One question that is commonly thrown around in conversations centering around sport performance is how much of sport success is “mental?” Most people think this number is quite high, sometimes even suggesting close to 100%. The problem, however, is that without specifying, or operationalizing the variable “mental,” we have no way of really knowing what we are trying to measure. For example, since you need mental processing to accomplish just about anything you do in life, an argument can be made that mental abilities account for almost all sport success achieved. On the other hand, no matter how mentally strong you are if you don’t have many physical attributes (i.e. strength, agility, speed, balance, etc) you probably won’t be a very successful athlete.
Defining mental toughness
The term mental toughness can mean a number of different things, from how fast and efficiently you process information around you, to how quickly and successfully you bounce back from adversity. In fact, by using a hybrid, broad definition of “mental toughness,” you might quickly find that you believe that most sport success is achieved by cognitive processes and emotion management. Mental toughness is needed at literally every moment of sport competition when you think about it — from controlling pre-game jitters in the locker room, to developing perfect mind-body synchrony needed to execute plays, to culling human resiliency after a tough loss. If you take mental toughness out of any of those examples and you are left with:
A.) Athletes so nervous they can barely start a game without being physically ill.
B.) Athletes who are solid “practice players,” yet haven’t developed the needed confidence to play well in games (because of a lacking synchrony between mind-body).
C.) Athletes who give up and quit at the first sign of adversity.
The mental toughness needed to control nerves, refine focus, increase motivation, and galvanize resiliency is without a doubt a prominent, instrumental variable that is directly responsible for sport success. The next question, therefore, is if mental toughness is such a big part of sport success, why do so many athletes and coaches still question this fact? Or worse yet, why do so many today still immediately dismiss the importance of mental toughness and instead suggest that anything “mental” should only be used by losers and/or mentally ill athletes?
Beating the stigma
The most obvious answer why selling athletes on the importance of mental toughness training has to do, ironically, with the word “mental.” When you think of the word “mental” in terms of mental illness, it suggests that there is a shortcoming or weakness — qualities athletes don’t like to acknowledge. The stigma some athletes hold is that mental toughness training is only for losers or athletes with mental illness, making it a tough sell as part of a normal, holistic means of athletic training. It’s unfortunate that some athletes still think this way, as developing mental toughness might be the missing link to their game.
When it comes to sport success, if by “mental” you mean focus, motivation, relaxation, and resiliency, then mental toughness is a big piece to the equation. Athletes who tend to beat themselves, struggle with focus and composure, battle anger issues, lack motivation and perseverance, or experience general life challenges that affect their on-field performance might be great candidates to work with a sport psychologist. Don’t let misunderstandings or perceived weakness hold you back from becoming the best you can be – explore how mental toughness training can help.