Is Mental Toughness Trainable?

Every coach, regardless of formal education, practices some form of sports psychology with their athletes.  One of the most commonly discussed areas on the pool deck is mental toughness.  Nearly every swimmer takes pride in their own toughness for putting in big hours (often at obscenely early times) in a sport entirely unnatural to human beings.  Mental toughness is deemed so important in swimming that the ASCA recently polled 110 coaches at all levels for their definitions of mental toughness. Here is a sample of answers from that survey, keeping in mind that many other answers echoed the sentiments in those below (2012):
  • The ability to overcome doubt, fear, pain, and distractions to achieve optimal performance.
  • Dealing with success and failure equally.
  • Doing the right thing when it the right thing is tough to do.
  • Having the ability to deal with pain (muscle fatigue) in important practice and competition situations.
Our task in this article is to examine the science on whether mental toughness is a trainable quality.  To know if toughness can be improved, we first need a baseline.  Unfortunately, a measurable baseline of mental toughness is elusive, though modern research has looked at physiological stress markers for an idea.  Although coping skills, visualization, and resilience and other psychological traits are all recognized in the literature, toughness is a broad term and takes many different forms.


Dr. Rushall offers a four pronged test to determine whether mental toughness is a valid metric. (Rushall 2013)
  1. Quantifiable.  "I know mental toughness when I see it" fails to satisfy this prong.  Physiological stress markers are one way to assess toughness, but are imperfect measures. 
  2. Manipulable.  In comparing two groups experimentally, they must operate at different percentages of baseline to compare results.  For example, VO2 max is a common physiology marker because you can compare two groups operating at different percentages of a maximum output.  Mental toughness has flaws as a manipulable metric due to lack of baseline quantification.
  3. Inter-rater reliability. Are two people looking at the same thing?  As we saw with the survey, definitions of mental toughness vary greatly.  There are no wrong answers, but there is a clear lack of uniformity. 
  4. Intra-rater reliability.  Does your own assessment of mental toughness remain consistent?  
Further, the main unanswered question is whether exposure to psychological stressors would lead to improvements in mental toughness.  Is there a causal relationship between stress and “tough” behavior.  We’ve all been through mentally challenging sets and have followed most of those sets with performance improvements.  Basic exercise physiology tells us that exposure to a physical stressor leads to physical adaptation.  Does a similar cause-and-effect apply to the mental side?  

Collins (2012) offers a recent commentary suggesting that mental toughness is indeed trainable, noting “intermittent exposure, followed by periods of adjustment before more challenge, results in a differential hormonal response to stress characterized by a more solution-focused perception.”  This explanation also accounts for the possibility of burnout as overexposure to any stressor would seem to have negative effects.  This same article cites evidence for causation in educational and non-athletic settings, but formal study in competitive sport is limited.

When explanations are elusive we often fall prey to confirmation bias.  If we lack a tangible explanation of how similar athletes can have different performances, mental toughness seems a convenient explanation, especially if we have long believed that mental toughness is responsible for effective results. “[R]esearch which has assumed that elite and super elite athletes are mentally tough with no objective measures sets a dangerous precedent” (Crust 2008).

Ultimately, it’s important to distinguish between the mental stressors inherent in high level sport with stressors added for the sole purpose of developing mental toughness.  The inherent stressors are unavoidable, but it is imperative that we continue seeking a justifiable definition of “toughness” rather than assuming that those who survive toughness training have actually benefited from the experience. 

Summary
Toughness differences undoubtedly exist, despite the difficulties in defining and measuring toughness.  The real challenge is figuring out whether mental toughness is an accurate explanation for observed phenomena. 
The next question is whether toughness can be improved in the ways we believe it can.  High level athletes demonstrate certain psychological qualities, but thus far the evidence is unclear on whether the toughness component is trainable. 

The purpose of this post was not to answer those questions but instead to challenge us to question our assumptions on the role of mental toughness training. The mental side has a profound role in performance but it our responsibility to make sure it is employed appropriately with the right level of emphasis: no more and no less.  

References

  1. Collins DMacNamara A.  The rocky road to the top: why talent needs trauma.  Sports Med. 2012 Nov 1;42(11):907-14. doi: 10.2165/11635140-000000000-00000.
  2. Crust, L.  A review and conceptual re-examination of the literature of mental toughness Personality and Individual Differences 45 (2008) 576–583
  3. American Swimming.  Issue 5, 2012.
  4. Dr. Brent Rushall, personal correspondence, 2013.
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.

Handling Failure & Adversity in the Pool and in Life

A young traveler meets a bearded old Guru at a rest stop along the road and asks him, “Oh WISE man, please tell me....which way to SUCCESS?” The wise man says not a word, but instead points off towards the north. The young man excitedly heads off in that same direction with visions of riches in his head. Five minutes pass and then the stillness of the day is shattered by a LOUD “SPLATT!!!” A number of minutes go by and then the young traveler staggers back, bruised, clothes disheveled and dazed. Thinking perhaps that somehow he had misheard the wise man, he asks once again, “Oh WISE man, please tell me....which way to SUCCESS?” Once again the bearded sage says NOT a word, but instead points off in that same northerly direction. This time, a little more cautiously, the young man follows his advice....Now 10 minutes pass and suddenly the calm and silence of the day is shattered by an even more deafening, ground shaking “SPLATT!!!!!”  Ten more minutes pass and the young man can be seen crawling back, his clothes nearly scorched off his back, he's bloodied and in a state of shock. As he approaches the wise man, he becomes more alert and his face is now red with fury as he screams, “Wise man! STOP THIS NONSENSE!!!” I ask you which way to success and both times you don't answer but silently point off yonder! When I do exactly as you say, all that happens to me is that I get SPLATTED! So enough with your silence! TELL ME IN WORDS! WHICH WAY TO SUCCESS?!” The wise man looks the young traveler straight in the eyes and calmly responds, “SUCCESS IS EXACTLY WHERE I POINTED, JUST A LITTLE BEYOND THE SPLATT!!!!

