For those in the running world, feeling uncomfortable and yet refusing to stop is a regular occurrence. As humans, we have always wanted to push our boundaries. In order to do so, we will undoubtedly reach times where everything in us will beg to stop or give up. Performing well can require as much mental stretch as it does physical.
In science, mental toughness has been difficult to define. Most researchers have agreed that it is a multi-dimensional attribute, affected by many different factors. A recent literature review on the development of mental toughness in sport, suggests that there are four aspects to consider: personal characteristics, interactions with the environment, progressive development and breadth of experience (Anthony et al., 2016).
The spheres most affected in athletes known for their mental toughness include their inherent character, attitude and thought life. That is where the insatiable desire to succeed in an athlete is found.
There is great potential for improvement in an athlete’s mental game.
Find the Why
As athletes, we need to determine the reason for competing in races, or doing extreme events. And this is best done in sincere honesty with ourselves. Without knowing what drives our actions, we will find lack of motivation when required to push through pain, be it in a training session or an event.
The second theme associated with mental toughness is athletes’ interaction with their environment. This includes support structures in and outside of the sport, such as significant others or relationships with coaches. It is important that these figures act as support in both victories and losses. Athletes who are aware that they are not on their own, can navigate themselves through tough conditions with more ease.
The Mind Game
The third way of developing mental toughness requires mental effort. It is recommended that as athletes, we have to train ourselves not to become victims of our thoughts. Being in control requires us to be masters of stopping unwanted thoughts before they lead to false perceptions. This is a psychological skill, requiring the individual to recognize a negative thought and replace it. This can be done by creating an uplifting thought or even listening to upbeat music. Positive self-talk is another technique that some athletes like to use as an active tool to stop thoughts. Phrases like “I am able to do this,” or “I wanted to push my boundaries,” and even “Pain is temporary,” can all be used during positive self-talk.
Athletes can have great long term vision and necessary planning for the future. However, especially during events, short term goals can form a key source of motivation.
The last big factor that develops mental toughness is experience. Being placed in difficult situations with tough conditions, and overcoming them, can act as the best teacher to any athlete. Research indicates that significant events or critical incidents in athletes’ careers, can lead to mental strength setting them apart from their peers. The more experience we gain by overcoming setbacks and ‘hardships’, or even failures, the easier we conquer challenges set out on the big days.
A good example of mental toughness in action comes from Coach Christiaan.
Despite being completely spent at the end of his 100km UTD race, 3km’s from the end, he mistook a 32km runner for an athlete who was threatening to take second place from him. He somehow managed to outrun the other athlete to the finish line, only to realize it was not his competitor.
Athletes often find that there were more left in their bodies than what it felt like.
In Christiaan’s words: “That taught me again, everything in a 100km is mental. It’s when you tell yourself you are tired, that you are. Or, that you can run a hill, that you have enough energy somewhere inside to sprint race against the 32km winner… it’s all what you perceive.”
Anthony, D. R., Gucciardi, D. F., & Gordon, S. (2016). A meta-study of qualitative research on mental toughness development. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 9(1), 160–190. https://doi.org/10.1080/1750984X.2016.1146787