Mental toughness can sometimes sound like the stuff of clichés - the things that your parents say when you're finding life a struggle as a teenager or that crop up occasionally in a pop song or two. 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going' and 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger' are two good examples. Clichés are clichés for a reason though, right? Let's find out...
Mental toughness has its origins in sports psychology. When someone is kicking a penalty in front of thousands of spectators or lining up on the start line for the 100m at the Olympics they are tapping into personal resources that enable them to focus their attention on the goal at hand, commit their strength, knowledge and energy to the moment and manage their nerves.
Jim Loehr, a leading sports psychologist and specialist in peak performance, produced the first popular use of the term 'mental toughness' and defined it as:
'the ability to consistently perform towards the upper range of your capabilities regardless of the circumstances'.
But this ability isn't confined to the world of sport. You are using your mental toughness every day at one level or another, sometimes in short bursts but often for longer periods of resilience or peak performance. We all have it and it informs how we approach life, learning and the challenges that are inevitable along the way.
Peter Clough, a British occupational and sports psychologist, has identified four key aspects of mental toughness that we all have to a greater or lesser degree. How would you rate your own mental toughness against these?
Do you see problems, change and challenge as threats or opportunities? Do you seek out challenges or avoid them for fear of failure? Do you like adventure or prefer stability?
Do you feel that you are in control of or able to influence what happens to you? Do you recognise that you can make choices in life? Can you control your emotions when necessary?
Do you set yourself goals and targets and then focus and work hard to achieve them or are you easily distracted and swayed from any goals that are set?
Do you have belief in yourself and are you able to assert yourself when necessary? Or do you look for external validation and tend to go with other people's opinions?
We know that mental toughness is not fixed and can change throughout your lifetime. Importantly it is something you can develop. Traditional stress management techniques have been about removing or avoiding the stress but in fact the best way to develop mental toughness is to embrace ways of challenging and stretching yourself.
You can create a positive spiral of toughening by stepping out of your comfort zone. Setting yourself a challenge gives you the opportunity to develop confidence and coping mechanisms and leads you to greater toughness in the face of the next challenge. In fact the act of mental toughening has even been shown to reduce the physical response that the body goes through during stressful times minimising the harmful impact of adrenaline and cortisol being released into your system. So, here's our first cliché - it's true that when the going gets tough the tough get going.
Think about times when you've been mentally tough. There will be the smaller things like going to work sleep deprived because you've been up half the night with a sick child, dealing with a challenging colleague or customer, meeting a deadline or getting your teenager to do their homework and there will also be the 'big stuff' like moving house, getting divorced, starting a family or losing a loved one.
Are you tougher for having gone through these things? Most people would say yes. Although it's tough at the time you come out stronger, more capable and with a different perspective that you can apply next time you hit a bump in the road. And there you have it, our second cliché - what doesn't kill you does indeed make you stronger!
On the wall next to my desk is a post-it note that reads:
'Don't let your morale flag. Be daunted but not defeated'.
It's from 'Life of Pi' by Yann Martel. Pi finds himself sharing a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker. The quote is from the shipwreck survival book he finds stashed amongst the rations and other kit in the boat that is to be his home for the next 227 days. You'll have to read the book to find out how Pi learns to cope with his shipmate but I'll tell you that what he doesn't do is wait for someone else to rescue him or curl up and hope that the tiger goes away.
For me mental toughness is encompassed in that quote. It is about managing your mental approach to life, about being proactive, making choices, being brave when you're feeling vulnerable, seeking adventure, leaning in to the tough times, digging deep into your mental and physical reserves, not giving up and embracing the opportunities to learn, grow and develop during the journey that is your life.
Ultimately, in the face of life's shipwrecks and tigers whatever form they might take, if you can be daunted but not defeated then that's mental toughness.
Sarah Wall, Creative Trainer, Facilitator and Consultant
In my blogs I’ll discuss mental toughness and the importance of Resilience.
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