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Mental Toughness in Sports

By John W. Creasy (Ph.D.), Roanoke College, Salem, VA; Richard K. Stratton (Ph.D.), VA Tech, Blacksburg, VA; Michael P. Maina (Ph.D.), Roanoke College, Salem, VA; Matthew P. Rearick (Ph.D.), Roanoke College, Salem, VA; and Kristen Reincke, Roanoke College, Salem, VA

May/June 2006

October 25, 1986… the hard-luck Boston Red Sox has done it again.  Leading the N.Y. Mets three games to two in the World Series, it blew the sixth game on a horrendous error by their first baseman, Bill Buckner, and then lost the seventh and deciding game (on their own merits) the next day.

Believe it or not, it took the Red Sox 86 years to win their first World Series since 1918!  But that horrendous error by Bill Buckner remains unforgotten.  On a clear day, you can still hear the chattering from Boston:  “He blew it” … “He lost his cool”… “It was just one of those things”…”Buck just never had that mental toughness…”

What about mental toughness?  Despite the fact that most coaches and elite athletes agree that mental toughness plays a critical role in clutch situations, it is still a concept that remains difficult to define and teach, and it leads to the $64,000 question:

“Do coaches have the ability to assess and improve their athletes’ capacities for mental toughness?”

There is an obvious need for definition, intervention in, and evaluation of the construct.  Before coaches can observe mentally tough attributes in their players, they must establish a definition of the attributes that makes up the term.

Only then will the coach be able to produce an instrument that will help him recognize the mental strengths and weaknesses of their athletes and to design their training programs to fit the needs of their individual athletes and teams.

Since every athlete or team is different, a canned comprehensive approach is unlikely to develop the mental training skills necessary for the most productive performances. 

Mental toughness must be considered a crucial element of the practice and training activities.

While many coaches use the phrase and acknowledge the importance of mental toughness, few attempts have been made to define or develop it. 

A study published in 1987 by Gould, Hodge, Peterson, & Petlichkoff, explored the psychological foundations of collegiate wrestling coaches.  The study indicated that over 90% of the coaches felt that sport psychology could assist them in their coaching. 

82% of the coaches considered mental toughness as the most important psychological attribute in determining wrestling success.

This lack of clarity and lack of advancement in the construct is noteworthy since mental toughness is one of the most important psychological attributes necessary for attaining excellence in sport.

In 1993, Gould, Eklund, & Jackson studied the coping strategies used by 20 members of our 1988 Olympic wrestling team. 

Their findings revealed that the difference between the medal winning and non-medal winning wrestlers was that the medalists’ coping strategies were more internalized and automatized than the strategies of the non-medalists.  This finding was significant because it distinguished between successful and unsuccessful athletes whose levels of achievement were related to the development of psychological skills.

These skills and attributes found in the more successful athletes contribute to the definition of mental toughness. 

The phrase mental toughness still lacks a universal working definition, though several sports psychologists have attempted to distinguish the construct and the characteristics that are essential in becoming a mentally tough athlete.

In 2002, Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton endeavored to define the term mental toughness.  The following definition was created:

“Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to:

• Generally cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, and lifestyle) that sport places on a performer.

• Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.

This definition encompasses the essence of the phrase (mental toughness), yet Jones emphasized that more research should be done in order to better understand the concept and its critical components, as well as its substantial role in sport performance (Jones et al. 2002). 

In 2006, Creasy & Stratton conducted a study among 22 NCAA coaches.  In Phase-One of the data collection, the 22 coaches completed a questionnaire for the purpose of ranking the most important components of mental toughness and to what degree they felt these components were teachable. 

The questionnaire consisted of 20 components of mental toughness, 12 of which came from the 2002 Jones et al study. 

The remaining eight were identified by Cal Ripken in a 2004 publication (Stratton).  In Phase-Two, 10 of the 22 coaches were interviewed in order to gain a more in-depth understanding of the Phase-One research results. 

The data showed that the following components were fundamental to the definition of mental toughness:

1. Having an unshakable self-belief in the unique qualities and abilities that make you better than your opponents.

2. Strength: You have to be in good physical and mental condition.  You must be psychologically and emotionally prepared.

