Peak Performance involves Mental Toughness: Considerations for Strength & Conditioning Coaches

Just to warn you, I wrote this article as an MSc critical review of the literature….hence it is in the style of an academic journal and includes a LOT of references! I do hope to edit it down to a nicer read at some point but have posted it as it is due to popular demand! To understand my reasoning for investigating this topic, I’ll say that I’m finding sports psychology an increasingly interesting area and its place in elite sport, especially professional rugby, is absolutely essential. A top psychologist recently told me that “environment is the biggest determinant of human behaviour” and I fully buy into this.

Anyway, enjoy….

The title strength and conditioning coach implies that one’s main responsibilities are to improve and develop the physical performance characteristics of athletes, thus enabling them to perform to their full potential in competition. However, physiological variables are not the only determinants of sport performance. Whilst many psychological variables may also impact performance, the concept of mental toughness has long been referred to by coaches, athletes and the press as an important determinant of sports performance and essential for elite success (Clough, Earle & Sewell, 2002; Gould, Hodge, Peterson, & Petlichkoff, 1987). It is therefore important for coaches of all natures to understand what makes an athlete mentally tough and how these attributes can be developed. On review of the existing literature, this article establishes a clear understanding of what mental toughness is, how the concept has evolved, how it can be measured and provides practical recommendations that can be applied to strength and conditioning practice to aid its development and maintenance in elite athletes.

The concept of mental toughness in sport has been explored since Loehr (1982)first described it as the ability to consistently perform to the best of an athlete’s abilities regardless of competitive stress or situation. However Loehr’s (1982, 1986, 1995) work was largely anecdotal and although scientific research has paid significant attention to the topic in the last decade, progress in defining mental toughness has been slow and inconsistent. In fact Jones (2002) suggested that mental toughness was one of the most overused but least understood concepts in sports performance. Despite a range of methods (qualitative and quantitative) in recent exploratory research and the fact that psychologists have defined mental toughness in a large number of ways, certain characteristics have frequently reoccurred including resiliency, focus, self-belief, self-motivation, the abilities to stay in control and perform under pressure, enjoying competition and possessing superior mental skills (Crust, 2007; Golby, Sheard, & Lavallee, 2003; Gucciardi, Gordon, & Dimmock, 2008; Jones, 2002).

Whilst mental toughness has become a popular area of research, the weight of some of this research is questionable. For example, Jones (2002) was criticised for describing what mental toughness enables in athletes rather than what it actually is (Middleton, Marsh, Martin, Richards, & Perry, 2004). Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, (2007) later reported that mental toughness enabled athletes to cope better in stressful situations. However their study did not comprise any comparison to a control group or between athletes of different levels of mental toughness and was therefore somewhat speculative. Lack of a control group is unfortunately a reoccurring discrepancy within the body of mental toughness research (Crust & Azadi, 2010). It must also be made clear that all studies to date have been either descriptive or correlational which means that whilst psychological characteristics and skills have been related to peak performance, this does not necessarily mean that a cause-effect relationship occurs between the two.

What is clear is that mental toughness is multidimensional and although several concepts seem to be consistent throughout the research there is still some controversy over an exact definition; this may be due to the majority of research relying on various levels of athletes from various sports (Bull, Shambrook, James, & Brooks, 2005; Golby et al., 2003; Gould, Dieffenbach, & Moffett, 2002; Jones, 2002; Thelwell, Such, Weston, Such, & Greenlees, 2010).It is not surprising then that some researchers have suggested that some requirements of mental toughness may differ by sport (Crust, 2007; Gucciardi et al., 2008; Middleton et al., 2004). Nonetheless it is believed that mental toughness can be conceptualized for a broader understanding which is deemed important at this stage while refinements may be made in the future as the research progresses (Clough et al., 2002). Whilst much recent research has been made on athletes’ and coaches perceptions of mental toughness, a similar concept, that of hardiness, has existed within the health psychology literature since Kobasa’s work in 1979 and has also been compared with sports performance level (Golby et al., 2003; Golby & Sheard, 2004; Sheard & Golby, 2010). Kobasa described hardiness as a single personality trait that acts as a buffer between an emotional or physical stress and one’s reaction to it. This trait is comprised of three key elements: control, commitment and challenge. Under stressful circumstances, an individual’s control will allow them to choose the most appropriate course of action and should make them a leader in consequent decision making. An individual’s commitment should involve them in what they are doing and make them proactive about the task. Challenge, was described as viewing change and stressful circumstances as an opportunity for growth and development rather than a threat to what already exists. Clough et al. (2002) developed this construct towards sports psychology by directly interviewing athletes and carrying out an extensive search of the existing literature. From this research it emerged that self-confidence and a strong belief in one’s abilities was considered the most important element of mental toughness in sport which has since coincided with the findings of other research groups (Clough et al., 2002; Gucciardi et al., 2008; Jones et al., 2007). They then provided the 4 Cs model of mental toughness based on the key elements: control, commitment, challenge and confidence; and gave the following definition:

