In any athlete’s pursuit of high performance, most will make claims such as, "I need to get quicker!" or "I need a heavier forehand!" With such declarations, athletes often have a clear sense of what it means to get quicker and hit with a heavier forehand, but also how to specifically work in order to achieve it.
Athletes make similar claims with their mental game - we've all heard an athlete proclaim, "I need to get mentally tougher!" But do they really know what that means? Unlike one's quickness or forehand ability, mental toughness seems more difficult to define and to measure.
Athletes tend to conjure particular images when they think of mental toughness. They may think of Tiger Woods years ago who, playing for the first time since arthroscopic knee surgery two months prior, battled for 91 holes, often times in pain, to win what he ranks as the best of his major championships. Two days later he announced that he would undergo reconstructive knee surgery and miss the rest of the season.
They may think of someone like Japanese gymnast Shun Fujimoto, who completed the last three rotations of the 1976 men's Olympics team competition with a broken kneecap, collapsing in agony after the pain shot through his leg following his dismount from the rings.
These extreme examples, visible to the public, provide insight to the concept of mental toughness. However, for most athletes mental toughness may be more accurately portrayed as the quiet moments not visible or recognized by others. These quiet moments occur in the small daily actions experienced by the athlete that accumulate to a larger outcome. Let's consider what mental toughness may look like within the mindset of a healthy athlete and why it is significant.
- Know how to cope with stress.
Nearly every athlete, at every level, will report stress as an unavoidable presence in their sporting lives. Some of their greatest performances, it seems, have come with stress right alongside for the ride. If stress is inescapable – and being stressed doesn’t necessarily cause poor performance, but rather may help in some cases – why battle it? It seems a waste of energy for an athlete to spend lots of preparation time attempting to “eliminate” these uncomfortable feelings, when those feelings are likely to manifest in one way or another at some point in the competition. Perhaps the most efficient use of time for the athlete would be learning coping mechanisms for stress rather than seeking avoidance. The best athletes have a particular relationship with that feeling: “I don’t love when you come, but I know you’re going to come. So I need to have ways to focus on what I’ve got to do.” Developing pre-performance routines, as well as specific routines during the action, is a good start.
- Figure out how to believe in your abilities.
If I were to ask you to spend each moment of the next month exclusively thinking poorly about yourself, to only remember moments of failure in your sport, to visualize the most embarrassing and heart-wrenching times – how do you think that would affect you after a while? Chances are, your confidence would take a hit. If our belief can be weakened with poor thinking and negative imagery, it can be strengthened with the right kind of thinking and imagery. Most athletes are not aware of what they are actually thinking about and what images they mentally rehearse, especially off the field of play. Make a deliberate effort to fill your head with the right kinds of things.
- Commit to improving, even when you don’t want to.
We’re all naturally more committed when things are going well – our relationships with the people and activities of our lives tend to be at their most healthy when things are going according to plan. Commitment – to practice with intense effort, focus and positivity – is inclined to drop when performance drops, or fatigue or illness set in. But the elite level mindset means we promise ourselves that we will do the right things all the time, even if momentarily we have other desires.
- Embrace difficult things.
Elite athletes tend to embrace challenges. They actively seek out challenging, arduous tasks – like difficult fitness regimens, tough drill stations, intimidating opponents – as a means of growth and learning. They know that challenges force us to stretch, to reach, to put forth more effort and to display determination, all of which ultimately leads to improved performance.
We may prefer an alliterative mnemonic device, the 4Cs: Cope – Confidence – Commitment – Challenge. Allow the summary below to act as a guide to help grow your own mindset:
How to grow our capacity to Cope:
- Develop pre-performance routines to keep your focus on task and offer helpful cues to maximize readiness. Routines should help you “get into character” ahead of competition, often consisting of something behavioral (deep breathing, stretching, dynamic warm-up, hand-eye drills, etc.) and something cognitive (meditation, positive self-talk, imagery, identifying goals, etc.)
- Visualize, or imagine, specific difficult moments that may arise during competition. Priming your nervous system by mentally rehearsing specific scenes may help you feel more ready to deal with them should they arise.
How to grow Confidence:
- Commit to the right kind of thinking. Catch yourself if thoughts or images turn unproductive, and practice shifting the focus to something that will help strengthen your belief in success.
- Surround yourself with people whose opinions and company bolster your own sense of worth.
How to grow Commitment:
- Set goals ahead of time of what you want commitment to look like. Think of moments and situations that tend to negatively affect your own commitment, and plan how you would like to address them.
- Practice distancing yourself from unhelpful self-talk. It’s often our own words that persuade us to give up or quit prematurely. Notice when your internal dialogue is attempting to persuade you and focus your attention on W.I.N. (what’s important now).
How to grow our capacity to embrace Challenges:
- Change your relationship with adversity. We need it to grow, even though it’s uncomfortable in the moment. Re-interpret the challenges in your life as exciting growth opportunities.
- Rather than simply dealing with challenges that we face in a healthier way, practice seeking them out. Practice doing a single new gym exercise that is difficult for you, request to practice with an opponent who may intimidate you, commit to contributing in a class for which you may otherwise remain silent.
Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CMPC, is head player development consultant for Telos Sport Psychology Coaching in New York, and has over a decade of experience counseling and developing mental toughness training programs for athletes and coaches of all levels, including youths, professionals and Olympians. He is a member of ACSM's Consumer Outreach Committee.
Published Dec. 11, 2019