Mental Toughness And Female Athletes

By: Julia J Kirkpatrick, MS, CSCS

It’s a Saturday afternoon, the sun is setting and you’re sitting on a bus headed back to school. Everyone has their earbuds in and is staring out the window solemnly. Coach is sitting in the front of the bus fuming in silence. Your team just embarrassed themselves on the field, losing 3-0 against the worst team in the conference. Monday will be hell.

Monday rolls around.


Coach rallies the team up and stares through each person’s soul.

“Girls, we’re running suicides until one of you pukes. Everyone’s mental toughness is WEAK, so we will be working on that today.”


The team turns and begins a measly sprint down the field. You close your eyes and wonder what could be worse. Forty-five minutes passes and the torture finally * ends. Oh, except soccer practice hasn’t even started.

 

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Imagine your ran suicide sprints for 45 minutes, do you feel:

  1. Mentally refreshed and ready for soccer practice with a bounce in your step

  2. Completely exhausted and ready for no soccer practice at all (possibly on the verge of getting sick)

  3. Confident that your soccer skills and technique have improved

  4. None of the above

 

Anyone answer letter D???

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Coaches and athletes are super interested in this mental toughness recipe because it undoubtedly plays a critical role in high levels of sports performance (2,3).


In this article I will answer:

  1. What is ‘mental toughness’? (We know it’s a catchy buzz word but…..?)

  2. Why popular methods of ‘mental toughness training’ are INAPPROPRIATE

  3. Does mental toughness even improve sports performance for female athletes?

 

What Is Mental Toughness?

A recent definition of mental toughness is:

“A personal capacity to deliver high performance on a regular basis despite varying degrees of situational demands” (1).

 While there are various definitions floating around, researchers tend to be fairly consistent with one another.

When conceptualizing mental toughness, it’s a bit similar to a recipe you would use to bake a cookie.

You know that you want to make a batch of chocolate chip cookies, but there are literally hundreds of chocolate chip cookie recipes out there. The tricky part is trying to figure out what ingredients and proportions will make the tastiest cookie out there.

 In an attempt to answer this, researchers have examined the “thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and behaviours of athletes who have shown a capacity for successfully adapting to adversity in sport” (6,7).

After pooling together the mental toughness research, we get a potential recipe (Adapted from 1,3):

 

 
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As you can see, the chocolate chip cookie recipe is a multi-factorial puzzle.

These factors are constantly interacting with each other; a change in one variable may significantly affect another variable. However, it’s clear that each individual ingredient plays a meaningful role in the overall equation of psychological resilience.

The Athlete

Athletes are “the authors and therefore active agents in their mental toughness development,” therefore, they “must play an active role to progress…” (1).

Everyone has had a teammate who loses a game or a match, mopes about it for months on end, and all their friends get irritated from hearing them complain: “The refs sucked, and the other team played dirty. We would have won that game if Sammy hadn’t been hurt and Jess hadn’t looked half asleep on the field.” 

On the other hand, we have also experienced the teammate who loses a game, but always rallies the team whether it’s a win or loss: “Pick your heads up. The season is long, this is ONE loss. We will be right back out there next week bringing a stronger game.”


Researchers have investigated the key ingredients that comprise an ATHLETE’S role in mental toughness development (1,2,3):

  • Proactive & independent

  • Receptive to both positive AND negative feedback (growth mindset)

  • Skill mastery

  • Psychological skill toolbox (imagery, self-talk and goal setting)

 

There is an obvious difference between the athletes above.

One athlete is the driver of their car while the other athlete is sitting in the passenger seat. Participation in sport will come with an array of both positive and negative experiences.

Resilient individuals tend to display positive coping abilities such as cognitive reappraisal; this allows individuals to reframe negative experiences in a more positive light (ex: We lost the conference championship but also had our winningest season and have made many improvements from last season) (4).

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As ACTIVE AGENTS in your personal development – physical and psychological – how will you make the best product possible?