“Mentally tough individuals tend to be sociable and outgoing; as they are able to remain calm and relaxed, they are competitive in many situations and have lower anxiety levels than others. With a high sense of self-belief and an unshakeable faith that they can control their own destiny, these individuals can remain relatively unaffected by competition or adversity”.

In response to requests from sports coaches towards improving mental toughness in athletes, the purpose of Clough et al.’s (2002) work was to investigate how this could be done. Once they had established a clear definition, they then used this conceptualisation to develop the mental toughness questionnaire (MT48) as a means of measurement. Similarly to how physical testing is essential to strength and conditioning practice, psychological measurement is important and will initially help to identify potential problems. This information can then be used as both a way of predicting performance and increasing an athlete’s self-awareness. It is also essential for assessing the effect of training interventions and monitoring progress. The MT48 is a 48 item questionnaire that provides an overall score for mental toughness and separate scores for each of the four sub-components previously identified. The MT48 was first used by over 600 athletes from various sports and was found to have a reliability coefficient of 0.9. Face validity was provided by the fact that athletes were happy to complete the questionnaire.  The construct validity is supported by significant relations with a number of other constructs such as self-efficacy (r = 0.68, p < 0.01), life satisfaction (r = 0.56, p < 0.01), stability (r = 0.57, p < 0.01) and optimism (r = 0.48, p < 0.01). More importantly the researchers provided two case studies that supported the criterion validity that the questionnaire relates to performance. The first of these studied the effects of physical workload through cycling at different intensities (30%, 50% and 70% of VO2 Max) on mental fatigue and performance in a cognitive task. Participants were subsequently split into high and low mental toughness groups. Data analysis revealed that as workload increased and time passed, the low mental toughness group perceived workloads to be more physically demanding than the high mental toughness group, which was statistically significant when working at 70% VO2 Max. The second study investigated the effect of negative and positive feedback on performance of a cognitive task in 79 subjects. They found that the more mentally tough participants’ performance remained the same following positive and negative feedback, while less mentally tough participants demonstrated lower scores after receiving negative feedback. The notion that mentally tough individuals demonstrate resilience when faced with adversity is an important feature of control and thus gives support to the questionnaire in its criterion validity.

The MT48 has been accepted by most research groups as a valid tool for measuring mental toughness and has since been used in a number of studies (Crust & Clough, 2005; Kaiseler, Polman, & Nicholls, 2009; Levy, Polman, Clough, Marchant, & Earle, 2006; Nicholls, Polman, Levy, & Backhouse, 2009). Although Gucciardi, Hanton, & Mallett (2012) recently criticised the MT48, questioning its psychometric properties and usefulness, the motives and methods for this study are themselves questionable (Clough, Earle, Perry, & Crust, 2012); on the other hand the work of Horsburgh, Schermer, Veselka, & Vernon, (2009) has identified adequate psychometric properties and supported its construct validity for the key components of mental toughness.

The MT48 is not the only measure for mental toughness in the literature. Sheard, Golby, & Van Wersch, (2009) recently developed the Sports Mental Toughness Questionnaire (SMTQ) which measures overall mental toughness and three sub-scales (confidence, constancy and control). They provided sufficient evidence to support adequate psychometric properties, as well as its reliability, validity and discriminative power. These two measurements were recently compared by Crust & Swann (2011) who found a strong positive correlation between overall mental toughness scores. However there were much weaker relationships found between the sub-scales. On further investigation the SMTQ was found to have some poorly constructed questions within the confidence sub-scale that should really relate to control or challenge. Based on this research and the existing support of the MT48, it is recommended that until a more widely accepted instrument becomes available that the MT48 is used in the measurement of mental toughness amongst athletic populations.

