Mental Toughness: Nature or Nurture - Part 2

Welcome to the great debate. Follow the quest to finding the answer: Can we all be great or are there only a lucky few?

The journey into mental toughness has been quite a challenge. The only thing certain is that this post might be confusing and terribly hard to read. I have jumped down a rabbit hole and tried to make sense of all the information, all within one post. My sincere apologies. Nonetheless I invite any comments and questions. Mental toughness can only be answered if we specify exactly what we’re referring to. In part 2 of this series I discuss the role of emotional intelligence in mental toughness and the other factors that may be involved in the development of mentally tough athletes.

Mental Strength vs Emotional Strength

It cannot possibly be true that the likes of AB de Villiers, Graeme Smith, Dale Steyn and co. do not have mental strength.

As an element of performance and success, it seems that dealing with pressure situations comes to the fore as the most telling sign of mental toughness. However, dealing with pressure can only be used as a measurable when there is indeed pressure. A prime example would be the Proteas cricket team, with their infamous tag as chokers under pressure. The popular twitter rant after a Cricket World Cup is that the Proteas team do not have mental strength, are mentally weak or have no big match temperament. There are two problems with this notion. One, that it cannot possibly be true that the likes of AB de Villiers, Graeme Smith, Dale Steyn and co. do not have mental strength. Two, the teams at each World Cup have been so different that a singular explanation for failure is realistically absurd.

We find the same problem in a sport such as rugby, in which a kicker will be labelled as mentally strong or mentally weak, depending on their performance in front of a crowd and in pressure situations. My opinion on the matter, is that the ability to land those kicks under pressure is not a good measure of mental strength, if even a measure at all. Assume we have a Survivor type competition with all contestants on the same fitness level, same age, same financial position, and same physical ability. Each person must hold up a heavy rock with one hand and the person who can hold it the longest wins a million dollars. It is without question that the mentally strongest person will be able to endure the pain and suffering and hardships for the longest and thus win the prize money. Here there is no pressure involved like taking a kick for your team in front of millions of viewers. Experience in dealing with pressure situations will not help you much in winning this competition. What we may need in this competition is resilience, grit, will power and willingness to endure pain. Therefore, I would argue that what we often term as mental strength in sport has very little to do with mental strength. Mental strength, in other words, is the ability to endure hardship and show resilience. The other part, which refers to performing under pressure, I would call Emotional Strength.

What I’m trying to explain with my sloppy example, is that we tend to throw everything under one heading. However, there are many facets at play and each one will become more important, depending on the situation. Emotional Strength will be important when we face extreme emotional-inducing scenarios. For example, anxiety before a final. We don’t need resilience to overcome our anxiety before a final, but we do need emotional intelligence. Resilience will be needed when we are suffering physically. For example, after a full match we must go into extra time despite cramping, extreme fatigue and so on. Here, your ability to deal with anxiety becomes irrelevant. For the rest of this conversation I will therefore split mental toughness into two components: Mental strength (grit, endurance, resilience etc.) and Emotional strength (dealing with pressure, emotional control, staying calm etc.) The differences between mental strength and emotional strength are very slim and these two would generally go hand in hand, but the differences are enough to make a distinction.

Emotional Strength

However, what we can deduct from this is that the people who are able to regulate their emotions better and show higher emotional intelligence, will generally be high pressure performers.

Let’s first deal with emotional strength. Pressure in sport is directly linked to the amount of anxiety we experience during the performance. The ability to regulate and control anxiety is a direct result of emotional intelligence. The basic mechanisms here are (1) identifying the stimulus (2) processing the stimulus (3) identifying the emotion (4) processing the emotion and (5) controlling the behaviour. I will be elaborating on these steps in a future post on emotional control in sport. However, what we can deduct from this is that the people who are able to regulate their emotions better and show higher emotional intelligence, will generally be high pressure performers. The anxiety is regulated and processed before it can affect the performance.

In low-pressure performers, the anxiety becomes part of the behaviour and has a drastic influence on the behaviour and performance. For example, we will see shakiness, sweaty hands, shortness of breathing and tight muscles in athletes that are low pressure performers. Basically, low-pressure performers (those that look good at practice but crash in matches) have low emotional intelligence, and high-pressure performers (those that thrive in cut-throat situations) have high emotional intelligence. Handre Pollard can therefore be considered a high-pressure performer as he had his best performances in the knockout stages of the World Cup.

