Mental Toughness and Coaching: Review

Author: Harriet Gruen

Mental toughness has been identified as one of the most important psychological attributes in champion athletes (Bull, Shambrook, James, & Brooks, 2005; Gucciadri, Gordon, Dimmock, 2008; Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, 2002).  Currently, there is no universally agreed definition of mental toughness, however, the core concepts across the literature include; self-belief, motivation, coping with pressure and focus (Weinberg & Butt, 2011). There is consensus in the research that mentally tough performers have almost always overcome some form of adversity early in their career (Bull et al, 2005; Thelwell, Weston, Greenlees, 2006). For the sake of clarity, the specific focus of this analysis is how mental toughness can be coached. Coach influence only makes up one part of the mental toughness matrix, however, it has the scope for development, implementation and measurement.  The development of a quantifiable, practical method for improving mental toughness would be an asset to coaches and athletes across all sports.

The impact of a coach on an athlete’s mental toughness has been acknowledged in the literature. Many of these studies use Personal Construct Psychology to understand how elite athletes have developed their superior mental toughness skills (Connaughton , Wadey ,Hanton & Jones, 2008; Gucciardi et al, 2008; Jones et al, 2002). These studies have examined an overview of how mental toughness is built by looking at multi sports (Connaughton et al, 2008; Jones et al, 2002), as well as specific analysis of soccer (Thelwell, Weston, Greenlees, 2006), cricket (Bull et al, 2005), AFL (Gucciardi et al, 2008), gymnastics (Thelwell, Such, Weston, Such, Greenlees, 2010) and Swimming (Driska, Kamphoff, Armentrout, 2012).  Coaching has been identified as a factor which enhances mental toughness, the question then arises of how mental toughness can be taught to athletes.

A tough coaching environment has an influence on the mental toughness of elite athletes (Bull et al, 2005; Crust & Clough, 2011; Driska et al, 2012; Gucciardi et al, 2009). Driska et al (2012) examined the coaching of elite swimmers through collection of qualitative data. They argued that the coaches impact on mental toughness occurred under three categories. Firstly “the coach was challenging and demanding and had high expectations”, coaches which created environments which rewarded dedication, pushed swimmers to their limits and creating pressure situations to stimulate competition. The importance of clear communication between coach and athlete was stressed as to prevent athletes from burning out. Secondly “The Coach’s Approach to Training and Workout Planning Developed Mental ToughnessCoaches would set up activities to push the athletes past “race pain” and create challenges which would sometimes be too difficult to complete to build the athletes resilience. These activities were strategically applied to the training plan. Lastly, “The Coach Had Developed a Motivational Climate that Fostered Mental ToughnessA “mastery climate” was created where coaches would reward athletes who excelled at pushing themselves to their limits. Crust & Clough (2011) stated that athletes should be challenged and have demanding training environments from an early age to encourage the development of mental toughness. Competitive and goal orientated training sessions which are physically and psychologically challenging could develop an environment conducive for producing tough athletes. Athletes should be encouraged to problem solve through autonomy-supportive coaching style and self-reflect to develop mental maturity (Crust & Clough, 2011).  Gucciardi,  Gordon, Dimmock, & Mallett (2009) examined coaching in AFL through qualitative analysis. It was found that a challenging training environment helped to foster mental toughness, including physical tests, game simulations and creating adverse challenges. Specific strategies included keeping reflective journals, open discussion between coaching team and athletes, positive reinforcement and a strength based approach to coaching where individual’s talents are recognised and rewarded.  Although a challenging coaching environment appears as a common theme across sports, research into the athletes sporting lifecycle suggests that at a younger age, it is important that coaches are encouraging and motivating (Bull et al, 2005; Connaughton et al, 2008; Crust & Clough, 2011).

As mental toughness is a relatively recent topic to be analysed through a scientific lens there are holes within the research methodology, particularly a reliance of athletes recalling experiences where years may have passed. Although universal themes have arisen in the literature, many aspects of mental toughness are sport and individual specific, which makes it difficult for coaches to develop general strategies. Undoubtedly mental toughness needs further clarity as a concept, however the burgeoning research into how it can be coached, sets foundations for coaches to build it into their training strategies.

Reference List

Bull, S. J., Shambrook, C. J., James, W., & Brooks, J. E. (2005). Towards an understanding of mental toughness in elite English cricketers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 17, 209–227.

Connaughton, D., Wadey, R., Hanton, S., & Jones, G. (2008). The development and maintenance of mental toughness: Perceptions of elite performers. Journal of Sports Sciences, 26, 83–95.

Crust, L., Clough P.J. (2011) Developing mental toughness: from research to practice. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 2:21–32.

Driska, A., Kamphoff, C., Armentrout S. (2012). Elite Swimming Coaches’ Perceptions of Mental Toughness. The Sport Psychologist, 26, 186-206.

Gucciardi, D. F., Gordon, S., & Dimmock, J. A. (2008). Towards an understanding of mental toughness in Australian football. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 20, 261–281.

Gucciardi, D. F., Gordon, S., Dimmock, J. A., & Mallett, C. J. (2009). Understanding the coach’s role in the development of mental toughness: Perspectives of elite Australian football coaches. Journal of Sports Sciences, 27, 1483–1496.

Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2002). What is this thing called mental toughness? An investigation of elite sport performers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14, 205–218.

Thelwell, R., Such, B., Weston, N., Such, J., & Greenlees, I. (2010). Developing mental toughness: Perceptions of elite female gymnasts. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 8, 170–188.

Thelwell, R., Weston, N., & Greenlees, I. (2005). Defining and understanding mental toughness within soccer. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 17, 326-332.

Weinberg, R.S. and Butt, J. (2011). Building mental toughness. In D. Gucciardi and S. Gordon (Eds). Mental Toughness in Sport: Developments in Research and Theory, 212-230. Routledge.

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One thought on “Mental Toughness and Coaching: Review

  1. Overall a very good and interesting post. Very insightful and I liked that although there is no definition yet of Mental Toughness, you were still able to clear state what it is.

    Just a few thoughts for part 2, I would have like you to go more into what is more important when coaching children, for them to be challenged and be mentally tough, or for them to enjoy the playing. A mastery climate is good yes, but it is focussed on each individual improving, rather than pushing towards unachievable goals. Children (and adults) need to enjoy their sport, which comes through a sense of achievement. This may be detrimental to mental toughness, but will keep the individual playing! So perhaps mental toughness training is more suited to higher level athletes, when they don’t have to ‘enjoy’ the sport as much as they have higher levels of commitment and desire to win (ie- when a performance climate can be afforded).

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