Prior to the MT48 and SMTQ, Loehr (1986) had formed the Psychological Performance Inventory (PPI) which has also been used to assess mental toughness in numerous studies by Golby and colleagues (Golby et al., 2003; Golby & Sheard, 2004; Sheard & Golby, 2006). The PPI has been criticised by Middleton et al. (2004) for consisting of insufficient psychometric properties after conducting both an exploratory and cross factor analysis. They also argued that as the PPI was developed from anecdotal observation and not in the context of a clear conceptualisation, it is hard to rationalise its use as a measure of mental toughness in scientific research. That being said, it does not mean the work of Golby and colleagues should be disregarded. In fact in two of their studies on elite rugby league players, they also used the Personal Views Survey III-R to assess hardiness which as has already been discussed forms a large part of the mental toughness conceptualisation (Clough et al., 2002). Their main findings showed a strong relationship between hardiness and higher levels of performance from National 1 league players to international standard which may begin to show some support as to the importance of mental toughness in elite athletes.

The slow progress in understanding mental toughness is surprising considering the emphasis that coaches have placed on its importance towards successful performance. Mental toughness was first used as a concept in qualitative research by Gould et al. (1987)  who surveyed 101 intercollegiate wrestling coaches on their perceptions of successful performance. Overall, mental toughness was identified as the most important psychological characteristic in their athletes. It must be noted that during this study, competitive stress control, confidence and concentration were considered as separate parameters and have since been included as part of the mental toughness construct; however coaches did identify all of these areas as both important and where problems most frequently occur which still supports the significance of mental toughness. It is also interesting to note that although these coaches valued the importance of mental toughness and similar attributes, they also perceived these characteristics as some of the least susceptible to change alongside the fear of failure.

Whilst mental toughness is clearly a complex multidimensional construct, there is continually emerging research to support its significance to elite sporting success.Recently other research groups have explored the importance of mental toughness, relating it to higher levels of sports performance (Sheard & Golby, 2010; Crust & Azadi, 2010), successful injury rehabilitation (Levy et al., 2006), a better ability to cope with testing situations and use of psychological strategies (Kaiseler et al., 2009; Nicholls et al., 2009), and an increased tolerance to pain during an endurance task (Crust & Clough, 2005). Crust & Azadi (2010) used the MT48 and the Test of Performance Strategies (TOPS: Thomas, Murphy, & Hardy, 1999) to investigate the relationship between mental toughness and the use of psychological skills. They found that self-talk, emotional control, and relaxation techniques were positively related to mental toughness in both practice and competition. Whilst these results cannot conclude that improving such psychological strategies will benefit mental toughness, it does make a logical argument that athletes who are experienced at using relaxation and emotional control strategies may cope with sports stressors better than those that are not, which satisfies one of the main concepts of mental toughness and is supported by Kaiseler et al.’s (2009) work on mental toughness and stress appraisal. Their study also showed athletes of national standard to have higher levels of mental toughness than those at club and university standard, giving further support to the notion that higher level performers have greater mental toughness.

In light of the evidence and beliefs that portray the importance of mental toughness, the question is soon asked of how it is developed. A problematic issue is then the discussion over whether mental toughness is an inherent trait or a characteristic that can indeed be developed. Although some studies have investigated the contribution of genetics and environmental influences on mental toughness by either comparing monozygotic and dizygotic twins (Horsburgh et al., 2009) or studying brain structure (Clough et al., 2010), common belief is that mental toughness is a combination of both nature and nurture (Crust & Clough, 2011), and that further research is needed to fully understand how it can be influenced. Several studies to date have investigated the perceptions of elite athletes and coaches, however no longitudinal study has yet been conducted. These studies have presented common areas that athletes and coaches perceive to affect the development of mental toughness which includes the influence of parents, teachers, coaches, training environment, home environment, training experience, competition experience, and social support networks (Bull et al., 2005; Connaughton, Wadey, Hanton, & Jones, 2008; Gould et al., 2002; Jones et al., 2007; Thelwell et al., 2010). It is hard to estimate how much of mental toughness is developed through social experiences and whether or not certain aspects can be taught, however it is important to acknowledge that coaching practice and training environment is highly likely to have an influence. Therefore strength and conditioning coaches should be aware of exactly how they can use this influence to have a positive effect on mental toughness and thus hopefully performance.

Bull et al., (2005) used their work with some of the toughest English cricketers from the past 20 years to develop a framework of mental toughness. This framework was constructed around a four level pyramid (Figure 1) that depicts a developmental approach to elite athlete performance. At the base of the pyramid, an athlete’s environment lays the foundations for developing mental toughness with emphasis on experiential learning and environmental aspects which include their interactions with coaches and parents. Bull et al., (2005) suggested that tough character, encompassing traits such as self- confidence and competitiveness are then built, which lead to tough attitudes of undying dedication and commitment. They proposed that mental skills training plays a small role in fine tuning an athlete’s tough thinking which is still important at an elite level.

