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Elite Athletes And Mental Strength: The Inseparable Connection

What is mental strength and do you have to have it to become a top athlete?
What is mental strength and do you have to have it to become a top athlete?

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going”

What is mental strength? What exactly does it mean to be mentally tough in sport? These questions have yet to be definitively answered as they mean different things to different people but it is almost universally accepted that top-level athletes display high levels of mental strength, however that might be perceived.  The last decade has seen the idea of mental toughness attract a significant amount of attention from sports psychology researchers attempting to understand the psychological factors that underpin success in sport.

What has been established is that mental toughness is a multifactorial concept with many components that contribute to the overall success of the athlete. Of course, the athlete must possess an inherent talent, optimise their physical conditioning, practise incessantly and theorise tactically in order to be successful but, at the highest level, the difference between failure and success can come down to attitude and mental application. If we take football as an example, those non-mental attributes are largely controlled by the club; they have various coaches to optimise the physical, technical and tactical aspects of the sport with the player bringing the talent, attitude and application to maximise their ability. More of them are now employing sports psychologists as well in order to help players maximise their talents.

Ravel Morrison is perhaps the most famous recent example of a player who had all the talent, was in the perfect place to shine but lacked the temperament to take advantage. Described by Sir Alex Ferguson as the best academy player he had ever seen, Morrison was, according to Manchester United great Rio Ferdinand, idolised by his fellow youth players, Paul Pogba included. By all accounts, we should be talking about a once in a generation talent but we are left wondering “what if…” as his career has never taken off and the narrative of a wasted talent will never go away.

So what is it that he lacked mentally? Why could he not apply his ability in a professional manner? Was it simply a case of succumbing to outside influences or is there something inherently flawed about his temperament? Some psychologists would attribute it to a lack of mental toughness. As mentioned earlier, this toughness is multi-dimensional with many factors making up what we perceive to be high mental strength and emotional resilience. Much research has been conducted in the area and despite the varying methodological approaches a number of key components are consistently reported:

  • Self-belief

  • Commitment

  • Self-motivation

  • Thriving on competition and challenges (or competitiveness)

  • Retaining psychological control under pressure

  • Resilience

  • Perseverance

  • Focus or concentration

Looking at that list it’s not difficult to see why these factors might contribute, at least in part, to various degrees of success. Perhaps Morrison was lacking the motivation to really make the most of his talent; maybe he did not feel challenged; or maybe his focus was elsewhere. Whatever the specifics of the situation, there is a clear association with what has been described as “attitude problems” and his inability to truly thrive at an elite level despite his elite talent.

In contrast, according to a group of researchers, mentally tough individuals “…tend to be sociable and outgoing; as they are able to remain calm and relaxed, they are competitive in many situations and have lower anxiety levels than others. With a high sense of self-belief and an unshakeable faith that they can control their own destiny, these individuals can remain relatively unaffected by competition or adversity.”

That paragraph could be describing any number of elite level athletes from Serena Williams to Usain Bolt to Cristiano Ronaldo. The ability to maintain that unshakeable belief in oneself even under difficult circumstances is probably the one thing that sets these world stars apart from the rest and allows them to compete at the highest level throughout their careers. This ability to block anything out and focus on the task at hand has been a characteristic of Cristiano Ronaldo’s career. Continually jeered from the stand, sometimes by his own fans in Madrid (inexplicably), he in fact channels the negative energy into his game as he strives for ever higher levels of performance. It makes him more determined to succeed and more motivated to prove to the outside world and, perhaps more importantly, to himself that he is the best. There is clearly an inherent competitive streak there, almost to a fault. His individual rivalry with Lionel Messi has probably driven them both to greater heights and their mental toughness, specifically their resilience, against outside influences (such as their respective tax cases) has allowed them to excel despite mounting pressure.

As a Manchester United fan I immediately think about the strength of character that Paul Pogba showed in defying Sir Alex Ferguson and leaving the club to prove himself at Juventus aged just 19 years old. Whilst there may have been outside influences in terms of the transfer itself, his determination to succeed eventually saw United break the world transfer record to bring him back to the club, having won four Serie A titles with the Turin giants. More recently, he played in and scored a vital, albeit deflected, goal in the Europa League final shortly after his father passed away after being treated for a chronic illness. When my mother passed away after suffering with cancer for a long time, I couldn’t function at work for a full month, at least. I was over a decade older (and ostensibly wiser) than Pogba was when he lost his father. I found it awe-inspiring that he was able to focus in that way so soon after such an incredible personal loss. And that is without considering the emotional impact of the Manchester bombing that occurred just a few days prior to the final. The entire team were praised for their mental strength as they put in an utterly professional performance on an emotionally charged evening to win the second major trophy of Jose Mourinho’s debut season.

