Mental Toughness a Coaching Paradox?

Author: Harriet Gruen

An analysis of the literature on coaching mental toughness has presented a clear conflict of the need to develop coaching environments which produce mentally tough athletes, against the issue of attrition rates in youth sport. In 2010, the Australian Government invested $1.2 billion into the development of athletes from grass roots sports participants to elite level competitors.  How we coach athletes to maintain participation in sporting activity and also provide them, from a young age, with the mental skills to aid them to success at elite level competition becomes a very worthwhile topic of investigation. With 1.7 million children in Australia between the ages of 5-17 participating in sport and a high dropout rate over the age of 13, the aim of sporting bodies is how to keep these individuals participating in sport, concurrent with developing their mental skills to build Australia’s next world class sporting representatives (Australian Sport, 2010).

Mental toughness is recognised as one of the most important psychological attributes in elite athletes (Bull et al, 2005; Gucciardi et al, 2008; Jones et al, 2002). Many psychological attributes are linked with mental toughness, although there is not complete consensus in the literature, there is agreement that it is a multi-attribute construct and athlete characteristics generally include being “highly competitive, committed, self-motivated, cope effectively and maintain concentration in pressurized situations, persist when the going gets tough, and retain high levels of self-belief even after setbacks” (Crust & Clough, 2011). There is evidence that mental toughness is partly a heritable trait (Crust & Clough, 2011; Horsburgh, 2008), which is strengthened by experiences in an individual’s formative years.

The current literature supports that a tough training environment aids the development of mentally tough athletes (Bull et al, 2005; Crust & Clough, 2011; Driska et al, 2012; Gucciardi et al, 2009). A tough training environment has been identified as where the coach is demanding, has high expectations and pushes athletes to their mental and physiological limits (Driska et al, 2012). This presents a problem for coaches. Firstly, at what age and skill level should athletes be exposed to a more challenging environment, considering that mental toughness can be developed in an athlete’s formative years (Bull Et al, 2005). Secondly, what are the impacts of challenging training environments for the athletes who are not “mentally tough.” Would this kind of environment encourage athlete drop out?

Studies into the youth dropout rates would suggest that the implementation of a tough training environment advised to build mentally tough athletes would have a detrimental effect on the youth sport participation rate (Baker, 2003; Butcher et al, 2002; Feltz & Ewing, 1987; Fraser- Thomas et al, 2008; Sarrazin et al, 2002). The examination of the attrition rates of young athletes in sport have identified several reasons for why children drop out of sport, these include exposure to a high pressure environment and lack of enjoyment  (Butcher et al, 2002, Fraser- Thomas et al, 2008). As a high pressure environment has been identified as a way to build mental toughness by elite coaches and athletes, the paradox of how to coach mental toughness at a young age while maintaining youth sport participation rates becomes clear. A second issue which could impact on the early implementation of mental toughness strategies is the evidence that athletes who specialise in sport at a pre-teen years and are exposed to “deliberate practice” where training is primarily for performance improvement rather than for enjoyment are more likely to drop out of sport than those athletes who sample many sports (Baker, 2003; Fraser- Thomas et al, 2008).

If a solution to this problem can be identified the potential benefits across the Australian sporting landscape would be sizable. It would enable athletes to have the foundations to build mental toughness from a young age while maintaining enjoyment in participating in sports. The potential stakeholders would range from government, elite sporting organisations to anti-obesity health groups. Although this is a complex problem to approach there are areas of research which could be undertaken to better understand and breakdown the problem.  For example, a specific analysis of coaching environments designed to develop mental toughness against the attrition rates of young athletes in an in situ study would be productive to investigate the problem further.


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