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5 Strategies for Developing Mental Toughness from Olympic Athletes

The skills you need to keep going when the going is tough

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Mental toughness is one of the most (unnecessarily) complex subjects in all of mental performance.

Scientists don't agree on what it means (we have over 70 definitions to date), and coaches and athletes agree that they simply "know it when they see it."

It's a combination of persistence, resilience, self-control, and self-regulation, underpinned by several psychological skills.

Most coaches and parents I've been around would love for their athletes to be more mentally tough - in any of its iterations. To get to that level of toughness, we have to train. 

We can figure out what to train by looking at the insights of Olympians and international competitors and how they built their mental toughness. A group of researchers from the UK set out to do just that.

Here's what they found. 

Toughness starts with the coach

At every level of their development, elite athletes rely on their coach as a source of mental toughness.

If the coach sends a message about persisting, displaying resolve and poise amidst adversity, and encouraging, the athletes are likely to respond the same way. If the coach acts out, demonstrates despair, complains, or berates players, they undermine their players' sense of competence and control - and we see less toughness as a result.

Athletes, throughout their careers, see their coaches' belief in them as a sign of whether or not they should believe in themselves. This belief leads to a conviction in the ability to reach their goals and win. This deeper belief leads to greater persistence and behaviors we'd describe as mentally tough.

Coaches are critical in the creation of this self-belief. Even at the highest levels of sports, I've worked with athletes who are looking to their coach to determine if they're getting better or not and to determine if they should feel confident in their preparation leading up to performance.

If we want to create mentally tougher athletes, we need coaches with the appropriate leadership skills to develop that self-belief.

Ability and mastery matter

I've written before about the benefits of having both a growth and fixed mindset, and those benefits show up again in this research.

These high-level competitors need both clear examples of improvement (growth mindset) and a belief that they have unique qualities and strengths that make them better than their opponents (fixed mindset). This combination of growth and fixed mindset was necessary for mental toughness from the "early years" through their elite peaks.

And, in the case of these athletes, these two mindsets worked in a virtuous cycle.

As they demonstrated greater and greater progress, they internalized that progress as both a sign of their hard work and a sign that they had some special qualities that made them better than the people around them.

As they internalized this progress, they became even more determined to push themselves to greater heights. Setbacks became less impactful on their self-perception and started to be seen simply as a sign of progress. The recognition that both hard work and special talent could lead to success fueled them to keep working on becoming their best.

We need both mindsets to rise to the top and to persist when the going gets tough.

Mental Skills Matter

As athletes climbed through the ranks, the first two lessons stayed consistent: the coach matters a lot, as does having a balanced growth and fixed mindset.

And then at the highest levels and oldest ages, a whole new subset of skills emerged as critical for mental toughness. Athletes could no longer just rely on working hard or their coach. It wasn't enough to just be confident or feel good about the competition ahead.

Athletes had to develop mindset skills.

What's more, it wasn't just one or two skills. Mental toughness for Olympians requires a robust set of mental skills and strategies, applied at the right time and in the right context. They needed skills for all 3 phases of performance.

My psychological skills helped maintain my mental toughness. I used self-talk, I used controlled imagery, I set realistic goals, and I stopped negative thoughts and brought in positive ones. This allowed me to control my self-confidence and be more positive during pressure situations. But, they only helped because I kept working at them. It’s like anything. Your psychology training is the same as your physical training. You need to keep working at it. 

Athlete in study

The mental skills these athletes developed included:

  • Goal-setting

  • Self-talk

  • Reflection

  • Imagery

  • Pre-performance routines

  • Quality preparation

The fact that these skills only showed up at the later stages of the competition isn't a sign that the skills don't matter early on but instead reflects a lack of access to the right resources to train these skills from a young age. If these skills help at the extremes, they'll help at the means, if we can help the average performer have access to the right training.

Athletes at the highest level - Olympians, in this case - relied heavily on their mental skills to facilitate their performance and mental toughness. These skills allowed them to deal with adversity or difficulty more effectively and to extract learnings from their performance effectively. 

If we want more mentally tough athletes, we need to help them develop the skills to succeed.

