The other morning I went out for a run and, before I had even reached the end of my street (which is not far, believe me!), my legs were heavy as lead and I was already telling myself to head back home. For the entire first mile, I just keeping thinking about how great it would be to turn around, cut my run short, go home where it was warm.
By the time I was done arguing with myself about it, I was past the halfway point. So the only logical thing to do was finish, since that was shorter now than turning around. But a lot of stuff came up during that argument. For example, why couldn't I head out for a short easy run and have it not suck? How do all the bloggers I follow make it seem so easy? Amid these self-defeating thoughts, I had the occassional "You can do this", "pretend it doesn't hurt", "just stop thinking about it" thoughts as well. Then it dawned on me: I'm physically ready for running at all times, but I sometimes fall a little short on mental toughness.
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So, being the psychologist that I am, I turned to the sports psychology literature to find out what science can tell us about being mentally tough. Some research describes mental toughness as a state of mind but others argue that it's a personality trait. But regardless how you look at it, it's important. For example, 82% of wrestling coaches say mental toughness is the most important attribute for success in athletics (Gould et al., 1987).
In 2002, Jones, Hanton, and Connaughton attempted to define mental toughness. Up til then, there was really no common definition for this particular mental quality. The researchers worked with 10 elite athletes across several sports and two nations to nail down what mental toughness is and what attributes athletes have to have to be described as having "mental toughness". They came up with a definition and also ranked 12 attributes that athletes with mental toughness have (keep in mind that these athletes were thinking about this concept in light of competing at the international level). Here's what they found:
Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to (1) cope better than your opponents with the many demands that sport places on a performer and (2) be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure (p.209).
What interested me even more than this definition were the attributes of an ideal, mentally tough performer that came out of the study. Below is my personal ranking of these attributes.
1. Having an unshakeable belief in your ability to achieve your competition goals.
This was also the top ranked attribute by the elite athletes. First and foremost, wouldn't you say, you have to be self-confident. Whether you're shooting for a PR or just finishing an easy run, you can't ever do it if you think you can't.
2. Having an insatiable desire and internalized motives to succeed.
This was actually down at #4 on the athletes' list, but I just had to move it up. As one of the elites described, "your have to really want it because it's really hard work" (p. 211). I don't know about you, but I always assume elite athletes, or even amazing runners I follow on Twitter must just find running...easier...than I do. But knowing it's hard work for them too just reminds me that I need to appreciate days that running does actually feel easy and use the difficult days to motivate me even more.
3. Not being adversely affected by others' performances.
This came in at #9 for elite athletes, but for me it's right up near the top because I am ALWAYS comparing myself to others. I don't want to do it, but it seems I just can't help it. I'm constantly comparing myself to other runners, even my friends, and thinking "How will I ever get there? I'll never be that good." But really, instead of thinking "I can't go that fast.", I should tell myself "I'm going to go out there and strive for that".
4. Switching a sport focus on and off as required.
This ranked as dead last for elite athletes. But, given what I've read about on others' blogs and Twitter feeds, I personally think closer attention should be paid to this one. As one elite said, "there are other important things in my life which deserve my attention, it's important that I discipline myself to give them that time.". Another athlete described this as having "times when I just want to relax and just not think about my sport at all" (p.213).
For me, these attributes seemed the most important - the ones I really want to work on having the next time my feet feel like lead out the door. The other attrbutes of mentally tough athletes were listed as:
#2 - Bouncing back from performance set-backs as a result of increased determination to succeed.
#3 - Having an unshakable self-belief that you possess unique qualities and abilites that make you better than your opponents.
#5 - Remaining fully focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions.
#6 - Regaining psychological control following unexpected, uncontrollable events.
#7 - Pushing back the boundaries of physical and emotional pain, while still maintaining technique and effort while under the distress of competition.
#8 - Accepting that competition anxiety is inevitable and knowing that you can cope with it.
#10 - Thriving on the pressure of competition.
#11 - Remaining fully focused in the face of personal distractions.
Which attributes do you feel you possess? Which are some you'd like to work on? Are there any attributes you feel are missing?
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