[There should be a picture of a pyramid placed here depicting the framework described above but unfortunately I couldn’t upload it to the blog]

Figure 1: Bull et al.’s (2005) Mental Toughness Pyramid.

This framework and the importance placed on environmental influences is supported by the findings of similar research with particular emphasis on childhood backgrounds where parents install a hard work ethic and sibling rivalry encourages a competitive nature (Gould et al., 2002; MacNamara, Button, & Collins, 2010; Thelwell et al., 2010). Furthermore some athletes reported that overcoming considerable stressors or challenging events such as parental separation or “being an outsider” has helped them cope with adversity and built a more mentally tough mindset (Coulter, Mallett, & Gucciardi, 2010). Whilst such stresses and environmental factors are likely to affect an athlete’s psychology, it is extremely unlikely that a coach will have any influence on this home environment. If asked for advice from the parents of young athletes on how much they should push their child, the key recommendations that can be made following existing research are to positively push and encourage, provide emotional support when needed and believe in their child’s ability (Thelwell et al., 2010).

Of greater importance to strength and conditioning professionals, is how a training environment should be manipulated to influence the development of mental toughness. Firstly, Thelwell et al., (2010) proposed that a training environment needs to include discipline and a hard work ethic to facilitate the characteristics that are necessary to succeed. To install a hard work ethic it is essential that athletes know what is expected from them through clear communication especially when coaches and athletes begin working together and before each session. Posters are commonly used for additional clarity and placed at the entrance to gyms to remind athletes of their expectations, first and foremost that they should arrive with the intent to work hard. Weinberg, Butt, & Culp, (2011) reported the importance of coaches perceptions towards both a tough training environment and tough physical conditioning. Tough conditioning can easily be implicated through strength and conditioning but recommendations towards intense competitive practice under stressful circumstances should also be passed on to the technical coaches of most sports. Whilst discipline is important, it must be achieved in a positive manner as psychologists stress that the coach must be a positive influence and a positive mental environment is extremely important (Weinberg et al., 2011). A positive atmosphere and high expectations will help build self-belief and confidence which are integral to mental toughness (Thelwell et al., 2010). A vital mechanism for creating a positive environment is the use of enthusiastic encouragement and motivation which has been suggested by some athletes to play the most significant influence on their development (Thelwell et al., 2010). Enthusiasm is a key element within motivation as it will promote a sense of genuine belief in athletes’ abilities which again should lead to greater confidence.

Connaughton et al. (2008) suggested that coaches should create a task-mastery orientated motivational climate that includes healthy competition and coincides with Bull et al.’s (2005) observations, who found mentally tough athletes to be highly competitive around self improvement. This becomes ideal in a team environment were healthy competition amongst athletes can easily be encouraged. Coaches can use regular testing blocks as ways of both promoting competitiveness and team bonding by having athletes compete against and simultaneously encourage each other. Most coaches will find that inter team rivalry comes naturally to a lot of athletes when testing measures of performance such as speed and power, and this should be encouraged. It also identifies a place for conditioning games such as small sided games (SSGs) within the programme. Whilst it is much harder to manipulate exact intensities and energy systems during SSGs, coaches may consider their use with a possible benefit towards mental toughness. This reasoning gives further weight to group speed, power, strength and fitness testing throughout the training year as a means of promoting healthy competition as well monitoring progress. Furthermore the results of such testing should be published and displayed for athletes to gain a sense of achievement and again to encourage competition. Scores of progress and scores normalised to body weight can also be displayed as those who are strongest for example may not be the ones making the greatest gains, which will help to gain a sense of achievement in a wider range of athletes which in turn should increase self-belief and confidence (Thelwell et al., 2010).

Crust & Clough (2011) advised that athletes should be challenged regularly in a competitive and goal orientated environment. Whilst competitiveness has already been discussed, goal setting has been described as the most frequently used psychological strategy adopted by elite strength and conditioning coaches (Radcliffe, Comfort, & Fawcett, 2012). Furthermore it is well established that goal setting is possibly the most effective way of increasing intrinsic motivation through external rewards and should be an integral part of any strength and conditioning programme (Baechle & Earle, 2008; Gilson, Chow, & Ewing, 2008). It is essential that athletes are involved in this process. Actively involving them in the decisions made towards the direction of their training will facilitate self-belief, independence and intrinsic motivation that could in turn build mental toughness (Crust & Clough, 2011). As part of the goal setting process, it must be ensured that both long term and short term goals are created to achieve a regular sense of accomplishment, thus empowering self-belief, and avoiding the possibility of being overwhelmed by larger long term goals (Crust & Clough, 2011). Coinciding with this notion of engaging the athlete in decision making where possible, a supportive autonomous coaching style was recommended by Gucciardi, & Mallett (2010) as dictorial approaches have been shown to chip away at athletes’ self-esteem and motivation (Mageau & Vallerand, 2003).

