make them SMARTER. This can be explained as follows:

*Specific (times, speeds, effort levels).
*Meaningful (know why each one is there).
*Accountable (tell others so you can’t cheat, or change the goal posts).
*Recorded (write them down).
*Timed (have deadlines).
*Evaluate (look back over them to see how much you’ve achieved).
*Realistic (a goal will only work if it is aspirational, but not too much of a stretch).

Train methodically

Once they have set goals, mentally robust athletes are methodical in their approach to achieving them. They will hungrily devour knowledge to design effective and beneficial training programmes. This means following training plans to the minute, focusing intently on the diet, adapting (or losing) social lives and even sleeping in altitude tents. Once these mentally robust athletes decided they were serious about their goals, they took it really seriously.

To train methodically, make the most of the process goals you have developed as part of your goal setting. Incorporating these processes and activities diligently into your training plan and day to day life will mean you feel more confident you are in control, and that you are focusing on the right things. Write these process goals down at the front of your training diary and review every week.

Know your why

Mentally robust athletes have a sense of purpose. They know why they are training and racing and this helps them bounce back from anything which goes wrong. To tease out and identify your sense of purpose for competing, try some free writing. Although awkward and weird to begin with, it is well worth persevering. You need nothing more than a piece of paper and a pen (and maybe a coffee to help the brain whirr). Then for ten minutes, write down anything which comes to mind about your sport. Then stop and read it over. For the next ten minutes scrutinise everything you’ve written with ‘why’. As you work backwards through the question ‘why’, you should start to spot some themes and your core values should appear. Making sporting decisions in line with these will keep you enthused and on track.

Make no excuses

Finally, mentally robust athletes don’t make excuses. They take responsibility for their own performances; their self-esteem and awareness is high enough not to feel they need to protect their egos. Without this robustness, they may well self-sabotage to protect themselves. If you worry you are too quick to make excuses, follow the self-sabotage SCRIPT:

  • Spot the behavior.
  • Capture the trigger point.
  • Investigate your reason for doing it.
  • Identify the goal you actually want to achieve.
  • Prepare a plan for when you hit the trigger.
  • Tackle the behavior.

Once you have spotted the behaviour, identified the trigger point and your reasons for doing it (this involves more asking yourself why), you need to go back to the goals you set out originally and look at the values your free writing identified. Use those to remind yourself why you don’t want to self-sabotage. With these in place, it is much easier to spot when our inner voice is making us behave in a way that contradicts our true goals and values, and we can make an action plan of tactics to override the self-sabotaging habit.

The four strategies  for becoming more mentally robust are summarised in figure 1. With energy and effort at a premium in endurance sports, using these four strategies means more of your efforts can be directed toward the right things rather than the draining things (such as anxiety), helping you to develop a ‘mental stress buffer’ to deal with any setbacks.


Figure 1: The four strategies


Additionally, they don’t just help you feel mentally stronger, to your competitors they’ll help you look stronger too, giving you an easier environment to compete in. Dr Michael Sheard who has researched mental toughness extensively says that “mentally tough performers have an authoritative demeanour. They project an image which can unsettle their competitors.” This means these four strategies will not only boost your mental toughness and make you more robust, but the inner confidence they inspire will be evident to you and your competitors.


Ten-point quiz to help you analyse your own levels of mental toughness

 Questions to ask yourself to find out if you have high levels of mental toughness(4). Score yourself from 1 (untrue), through 3 (sometimes true) to 5 (very true). The closer to 50 you score, the higher your mental toughness is likely to be.

  1. I see threats as positive opportunities
  2. I hold an unshakable confidence in my ability
  3. I know I have qualities which set me apart from those I compete against.
  4. Under pressure I can make decisions with confidence and commitment
  5. I set myself challenging targets
  6. I commit to completing tasks I set out to do
  7. I keep going, even in difficult situations
  8. I do not worry about performing poorly
  9. I am able to control my self-doubt
  10. I do not get angry or frustrated if things do not go my way

Case study: Jasmijn Muller (World 24-hour Time-Trial Champion)

 

Jasmijn Muller embodies mental robustness. She specialises in long distance time trialling and is the current 24 hour Time Trial World Champion. She will attempt a new world record for cycling from Land’s End to John O‘Groats in September.

On goal setting… “A goal needs to scare and excite me in equal measures and allow opportunities for self-development and learning. To commit myself to my goals, I keep a blog and use social media. Sharing goals helps with accountability and also provides opportunities for social connections, support and advice.” 

On methodical training… “I define the goal, identify the key ingredients required to successfully achieve my goal and assess those areas where I am currently weak. It is important for me to keep a training diary for physical training, but also keep feedback notes about how I was feeling during those sessions, what I ate and drank, what logistics I experimented with. I like to keep lists and enjoy ‘ticking’ off things. Before a big race I will recce the route and take a detailed look at the wind, weather, road surface and use specialised software to allow me to assess the required power profile. Nutrition, bike set up and kit will be tailored and tested. I make packing lists and even set reminders for what time I need to get changed and start my warm up. The routine helps me to stay focused.” 

Knowing her why… “Long distance racing allows me to explore and expand my physical and mental boundaries. It allows me to grow as an athlete, but more importantly to grow as a person.” 

Owning her performances…”It is not uncommon to see athletes making excuses, yet all participants face more or less the same conditions. When you fall short of your goals, you are ultimately better off focusing on those things that were entirely within your control and reviewing what you can do to improve than to dwell on the excuses of external factors.”


References:

  1. Horsburgh, Schermer, Veselka & Vernon (2009). Personality and Individual Differences. 46, 100-105.
  2. Connaughton, Wadey, Hanton & Jones (2008). Jrnl of Sport Sciences. 26(1) 83-95.
  3. Weinberg & Gould (2015). Foundation of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Human Kinetics.
  4. Adapted from Sports Mental Toughness Questionnaire; Sheard, Golby & van Wersch (2009). European Jrnl of Psychological Assessment. 25,184-191.

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