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Becoming a Competitive Juggernaut: Developing Mental Toughness in Sport

From a 2019 Unrivaled article...

What are the behavioral qualities that set apart elite players and consistent championship organizations? If we took a poll, certainly physical and cognitive traits would appear; speed of play, speed of thought, intelligence, determination. But it takes more to piece together a championship team, or develop true mastery of craft. The behavioral quality that most sets these special few apart is mental toughness.

How does mental toughness manifest itself? A naturally skilled athlete can find a high level of success without it. A hand-picked team of top talent can win against many inferior opponents before facing a team equal in talent and mentally tough. We cannot measure it in any tangible sense…but anyone who has ever laced up a pair of cleats knows when they see it, especially first hand.


There are many definitions from a handful of experts for mental toughness. The definition of mental toughness can differ greatly between individuals depending on their background, age, and user context. When performance is a matter of life and death, as with a rock climber for example; the perception of mental toughness differs from those performing tasks with lower stakes.[1] As it relates to sport, I define mental toughness as the capability of an athlete to perform their job regardless of opponent, scheme, or situation. ‘Situation’ in this sense can mean playing environment, consequences of outcome, or physical status.


In our performance equation there are constants (height, arm length; genetic factors), constrained variables (top end speed, lean muscle mass), and free variables (training schedule, focus, technique) that will ultimately determine the success of an athlete. In this construct, the most valuable of inputs are those that are available to everyone. Constants, and to large extent constrained variables, are handed out well before we pick up a ball. If we are to all compete on the same field; I am most interested in turning the dials of performance that allow me to succeed through my own actions and force of will.


Of these variables to adjust, The most important is technique. Striving to be a technical master will force an individual to tighten their schedule, focus on both the short and long term, and become a master of the details of the sport.


Do We Rise or Fall During Competition?


Anecdotally we can identify a natural mental toughness in many young athletes; those who seem to ‘rise to the occasion’ and never allow the moment to overtake them. While some athletes have a natural mental toughness higher than most, at the elite level mental toughness is a character trait we can develop through effort and focus. A good friend of mine, former Navy Seal, insists that, “we do not rise to the occasion, but fall to our lowest level of training.”[2] Tough to argue with our greatest example of performers under pressure; but what does that insight tell us about how we are training our athletes?


If mental toughness is simply a demonstration of productivity under duress, then it is rational to believe that we can improve our mental toughness through focused effort. There are two common paths philosophically to improve mental toughness: train the body to toughen the mind, or train the mind to toughen the body. Training the body to toughen the mind is another way of looking at progressive overload training systems. As we push ourselves physically past regular boundaries, our new reality of difficulty is much further down the path than what we originally projected for ourselves. Many coaching mantras involve pushing physical limits as part of preparation. Focusing on intensity of practice, practicing at game speed, and using this as preparation to compete at full strength throughout an entire game. The harder you train, the easier game situations feel.


Training the mind to toughen the body has multiple use cases. Improving preparation routines, coping mechanisms, and mental cues to stay in the moment during competition are common practices of our best athletes. Understanding what each individual’s unique behavior traits are, and creating action items for them to maximize their opportunity are still a work in progress in most facilities. After evaluating many of the options in the market, I have developed an football-specific behavioral action plan using the TAIS behavioral assessment. The TAIS behavioral assessment has proven to be a powerful tool to gather information about circumstantial behavioral traits. The initial results have been very positive – the key for me is using assessment as a gateway to conversation, and leave the athletes with action items to build a routine with.


The second use case is the incorporation of these football-specific routines and action plans into our daily schedule. For this to be effective, we must consider the effects of how we add our action items to a player routine. Many cues and routines are used in the moment to relieve stress. To make a long term impact on an athlete’s behavior, these cues must be intertwined with every attempt, particularly in stop-play sports such as baseball and football. In basketball, players are taught to learn a routine and stick with it every time they take a free throw. This makes the routine part of the skill, and helps prepare the athlete for internal stress by diverting attention to the practiced habit. Routines clear the mind, take us to a place of comfort during stressful situations, and give us focus. But they have to be carried out at every opportunity; tired and anxious or energetic and confident, in order to be consistent.

It makes sense that most athletes will need to train both sides of the spectrum. Promoting decision making when tired or anxious in the practice environment will translate better to game results than separating the mind and body exercises. Too often this is where we come up short in development: demanding consistency in preparation. In order to receive the outcome you expect, you must give the process the respect it deserves. There are three tried and tested ways to improve mental toughness during training sessions.


1) Make the scenarios in the practice setting more difficult than a game setting. Train at a higher level than play

· This can manifest through size of field, number of players, number of touches on the ball, etc.

· It is difficult to mimic the intensity and consequences of a game, but we can do in part through rewards and consequences

· Train the mental and the physical at every opportunity. Foundational skill in a safe setting, in a dynamic setting, with distraction, and finally in a live setting with forced decisions.

2) Advocate the importance of preparation. Take pride in the work you put in

· Confidence can grow from the sweat of our labor

· Recognize the correlation between deliberate practice and game success

3) Strive for consistency in preparation. Take pride in the process

· Volatility is inevitable in all training, particularly with younger athletes

· If we can smooth out the focus from one session to the next, we can make huge gains in relatively short amounts of time


The constraints of our bodies do not compare to the power of our minds. In order to become the athletes and organizations we dream about, we must acknowledge and embrace the mental side of athletics. Becoming mentally tough athletes will force us to improve on our shortcomings, train the details, and revel in the art of preparation.


Good luck!


Takeaways

· Mental toughness is a variable character trait that can be improved through effort

· In order to maximize your ability to thrive in stressful situations, we must train the body and the mind to deal with adversity

· Confidence comes from believing that your process matters, and consistently training at a level more difficult than a game

[1] Mental Toughness in Sports: Developments in Theory and Research. Guccardi & Gordon, 2011

[2] Curt Cronin, 2016


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