Welcome to the great debate. Are certain athletes born with a level of mental strength and the rest of us born to sit in the stands?
In this post I will take a deep dive into the debate of whether mental strength is something we are gifted with or something that can be practiced, improved and shaped. I once heard Paddy Upton say that mental strength is simply something you have or something you don’t. It cannot be learnt or coached. I was outraged by this statement as it left me asking the question: Why do mental coaches even try then?
“The problem with this labeling culture is that once we have labelled an athlete with one of these terms it is very hard for them to escape the perception”
Mental toughness is a term we use in mainstream conversation to define athletes based on their behavioural patterns and performances. We are constantly labeling athletes or teams as either mentally strong or mentally weak. Some of the terms we use in this regard when we refer to mentally weak athletes are, “no BMT” or “chokers”. The problem with this labeling culture is that once we have labelled an athlete with one of these terms it is very hard for them to escape the perception. We thus often disregard any other plausible explanation for their poor performance. The same goes for athletes that we label as mentally strong. Once they have a label, even when they perform poorly we will use every plausible explanation except that they were mentally weak at the given moment.
On face value, the labeling of athletes as mentally strong or weak suggests that mental toughness is a trait rather than a skill. In other words, we seem to believe that a person is either one or the other and cannot change the way they are. This would mean that mental toughness is natural and that we are born with a genetic predisposition. On the other end of the spectrum, we hear countless stories of how people have grown up to become mentally tough. How life events, their upbringing, failures and hardships have made them stronger and therefore they are able to succeed. The chain of thought here is that the more hardships a person faces, the more they are able to bear and therefore they become mentally stronger. This would suggest that emotional maturity, emotional regulation, and emotional depth plays a central role in mental toughness. The idea is plausible as we can say with a relative degree of confidence that all mentally strong people we have ever met have a level of emotional maturity above the average human being. However, many people who have faced hardships have often crashed and collapsed, suggesting that there must be some sort of predisposition.
Traits and Skills
” Handre Pollard, in the recent World Cup Final, landed kicks from all over the field in front of millions of viewers and with an entire team and country depending on him.”
When we talk about traits we are referring to a genetic disposition that causes us to act, behave or be in a certain way. For example, singing could be seen as a trait as it is a gift some people are born with. No matter how much I practice and get coached, I will never have a beautiful voice. Guitar, on the other hand, must be a skill, as with enough practice and coaching I am able to play a couple of songs at a respectable level. So, is mental strength a trait like singing or a skill like guitar? Maybe Paddy Upton came to his conclusion based on years of experience with top level sports people, meaning fully developed adults. They seem to now be fixed on the mental strength scale but we are ignoring how they got there through their developmental years. Let’s consider the following example:
Consider a 3rd team school rugby player taking a match-winning kick in the final in front of a relative crowd. For this kicker it’s the most pressure they have ever felt and the biggest challenge they have ever faced. If they land the kick they will be commended for their ability to stay calm under pressure and their mental strength. However, if you had to place Handre Pollard in that scenario it would be another day at the office, and the pressure he feels would be very little (if any). Handre Pollard, in the recent World Cup Final, landed kicks from all over the field in front of millions of viewers and with an entire team and country depending on him. Does this mean that Handre Pollard is mentally stronger than the 3rd team player? It is almost impossible to say with a degree of confidence, as the 3rd team kicker, in his circumstance, has shown mental strength. Many other people would crack under that amount of pressure under the same circumstances. Along with this we do not know if the 3rd team kicker would be able to land all the same kicks as Pollard if we placed him in the World Cup Final scenario (and he would probably never get a chance to show us.)
The point of the above example is to illustrate that mental toughness (in a sporting context) is relative to the individual’s circumstance. We sit with two things: firstly, the amount of pressure that is experienced and endured in the moment of performance, and secondly, the amount of experience they’ve had in dealing with pressure. Can Handre Pollard endure more pressure than the 3rd team kicker, OR can they both endure the same amount of pressure but Handre has simply been exposed to more in his career? If mental toughness is a trait that cannot be changed, we would have to assume that the 3rd team player would be able to land all of the kicks in the World Cup Final (as one either has the trait or you don’t). If mental toughness was a skill, on the other hand, we can assume that the 3rd team player has less of it than Pollard but with enough practice and exposure he will be able to improve on it. The last question here is, are we even talking about mental strength when it comes to performing under pressure..? But more on that later.
Research and Science?
“ We gain very little clarity on the matter when it comes to research and both arguments will find research that lean their way, depending on the objective and hypothesis of the study.”
When one assesses the literature on this topic, the answer doesn’t become any clearer. In fact, the research shows exactly what we already know. For example, in one study analysing a shared gene between people who have scored high on mental strength psychometric tests, it was found that 52% share a common gene. In a similar study assessing if environmental factors were shared amongst mentally strong candidates, it was found that 50% of participants had environmental factors related to mental toughness. Another study that assessed both shared genetic factors and shared environmental factors, found that 52% of participants shared both genetic factors and common environmental factors related to mental toughness. It’s safe to say that the data is 50/50.
We gain very little clarity on the matter when it comes to research and both arguments will find research that lean their way, depending on the objective and hypothesis of the study. This leads me to believe that mental strength may be similar to sprinting. Anyone who practices and works on their speed can become faster and improve substantially, but we all have our limits. The difference between Usain Bolt and us comes down to genetics. Likewise, could it be that we can all work on our mental strength and improve it, but some people are genetically just better.
Why is this important?
” Many coaches have successfully (at an early stage) identified athletes that would never ever make it and athletes that have what it takes to go all the way.”
For every coach as an individual, it is important to decide how you will approach the mental toughness conundrum. This is because whichever way you lean will largely determine how you go about coaching certain athletes. If you consider mental toughness as something you have or something you don’t, chances are that once you have identified a mentally weak athlete you have already decided whether they have a chance of success or not. This is not a wrong approach to have, it’s simply one of the possible approaches. Many coaches have successfully (at an early stage) identified athletes that would never ever make it and athletes that have what it takes to go all the way. The other approach is to believe that any player has the ability to become mentally stronger, and these coaches would tend to invest more time into a mentally weak athlete that has shown some potential. Perhaps when we coach at an elite, adult level, mental toughness is unchangeable, but when we coach at youth level there is still room for improvement. It is evident that this debate has many more angles to consider, and fundamentally we need to remember that it is not only mental toughness that determines success.
There is of course another side to this matter: What we refer to as mental strength in sport, may have very little to do with mental strength, if anything at all. In fact what we are referring to when it comes to performing under pressure is emotional strength or emotional intelligence. In a nutshell, mentally strong people can endure high levels of suffering and pain and emotionally strong people can endure high levels of emotions like pressure and anxiety. These may seem like they are one and the same, but there is a distinct difference. Anyway, more on that in the next post. stay tuned.