Sports Science Monthly – January 2020

Every month we take a deep dive into the latest research in sports science. This month we start off by what exactly mental toughness is. We also summarize topics like the limited science of elite sprinting, connecting sprint speed to endurance performance, the load of warming up, periodizing skill acquisition, and more.

As always, the full Sports Science Monthly is available exclusively to HMMR Plus Members. You can browse the past topics on our archive page. The first topic below is free to everyone, but sign up now to read about all the latest research. To get an idea of what Sports Science Monthly is all about, the April 2016 edition is available in its entirety for free.

This Month’s Topics

Defining mental toughness

» Quick Summary: Whilst we perhaps all know intuitively what mental toughness is, unless we define it in terms of behavior, it might be difficult for our athletes to develop it. This paper provides some key definitions for what mental toughness behaviors look like.

The longer I spend in elite sport, the more aware I become of key sayings and buzzwords, that everyone seems to use, but that lack a clear definition. A common example of this is high performance; people want to be high performance coaches, or want their athletes to demonstrate high performance behaviors—often without being clear what this actually means, entails, or looks like. The same is true for mental toughness; as a concept, it is widely used and implicitly understood, but what does it actually mean, and what does it actually look like?

One of the leading researchers in the area of mental toughness within sport is Daniel Gucciardi, who is currently based at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. Back in 2017, Gucciardi defined mental toughness as “a state-like psychological resource that is purposeful, flexible, and efficient in nature for the enactment and maintenance of goal-directed pursuits.” That’s nice and all, but what does that mean on a daily basis for you, a coach looking to develop key performance behaviors in your athletes—one of which I assume is the development of mental toughness. To bridge the gap between nice definition and effective practice, we need to consider what behaviors underpin mental toughness, and what these look like in practice. Once we understand this, we can then guide our athletes in the development of these behaviors, allowing them to become more mentally tough—or at least exert more mental toughness when required.

Fortunately, Gucciardi and colleagues carried out a research project aiming to define mental toughness behaviors, the results of which were recently published in the Journal of Sports Sciences. To quantify these behaviors, Gucciardi’s team, led by David Anthony, conducted interviews with 10 males employed by elite Australian Rules Football clubs, all with a minimum of 15 years full time experience at this level. The participants were a mix of coaches, sports scientists, and administrators. From these interviews, five key themes emerged, allowing us to better understand the constructs of mental toughness.

The first construct was “adaptive development.” This takes the form of being able to grow through experience to drive development. As an example, a mentally tough player was said to seek out feedback from players and coaching staff after they had made a mistake, in order to avoid making the same mistake again. Mentally tough players, therefore, appear to exhibit a growth mindset, and are comfortable in seeking out non-favorable information that will assist their development. In contrast, players who didn’t seek out information that would allow them to improve—and therefore would continue to make the same mistakes—were perceived to lack mental toughness.

The second construct was “consistent training conduct.” In essence, mentally tough players arrive at training prepared and ready to perform, and maintain consistently high levels of effort across training sessions—particularly when uncomfortable. In contrast, players lacking in mental toughness were perceived to be inconsistent with regards to their training effort, and especially were perceived to reduce their training intensity when training got challenging. This is somewhat related to the first construct; mentally tough players are perceived to be more comfortable with seeking out challenge during training in order to optimally develop.

The third construct is “composed performance actions.” This is perhaps what we typically think of when we talk about mental toughness; the ability of the athlete to perform under pressure. Mentally tough players are perceived to be able to execute what is required of them at all times; they are not distracted by others, or affected by self-doubt.

The penultimate construct is “responsible and accountable.” Mentally tough athletes accepted responsibility for their performance, and understood that they had the capacity to make changes. Following a poor training or competition performance, they are determined to improve and make the required changes; comparatively, and athlete lacking in mental toughness would becomes plagued by self-doubt following a poor performance, and struggle to see how they might be able to improve and positively influence the situation. Players lacking in mental toughness blame others for their failures, and cannot take ownership for their underperformance.

The fifth and final key construct is “team supportive.” Here, mentally tough athletes are perceived to place the needs of the team ahead of their own, demonstrated by their being involved and engaged in team meetings and analysis sessions, and acting in accordance with team culture.

These five constructs were developed in collaboration with AFL staff, and, as a result, they are specific to the sport of AFL; as a result, we need to consider their applicability within athletics. The fifth construct—team supportive—is only really applicable within relay settings, as outside of this event athletics is an individual sport. However, many of the other constructs and key behaviors are likely still relevant for athletes; we want athletes to take ownership of their performance, use adversity as a stimulus to improve, and perform well under pressure. The key takeaway for me is that, if you want to develop mentally tough athletes in your group, you must be clear as to what mental toughness is comprised of, and what behaviors underpin it. Once you understand this, you can seek to develop these behaviors in your athletes, either by designing training to place athletes in scenarios they must exert mentally tough behaviors, or by reinforcing what behaviors you’re looking for, and what they look like. By being clear on what mental toughness looks like, you’re far more likely to develop mentally tough athletes.

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