Mental toughness is a quality that all coaches and athletes hold in high regard, even though it’s hard to define. Resilience, determination, grit, a “never-say-die” attitude—all attempt to describe the intangible qualities that produce mental toughness in an athlete. Strength and technical skill are obviously important for athletic development, but an unshakable ability to stay driven and focused under pressure can be the elusive “X” factor that so many coaches want in their athletes.
Before we go further, take a moment to determine your personal definition of mental toughness. How does it relate to sport? Is this a trainable skill?
Some coaches hold the belief that mental toughness is not trainable, and that athletes are either born with it or never had it to begin with. At Volt, I'm lucky to be around a lot of great minds, innovators, and high-level practitioners in the strength and conditioning community. I reached out to Tyler Christiansen, the Tactical Strength and Conditioning (TSAC) Program Manager at the NSCA and exercise physiologist at the Army Physical Fitness Research Institute, to leverage his experience and knowledge from working with Special Forces populations. I asked him the same question, and he was nice enough to spend some time diving into the topic with me to discuss how coaches could better develop mental toughness in their athletes.
Defining Mental Toughness
In describing mental toughness, Coach Christiansen draws on Dr. Mike Asken’s definition in the book “Warrior Mindset”:
Mental Toughness (MT) is possessing, understanding, and being able to utilize a set of psychological skills that allow the effective and even maximal execution, or adaptation, and persistence of decision-making and physical skills learned in training and by experience. Mental toughness expresses itself every day, as well as in high stress, critical situations.
“The key takeaway from this message is that MT is comprised of SKILLS that can be learned and trained, with some genetic and physical predisposition," says Coach Christiansen. "Some coaches believe MT is a side effect of grueling workouts, or that you are born with it, or that MT evolves over the course of a life because of hard work, and others find it hard to pinpoint what is actually meant when using the term mental toughness.”
Let’s go back to your personal definition of mental toughness and how it relates to sport. Did you define MT as an innate quality athletes are born with, or a skill to be developed and practiced? The distinction here should not be overlooked. Challenging workouts or physical tests may not be the best option for helping athletes improve their mental fortitude—because this doesn’t present athletes with an opportunity to practice toughness before being tested. A baseball athlete isn’t likely to improve his swing speed by working only in the weight room, and never practicing in the cage. Why would we expect athletes to develop better mental toughness if we only test MT during grueling workouts? In my experience, coaches too often rely on what’s been deemed “puke training” as a method of building MT. This is where coaches tend to miss the mark. Remember, mental toughness is a SKILL. It needs to be practiced, honed, and progressed—just like any other athletic skill.
For clarification, I turn again to Coach Christiansen:
“Individuals who think ‘puke training’ is mental toughness training are like those who misunderstand the warrior as an aggressive killing machine rather than a skilled and dedicated servant of his/her country, community, and family. As Richard Machowicz, a retired Navy Seal, writes, ‘Being a warrior is not about the act of fighting. It is about being so prepared to face a challenge and believing so strongly in the cause you are for that you refuse to quit.’ Likewise, retired Army Ranger Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman states, ‘We don’t rise to the occasion; we sink to the level of our training.’ It all starts with practicing and rehearsing the skills needed for mental toughness, so when the athlete is in the crosshairs, relying on these skills will be second-nature.”
While defining mental toughness can be difficult—especially when it comes to our objectives as a coach, athlete or teammate—we can still identify the skills that come into play when developing the MT in ourselves and athletes. Such skills include:
The ability to independently control central nervous system excitability and relaxation. Some athletes operate well in an excited state, while others perform better in a more relaxed and loose state of mind. Each athlete has what is called an “O-ZONE” (Optimal Zone of Natural Excellence). There is a general O-ZONE where you can perform your best, but specific skills/sports/activities may demand a different optimal level and the athlete needs the ability to modulate levels depending on these requirements.
Focus and Concentration
Maintaining an ability to give full attention to the task at hand is critical in high-stress situations, like competition. Focus can be developed and improved using a variety of tactics that help to draw an athlete's concentration to intrinsic cues either in technique, motor control, or behavior pattern.
Giving an athlete the tools to visualize success specific to their task/drill, position, or sport. Promoting a mental “presence” in the weight room or on the practice field can elevate an athlete’s commitment to the goal at hand. Whether it’s a hard set of 5s in the back squat or a 2-minute drill on the football field, coaches should arm their athletes with the right mental tools for success.
Giving athletes guidance in how to control their inner-voice is a valuable performance tool. Promoting positive internal messages about themselves, their teammates, and their ability to handle problems is critical for mental toughness.
Teaching athletes how to set goals may sound simple, but the impact on MT cannot be understated. Learning how to develop a system of checkpoints, set short- and long-term objectives, and structure performance as a path to an accomplishable endpoint will help athletes practice MT skills.
“These skills need to be developed proactively and not reactively,” says Coach Christiansen. “Currently we see the MT skills typically administered post-crisis, or a few days before the big game/fight. That is not the answer—we need to make the MT skills available throughout the year so they are instinctive and reactive.”
Coach Christiansen, who works with special forces populations to maintain combat-ready fitness, also helps the elite few who are ready for selection to be at their most physically and mentally tough. While the populations are vastly different in preparation needs, athletes at the high-school and college level can benefit from utilizing the same mental toughness development. Whether it be in a game-time environment or the pressure of a real world situation, having a developed set of skills that translates to increased mental resilience is a magnificent tool for the young athlete.
Christiansen: “From a military standpoint, when the soldier goes through a selection program (hard and demanding workouts included) they are not building mental toughness—they are assessing who already possesses the skills. I think people make the assumption that they are training mental toughness, and use the same techniques of a physically demanding workout to implicitly train MT.”
Mental Toughness Beyond Sports
Are MT skills present in strength and conditioning? Absolutely! But as coaches, we need to identify those skills and show how they are useful outside of the weight room. This correlation to life outside the weight room is critical as our student-athletes may not make it to the NFL, NBA, or even a college team; however, they will be able to utilize these MT skills as they go through the ebb and flow of life. The amazing effect of this training at an early age is that we develop resilient people for their families, friends, and workforce.
Mental toughness is an unquestionable tool for maximizing performance—yet its benefits range beyond just the field of play. Building an athlete’s foundation for thinking positively and responding to stress with effective, goal-minded resilience will not only create a better athlete, but a better functioning human being overall. Mental toughness skills can be practiced by people of all ages, in all walks of life, and will help to produce stronger and more adaptable young men and women.
Read more from Dr. Mike Asken at his website, MindSighting.com.
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