Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is all over the news this week as questions swirl around his level of mental toughness after taking himself out of the NFC Championship game against the Packers. Cutler is only the most recent example of an athlete who may not have the heart and leadership skills necessary to help his teammates play above their heads — therefore over-achieving on the field (Mind of Steel). The age-old question, then, is that around the “x factors” in sport — otherwise known as mental toughness variables that allow some athletes to excel in pressure situations, while others flounder terribly (or quit).
Of course, I am biased when it comes to this question, and tend to believe that mental toughness (or degree of resiliency) can be developed and enhanced through dedicated training and development. This does not mean that I throw genetics out the window, nor does it suggest I place no value in the “nature” part of the nature-nurture human development question. In my opinion the question really has to do with intrinsic motivation and conviction more than anything.
The truth is that there are countless athletes who have tremendous natural abilities to play a sport, yet have little to no interest in playing the sport. This may surprise some sport fans, but it is true — not all great athletes love playing the sport they are good at playing. When this disconnect occurs, it is in the moments that Cutler faced on Sunday when the issue becomes amplified to the point where people begin to wonder if the guy really wants to be out there.
Personally, I have no idea how much Jay Cutler loves football, nor do I have any idea to what extent his injuries were this weekend that prevented him from finishing the game (reports are just now coming out). My comments in this article are designed to instead call attention to the strong, positive relationship between intrinsic motivation (conviction) and an athletes level of resiliency. It should be no surprise that athletes who love playing their sport – the ones who are the first to practice, and the last to leave – are also the last ones who ever want to come out of a game. Conversely, athletes with great natural talents but without a strong love for the sport they are good at will inevitably succumb to pressure situations – not because they can’t do it, but more likely because they don’t want to do it.
The big question, then, is not so much about mental toughness (or resiliency development), but instead whether athletes who don’t automatically come to love playing their sport can manufacture a strong emotional connection to playing their sport (in other words, develop their level of intrinsic motivation). When it comes to performance improvement and athletic success, it is in the moments of adversity that champions are made — and less motivated athletes are exposed.