There is one CRITICAL thing that I have found over the years which separates the great swimmers from all the rest, one thing that successful performers both in and out of the pool do better than every one else.

So many people mistakenly believe that becoming a champion happens when you have exceptional talent. Others believe it all rests on tremendous coaching. Still others think that consistent, hard work is the crucial part of this success equation. While all of these help, there is something that is, in my humble opinion, FAR MORE IMPORTANT! The secret to your success is very simple and NOT WHAT YOU THINK! If you really want to become a champion in the pool, if you really want to go as far in swimming as possible, then you have to learn how to FAIL BETTER than everyone else!!! That's right, FAILURE IS THE BIGGEST SECRET to your success both in and out of the pool!!
 
Most athletes think that failure is a bad thing and something that should be avoided at all costs! Nothing could be further from the truth! FAILURE is a GOOD THING! It is your main transportation to success. As long as you have enough of failure, it will take you all the way to where you want to go. However, if you're afraid to fail and, because of this, you avoid opportunities where you could possibly fail, then you will ultimately fall short of your goals!          
Now don't misunderstand me here. There's no question that FAILURE SUCKS! It's no fun to lose, choke or otherwise come up with a subpar performance. The best swimmers in the world hate failing with a passion! However, they have learned over their careers that failing is very necessary to the success process. In fact, you can't really achieve lasting success without failing ENOUGH TIMES!

Whether you're aware of it or not, you intuitively know EXACTLY what I'm talking about here because you learned this experientially when you were a baby. You learned that failure was the ultimate success strategy. You may have forgotten it over the years, but when you first learned to walk, you instinctively used your failures to master this very difficult FIRST skill!   

How does a baby learn to walk? BY FALLING ENOUGH TIMES. The baby pulls himself up to standing on wobbly legs while he steadies himself on a coffee table. Then he lets go, and WHAM...he immediately fell down! This process is repeated over and over again! Sometimes when the baby falls, he gets up smiling....and other times, he gets up screaming in pain and frustration! However, each time the baby falls, his body learns valuable lessons on balance and what works and what doesn't.

When the baby finally is able to stand by himself without holding on, this same falling down process gets repeated over and over again as he begins to take his first steps.  And each time that baby falls, his body is learning what to do and what NOT to do, and all of this valuable learning could NEVER happen unless the baby keeps falling.

IN THIS VERY SAME WAY, YOU AS AN ATHLETE LEARN TO “WALK” BY FALLING ENOUGH. This is how you go from beginner to expert in your sport. This is how you go from an average swimmer to a really good one! In this way, our failures provide us with invaluable feedback on what we did that didn't work and what we need to do differently next time.

The problem far too many swimmers run into when they fall on their face, is they get really upset with themselves. Getting angry with yourself for failing is a terrific waste of time and worse, your emotions distract you from the valuable learnings that are always present within any failure. If you're too busy feeling embarrassed or angry with yourself, then you'll miss the important constructive feedback that ALWAYS comes out of these disappointing swims.

So when you fail, you want to GET CURIOUS, NOT FURIOUS!  You want to be curious about what you did that didn't work and what you need to change for the next time rather than angrily beating yourself up for your failure!
Failure and disappointments are nothing more than valuable feedback which, when used, will help you get where you want to go! Failure is NOT evidence that you suck or that you're inadequate! It is feedback and therefore, delayed success! So when you fall flat on your face during your swimming career, which you can expect will happen any number of times, the most important thing you can do is handle it the RIGHT way. It's part of the process to becoming successful, it NORMAL, and we all have to go through this stuff. There are no shortcuts around failure, loss and disappointment to get to your dreams. You must go through these painful experiences.

Remember, FAILURE IS FEEDBACK AND FEEDBACK IS THE BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS!!!!

By Alan Goldberg of Competitive AdvantageDr. Goldberg was the sport psychology consultant to the 1999 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Champion University of Connecticut Huskies, and the 2000 men’s soccer NCAA champions. He specializes in helping athletes overcome fears & blocks, snap out of slumps, and perform to their potential. His book, Sports Slump Busting (LLumina Press), is based on his extensive experience getting teams and individual athletes unstuck and back on track. 

Mental Toughness Training Program

Mental Toughness Training Program
The Best Mental Toughness Training Program for Swimmers-SPECIAL SAVINGS

Interested in The MOST COMPLETE Mental Toughness Training Program Available For Swimmers?
  • Do you KNOW you're ready PHYSICALLY but only HOPE  you're ready MENTALLY?
  • Do you wish you could regularly feel as good as you did in your best races?
  • Are there certain opponents who always seem to psych you out?
  • Do wish you could stay calm and sleep the nights before BIG meets?
  • Do you get too nervous to do your best and then choke under pressure?
  • Are you stuck in a SLUMP
  • Do you have a problem concentrating on what's important?
You spend all of your time preparing physically, so why would you leave this ALL IMPORTANT mental side of your swimming to chance? The combination of 2 CD programs and 2 books will give you EVERYTHING that you need to develop mental toughness and take your swimming to the next level!