Mental Toughness in Athletes.

Posted by Jacinda Miller on

The definition of Mental Toughness is,  "Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to: generally cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on the performer; specifically, to be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure (Jones et al., 2002, p. 209)."

Developing mental toughness can do many things for athletes in both the short term and long term.  For twirling athletes having mental toughness can allow them to overcome the challenges that they face as they learn a new trick or combination that is challenging.  Mental toughness can also help an athlete perform their best even in high pressure situations - like a twirl-off.  When I began writing this blog, I was thinking of what can parents do to develop mental toughness but research shows that the coach's approach and philosophy is the one of the most important ways in which mental toughness is developed. 

Based on research, here are several tips for coaches in developing mental toughness. 

1. Build Relationships. The relationship between the coach and the athlete is extremely important. The athlete must have an established, solid relationship with their coach for the feedback to received, processed and implemented.  Coaches should work to know their athlete on a personal level - what does the athlete enjoy doing? What are they struggling with both within the sport and out? What are they proud of? Most coaches are actually really good at building relationships with their athletes but if you are not building a relationship with your athletes then evaluate why you aren't and if that has an impact on your ability to motivate and help your athlete. 

2. Be Critical & Encourage. As a coach, it is easy to view the routine or performance with the "lens" of here's the list of things that are wrong and need to be fixed. As you are developing an athlete and their mental toughness, this approach can be discouraging.  Take the time to explain and teach to the athlete the "why" behind your criticism. For example,  "If we can get your toss to be placed in front of you versus tossed to the corner then it will be easier to catch without losing your balance. Our job as a coach is to provide feedback that helps the athlete to improve but remember to find the balance in providing feedback and encouragement about all of the things that they are doing correctly. 

3. Develop autonomy in the athlete. It can be natural for the coach to guide and direct what is accomplished in practice, however, asking athletes about what they would like to practice can be an empowering tool for coaces.  Personally, I have used this with my teen athletes. I will ask them about what do you think we need to practice in our team routine? Many times, they'll pick exactly what I think needs work too but occasionally, they'll choose a different section/exchange to focus on that day. 

4. See your athletes as an individual. As coaches, we know what it takes to be successful and it can be easy to try and get all athletes to behave, practice and do what your most successful athletes are doing. When we as coaches take this approach, we miss out on opportunities to help someone as an individual.  This can be a hard one and I've certainly struggled with it too. We have to meet that athlete where they are at at that moment and help them be their best without judgement and with encouragement. It's tough but in those moments where you encourage your athlete with only the intention of helping them be their best those are the moments that will be remembered for all of your life and their life. 

5. Create adversity in practice. Athletes are going to face adversity and learning to overcome adversity can be accomplished in practice and with practice. In our practices, we will have the music stop and have the team have to continue twirling. We will create a loud noise or distraction and they have to continue their routine. We will have a "judge" that doesn't smile or seems uninterested and they have to continue to perform with energy and enthusiasm.  

6. Teach your athletes mental skills. For an athlete to have mental toughness, they must have mental skills such as positive mindset, positive self-talk, techniques to calm themselves in high stress times. 

A book that I love that we use with our athletes is, "Focused and On Fire" by Lisa Metzel. It's a fantastic book that athletes of all ages, ability levels can benefit from.  

If you would like to read more about Mental Toughness in the article below: