A Softer Side to Mental Toughness?

The MTOUGH team comprises of researchers at the University of Lincoln, but it could not survive without the many external collaborators that we have had the pleasure to work with over the years. We regularly publish work with national and international researchers and it is these collaborations, that for me at least, helps to advance knowledge and brings innovation. The pooling of ideas can often move things forward more effectively than trying to go it alone (in my experience). Recently I was pleased to be asked to contribute to a mental toughness project that was being directed by Dr Richard Cowden. Richard is based in South Africa and has already made some very useful contributions to the mental toughness knowledge-base. I am pleased to say that Richard has agreed to become one of our external collaborators as we have plans for further research projects in the near future. In the meantime, Richard has kindly added his thoughts on mental toughness; in particular the “superman/ women” image that is often ascribed to represent the mentally tough athlete.

“A defining characteristic of mentally tough athletes is their ability to overcome adversity. As attractive as this may be, mental toughness has at times been likened to an impenetrable suit of psychological armour that protects against any or all negative experiences (internal or external). If this were mental toughness, it’s likely that most of us would never attain it.

Fortunately (for all of us), research on the ‘softer side’ of mental toughness suggests otherwise. Studies have shown that mentally tough athletes aren’t impervious to the emotional experiences associated with competitive sports participation. Consider instances of competitive performance failure (e.g., match losses). An argument might be made that mentally tough athletes embrace (as opposed to disengage from) the difficulty of accepting weaknesses and their role in such outcomes, creating opportunities to grow by learning from their shortcomings.

From this perspective, mental toughness entails a willingness to work through the discomfort that accompanies one’s negative experiences, rather than responding in ways that shield against them. This should not be equated to dwelling negatively on the past or engaging in self-punitive responses. Instead, mentally tough athletes use this process constructively to identify areas in which improvements can be made, thereby renewing their motivation to achieve. In contrast to some of the common perceptions of mental toughness, this softer side has relevance to the meanings that we ascribe to it, how sport psychologists, coaches, and parents communicate what mental toughness is to young, developing athletes, and how we go about developing it.” Dr Richard Cowden.