Sunday, February 21, 2010

Soap Box: Understanding "Mental Toughness"

Chrissie Wellington, Triple World Ironman Champ, and my example of Mental Toughness

“Anyone who has a continuous smile on her face conceals a toughness that is almost frightening.” Greta Garbo

I've been hearing the words "mental toughness" thrown around a lot over the past 12 weeks by my coach whenever I seem to be struggling with a fear, or I'm losing my focus, or I'm just getting frustrated with my performance. I thought I knew what it meant to be mentally tough, in fact I thought I was mentally tough, but I realize now that you have to work on strengthening your mental muscles just like you do your physical ones. There are people who spend their careers studying mental toughness and teaching it to athletes in order to make them more successful in their sport. It is a skill that some have naturally, and others have to learn. There is a world of information floating around about how to enhance this skill and there seems to be many common ideas in how to develop it. I thought I would spend a minute sharing what I've learned:

What is mental toughness? Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to cope better than your opponents with the many demands (e.g. competition, training, lifestyle) that are placed on you as a performer ~ specifically, to be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, resilient, and in control under pressure (Jones et al, 2002).

Some of the key characteristics that elite athletes have that make them mentally tough are:

Having an unshakable belief in your ability to achieve competition goals 
 Believing you have unique qualities that make you better than your opponents. 

Having an insatiable desire and internalized motivation to succeed (you really got to want it)  
Ability to bounce back from performance setbacks with increased determination to succeed. 

Remain fully focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions 
Able to switch focus on and off as required  
Not being adversely affected by others performance or your own internal distractions (worry, negative mind chatter) 

  Composure/Handling Pressure

Able to regain psychological control following unexpected events or distractions 
Thriving on the pressure of competition (embracing pressure, stepping into the moment)  
Accept that anxiety is inevitable in competition and know you can cope with it 

A key component of mental toughness is learning how to condition your mind to think confidently and to be able to overcome frustration/self-critical negativity.

So now that we know what it is, how do we develop it?
1. Have the right attitude and state of mind - know you are prepared and have an unshakable belief in your abilities to reach your goals.
2. Program your mind for success ahead of time with positive affirmations and expectations 

  • Expect the best from yourself; affirm what it is you are going to do to be successful; focus on the things you want to occur, rather than the things you are afraid might go wrong; visualize yourself performing the way you want (confident, energized, full focus) 
3. Routinize Your Behaviors: Develop a systematic pre-performance routine 

  • Practice (you commit yourself to giving it everything you have the entire practice – this includes making a commitment to listening, learning, executing skills/drills with precision and full focus) 
  • Pre-game competition – develop a systematic routine for engineering the environment and getting yourself ready
  • During Competition (commit yourself to being mentally tough and a great competitor throughout the entire competition).  

4. Poise and Composure: learn how to let go of mistakes quickly if things do not go the way you want  

  •  A key part of mental training is about compensating, adjusting, and trusting  
  •  If plan A does not work, go to plan B or C 
  •  Focus attention back onto task at hand; Be persistent and mentally tough, don’t allow frustration to undermine your confidence/focus.

5. Take control of Negative Self-Talk: Reframe “stinking thinking” into positive task oriented suggestions   

  •  Starts with awareness of situations that cause you to get frustrated, rushed, intimidated, lose focus – then reframe the negativity into positive, mentally tough self-suggestions.

6. Look at failure as a stepping stone for future achievement.  

7. Be a difference maker, step up and have a peak performance when it matters the most. 

So, all of those times I get frustrated during a poor training session, or I get down on myself for getting dropped on a ride, or my aching toes are distracting me from completing a run, those are the times I need to remember to work on strengthening my mental will. Those are the times that will make me stronger mentally if I can maintain my focus, block out the negative thoughts, and control my emotions. A wise coach once told me that real athletes are mentally tough, focused, and... I believe focused was reiterated. I hope to be a real athlete one day. So I shall work on strengthening my mind.

1 comment:

  1. Have I told you today that you're HARDCORE...because you are...and now I see it's because you've been practicing! I guess I need to start getting on the bandwagon and practice this, too!!!