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Cutting Through the Confusion Encompassing Mental Toughness

Mim Haigh
Sports Writer – Athlete Assessments

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What do the terms mean and how are they different: grit, resilience, mental toughness, mental skills and mind strength?


You’re not alone if you’re confused about the various terms used to describe mental toughness, from grit, sport psychology and mental skills to resilience, there are numerous ways to describe and refer to mental toughness. Do they mean the same thing, or are there important distinctions between them? In this article we cut through the confusion surrounding mental toughness and focus on the most important elements for success in sport.

In sport, mental toughness is composed of true grit, resilience and the ability to perform under pressure. These terms are not interchangeable but they all come under the banner of mental toughness and can be thought of as mental skills.

Fundamental to understanding mental toughness is knowing that mental toughness is a competency based framework. What this means is that each of us already has a level of skill in mental toughness, it’s just the degree of its development. It’s the same as having different levels of skill in shooting a basketball from the 3-point line. Some have an excellent skill level, others have beginner level and there are any number of degrees in between.

Many Coaches view mental toughness as a fixed state. Their athletes have it or they don’t. The alternative to this perspective is to view mental skills like physical ability, they’re something that can be worked on. Like a muscle, mental skills need to be exercised, used regularly and cultivated as part of the individual and team or club’s culture.

It is not inherent in us; mental toughness can be taught, learnt and continually developed, just as resilience can be.

“Mental toughness is not a mythical quality possessed by only a few. It’s a teachable skill and there are proven strategies to develop this in athletes,” says Bo Hanson of Athlete Assessments.

He explains, “for a start, mental toughness can be broken down into its constituent parts. It’s composed of grit, which keeps you in the game and is otherwise defined as the long-term ability to stick it out. But that’s not what wins on finals day.”

Then there’s resilience. Defining resilience is relatively easy. Simply stated, it’s the ability to bounce back positively after a mistake, mishap or loss, and it’s the ability to overcome any negative situation. Resilience is the quality that allows people to get back up after they’ve been knocked down. More than that, resilience allows them to learn from their mistakes and devise strategies so that next time it happens, they will bounce back quicker. Again, this alone doesn’t win premierships.”

“Then there’s the ability to perform under pressure. Every athlete experiences pressure, but not every athlete can perform when the pressure is on.

“Think of it like this. Pressure is a continuum from none to immense. The further you move along this scale during a match, the more pressure you feel, and certain things start to happen – increased heart rate, breathing rate, emotions change etc. How you learn to recognize and control these symptoms of pressure determines how well you can use them to your advantage in the heat of competition. An example of not performing under pressure occurs when an athlete thinks too much about the outcome rather than the process. Once you learn how to recognize what’s happening, you can put processes into place to manage these issues to your advantage through specific coping mechanisms or strategies. And this, like most things, takes knowledge and practice.”

“Rather than letting failure stop them in their tracks and defeat them, they see it as feedback on how they can improve next time, they use these strategies to perform under pressure, they think about their “big why”, the reason they do their sport, they know that toughness is part of who they are, part of their identity.”

Hanson developed the term ‘Athlete Tough’ to describe the ability of an athlete to be their best when it matters the most. Ultimately, this is what is most crucial in sport and on competition day.

Tough Athletes know that when they face difficult times, the challenges are not sent to destroy them. Instead, they are sent to promote, challenge and strengthen them. This is called ‘reframing’. They embrace the struggle and look to a future time when they can look back with pride that they overcame the setback on their path to achieving the bigger goal. This is called ‘perspective’. Arnold Schwarzenegger says it well with his quote: “Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender. That is strength”. This is again a reframe based on a useful belief.”

“When an athlete is ‘athlete tough’, they can produce their best results when they’re under pressure. Not just in training but when it matters most.”

“We combine all of these skills under the banner of mental toughness, we call it being ‘athlete tough’. That’s what wins big competitions.”

