Mental Toughness and How to Develop It

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Although much prized, especially in sports, mental toughness is a term that is sometimes overused with regards to behavior during high-pressure situations.

The usual image that comes to mind is that of a college football coach giving an emotionally charged locker-room speech along the lines of “Win One for the Gipper.” This kind of rah-rah approach seems a little over the top and is certainly not sustainable over time.

Our Stone Age ancestors didn’t need a big motivational speech to get them out of the cave and off to hunt for the necessities of survival. So what is mental toughness and how can we nurture and develop it in ourselves and others. Here are a few ideas:

What is Mental Toughness?

The coordinator of Sport Psychology at Penn State University, Dr. David Yukelson, defines mental toughness as the “natural or developed psychological edge that allows you to … cope better than your opponents with the many demands … that are placed on you.”

For athletes, there are several factors that contribute to this edge.

Motivation – Motivation, that factor of wanting to achieve a specific goal more than anything else, is a key factor that separates champions from the also-rans.

Belief in yourself – The best athletes believe in themselves and as a result are better able to persevere through setbacks.

Focus – Mentally tough people don’t get distracted. They constantly stay on target by reminding themselves of what it is they are trying to achieve.

Putting It into Practice

Here’s how can we enhance our own levels of mental toughness.

Set Realistic Goals – Goals are a roadmap that marks out how you’re going to get from where you are to where you want to be. For best results, think of the acronym of SMART goals. They should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely.

Stay Positive – Negative thought patterns only take away from your ability to attain your goals. Resolve to find the positive side to every situation, no matter how bleak it may seem.

Internal Dialog – Many of us get stuck in negative feedback loops in our heads. We criticize ourselves, focusing on negative outcomes and even berate ourselves as if we were the fans of an opposing team. Your thoughts eventually become your actions so make sure you don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else.

Focus on the Present – No matter what’s happened in the past, you can’t change it. You can only focus on the here and now. Worrying too much about the past or future detracts from your ability to focus on what you need to do to achieve your goals. When you make mistakes, let them go. When you do something fantastic, let it go as well. Both can negatively affect your level of attention to what you need to do right here, right now.

As you work through these ideas, keep in mind that mental toughness is a skill, just as shooting a basketball or making a proper golf swing is a skill. You wouldn’t expect to master either of those skills immediately and you won’t master the art of mental toughness immediately either.

Just keep working and try to get a little better each day—more consistent, more confident and more focused—the foolproof method of eventual success.

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