Is mental toughness being used as a screen for bullying?

Here at MTOUGH we spend a lot of our time talking to people about the importance of mental toughness in sport and in many other life domains such as education, health, business etc. Our view, based upon substantial evidence, is that being mentally tough can help people to navigate through the inevitable challenges that come our way. Individuals who are mentally tough as opposed to more sensitive tend to be able to move on more quickly, refocus after setbacks, remain objective, and often use setbacks as added motivation as opposed to taking things personally. One thing to make clear is that while people are likely to be able to toughen-up mentally through various forms of training / experience, there are some positives of being more sensitive, and some negatives in being mentally tough. Among the problems we have identified within our own research is that mentally tough exercisers can become over-committed and risk more serious problems by continuing to train when injured. Some other scientists have been critical of the term mental toughness because of potential macho connotations and the elitist focus of the concept. It is true that a large amount of mental toughness research has emerged from testing within elite sport. Anyone who is familiar with elite sport will know this is a demanding and often harsh environment where success is expected. We can argue as much as we like about the rights and wrongs of elite sport, but the focus on winning and being successful will remain as long as the rewards for success remain. However, in light of recent (mostly from the Cricketer Kevin Pietersen) and past revelations (the swimmer Karen Pickering) is it perhaps time to consider whether the tough and harsh nature of elite sport, and the expectations of being mentally tough are going too far and becoming an excuse for bullying. Let me explain.
It is obvious that what occurred within the men’s England cricket team was viewed from two sets of different lenses. There are plenty of ex-players who make the point that if you can’t take the criticism and handle the pressure and banter then you should seriously question whether you are in the right environment. As much as we like to downplay the importance of winning to our children, there is acceptance at the top level of sport that this is the bottom line. Most athletes as they progress within their sport do so following a series of both successful and unsuccessful performances which reflect the normal experiences of learning. The competitive nature of sport means that harsh criticism is likely along the way, but where does one draw the line between this and bullying? While most would view the Kevin Pietersen parody Facebook account as stepping over the line, things become more blurred when considering the culture of having to apologise to teammates for making mistakes. There are a variety of different approaches to coaching, each with strengths and limitations. By far the strongest evidence is for a positive, supporting and encouraging approach, but that doesn’t mean that it is the best approach in all situations / contexts. And flip this into the context of mental toughness and this whole issue is played-out within the literature. Some researchers, such as Bell et al. (2013) have forwarded the importance of some forms of punishment in developing mental toughness with cricketers. Others, such as Gordon (2012) have adopted a more positive “strengths-based approach” in the traditions of positive psychology. It remains a rather contentious issue.
Nevertheless, there is some interesting evidence concerning relationships between mental toughness and bullying (see Clough and Strycharczyk, 2012) – the main finding is that individuals with high levels of mental toughness are much less likely to perceive behaviour as bullying. That does not mean that bullying hasn’t occurred. The same behaviour that is seen as bullying by some is given a different label by others. Perhaps this is one explanation of the different opinions being expressed by England cricketers at the moment. Please do not misinterpret my meaning here – bullying does exist and I have seen various examples in my time and it is a serious problem in schools and the workplace. Bullying can ruin lives and rob people of confidence. Bullying is not acceptable in any form (i.e. emotion, verbal, physical, cyber etc.). However, some examples are more clear-cut than others (there is still no legal definition in the UK) and where it is a case of different perceptions, then there is some potential for interventions that not only tackle issues with the identified bully (some don’t always appreciate the effects of their actions on others) and the victim (who might in some instances be reacting over-sensitively). Clough and Strycharczyk (2012) argue this would potentially obtain a more balanced view and understanding of these behaviours. As for the idea of mentally tough individuals being bullies, that argument really doesn’t stand-up. Most bullying behaviour is a result of insecurity and low self-esteem – with mentally tough individuals being confident and self-assured, there is little need to prove superiority over others through bullying. Those outside of elite sport may struggle to understand the specific nuances of this world – it is a world of high expectations, and criticism / punishment. To develop mental toughness the evidence points towards creating challenging, demanding environments where sometimes participants learn important lessons (often through failure). But challenge must also be balanced with appropriate support mechanisms. Problems can occur when some coaches err too much on the side of challenge / demand and don’t provide support alongside this. Our own work in elite football shows that coaches understand the need for support as well as challenge. One thing is for sure, coaches that predominantly use punishment and negative coaching have not read the mental toughness literature, and that verbally or emotionally abusing athletes in the name of mental toughness is not acceptable.