 

Relationships

We all have them. As an athlete you might have your college coach, your family, your club coach a few states away, a boyfriend, teammates, a strength and conditioning coach – the whole bunch. High-quality social support environments provide an opportunity to buffer negative experiences or stressors that an individual may incur (8). 

Parents, coaches, support staff: what is your role?

MOST importantly: A CONSISTENTLY positive support source (2,8)

Emotional support – make sure your homie feels loved and cared for (a hug or fist pump goes a long way)

Esteem support – boost your homie’s self-esteem and make sure they know they’re awesome

Informational support – give your homie the tools they need for success (like knowledge on the best ways to fuel their performance or science-based recovery modalities)

Tangible support – provide instrumental assistance if needed (monitoring their training load, packing the fridge full of healthy proteinfats, and carbs to help your athlete stay adequately fueled)

As mentioned previously, athletes will certainly run into a variety of different road bumps along their athletic career. It is crucial to buffer the falls when they occur.

 

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Experiences

Researchers have found that individuals require exposure to an environment that is challenging/tough, but also supportive and positive.

Hmmm, this sounds very similar to training!

Sport practice and weight training need to be challenging enough to elicit a stimulus, but it’s essential that the athlete is not overworked, which may result in injury and/or overtraining.

After conducting interviews with some of the world’s highest level of competitors (Olympians and world champions) some commonalities emerged (2,5):

  • Opportunities to overcome failure

  • Motivational, yet challenging practice environments

  • Exposure to ‘critical events’ that subsequently leads to adaptation

 Each athlete will have their own unique experiences that culminate over time and affect mental toughness development.

However, it is important that athletes are exposed to both challenges and failure to provide an opportunity for learning and adaptation (1).

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Time: The Keystone Factor

Time itself is the keystone factor that ties all of these ingredients together. 

Athletes, relationships, and environmental factors will all affect mental toughness development as they all interact with one another; however, this all occurs on the lifetime continuum of an athlete’s career.


In a recent review (1) the time spectrum is broken down into:

  1. Microtime: what happens during a single day of related activity

  2. Mesotime: what happens during a sequence of days of related activities

  3. Macrotime: what happens during the life-span (or career) of those related activities


Time contributes to the athlete’s overall breadth of experience, which may positively contribute to mental toughness development through the culmination of diverse learning opportunities (1).


It is important to remember that all variables in the proposed ‘recipe’ are integrated with each other, which ultimately contributes to the complex nature of mental toughness development.

 

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Why Popular Methods Of ‘Mental Toughness Training’ Are INAPPROPRIATE

It’s no secret that coaches appreciate athletes that possess ‘hardy’ attitudes, stand tall when weathering storms, and remain optimistic when faced with hardships.


Here are a few types of mental toughness training that are often implemented by strength coaches, sport coaches, etc.:

  • ‘Running’ the athletes until one or more athletes throws up 

  • Holding a practice that’s much longer than usual as punishment or for mental toughness training (ex: practice is typically 1 hour, and coach holds a 3-hour practice)

  • ‘Team bonding’ activities where the team must work together to accomplish a goal using various exercises or circuits (ex: carrying teammates, performing team runs, etc.)

  • Minimizing, or removing water breaks during practice (A VERY large no-no)

    These practices are unlikely to have a significant impact on mental toughness and even more importantly, create an environment that is potentially dangerous for the following reasons:

  • These scenarios have little to no carry over to scenarios that athletes would experience in sport (ex: there are very few (if any) times when athletes will be piggy backing each other in a game)

  • These scenarios generate HIGH levels of fatiguethis increases injury risk during and after the activity. High levels of fatigue increase recovery time needed and reduce an athlete’s ability to have productive training sessions

  • Reduces the time that athletes could spend mastering their sports skills (mastery is a large component of winning – and mental toughness due to increased confidence) (3)

  • These scenarios may involve training that is counter-productive to the athlete’s sport through adaptation of an opposing different energy system (ex: a soccer player performing team runs will develop a higher work capacity at the expense of power, speed, and strength)

 

 
 

So, What Should Coaches Do To Create Tough Athletes?

 While researchers aren’t aware of exact methods to increase mental toughness, we do know many of the ingredients that are involved.

