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Mental Toughness & How to Develop It

Why is it some individuals continually achieve their goals while others repeatedly fail? Though success may typically be attributed to intellect, strategy, talent or even genetics, there's one aspect of high achievement which can easily be overlooked. Mental toughness.

What is mental toughness?

Mental toughness is a mindset or personality trait which helps to enable consistent performance under stress. Put differently, it's how well you manage your behaviour when faced with varying degrees of pressure. As such, mental toughness is considered a valuable asset, which when applied, can lead to you excelling in your personal and professional life.

Indeed, we all face struggles, with some being more difficult to manage than others. However, what mental toughness does is allow you to persevere when the odds are against you. Becoming mentally tough is learning how to resist and manage the doubts, setbacks and worries which would ordinarily prevent you from achieving your desired outcomes.

Also, it's important to note where mental toughness differs to resilience, as over time the two have become used interchangeably. With increased awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing, the idea of emotional resilience has become more commonly known. However, with this it has also become synonymous with all issues relating to stress and anxiety.

Professor Peter Clough (2019) considers this an unhelpful interchange. He describes resilience as being a "passive concept" which hinges on you "hanging on in there". In contrast, the active practice of developing mental toughness, will require "finding opportunities for self-development and growth" through your experiences of emotional setback, stress and difficult circumstances.

In this case, Clough's view fits with that of British gold-medal winning sprinter, Asha Philip, who said, "The only thing standing between success and failure, is mental toughness."

Recommended: 'Mental toughness is the secret to success'. An interview with Asha Philip.

The benefits of mental toughness

Over the last decade or so, worldwide research has found significant benefits to developing mental toughness. A study of US Marines showed where just 30-minutes a day of mindfulness, aided mental recovery and increased resilience. Another study of undergraduate students found strong connections between mental toughness and personal wellbeing.

In addition to better stress management and recovery, increased resilience and improved wellbeing, other benefits of developing mental toughness, as highlighted through the MTQ48 measure, include:

  1. Better performance in different areas of life
  2. Improved positivity, rapport building and connectivity
  3. Greater adaptability to uncertainty and change
  4. Increased aspiration, ambition and confidence to achieve

Notably, where talent, intellect and genetics are often cited as key contributing factors to success, some research indicates where they aren't enough. For example, in her book Grit, Angela Duckworth, suggests mental toughness is the key predictor of your performance and success. Other researchers, however, suggest grit alone is an insufficient predictor of success.

Recommended: Grit - The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Lee Duckworth

Mental toughness in practice

Clearly, speaking of mental toughness in theory is fairly simple. But what might it look like in practice? Obviously, displays of mental toughness will appear different for everybody. For example, a classical pianist's approach to developing mental toughness will differ to a professional bodybuilder. Even so, there'll likely be several similarities, which might include the following:

  • Having clearly defined goals
  • Able to identify habits to support your goals
  • Being consistent with practicing your habits
  • Relying on routine more than your motivation
  • Ability to delay your need to see results

With these in mind, we see an obvious connection between mindset and behaviour. This is because mental toughness focuses on mindset as a way of helping to explain your behaviour.

Unquestionably, this is helpful to know, as in identifying how mindset affects your behaviour, you can then determine where changes in mindset could lead to improved outcomes.

Developing your mental toughness

So what does this mean for you? Above all, we can assume that without clearly defined goals and actions, mental toughness will remain a concept. And, if mental toughness is simply a concept, then you'll fail to reap the benefits of developing yours.

With that said, how can you then take steps to develop your own mental toughness?

James Clear, Author of Atomic Habits, suggests three strategies:

  1. Define what mental toughness means for you,
  2. Build mental toughness through small wins, and
  3. Focus on your habits more than your feelings.

First, he suggests defining what mental toughness means for you. As mentioned earlier, a pianist and bodybuilder will have different desired outcomes.

So where a pianist may develop mental toughness by practicing an additional twenty minutes a day, a bodybuilder may choose instead to do an extra rep on every set for a whole week.

The idea here is that your choice of how to develop mental toughness needs to be relevant to your ultimate goal.

Second, Clear suggests building mental toughness through multiple small wins, or actions which strengthen your mental muscles over time. Too often we think of change as being the result of one transformational event. However, it helps to remember where lasting change typically follows sustained effort over time. Just think, unless looking at a photograph, being able to experience a mountaintop view is likely the result of having taken many small uphill steps.

The third strategy Clear suggests for developing mental toughness is building healthy habits, creating routines, and most importantly, sticking to them despite how you feel. Here he highlights where motivation, enthusiasm and inspiration will prove to be insufficient when you're faced with inevitable distractions or periods of difficulty. Having and sticking to a sustainable plan, will help you overcome these hurdles.

Summary

To sum up, life will inevitably throw challenges your way which'll require you to be resilient and courageous. But beware resilience doesn't lead to you simply battening down the hatches and tolerating the status quo, even when it's unhealthy. For these reasons, committing to the development of your mental toughness is vitally important, especially during times of uncertainty and change.

Why? Because mental toughness will lead to viewing every challenge as an opportunity for growth. And this will have huge positive implications in every area of your life. For your own benefit, and for those around you.

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References

Clear. J. The Science of Developing Mental Toughness in Health, Work and In Life
Clough. P. (2019) Teaching mental toughness for those who aren’t, University of Huddersfield
Crede. M. et al. (2017) Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature, PsycNET
Duckworth. A. (2013) Grit: The power of passion and perseverance, TED Talk
Hale. M. (2020) 'Mental toughness is the secret to success', BBC Ideas, YouTube
Johnson. D. et al. (2014) Modifying Resilience Mechanisms in At-Risk Individuals: A Controlled Study of Mindfulness Training in Marines Preparing for Deployment, American Journal of Psychiatry
Stamp. E. et al. (2015) Relationships between mental toughness and psychological wellbeing in undergraduate students, Science Direct 
Photo credit: Edge2Edge Media

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