Coaches, athletes and fans continually throw around the term “mental toughness.” This player is described as mentally strong. That one is considered to be mentally weak, a “head case.” In his pre-game talk, the coach exhorts his team to play mentally tough. In the after match write-up, the sports reporter explains that the visiting team was just too tough, mentally for the home town favorites and that was the difference. So what is this mental toughness that they’re all talking about?
Mental toughness is a general term that refers to a specific set of related mental skills. Athletes that possess these mental skills consistently out-perform their opponents, even if the opponent may be physically stronger, faster or more talented. The skills of mental toughness:
The ability to stay calm under pressure – The secret to playing at your potential lies in your ability to stay calm and loose under high levels of competitive pressure. If you can’t do that, you will consistently under-achieve and lose to weaker opponents.
The ability to remain in control of your emotions – If you get too upset with yourself or your opponent during a game, if your anger spikes over a bad call or hard foul, then your game will slip. Peak performance is a product of an athlete maintaining a relaxed, almost emotionless stance. Strong emotions usually tighten muscles and distract an athlete from the important task at hand.
The ability to quickly rebound from mistakes and bad breaks – The mentally tough athlete does not hang onto his/her mistakes. Right after they’re made this athlete has the ability to quickly let them fade from their focus. Hanging onto mistakes and bad breaks always brings your performance down.
The ability to focus on what’s important and let go of everything else – Mentally tough athletes demonstrate an exquisite control over their focus of concentration. They are able to keep their focus on the important task at hand and not let themselves get distracted by all the other things that are going on around them.
The ability to effectively handle negative thinking and self-doubts – All athletes, regardless of ability or level have to deal with last minute negative thinking and self-doubts. The mentally tough athlete does not let these very normal thoughts knock them off center. When they arise, the mentally tough athlete acknowledges their presence and them calmly returns his/her focus to the game or match.
The ability to avoid dwelling on the uncontrollables – Far too many athletes allow themselves to get hung up on the things that they can’t directly control either before or during their games. Focusing on these “UCs” generates nervousness and physical tension, lowers self-confidence and sends your performance down the tubes. The mentally tough athlete knows what the UCs are and consistently avoids dwelling on them.
The ability to avoid getting psyched out and intimidated – Intimidation and psych-outs are a regular part of sport. The mentally sound athlete does not allow his/her focus to drift to those things that cause intimidation/ As a consequence this athlete remains confident regardless of the situation that he/she may be in.
The good news about mental toughness is that it can be taught and learned. If you have trouble in any of the above skill areas, do not dismiss your weaknesses as just “who I am.” With a little focused work, you can learn to systematically strengthen both this area and your overall mental toughness.