“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
We’ve all heard this at some point in our lives. But aside from being a sports movie cliché, it also happens to get at the core of the rapidly growing field of sport psychology. Athletes succeed through thousands of hours of grueling physical training. But at the professional level, physical ability is not always what separates the professionals from the champions. In fact, many pros are increasingly attributing their success to mental toughness.
When the Patriots beat the Seahawks in this year’s Super Bowl, quarterback Tom Brady was quick to credit mental toughness for his last-minute victory. Even Michael Jordan cited mental skills as “the part that separates the good players from the great players.” “I came in here with the physical skills,” he said, but “the mental part is the hardest part.”
Developing and sustaining mental toughness is key in understanding and accomplishing what needs to be done in a time of adversity. But what is it?
The term “mental toughness” refers to the idea of being able to push past failures by remaining positive and competitive. It also involves training and preparing oneself to be mentally ready for whatever challenge comes our way. Staying mentally tough will not only give us the strength we need to deal with our mistakes or sub-par performance, but also provide us with the resilience to keep going despite them. When events don’t go our way (or the way we expect), we cannot lose focus or determination. By the very definition of mental toughness, we must continue to persevere through the adversities with which we are faced.
Creating routines, utilizing visualization techniques, and practicing self-talk are all ways in which one can increase mental toughness.
Routines help us to trust the process and not focus on the outcome. By having a well developed pre-, during and post-performance routine you steer clear of one of the most dangerous activities a performer can engage in: thinking! Thinking is an important part of strategizing before a play and, in some situations, it is important to think through a game situation during a play. However, overall, thinking prevents us from being in the moment and trusting our innate talent and highly practiced skills. For most performers and athletes a comprehensive routine can help us do what most coaches would yell at us from the sidelines, “Relax! Slow the game down, stay in the moment!” A routine can help you do that by aiding you in concentrating on a series of words or actions that center you and help you to not overthink.
According to top performing athletes, visualization is vital in sustaining and improving mental toughness before and during competitions. Marathon runner and gold medalist, Mark Plaatjes, swears by visualization and mental imagery. It is clear by his victory in the 1993 World Championships Marathon that it has astounding results. By studying photos of the course and using visualization techniques to imagine himself running the course many times before the race, Plaatjes was able to snatch the victory with just three minutes left to spare. The power of visualization, in athletic training especially, is mind blowing, and it is apparent how advantageous it can be when individuals use this technique correctly. Using visualization correctly is obviously subjective, in that each individual thrives from different techniques. What works for Mark Plaatjes might not have exactly the same effects on someone else. Despite individual differences though, it is still important to visualize positive outcomes, while also remaining realistic and expecting the unexpected (good or bad). Visualizations should be detailed and outline exactly what you want to achieve, keeping in mind room for error and changes in plans. Lastly, remain confident and calm and hope for the best, even if the odds are against you.
Remaining confident may seem straightforward, especially before a race or competition, but when the pressure and stakes are high, it is often harder than it seems. In fact, it’s quite easy to get discouraged as an athlete, especially if your performance hasn’t been what you expected.
Self Talk Techniques
Self-talk strategies have been shown to increase confidence and improve mental toughness in various settings, from work to the court, track or field.
By reframing critiques, individuals can enhance their performance with motivational self-talk. Developing personal affirmations (“I am mentally tough”), a list of achievement reminders (“I won 1st place last year”), and personal pep talks (“I can do this”) can increase mental toughness during lapses of self confidence and encourage perseverance and determination. It is important to note that self-talk is most effective when it is realistic. For example, “I can win against this opponent because I have this pitch in my arsenal.” This is more effective than, “I will beat this guy.”
As an athlete, everyone is working to be physically tough, but it is the mental toughness that gives those few elite athletes an edge. Being able to control the mental aspect of a performance can lead to a boost in confidence and an overall clearer and calmer state of mind, which will hopefully in turn provide the positive results you are looking for. Like physical training, the development of mental toughness won’t come easy at first, but with practice, success is sure to follow.