Hanson says, “since starting Athlete Assessments in 2007, we’ve worked with thousands of Coaches and athletes across almost every sport and what we’ve noticed is that unanimously, Coaches are at a loss when it comes to developing mental skills in their athletes.”

Athlete Assessments is known for its work on the people side of sport, developing the only sport specific DISC behavioral profiles. It was in the implementation of strategies to maximize the potential of each behavioral profile that Hanson was continually asked for his input into mental skills development for athletes.

Hanson says, “I would be working with the Coach on team dynamics and culture and often be side-tracked onto issues that were getting in the way of this focus. I realized that they didn’t have the necessary building blocks to develop the mental skills we needed.”

He says, “I was constantly asked for my input into developing a mental approach to training and competition.”

“It’s quite common to hear a Coach describe some of their athletes as ‘soft’. My primary motivation for developing the Athlete Tough Program was to give athletes and coaches the tools to be successful and ultimately become better athletes.”

Hanson explains that the program is a culmination of his experiences as an athlete, coach and consultant; and the tools and tactics that he’s been using himself and with clients over the last two decades.

The Athlete Tough program is designed to deliver proven strategies on how to help your athletes become and stay mentally strong.”

It has been developed specifically with the Coach and athlete in mind, so it isn’t filled with distracting, long-winded theory or out of touch anecdotes. Instead, it takes the theory you need to know and explains it in terms you and your athletes will understand and more importantly, shows you how to put it into practice.

The Athlete Tough program includes a practical handbook that looks and feels more like a magazine, and an accompanying video series to make it multi-media. Coaches print a copy of the workbook for each of their athletes so they can take advantage of the cost savings of not having to purchase hard-cover books.

“We deliberately created a program that was practical and easy for Coaches to implement. It’s a step-by-step program that Coaches can work through with their athletes. The workbook has 15 chapters and most clients have schedule an hour or so of dedicated time to go through a chapter each week over as many weeks,” says Hanson.

He goes on to say, “Just a few of the topics covered include Staying in The Game, Teaching Toughness and Staying Tough Under Pressure. It isn’t filled with distracting, long-winded theory. Instead, it takes the theory Coaches and athletes need to know, explains it in a way that is easy to understand. The activities, projects, fun exercises and reflection journaling, cover the content in-depth while keeping it interesting for this generation of athletes and most importantly, practical.”

Feedback from around the world shows how this is happening. Tino Fusco, Head Coach of Women’s Soccer at Mount Royal University in Canada says, “we used the videos as a starting point for team discussions and then related the concepts to our own specific areas of need.”

Or, a Division I rowing coach from the US said, “Our athletes loved working through the book with the coaches.  We used Saturday mornings to go through one or two chapters with the coaches facilitating the sessions.  There was a marked difference in the team dynamic and resiliency during the season.”

Shea Cunningham, a Netball Coach from Victoria, Australia shared, “In just a few short weeks, (our team) have increased their communication, are starting to hold each other accountable, and are raising their expectations of not only themselves but each other. The online videos really help to drum home the messages throughout this program. It allowed the players to hear from someone else other than the coaching staff. Seeing the light bulb moments, the determination, and the start of their self-belief has been amazing.”

The Terms That Define Toughness

Mental toughness is at the heart of peak performance and to develop it in an athlete, a Coach must be very clear on the terms. In this five minute video Bo explains how grit, resilience and mental toughness differ from each other, work together and build an athlete’s capacity to perform.

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Athlete tough

Handbook & Program

Mental toughness is not a mythical quality possessed by only a few. It is a teachable skill and there are a proven strategies to develop your athletes to be ATHLETE TOUGH.

“Being ATHLETE TOUGH is defined by the actions you take when your performance matters the most. In the heat of battle or when all seems lost, those who stay in the game are those who never lose sight of why they are in the game in the first place.”

This is what it takes to be ATHLETE TOUGH.

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