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The Star Mentality Post

  • Writer's pictureRifat Hussein

Mastering Mental Toughness: Proven Techniques for Developing Resilience and Perseverance in Athletes

What exactly is mental toughness?

One of the most frequently used phrases in sports is probably “mental toughness”. It's frequently viewed as this crucial quality that will guarantee success for everyone who has it. Despite its significance, many athletes are unsure how to develop mental toughness.

However, it’s important to note that I believe the phrase “mental toughness” on its own is harmful to athletes. This is due to the general belief that the term means always being confident, needing to be a leader, and constantly wanting more. It fosters the misconception that resilient athletes must suppress their emotions or not show any sign of vulnerability otherwise they are seen as weak. This leads to athletes pursuing the wrong development path.

Therefore, before athletes attempt to cultivate mental toughness, it is crucial to grasp what it actually means. Athletes that are resilient and persistent typically possess a variety of mental and emotional traits. You can easily identify the major qualities that make up mental toughness by looking at the popular 4C’s framework:

1. Control: This entails being able to manage and regulate your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours to stay composed, especially during high-pressure situations.

2. Confidence: This is related to having a high level of self-esteem and a strong sense of self-belief. It will assist you in overcoming obstacles and continuing your path toward your sporting objectives.

3. Commitment: This refers to your determination, focus and reliability to keep on track with your goals even through difficult circumstances.

4. Challenge: This consists of your motivation and adaptability to work towards your personal bests. You see opportunities rather than threats when faced with hardship.

Control, confidence, commitment and challenge are the four qualities that emphasise the key characteristics an athlete should work on to become mentally tough.

Incorporating the 4C’s model into your performances will significantly improve your chances of winning, as it will help you better handle high pressure games. For example, basketball players who can maintain composure and self-assurance during intense moments are more likely to make important shots in the final seconds of a close game. It involves having the resilience to make the right decisions when it counts most.

But how do you use the 4C’s to develop resilience? Here are five key strategies that can help:

1) Visualisation: This involves creating unique mental pictures in your head. These images are fuelled by using your five senses to mentally rehearse particular situations that you’ll come across during your games.

Start by visualising the challenges you might face. Be as specific as you can and create a clear picture. Now think about the next course of action you will take to overcome those hurdles. Associate those successful images with positive feelings, such as triumph and confidence.

Each time you practice these scenarios and visuals, you ingrain the positive feelings and actions into your memory. This will help you act similarly when playing during real-game moments. You will be better able to anticipate difficulties and surmount obstacles because you have already gone through these 100 times in your mind. Use visualisation as your performance tool and you will have a significant advantage over your competition.

2) Setting Performance Goals: This one is not always as simple as it sounds. Sometimes we overwhelm ourselves by setting too many goals especially when they are outcome-based. This type of goal focuses on the end result you are trying to achieve.

Let's look at a footballer who plays as a striker. They might set themselves a target of scoring 25 goals by the end of the season (yes, I know…unless you are Haaland). Even though outcome goals provide a clear measurable target, they often add a lot of pressure and stress. This can lead to poorer performances as the footballer might make more rash decisions in the need to score and put in less effort into other areas of their game.

To counter this, instead set performance goals. These goals focus on the actions, behaviours, and attitudes that lead to success rather than just the end result. Performance goals are associated with executing specific skills such as improving on a certain technique.

Let's go back to the football player. They might now focus on simply improving their ability to make more space for themselves to get their shots off more effectively. This will translate to enhanced focus at those crucial moments during their match and increase their likelihood of scoring. This will give the athlete a greater sense of control over their performances and lead to improving their overall game.

3) Reframing Challenges: This is the process of changing your perspective about a difficult situation you face during competitions. It makes the obstacles less daunting and more manageable.

For example, imagine a rugby team who might be facing a stronger and more skilled opponent. How do you think the players will be feeling? Most likely nervous and intimidated. However, by reframing their challenge as an opportunity to learn and grow, the athletes can shift their fear away from losing to the excitement of rising to the occasion. Each player will be willing to contribute more to the team. This gives the rugby players a greater chance of winning compared to their previous frame of mind.

4) Pressure Training: This is a method of gradually exposing athletes to increasingly intense levels of stress during practice. This is not only a great way to increase mental toughness but also increases the emotional resilience that is needed to handle the rigours of competition. A couple of examples of pressure training include:

  • Competitive scenarios: In order to do this, high-stress situations are simulated in practice, such as inviting fans to watch footballers in training taking penalties to replicate intense real-game environments. Athletes will learn the necessary mental requirements needed to perform at high levels when it matters.

  • Progressive stress: This type of training consists of steadily increasing the pressure in a controlled environment. For example, a boxer who is sparring fresh opponents after every 4 rounds in their 12 rounds of sparring. Athletes will learn how to adapt, maintain their focus, and stay composed throughout adverse moments even when physically exhausted.

5) Labelling Emotions: This relates to naming the feelings you are experiencing before or during games with more clarity and precision, i.e., as you are actually feeling them. This helps athletes become more aware of their emotions and limits irrational decision-making. Athletes are then able to consider their next course of action more carefully and have greater control over their thought patterns.

An example of this would be a tennis player being extremely nervous before their grand slam final. It’s perfectly normal and expected to feel anxious before games, in particular of that magnitude. You would be lying if you weren’t.

However, it’s important to manage those nerves and not become overwhelmed. The tennis player might tell themselves, “I’m okay, I’m okay”, but that would be dismissive and wouldn’t improve their current thought processes. Instead, the player can express to themselves, “I’m anxious because I’m afraid of losing, I worked so hard to get here and I want to be champion”. The athlete has directly recognized their anxiety by giving it more clarity and detail.

The player is now more self-aware of their anxiety and is better able to address their feelings. The athlete then can free up their mind to think about their strengths, the number of hours they put into their training, and their game plan. The player will feel more reassured with greater emotional balance and loosen the grip of their anxiety. The tennis player is now in a better position to handle the high-pressure moments during the match and increased their chances of being crowned champion.

You are probably looking at that example and thinking to yourself, “can it actually be that straightforward?”. Honestly, sometimes it can, but these skills do require time and active practice to master.

These approaches will help you develop mental toughness, but how do you effectively use them?

I want you to choose just one of the five interventions I listed; pick the one that most interests you or the one you think will help you the most. Now reflect on your past performances, whether that was during practice or a competition, where you believe your response to a particular event could have been better. It might be that you misplaced a pass and got frustrated, maybe when the tension of the game rose you shied away, or perhaps your pre-match nerves got the better of you. Look for those specific moments no matter how small.

Once you have identified those moments, apply and practice your chosen intervention to help you with those match scenarios. Use your chosen strategy for at least a month and then reassess your performance. Did it change anything? Did you realize that when those moments reoccurred, you had more resiliency? Did you notice an improvement in your overall performance? Ask yourself these questions when you reflect.

Final thoughts

All in all, building mental toughness doesn’t happen overnight; it requires time and conscious effort. Athletes should be aware that growth is not linear, and setbacks are inevitable parts of the process. By continuously learning and utilising various mental strategies, athletes can build the mental fortitude necessary to perform at their best under pressure.

Which intervention method did you choose to raise your game? I would love to hear about it in the comment section below. Please get in touch with me if you need assistance creating and tailoring those strategies to you and your sport.

1 Comment

Jan 13, 2023

This is a great read and very useful!

Sports training

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