Athletes strive to be the best. Whether that means beating others in competition or besting themselves, they are constantly training to achieve victory. At the end of the day, however, one athlete or one team is the ultimate victor. Coaches and other athletes examine the training methods used by the winners to determine what the best way to train is if they want the same result. Yet despite copying the same physical training methods as the best, a difference in performance during competition would sometimes remain. That is when the sporting world began to examine the mental strengths that make a champion and to create drills and techniques for improving mental toughness.
Mental toughness is usually described as “the ability to overcome adversity.” In competition adversity usually takes the form of losing or performing badly. A mentally tough athlete would be able to maintain a high level of performance despite being behind or making a mistake. The ability to be mentally tough actually includes not just one mental skill, but a whole host of different skills. The average mentally tough athlete must be able to defeat unproductive self-talk after making an error, maintain calm reactions when facing a large crowd, stay motivated and focused after obtaining a large lead, prepare their emotions pre-performace so the first moments of the match are effective, communicate with their team efficiently in a match despite any outside social influences, and the list goes on and on. After reading such a description, it may feel natural to be overwhelmed at where to start becoming mentally tough. However, there are two important factors that make it a much easier process than one would be led to believe after analyzing all the components listed above.
First of all, most elite athletes have an overwhelming strength in a small number of mental skills. What that means is that these athletes either naturally or via training, came to rely on their strengths to make up for their weaknesses. Recognizing your mental strengths and using those abilities to cover up and boost other areas where you are deficit leads much more quickly to mental toughness in competition than trying to learn and practice skills that are completely new to you.
Secondly, although overt training methods for all mental skills do exist, the most surefire way to train mental toughness is by competing and overcoming adversity. In physical training there is a principle called specificity of training. This principle states that muscles adapt to the motion they are performing, meaning that the best way to train, for example, the shot putt is not by weight lifting or dancing, but by doing the shot putt. Although both types of side-training may actually improve one’s power and balance and lead to a better shot putt, the side-training should be carefully balanced with actually shot putting in order to achieve maximum results. The same is true more or less for mental skills. The best way to become mentally tough is to overcome adversity in competition. Side-training should be balanced around actual experience to maximize results.
One interesting outbreak of the specificity of training principle is that how one trains has a huge impact on performance. In physical training the mantra “train the movement like you want to perform it” is often used. If an athlete uses sloppy technique non-stop during practice, when the time comes to compete their body will most likely be conditioned to sloppy technique. Likewise the time that an athlete spends training in a lackadaisical or whimsical manner without a concern for performance or mental state, the less effective that training is for the actual competition environment. Most elite athletes are aware of this and schedule time every day where they role-play or mimic a competition state and mentally put everything on the line for a period of their practice. For example, in soccer practice the drills and aerobic training stop and the team splits in half and scrimmages each other for a set amount of time. Everybody approaches the scrimmage seriously and endeavours to put themselves in a competition mindset, because they are attempting to practice the performance of physical skills while under mental stress and improve their ability to overcome that adversity, thus acquiring mental toughness.
If you or your team wants to immediately start on the path to mental toughness, this book is a great place to start. However, the very first step should be improving the quality of practice so that more and more of the practice is done in a competition-like environment, where physical skills are trained in conjunction with the mental atmosphere present in an actual match. The only other way to directly practice mental toughness is by losing a real game, and that is a painful road to travel.