From Peak Performance Online
Do you have what it takes to
maintain focus and self-belief
when the going gets tough?
There are certain
moments during competition (and in life) that appear to carry great
psychological significance, when the momentum starts to shift in one direction
or another. These situations require athletes to remain completely focused and
calm in the face of difficult circumstances. Tennis players talk of the
big points during a tight match, such as a fleeting chance to break
serve; for an athlete, it could be the final triple-jump in the competition
after seriously under-performing; for a footballer, it could be how you react
to a perceived bad refereeing decision or to going behind in a match your team
is expected to win.
Think about times
when things have not gone quite to plan and how you reacted. The journey
towards peak performance is rarely a perfectly smooth road and we learn from
our mistakes or should do. Do setbacks shake your self-belief and lower
your motivation or act as a catalyst for even greater effort?
Even great athletes
and teams suffer setbacks. Olympic athlete Steve Backley is a prime example. In
his book The Winning Mind, Backley cites his psychological strengths and, at
times, his weaknesses as major determinants of whether he performed near to or
below his own strict targets in competition (1). He talks of the transition
from young up-and-coming javelin thrower to major international competitor
when, after experiencing success so often as a junior, he found himself
under-prepared for the mental hurdles and barriers created by higher-level
competition. Backley says psychological strategies were the key to helping him
to deal with this competitive stress.
Most top athletes and coaches
believe that psychological factors play as crucial a role as physical
attributes and learned skills in the make-up of champions. When physical skills
are evenly matched as they tend to be in competitive sport the competitor with
greater control over his or her mind will usually emerge as the victor. Mental
strength is not going to compensate for lack of skill, but in close contests it
can make the difference between winning and losing.
A key question for
sport and exercise psychologists is whether champions have simply inherited the
dominant psychological traits necessary for success or whether mental toughness
can be acquired through training and experience. Recent research has attempted
to explore the concept of mental toughness in sport more thoroughly, and it
appears that, while some people are naturally more tough-minded than others,
people can be toughened-up with the correct approach to training
What do we mean by
mental toughness? It is probably easiest to define in terms of how it affects
behaviour and performance. A mentally tough athlete is likely to:
achieve relatively consistent performances regardless of situational
retain a confident, positive, optimistic outlook, even when things
are not going well, and not choke under pressure;
deal with distractions
without letting them interfere with optimal focus;
tolerate pain and
remain persistent when the going gets tough;
resilience to bounce back from disappointments.
The influence of
characteristics are obviously related to success in most life situations. But
it seems that some of us may be tougher than others because of personality
traits and learned ways of coping.
Personality research has always
stirred up controversy usually because researchers have not been able to agree
on the correct approach to studying it. Some have taken what is known as the
trait approach, which views personality as stable and enduring, based on
individual characteristics. However, others see personality as shaped by
environmental influences, while interactionists view individual traits and the
environment as codeterminants of behaviour. In recent times, this latter
position has tended to predominate, based on the view that personality
structure involves both a stable core of attitudes, values and beliefs about
self, that remains relatively unchanged after early childhood, and more
changeable, dynamic behaviours that are influenced by our environment.
Research on the relationship between stress and illness has revealed that some
people have characteristics that act as buffers against stressors, making them
less likely to succumb to ill health in difficult times. The leading researcher
Suzanne Kobasa showed in one study that a personality characteristic known as
hardiness was a key factor in whether or not highly-stressed executives
succumbed to illness. The hardy executives, who avoided illness, tended to
perceive stressors as challenges rather than threats, so maintaining a sense of
control over events (3).
Kobasa suggested that hardiness incorporates
three key elements:
1. Control the perceived ability of the
individual to exert influence rather than experience helplessness;
Commitment ie a refusal to give up easily;
involving a persons ability to grow and develop rather than remain static, and
to view change rather than stability as the norm.
Until recently, few
studies had attempted to transfer the concept of hardiness to sport and
exercise settings, but it seems very similar to the idea of mental toughness
outlined earlier in this article. One study on the relationship between
hardiness and performance in basketball showed that seven out of eight
season-long performance indicators were significantly correlated with a total
hardiness score (4). This finding needs to be interpreted with caution,
however, since correlations do not necessarily reflect causation.
More recently, a
team of researchers at Hull University have taken the idea of hardiness a step
further by proposing a model of mental toughness in sport(2). A key development
has been the development of a questionnaire to assess mental toughness that can
be used to assess its influence in experimental studies.
Hull:place>:City> researchers carried out two studies to show how mental
toughness was related to performance and cognitive appraisal. In the first
study, 23 volunteers performed 30-minute static cycling trials at three
different intensities of 30, 50 and 70% of their maximum oxygen uptake, rating
the physical demands of the trials at five-minute intervals.