 Here’s an example of what ‘mental toughness training’ could look like for a basketball team:

 You split your team in half with an even(ish) amount of skill on each side. The first side to 10 points wins, but one side starts with 3 extra points. To increase difficulty/replication to a true game, the scenario could be implemented at the end of practice when the players are tired. Individual player recognition may be used to create a mastery motivational climate (3). and provide an opportunity for team reflection, player to player feedback, and individual athlete analysis. A mastery motivational climate is an environment where coaches reward their athletes for successfully achieving a difficult feat (3).


Looking back at the mental toughness recipe, does this scenario:

Create a motivational environment? YES

Specific to the sport? YES

Provide a safe opportunity for failure? YES

Create a tough, but supportive practice environment? YES

 

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Now, to answer the FINAL question:

Can Mental Toughness Directly Improve Sports Performance?

While researchers have attempted to answer this question, it is by no means clear that mental toughness training directly improves sports performance.

However, it is very clear that mental toughness plays an important role in sports performance.

Even though researchers are still unsure of the best interventions for coaches to use, we do know many of the ‘mental toughness’ ingredients that have demonstrated to have positive outcomes with high performing athletes.

 

 

Take-Away Points: 

Coaches want to build the best teams and win the most games, but don’t have an unlimited amount of time; so, it becomes a matter of opportunity cost.

Here are a few closing thoughts to consider:

  • At this time, we can’t make conclusions on the best way to train mental toughness. Thus, when considering whether or not to take the time to train mental toughness with athletes, one needs to evaluate how much they think it will help (i.e. Will this make a significantdifference? Is my time better spent with more sports practice, lifting, recovering, etc.?)

 

If you do decide to use mental toughness training, what should you do?

  • Mental toughness training should probably consist of a mixture of both isolation skills (imagery, self-talk, goal setting) and sport-specific context training, but MOSTLY the latter.

  • Remember, mental toughness development can and SHOULD be incorporated within the context of what the athlete will experience (you don’t need to take out extra time which solves point number one!).

 

Running up and down stairs at high intensities is NOT a situation a soccer player will experience in a game.

 

Always keep in mind that it is crucial for female athletic development to maintain a positive, motivational, and safe atmosphere for the athletes.

However, some variables will be out of your control (influence of friends, family, mentors, other coaches) that will also have an effect on mental toughness development. 

Whether you are a parent, coach, or an athlete, it is your job to play YOUR part to the best of your ability.

 

References

  1. Anthony, D. R., Gucciardi, D. F., & Gordon, S. (2016). A meta-study of qualitative research on mental toughness development. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology9(1), 160–190. https://doi.org/10.1080/1750984X.2016.1146787

  2. Connaughton, D., Wadey, R., Hanton, S., & Jones, G. (2008). The development and maintenance of mental toughness: Perceptions of elite performers. Journal of Sports Sciences26(1), 83–95. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640410701310958

  3. Driska, A. P., Kamphoff, C., & Armentrout, S. M. (2012). Elite Swimming Coaches’ Perceptions of Mental Toughness. The Sport Psychologist26(2), 186–206. https://doi.org/10.1123/tsp.26.2.186

  4. Feder, A., Nestler, E. J., & Charney, D. S. (2009). Psychobiology and molecular genetics of resilience. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience10(6), 446–457. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2649

  5. Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2012). A grounded theory of psychological resilience in Olympic champions. Psychology of Sport and Exercise13(5), 669–678. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2012.04.007

  6. Forbes, S., & Fikretoglu, D. (2018). Building Resilience: The Conceptual Basis and Research Evidence for Resilience Training Programs. Review of General Psychology22(4), 452–468. https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000152

  7. Galli, N., & Gonzalez, S. P. (2015). Psychological resilience in sport: A review of the literature and implications for research and practice. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology13(3), 243–257. https://doi.org/10.1080/1612197X.2014.946947

  8. Sarkar, M., & Fletcher, D. (2014). Psychological resilience in sport performers: a review of stressors and protective factors. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2014.901551