If you were thirsty, would you eat a piece of bread?
If your feet hurt, would you buy a new shirt?
If you didn’t have much money, would you go out and spend more money?
In all of the examples above I have given silly potential “solutions” for the problems that were presented — obviously none of the answers provided make any logical sense. There is a sports connection in these examples, however, and one that applies specifically to the question millions of athletes face nearly every day of their lives.
“If I struggle with mental toughness, then I should do _______ to fix the problem.”
Ironically, what people put in the blank is as varied as there are people who compete in sports — and in the vast majority of cases, the “solutions” they come up with work just about as effectively as eating a piece of bread when you are thristy.
In other words, the solutions most people come up with when it comes to mental toughness don’t work.
When it comes to mental toughness, loosely defined as an athlete’s ability to develop self confidence, improve focus, and strengthen resiliency, I can provide a short laundry list of common things people do that simply do not work:
- Practice more. Sure, more practice is usually a good thing when it comes to skill improvement, but if you think simply increasing practice time in an empty gym will help an athlete better perform under pressure in front of thousands of people you are likely mistaken. As we all know, practicing alone is not a “pressure” situation, so the challenge of performing in front of crowds will not improve by just adding more practice time.
- Yell at the athlete. Usually after seeing an athlete choke enough times most coaches will eventually respond with some kind of heated verbal communication – which can be encouraging or belittling. Sure, this might get a kid’s attention, but it does nothing to teach him how to improve his confidence the next time he is called upon to help his team.
- Try any and all unorthodox ways to magically help the athlete improve mental toughness. Rather than obtain authentic sport psychology mental skills training, some coaches and parents will resort to literally anything for some kind of a magical answer, including hypnosis, energy drinks, power bracelets, and just about any other new craze or fad that sounds good.
What’s really interesting about this discussion around improving mental toughness is that the overwhelming majority of athletes today (especially youth and interscholastic athletes) regularly experience challenges when it comes to confidence, motivation, focus, and resiliency — yet only a small fraction of these athletes are able to actually find (and use) good sport psychology-based scietific training that specifically address these concerns!
So if your feet hurt, would you buy a new shirt? Of course not — but that’s exactly what you are doing if you think your son will magically all of a sudden learn how to control his emotions by simply having him shoot 100 more times in an empty gym. In this example, the extra shooting might help his hand-eye coordination, but it will do little, if anything, for how he responds negatively when he misses shots in games.
Why Mental Toughness Matters!
What’s even more interesting about the concern of improving mental toughness is how invaluable it is as it applies to athletic proficiency and success. Without perfect mind-body synchrony (that can only be achieved by controlling arousal, attention, and focus), thousands of athletes each day perform below their capabilities not because of their potential talent, but rather their inability to successfully improve their mental toughness!
If you are a coach or parent of an athlete, have you witnessed mental breakdowns, “choking,” struggles with anxiety, anger outbursts, or athletes who perform much better in practice than they do in games? If you answered yes to any of these, what have you done to help improve the situation? Did you pick up a piece of bread when in fact you needed something to drink? If you told the kid to “practice more” or to start wearing a power bracelet, in essence, you did.
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