Post No.: 0377
Mental toughness or strength is arguably about having the ability to stay focused despite feeling a million other emotions and physiological symptoms. It’s the ability to own any feelings and thoughts you have yet still do what you set out to do. It’s about putting any fuzzy failures into perspective, knowing that they’re bound to happen along any worthwhile journey, and being able to pick oneself up to try again. It’s about knowing that you’ve achieved something similar before hence feeling confident that you’ll do it again.
Mental toughness can arguably be broken down into a few subcomponents, including grit, resilience, focus, emotional control and mental control. Physical ‘hardness’ matters too because the more we can physically endure an activity, the less mentally taxing it’ll be. Hardness naturally improves through training – a physically fitter person feels less pain than a less fit person when performing the exact same physical task. We toughen the body to toughen the mind, as well as toughen the mind to toughen the body, because they’re intrinsically interconnected.
Understand that the mental aspects of a sport only really come into play after the requisite skills for achieving success are in place, when these skills are trained sufficiently to be somewhat automated and instinctive, and they form part of a decent game plan or strategy – otherwise these latter factors will be the limiting factors to success rather than one’s mind. We cannot just (arrogantly) mentally will ourselves to be great athletes(!) There’s no shortcut to physical training or game planning. But if these factors are in place then the single greatest effect on performance is an athlete’s state of mind.
Coaching the mental side of sports is more about tackling the obstacles to performance, such as handling pressure, a fear of failure or criticism (or having praise withdrawn), confusions, boredom, not being listened to, acknowledged or attended to, feelings of exclusion, team infighting (including ‘banter’ that’s meant as jokes but that persist for too long or far), disagreements and/or unacceptable language or behaviour by the coach. Even helping to alleviate distractions associated with family, relationships or other important issues off the pitch will help a player on the pitch (this includes pushy parents, hence this is all relevant to Post No.: 0201 and the topic of developing young athletes too).
‘Mental toughness’ is actually possibly one of the most overused and controversial concepts in sports psychology, with even its definition and usefulness disputed by professional sports psychologists. Despite this, sports pundits, coaches, parents, laypeople and players themselves use the term liberally to judge the mental strength of players. Whoever the winners are tend to be post-rationalised as being the mentally toughest, and vice versa. And it’s often those who’ve never been in the exact same pressurised situations themselves who’ll casually claim that ‘all you need is mental toughness’.
Some experts will even claim that mental toughness doesn’t really exist but is a fantasy of an ideal but unrealistic state because it neglects the fact that humans are humans. Apart from outright psychopaths (who exhibit most of the traits of so-called ‘mental toughness’) – everyone else will occasionally make mental errors or ‘errors’, often when under pressure; and when people make these ‘errors’ they then become labelled as fragile, soft or insecure i.e. ‘mentally weak’. But virtually everybody holds some doubts and insecurities and makes mistakes when under pressure, or even when not. It’s a normal part of being a normal human. Those who appear unshakeably confident, secure and positive on the outside are often merely putting on a mask when inside of them they still have doubts and vulnerabilities gnawing away at them. It takes mental resources and energy, of which there’s a limited supply, to constantly pretend to be someone one is not feeling, too.
So opening up about one’s mental state and emotions is not soft – it reduces inhibitions and the fear of failure when it comes to performing, which leads to better results!
Therefore rather than ‘acting tough’ to merely hide our fragilities – it’s probably better to own them. Just like facing our fears and embracing them, rather than denying or avoiding them, so that we don’t let them hold us back or stop us from living – we should be true to ourselves with our so-called ‘mental fragilities’ too so that we can perform to the best we can. We should accept them then carry on, and not let them bother us or make us be afraid of failure and thus hold us back.
A person who’s too concerned about how they might appear on the outside to others might not even give something a try in case they’ll fail. Or if they fail, they’ll look for excuses that aren’t the truth, which is that they’re afraid. So it’s best to accept that you’re possibly afraid, that failure might happen, or might not, so that you can then move on from these thoughts and attend to the task at hand. Only once we learn to accept something can we start to mentally move on from it (and this applies in other contexts too e.g. accepting that a loved one has passed away. Acceptance is indeed the last stage of grief). Woof.
To minimise the fear of failure – accept that failing is an integral part of any game so that you don’t react badly or judgementally to it when it does happen. Both failures and successes are learning opportunities to improve or reinforce. So take these lessons but let go of the result. That’s over. Done. When parents or coaches react negatively to failure (e.g. by yelling, withholding love and approval), children will develop an overwhelming fear of failure, and in the long-term this’ll likely lead to them avoiding playing or trying again when they can choose to, in case they fail, and they’ll therefore miss these opportunities to learn and grow, which will consequently mean they’re more likely to fail when it matters, when they cannot choose to avoid playing.