Mental Strength

Goggins mentions he was peeing blood and had broken all of the small bones in his feet by the 70-mile mark but refused to quit.

Now let’s deal with mental strength. We’ll often find mental strength in athletes and people that have faced

tough and enduring challenges. A prime example would be someone that has made it through an ultra-marathon. Although physical ability and fitness plays a major role here, one would inevitably be suffering about half-way through the race. What gets you through to the end has very little to do with pressure or staying calm, but rather controlled thinking, grit, endurance (both physical and mental) and resilience. I like to use David Goggins as an example, who ran a 100-mile race in 19 hours, while weighing over 100kg with no training or experience in running.

Goggins mentions he was peeing blood and had broken all of the small bones in his feet by the 70-mile mark but refused to quit. This scenario had nothing to do with pressure, there was very little value placed on the outcome and very little anxiety-producing factors, but Goggins had to finish and there was nothing else about it. Athletes won’t always need mental strength in sport. For example, one can be a pretty successful spin bowler in cricket with very little mental strength. However, in any sport that requires a level of suffering and surviving we will find the best athletes have the most of it.

Nature or Nurture?

These variants will generally lead to people reacting differently in situations that require resilience, endurance and mental strength.

The question on whether mental toughness is nature or nurture becomes easy to answer once we have split it into two components. This is because there has been enough research done on each of these topics on an individual level. Also, new studies in genetic research has completely changed the way we used to look at genes and introduced some exciting discoveries.

In emotional strength, scientists have recently discovered a “sensitivity gene”, which indicates how sensitive our reactions would be to emotional stimulation. The gene-environment interaction is crucial here as we have also recently discovered that genes can be switch on and switched off. People with a more active sensitivity gene are more prone to become anxious, depressed and so on. They will also experience higher highs when there is positive stimulation. These people would therefore generally need to undergo more emotional intelligence training, as they would tend to have more “aggressive” emotional reactions. The other gene variant would cause people to have more balanced emotional reactions to situations and these people would generally be “naturally better” at managing emotions.

In mental strength, we find a similar case. A variant in one gene (5HTT) causes a greater production of hormones related to optimism and pain perception. Another gene variant (2-adrenoceptor) causes greater production of adrenaline, the stress hormone. These variants will generally lead to people reacting differently in situations that require resilience, endurance and mental strength. However, we have to consider the gene-environment interaction again, which tells us that the environmental circumstances that we are exposed to can alter our genetic make up and the process of neuroplasticity can cause real physical changes in our brain.

The combination of the sensitivity gene variant and the 5HTT variant can tell us a lot about the potential mental toughness in a person. Firstly, the sensitivity variant, when exposed to stressful emotional circumstances will react in different ways. Then, the sensitivity variant that has been consciously developed through EQ training will also react in different ways. So, we find that a genetic predisposition (nature) coupled with specific environmental and learning factors (nurture) will lead to the optimal emotional strength in a person. Similarly, the 5HTT variant, coupled with specific environmental factors will lead to the optimal mental strength in a person. Similar to physical ability, the genes must be continuously stimulated in order to be adapted and/or improved on. Therefore, a person with an active sensitivity gene that works harder on their emotional intelligence may end up with higher emotional intelligence than a person that does not work on it. One is able to adapt and even change your gene structure by sufficient, conscious practice and hard work through a process called neuroplasticity. I can thus conclude that on a very basic level, mental toughness is both nature and a complex and multi-faceted process of nurturing

Final Remarks

To try and simplify this post and the conclusions I am drawing, I will use more examples. In an event that creates little pressure and anxiety but demands a level of will power to endure successfully, we rely more on mental strength and less on emotional strength. In an event that requires emotional control, staying calm under pressure and anxiety reduction, we rely more on emotional strength and less so on mental strength. 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. Generally, these two go hand in hand and are found (or not found) in the same person, but not always. In the people that have a high level of both we will typically find similar gene variants, coupled with a combination of specific environmental factors (upbringing, social settings, exposure to certain stressors, conscious practice, experiences etc). What I was therefore suggesting with my Proteas example, is that the failure in tournaments could be an emotional strength and EQ issue, rather than a mental strength issue. More on that in part 3.

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