Providing learning opportunities is an important element of coaching and has also been expressed as important to the development of mental toughness (Crust & Clough, 2011; Weinberg et al., 2011). Although this may be more applicable to technical coaches and competitive performance, it holds value in strength and conditioning and is an important part of creating the right training environment. In this setting informational feedback on where an athlete has done well and how they need to improve is an important tool not only when coaching technical skills but also in evaluating their progress throughout a training cycle (Crust & Clough, 2011). Alongside the importance of involving athletes when making decisions, it eludes to how important regular consultations and evaluations are rather than assuming a dictorial approach. As part of providing learning opportunities, self- reflection should also be encouraged. Coaches are often advised to reflect back on their experiences as part of their own development and this should be passed on to athletes. Both positive and negative experiences have been well established to play a vital role in shaping mental toughness and thus athletes should actively reflect on these experiences to understand what they have learnt and how they have consequently developed (Crust & Clough, 2011). Setbacks often occur in high performance sport with injuries, non-selection, losing as well as personal issues etc. It is following times like these, as well as positive experiences such as winning competitions, that reflection should be encouraged. MacNamara et al. (2010) have also reported that athletes are more prepared to work on their weaknesses once they have established them for themselves and reflection should therefore be an integral part of setting goals and development paths.

Following bad experiences, athletes have also expressed the significance of their network of social support in their development of mental toughness (Connaughton et al., 2008; Crust & Clough, 2011; Nicholls et al., 2009). However this does not mean that coaches should rush to provide emotional comfort whenever needed. In fact mentally tough athletes are considered to be independent with strong control over their emotions so it might seem surprising that this area has been significant in the research. As already expressed, athletes experience highs and lows throughout their career which shape their development and their network of support will evidently influence how they respond to such experiences. This network will include coaches among significant others. During times of difficulty and with the development of MT in mind, coaches should provide support with an emphasis on the athlete solving their own problems to encourage independence.

One mechanism that has been related to mental toughness and coping with adversity is the use of psychological skills (Crust & Azadi, 2010; Kaiseler et al., 2009; Nicholls et al., 2009) and some researchers believe that mental toughness can be improved through mental skills training (Sheard, 2012). As already discussed, it is more commonly believed that an athlete’s environment lays the foundations for mental toughness, especially through their younger years, however mental skills training may be a valid method for increasing mental toughness development. While goal setting has been discussed, the use of imagery and visualisation techniques with less mentally tough athletes have been strongly recommended by some psychologists as a means for improving approach coping strategies that deal with adversity (Nicholls et al., 2009). Unless significant education has been provided on the area it is beyond the scope of strength and conditioning professionals to use mental skills training methods with their athletes. However as this area may positively influence performance, seeking further professional advice and training may be of interest.

A final consideration for strength and conditioning coaches when working with mentally tough athletes is that they may push themselves harder (Weinberg et al., 2011), have a higher tolerance to pain (Crust & Clough, 2005) and are more inclined to take risks (Bull et al., 2005). All of these factors may place said athletes at greater risk of overtraining or even make them inclined to compete with an injury. Therefore having psychological profile data such as mental toughness may suggest that some athletes need to be monitored more carefully or at least differently to others, for example some may work too hard while others don’t work hard enough.

From the existing literature, this article provides some of the more supported concepts regarding mental toughness in elite sport and provides insight into how the strength and conditioning professional may influence its development. Environmental influences especially through early years appear to be of the utmost importance to mental toughness development. Coaches can best influence this by providing a tough positive training environment and installing a hard work ethic with high expectations. Athletes should be involved in setting short and long term goals for personal development, and healthy competition should be actively encouraged. Negative experiences can be viewed as an opportunity to learn and develop while a support structure should be in place that promotes independence. The MT48 is recommended as a measure of mental toughness and as athletes develop in age and toughness, further investigation into the use of mental skills training might be considered.




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One response to “Peak Performance involves Mental Toughness: Considerations for Strength & Conditioning Coaches

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