Telling someone to ‘be tough’ only superficially makes him/her attempt to ‘appear tough’. Acknowledging and accepting how nervous we are ahead of a big game can relieve ourselves, and our teammates, of needing to expend unnecessary mental energy to try to ‘appear tough’ and in control. It’s okay; totally normal – even arguably appropriate for a big game we care about. Accepting reality, and that includes how we really feel inside, should surely be a no-brainer. So coaches shouldn’t deny the emotions and thoughts of their players – players should be permitted to, and feel safe to, express whatever they’re thinking and feeling so that they can take these experiences with them while using their mental energies to focus on the task at hand instead.
Unless you believe that people can just ‘flip a switch’ at will, it’s probably best to ditch the label of ‘mental toughness’ or ‘mental weakness’ and adopt a more realistic understanding of the psychology of humans. Drop the pressure of being – or really appearing – ‘mentally tough’ and adopt a more realistic approach to accepting the negative thoughts and insecurities that are a very normal part of being human, so that everyone can move on from them and correctly focus on the present task at hand i.e. what’s important, the here and now (which all neatly echoes the research on mindfulness). WIN should stand for ‘what’s important now’! The past is done, it cannot be changed and the future depends on what happens now.
So be more mindful – focus on the process (what needs to be done here and now) rather than the result (some uncertain future outcome). Don’t even focus on the results of other teams or things you cannot control, or the league table position midway through the season. The more a coach emphasises the importance of winning or not losing, the more a player will feel pressure. Pressure is proportional to the importance placed on a result. (Winning is often more important to the coach’s or parent’s ego than to a child!) So a coach who is visibly excited or upset about winning or losing sends a very clear message that winning is critical, which is the root cause of pressure. For most athletes, pressure doesn’t elicit high performance but hinders it. Pressure also reduces the enjoyment and experience of participation, especially for kids. The ideal scenario is that the players really want to do well, but don’t need to. And more often than not, it’s just a game, not life or death; thus gaining some perspective helps too. (Life is a journey, and the only inevitable result is the end of it – so stop being overly focused on the outcome and concentrate on the journey!)
This knowledge is why many coaches on the sidelines nowadays exhibit reasonably small swings in mood and behaviour regardless of the result, and most players prefer this too. Many coaches express little range between a goal scored or conceded in order to place less emphasis on these moments than on the process – unless a goal came as a result of an exceptional level of application. So you might want to try being neither too excited about being in a winning position nor too worried about being in a losing position. A coach is better off focusing on and rewarding the process and on the efforts made by the players during play – this helps them to remain focused on the present task at hand i.e. the bit we can control and therefore matters, and will actually affect the outcome in the end. Focus on only what can be controlled and affected, and that means what’s happening now, not what happened in the previous minute or is expected to happen come the final whistle. Reward effort and remain fairly consistent in your reaction to victory and defeat. A coach may display frustration if his/her team doesn’t put in the effort but not if they try their best yet still get a bad result.
It’s really the effort and process that matters, not the result – well the desired results should eventually come if one puts in the effort and follows the process practised on the training pitch. Good and bad luck can strike anybody at any time, but overall and in the long run, if a team keeps putting in the effort and follows the training and game plan then they’ll probabilistically win more than lose. If not, then it won’t be the fault of the players but the coach (or if not the coach then someone higher up in the organisation, or if not them then the fans need to manage their expectations based on the size and budget of the club). It’s the coach who sets the training and game plan, as well as chooses the players, their positions and manages the mental side. Even if there are dedicated sports psychologists on the staff, the coach is usually the person who affects the players’ mental side the most, either directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally (e.g. the players know that it’s ultimately the coach who decides whether they’ll play or be benched).
Most athletes seek their coach’s approval so they’ll focus on what they think the coach finds important. So if you emphasise and acknowledge a focus on the process, on smart decision-making, teamwork, giving maximum effort or whatever process you consider valuable, then your players will most likely place a high value on delivering those things. Emphasising results and focusing the players’ minds on some uncertain future outcome takes their attention away from the present moment – takes their ‘eyes off the ball’ – and therefore distracts them. It may also reduce the intrinsic enjoyment of the process.
So focus on the performance rather than the outcomes. Praise furry efforts if you want ‘mentality monsters’! Luck, such as wicked deflections or unpunished fouls, can shape individual games, but in the long run – great performances will generate great results.