Mental Toughness Requires Reflection

The athletes in the study relied on reflection to help them deepen their understanding of their successes and failures. In turn, reflection facilitated the development of the growth and fixed mindset, as well as the psychological skills they need to succeed over the long term.

Reflection deepened their learning.

Reflection worked by helping the athletes uncover parts of their performance that required some additional attention. As they deliberately unpacked their performance, they became more aware of what was driving their success, where they were getting stuck, and what they needed to address to continue to develop. This process of uncovering motivated forward progress, which the athletes said led to greater toughness in the future. 

When you're working on something important to you, it's easier to persist when things get challenging. Reflection seems to give athletes a clear focus on what to work on next, which can be used to fuel future training.

Here's what one athlete had to say about that process:

...through reflection I strived to try and understand why the poor things happened and as a result increase the number of times where the good things happened. What went wrong? What processes or elements? Then, I’ll go back in training and use this knowledge to motivate me to work harder on making sure that they were sorted, so I could be successful at the next competition.

Athlete from study

Reflection doesn't have to be complicated. When I work with elite athletes, I teach them the same 3-step formula to drive reflection and forward progress:

  • What did I do today that I want to keep doing?

  • What did I do today that I want to do differently?

  • What did I learn?

Answering these questions helps you identify where to double down (keep doing), where to adjust tomorrow (do differently), and to consolidate the experience (learn). The end result is a clear focus for tomorrow and the ability to let today go.

Build the Inner Drive

The athletes gave a formula for building inner drive that elevated their mental toughness as they developed.

One athlete explained it like this:

As when I achieved these goals my motivation and selfdetermination to improve my performance increased and as a consequence we set more difficult goals and, therefore, my mental toughness improved again.

Athlete from study

From an early age, internalizing the drive to succeed leads to the development of more robust mental toughness. In the early years, athletes suggested that this internalized drive came from what their parents emphasized to them in sports. Parents focusing on enjoyment and improvement tended to lead to athletes internalizing a deeper drive to succeed than parents focusing on winning.

As athletes got older, the drive to succeed came from competition - but not in the sense we typically think of competing today. The competition was something to strive toward, not something to use as a measuring stick. Similar to the younger ages, a focus on improvement drove a greater internalized need to succeed than focusing on beating the opponent.

This need to succeed allowed athletes to flip from disappointment into determination. Because they were focused on getting better, setbacks weren't viewed as deep flaws or failures of themselves. They were signs that there was more work to be done to reach their goal, and the best thing the athletes could do was simply get working.

It was only when the athletes got to the highest levels that the drive to win showed up alongside the drive to be great. When athletes reached the peak, winning became the way that they could assess their own quality and progress, and served as a barometer for how hard they wanted to push themselves. It became clearer at the highest levels that winning was what was most associated with success, and so the athletes internalized this drive to win in an adaptive way that fit their existing mental model of improvement. 

Winning became a helpful adjunct to progress, not a replacement.

Implications from the Researchers

The researchers end with a host of practical steps we can take to boost the mental toughness of athletes. Here they are, summarized:

  • Use older athletes as role models for younger athletes

  • Coaches should encourage friendly rivalry

  • Coaches need adequate leadership skills

  • Athletes need to work on their mental skills and recognize that training these skills takes time and effort

  • Parents should promote engagement, enjoyment, and progress - not winning

  • Start early

I think mental toughness is something that can be trained as a habitual process, but I think it has to be done young enough so that is becomes second nature and natural when you’re older. So, get sport psychologists with them as early on as possible. Obviously, don’t apply too much pressure to them, but give them an idea of how they should be thinking. Develop the right thought processes early on. Get athletes at 10 or 11 learning from studies like this on elite level athletes. Use our experience and knowledge, and deliver it to these youngsters. Talk them through self-belief, focus, desire and motivation, dealing with pressure and anxiety, physical and emotional pain, and reinforce these all the way through their careers. 

Olympic athlete

References

Connaughton, D., Wadey, R., Hanton, S., & Jones, G. (2008). The development and maintenance of mental toughness: Perceptions of elite performers. Journal of sports sciences, 26(1), 83-95.

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