Mental strength - a gift or a skill?
Updated: Mar 4, 2021
Have you ever heard of a quote where a race or a competition was won or lost due to mental strength or for lack of it? Undoubtedly, the interesting question is, what makes one mentally stronger and than the opponent and what does it even mean? Is mental toughness and resilience something that is built in our DNA or can it be nurtured? Therefore, the purpose of this article is to explore theories of mental toughness and seek answers to what’s inside in the winner’s mindset.
Concept of mental toughness
Literature provides a large number of concepts about mental strength and mental toughness. In 1957, Raymond Cattell came up with the idea that more than anything, mental toughness is a personal trait. However, modern psychology and literature debates still if it is a state of mind or a set of psychological characteristics, rather than a personality trait. Work by Guggiardi et al. (2009) came up with a refined definition of mental toughness, which states that mental toughness is “a collection of values, attitudes, emotions and cognitions that influence on how individual approaches, responds to and appraises demanding events to consistently achieve his or her goals”. In sports such characteristics could be described as an ability to cope and control anxiety and an ability to focus and block distractions. Moreover, values such as work ethic, optimism, coachability, self-belief and the level of motivation are also seen as characteristics of mental toughness (Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, 2002; Gould, Dieffenbach, & Moffett, 2002)
Six-time Superbowl winner Tom Brady stated that mental toughness is the thing that separates winning and losing. Since mental toughness and resilience is a broad concept, it could be questioned if one characteristic of it is more important than other elements of it? It is evident that high work-ethic is the trait that is behind many successful individuals. However, it could be argued that work-ethic alone may not be enough. Meaning, the one who does more, gets more, isn’t always the decisive factor between a winner and a loser in sport. Motivation, on the other hand, is undoubtedly an important factor that drives will power into achieving short-term and long-term targets. But is it still the decisive factor between a winner and a loser? Maybe, maybe not?
Difference between self-belief and self-esteem
Race drivers often state that confidence is the factor behind the successful race performance. The field of psychology has demonstrated a few theories of self-confidence and self-belief, such as William James self-esteem formula, Bandura’s self-efficacy theory and Deci and Ryan’s Self-determination theory. Understandably, all theories have similarities, but it could be concluded that self-confidence and self-belief is more or less self-assurance in our abilities, capacities and judgement that we can meet the demands of a task or a challenge. Even if self-confidence and self-esteem can be highly associated, it should be noted that self-esteem consists of beliefs in our own values and self-worth. Self-confidence, on the contrary is more related to the feeling that we are capable of achieving the demands of a task.
Science and practitioners agree on the advantage of self-confidence in sports. Hanton et al. (2004) stated that self-confidence is an important factor for a positive perception of performance and therefore, an essential quality of athlete performance. Interestingly so, the meta-analysis from Woodman, & Hardy (2003) demonstrated that self-confidence and anxiety have a stronger influence over the performance of men than the performance of women. Moreover, Woodman et al. (2010) later on suggested that the level of self-confidence may not be the decisive factor, due to their findings that a little self-doubt may actually help performance. Therefore, even the good level of self-confidence is believed to increase performance due to the better ability to concentrate on a given task and reduce negative thoughts for a given task. However, it seems that the relationship between performance and self-confidence isn’t that linear and obvious after all.
Sport at its best provides emotional highs and lows for everybody involved on it. Essential mental skills for athletes are the psychological tools on how the athlete bounces back after a bad move or performance. Similarly, on how athletes manage the last minutes pressure on the field, when an opponent is trying to attack and break the defense to make the last goal, that may define a winner and a loser. Those psychological skills are often referred as coping skills. Coping skills can be simply described, how an individual reacts to an internal or external stimulus such as discomfort and stress. Lazarus and Folkman (1984) described that “coping, is a skill where constantly changing cognitive and behavioral efforts are managed under specific external and internal demands”. In sports, coping skills can be related to an athlete emotional control. Emotions, in short, are the result of our cognitive interpretations. The interpretations of our emotional responses are, on the other hand, mostly based on our values and our previous experiences. It is also evident that one’s personality type, temper and our self-esteem do drive our emotional responses.
The field of psychology and research provide some theoretical framework of different coping mechanisms. Perhaps, the most established coping mechanism strategies are task-oriented, emotion-oriented, avoidance-oriented. The task-oriented strategy is problem focused. The emotion-orientated strategy is emotional response focused and lastly, the avoidance-coping mechanism includes strategies of avoiding or denying its existence. The study by Secades et al. (2016) suggested that athletes that chose task-orientated coping strategies correlated positively with their resilience scoring system. On the other hand, they noted that athletes favoured emotion-oriented and avoidance-oriented approach during competition instead of task-orientated strategy. Another interesting finding concerning coping skills was done by Beckford et al. (2016) who stated that a group of Jamaican elite-sprinters were superior in their coping skills and mental toughness, compared to the sub-elite group. Therefore, they suggested that psychological skills might be the differentiator between the elite and the sub-elite athletes. It should be noted that coping skills are a very large perception, where concepts such emotional control and emotional intelligence are heavily associated with coping skill theories (Cowden, 2016).
Research acknowledges still today that personality traits, such as coping strategies are partly genetical behavioral traits. On the other hand, research also agrees that traits are largely influenced by environmental factors (Plomin et al. 2013; Horsburgh et al. 2009; Roysamb et al. 2018; Manuck et al. 2014). Therefore, it could be concluded that coping skills can also be nurtured and trained to help an athlete to overcome challenges.
In summary, the main takeaways from this article are that if you are self-confident and you have a strong belief in yourself, great. If you are one of those who loses appetite before a competition due to the adrenal response caused by stress and anxiety, don’t worry, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you aren’t capable of performing at the highest level. Secondly, if your personality type is naturally calm and you have an ability to process and cope with your emotions and an ability to process tasks, great. On the other hand, if you have difficulties in controlling your emotions in crucial moments, don’t worry, it’s not be end of it, it’s a skill that can be learnt and mastered. If you add up high work ethic and a high level of internal motivation, you have qualities of mental toughness, and you are in the good road to take your game to the next level. Lastly for practitioners, we should be careful with our conclusion of someone being mentally weaker than another, due to the fact that it should be noted first if an athlete is actually lacking sport-specific skills instead of mental toughness, that has made an athlete vulnerable. Therefore, it is important to address that an athlete level of skill matches the demands of a task.
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