There are certain moments during competition that appear to carry great psychological significance, when the momentum starts to shift in one direction or another. These situations require athletes to remain completely focused and calm in the face of difficult circumstances. Marathoners will talk about a key moment in the race when everyone is tired and the race can go either way, such as a fleeting chance to pass an opponent or just to hold form and stay with the plan. For a triathlete, is could be the final mile in the run after seriously under-performing; for a swimmer or track and field athlete, it could be how you react to a perceived bad refereeing decision or to going behind in a meet your team is expected to win.
Think about times when things have not gone quite to plan and how you reacted. The journey towards peak performance is rarely a perfectly smooth road and we learn from our mistakes
– at least we should. Do setbacks shake your self-belief and lower your motivation or act as a catalyst for even greater effort?
Even great athletes and teams suffer setbacks. Olympic athlete Steve Backley is a prime example. In his book The Winning Mind, Backley cites his psychological strengths and, at times, his weaknesses as major determinants of whether he performed near to or below his own strict targets in competition . He talks of the transition from young up-and-coming javelin thrower to major international competitor when, after experiencing success so often as a junior, he found himself under–prepared for the mental hurdles and barriers created by higher-level competition. Backley says psychological strategies were the key to helping him to deal with this competitive stress.
Most top athletes and coaches believe that psychological factors play as crucial a role as physical attributes and learned skills in the make-up of champions. When physical skills are evenly matched – as they tend to be in competitive sport – the competitor with greater control over his or her mind will usually emerge as the victor. Mental strength is not going to compensate for lack of skill, but in close contests it can make the difference between winning and losing. A key question for sport and exercise psychologists is whether champions have simply inherited the dominant psychological traits necessary for success or whether mental toughness can be acquired through training and experience. Recent research has attempted to explore the concept of mental toughness in sport more thoroughly, and it appears that, while some people are naturally more tough-minded than others, people can be ‘toughened-up’ with the correct approach to training.
What do we mean by mental toughness? It is probably easiest to define in terms of how it affects behaviour and performance.
A mentally tough athlete is likely to:
- 1. Achieve relatively consistent performances regardless of situational factors.
- 2. Retain a confident, positive, optimistic outlook, even when things are not going well, and not ‘choke’ under pressure.
- 3. Deal with distractions without letting them interfere with optimal focus.
- 4. Tolerate pain and discomfort.
- 5. Remain persistent when the ‘going gets tough’.
- 6. Have the resilience to bounce back from disappointments.