Mental Toughness

Mental Toughness

Posted by on 1 April 2014 | Comments

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A while ago I did some work with a friend for an elite sports team. This got me thinking about the idea of mental toughness. A lot of people in sports, and those involved in other high performance activities talk about mental toughness. This ability, or characteristic is with out a doubt important in high pressure environments. The problem is that most people's understanding of what makes up mental toughness is quite limited. A common mistake is to see mental toughness as a sort of tough it out, push away the pain and get on with it attitude. Technically this is an avoidance strategy. While this can work well in the short term, it takes a lot of energy, and does tend to fail in some situations. It also tends to narrow our field of concentration, and limit our flexibility of responding to events.

Mental toughness really means being able to take knocks, set backs, accidents, injuries, and just plain bad luck, and get back into action with out it impairing our performance.

Mental Toughness means: 

  • Resilience
  • Flexibility
  • Adaptability
  • Commitment and determination
  • The ability to concentrate and the ability to take pain, fatigue, confusion, and to keep going.

It is the ability to get knocked down and get back up again. To keep focused on the job at hand and to do it. In sports particularly it is the ability to apply what you have learned in training under any and all circumstances.

What typically gets in the way of this adaptability is our minds, and our emotions. We second guess ourselves. We waste energy, and time in worrying, and over thinking. We become distracted and don't follow our training, our plan, or we fail to respond to changing circumstances. We react to situations emotionally, rather than simply responding to the opportunities and challenges that present themselves.

By breaking down mental toughness in to its component parts we find we can add value to performance by using very specific techniques to fine tune the abilities people already have. Basically learning how to get out of your own way, and let your training take over. More and more scientific studies are finding that mindfulness based practices, and other psychological strategies improve performance, decision making, and unhelpful emotional reactivity.

That is why many successful corporations apply some of these techniques and put their staff through mindfulness based training programmes. Companies like Google, Apple and so on may not talk about mental toughness, but the techniques they use, and the outcomes they achieve are he same.

A simple first step towards this more adaptable form of toughness is learning how to not take your thoughts so seriously. While your mind is important, and necessary (personally I never leave home without mine), if you are like most people your mind also talks a lot of shit much of the time. Psychological skills such as mindfulness, cognitive defusion, and so on can help limit the impact of the mind, and the emotions getting in the way of the skills you already have developed.

In Zen there is a saying, “don't limit yourself to your own small story” this attitude is relevant here. Alternatively, you could take the advice of Taj Mahal and take a giant step outside you mind.