Participants were classified as having either high or low mental toughness
based on their responses to the above-mentioned questionnaire and, as
predicted, those with higher levels of mental toughness reported significantly
lower perceived exertion at 70% of maximum. No significant differences were
noted at lower levels of exertion which, as the researchers acknowledged, is
consistent with the cliché that when the going gets tough, the tough get
going. The observed differences at higher levels of exertion could reflect a
tendency of the more tough-minded to somehow act on the incoming stimuli before
it reaches the level of perception, to reduce the perception of strain.
Mentally tough exercisers might perceive themselves as having greater control
during such conditions, or interpret the higher intensity as a challenge rather
than a threat.
The second study, on
79 participants, considered the influence of mental toughness on resilience in
adverse situations. Participants were given either positive or negative
feedback after completing a variety of motor tasks, and then asked to perform a
planning task which was used as the objective performance measure. The key
question for the researchers was how participants would respond to feedback
that could alter their confidence. As predicted, mentally tough participants
performed better on the planning task, delivering relatively consistent
performances whether their feedback had been negative or positive. However,
those with lower levels of mental toughness performed significantly worse after
negative feedback, confirming the greater resilience of those with high levels
of mental toughness.
4Cs model of mental toughness
Building on the work
of Kobasa, the Hull:place>:City> team proposed that confidence (as well
as control, commitment and challenge) was a key element of mental toughness.
This has given rise to the 4Cs model of mental toughness.
mental toughness in sport and exercise has focused largely on individual
differences, in which mental toughness is viewed as a relatively stable
characteristic. However, classic previous research on animals has suggested
that toughening up can be achieved through exposure to stressful conditions.
Weiss and colleagues observed a toughening phenomenon after exposing animals to
cold-water swimming, electric shock treatment or injections over a 14-day
period (5). Specifically, the usual decrement in performance following aversive
stimulation was not observed after the 14-day period. The intermittent exposure
to aversive stimuli had apparently led to the animals becoming more tolerant of
and resilient to such stimuli.
Although this finding does not
necessarily transfer to human subjects, there are distinct parallels with
various techniques commonly used as interventions in sport and exercise
environments. For example, a technique known as stress inoculation training
gradually exposes the individual to more threatening situations while
self-control is acquired as a means to combat learned helplessness. The stress
response is gradually diminished as exposure renders the situation less
threatening and the individual experiences a growing sense of control.
Of particular importance here is the idea that exposure to stress in controlled
situations is much more powerful than stress reduction or removal, which will
not help an individual cope with future exposure to the same stressor.
One researcher has
proposed four major influences on toughening, as follows:
life experiences. Both human and animal studies have shown links between
exposure to stressors in early life and reduced fear or emotionality when
exposed to threats in adulthood;
2. Passive toughening.
Intermittent exposure seems to protect against depletion of stress hormones and
is linked with their quicker returns to baseline levels. In other words, people
become less sensitive and more tolerant of stress;
toughening. Physical fitness gained through aerobic conditioning is thought
to be an important means of self-toughening. This could be related to the
application of control;
4. Ageing. This has the opposite
effects to the other three, tending to make people more sensitive to and less
tolerant of stress.
Clearly, active and passive toughening are the most
relevant manipulations for athletes and can be applied in a number of practical
ways. Stress inoculation training is an obvious application, but this is
probably best approached with the aid of a sport psychologist. Since I am a
sport psychologist, I will give some examples of how mental over-load may be
applied to training sessions in order to achieve some degree of toughening.
Rod Laver, the Australian tennis legend, has described how he used
practice sessions to simulate tough match conditions (7). Laver felt that
fatigue placed great strain on the concentration which was crucial to success
in long matches. To simulate these conditions, Laver forced himself to
concentrate and work even harder during the latter stages of training sessions,
when he was tired, so that he became used to the mental strain of such
conditions. He has cited this as one of the key factors in his long-lasting
Simulation training is a great way to prepare mentally for
the challenges of competition, and this can include mental as well as physical
stressors. For example, a tennis player could increase the mental pressures in
a practice match by starting each service game 0-15 down, and thus getting used
to rebounding after losing the first point. Alternatively a player with an
over-reliance on his first serve could be restricted to one serve only and be
forced to become extremely focused and accurate with what is, in effect, a
To enhance the stress still further, players could
practice by playing tiebreakers, or play practice matches in front of an
audience. The coach might use bad line calls or spectator noise as a way of
exposing players intermittently to distractions and giving them practice at
dealing with them.
Tennis is a game with plenty of breaks between play that
allow time for dwelling on past events or self-doubting. Using imagery and
positive self-talk during dead time in order to remain calm and in control can
be an effective strategy. Mentally tough competitors are likely to use
strategies that reinforce their self-belief at times of crisis. And these
strategies can be rehearsed in practice situations.
With a little
invention, simulation training can be used for most athletes, and the
opportunity to deal with mental stressors in controlled situations can be an
invaluable way to toughen up in preparation for the very real challenges of