There are, however, limits to this resilience as famously seen in Tiger Woods’ fall from the top echelon of world golf. His 2009 marital problems (for want of a better description for his wife allegedly smashing up his car with a golf club) almost exactly coincided with his fall from the top of golf. In 2010 and 2011 he finished 68th and 128th respectively in the money list rankings having never finished outside of the top four in the previous thirteen years (finishing 1st on nine occasions). Nobody is totally immune to outside problems but the concept of mental strength encompasses the ability to block these things out as best as we can in order to perform at our highest level. In Woods’ case he did return to the top of the money list rankings but has subsequently fallen away as a series of back injuries have taken their toll. He currently sits at 1136 in the official world golf rankings.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”

Mental toughness can be learned and this is why many elite level clubs are now employing psychologists within their sports science teams. In the NBA, nearly half of the teams have one or more sports psychologists working full time or as a consultant on call, as the importance of also addressing the psychological wellbeing of athletes is becoming more well recognized. These sports psychologists work with the athletes in order to develop the skills they need to cope with the various physical and mental stresses high level sports, money and fame can present. The pressures of modern sports are very different to even just 20 years ago as players and athletes are under more scrutiny than ever before and this intensity of exposure can build to almost unbearable levels. There are many types of pressure and athletes regularly have to deal with stresses that the average person cannot even begin to fathom; having your love life played out in public; seeing the death of a family member plastered all over the news; dealing with failure in the eyes of millions of social media users; having all of your transgressions advertised to the public; all of these things on their own represent unique challenges that elite sportsmen and women have to face.

Richard Williams, father to Venus and Serena Williams, famously coached his daughters from the age of 4 years old. Not only did he give them the technical skills to become high-performing tennis players but he instilled in them the right attitude to succeed. From then on, the two sisters took it on and have dominated the sport for close to two decades with Serena establishing herself as one of the greatest athletes of all time. Her technical ability married to her tactical nous and physical prowess are a combination rarely seen in any sport but when asked about her greatest asset her answer doesn’t refer to any of that:

“My game is my mental toughness. Just not only to be able to play, to win, but to be able to come back when I’m down. Both on the court and after tough losses, just to continue to come back and continue to fight, it’s something that takes a lot of tenacity.”

Serena shows a remarkable ability to not only dominate matches but also fight back when in difficult situations. In 13 of her 23 grand slam title runs she has been 5 or fewer points from defeat at some point in the tournament, providing compelling evidence of her resilience, perseverance and self-belief. This toughness undoubtedly comes naturally to some but it is also an attribute that can be developed and honed, something that Serena and Venus did alongside their father as they prepared to dominate a sport that simply wasn’t ready for them.

As a 19-year-old, Serena walked on court for the final of the Indian Wells event in California to a chorus of boos as the crowd voiced their displeasure at older sister, Venus, pulling out of their semi-final match due to injury. There were accusations of family match-fixing and counter-accusations of racism with Serena writing in her autobiography "all I could see was a sea of rich people -- mostly older, mostly white -- standing and booing lustily, like some kind of genteel lynch mob." At 19-years-old she faced up to that pressure and won the final (coming back to win it from a set down) with Richard Williams referencing the skills he helped her to develop: "The whole crowd turned against her and all she had to do was remember the training that she had been through."

“Winners build on mistakes. Losers dwell on them.”

It is this type of mental fortitude that is characteristic of top athletes across all disciplines. No athlete has a perfect record, and no athlete ever will, but it is the ability to not only accept pressure and thrive under it but to also learn from mistakes and failures that drives them to succeed over and over again. The best strikers in the world will miss plenty of chances but they will make sure they get back into those scoring positions again and again; the greatest golfers in the world will shank shots but they will continue to work and improve; the best quarterbacks have all thrown interceptions but they don’t shy away from throwing it again; and the best bowlers will get hit for six but they will come back again and again to try and bag that vital wicket. As athletes and sports teams search for every little advantage they can find we will see more and more use of sports psychology in day to day training in the modern world of increasingly high intensity, competitive sport. The ability to overcome even the smallest stress with ease is the first step to building the mental toughness needed in order to succeed.

Whilst there is still uncertainty around the specific definition of mental strength in sport, there is no doubt that it plays an important a part in optimising performance, perhaps even as important as physical ability. This abstract idea of mental toughness will likely mean different things to different people but the commonality is what it allows them to do. Elite athletes have an unwavering belief in themselves in face of adversity and it allows players to overcome challenges, push through fatigue, learn from failures and find the extra edge they need to reach the next goal. And that’s another thing they tend to have in common…there is always the next goal.

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