3. Having an unshakable self-belief in your ability to achieve your competition goals.

4. Have conviction: You have to be a little bit stubborn.

5. Regaining psychological control following unexpected, uncontrollable events (competition specific).

6. Have a strong will to succeed: Don’t let setbacks stop you from achieving your goal.

7. Remaining fully focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions.

8. Be consistent: Recognize and adjust to change so that you are always able to make a contribution to your team.

9.  Not being adversely affected by others’ good and bad performances.

10. Be competitive: It’s not just about beating your opponent.  You have to internalize competitiveness and take pride in what you do.

11. Switching a sport focus on and off as required.

12. Personal management: Don’t duck potential problems; take on the problems directly to prevent small problems from building into bigger problems.

13. Thriving on the pressure of competition.     

14. Take the right approach: Always be ready to play.

15. Accepting that competition anxiety is inevitable and knowing that you can cope with it.

16. Have passion for what you do.

17. Having an insatiable desire and internalized motives to succeed.

18. Bouncing back from performance setbacks as a result of increased determination to succeed.

19. Remaining fully focused in the face of personal life distractions.

20. Pushing back the boundaries of physical and emotional pain, while still maintaining technique and effort under distress (in training and competition).

These characteristics were also rated on their trainability in performers.  All but three components (4, 17, and 19) were considered to be trainable by the coaches. 

It is evident that the term mental toughness includes a variety of attributes and that it is incorrect to use the phrase with words such as perseverance, persistence, or determination. 

The definition of the term rests in a combination of traits (Creasy & Stratton, 2006).  

After a definition has been identified, an instrument or inventory can be designed so that coaches will be able to assess mentally tough qualities in their athletes. 

In past studies, Likert scales were used to rank characteristics of mental toughness.  These scales allow participants to associate a numerical value with an attribute and illustrate a participant’s agreement or disagreement with the importance of the trait. 

Being able to use a mental toughness inventory would greatly aid coaches in evaluating mental toughness in their athletes.  Questionnaires have been used to suit specific mental toughness studies such as in Gould et al’s Psychological Foundations of Coaching: Similarities and Differences Among Intercollegiate Wrestling Coaches. 

Instruments like the Mental Toughness Inventory by Middleton, Marsh, Martin, Richards, & Perry (2003) have also been developed to evaluate components of the construct, but no universal method has been adopted and employed to date. 

What coaches need is an instrument to assess the mental strengths and weaknesses of their athletes. 

As soon as an instrument has been developed coaches will be able to put together specialized training routines for their athletes. 

Since NCAA rules prohibit coaches from practicing more than 20 hours per week with their athletes, many do not take the time to develop mental training programs.  But, mental-skills training does not necessarily have to be time consuming; a number of activities can be incorporated with regular practice activities. 

Intervening with positive thinking is another easily integrated technique.  Players simply repeat positive affirmations such as “I am strong” or “I like the challenge of competition” to boost self-esteem and confidence.  There are many ways in which coaches can implement mental training programs into their normal routines without taking away from valuable practice time. 

Mental skills training is a crucial aspect of practice regimens for athletes of all levels and there is always room for improvement in mental toughness (Bull et al., 1996).

A mental toughness inventory could be useful for recruitment purposes, as well.  When coaches are recruiting athletes, they not only look at present physical ability and knowledge of the game, but potential ability and prospective gains.  

A study conducted in 2002 by Durand-Bush & Salmela examined factors that contributed to the development and continuation of expert athletic performance. 

Ten Olympic or World Champions were interviewed on how certain factors affected their performances in each stage of their athletic careers.  During all four stages (Sampling, Specialization, Investment, and Maintenance), the athletes used some form of mental skills training to enhance their performances. 

During the Maintenance years for example, athletes used mental strategies such as visualization, goal setting, and positive self-talk in order to expand upon their abilities. 

Even though the performers had reached the height of their careers, they continued to push for improvement using mental skills training (Durand-Bush & Salmela, 2002).  

In examining what sort of research exists on the construct and the lack of precision concerning the matter, one theme is clear: Mental toughness is one of the most important attributes an athlete can possess in order to successfully perform. 

If the majority of coaches truly believe in the value of mental toughness, it is troubling to know that scarcely anyone is pursuing research on the construct and its crucial role in athletic performance.

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