Mental Toughness- Development Pathways

Author: Harriet Gruen

Mental toughness is one of the most important psychological attributes in elite athletes (Bull et al, 2005; Gucciardi et al, 2008; Jones et al, 2002). However, the requirement of a tough coaching environment to foster the development of mental toughness in young athletes (Bull et al, 2005; Crust & Clough, 2011; Driska et al, 2012; Gucciardi et al, 2009) creates a paradox of how to teach mental toughness to develop future sporting champions, without impacting on dropout rates in youth sport. The implementation of mental toughness development pathways into youth sport is a strategy to combat this problem. Australian sporting performance has been on a downward trend since the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, and the return of Australia to a “world’s best” producer of athletes is a key priority for the Australian Government (Australia’s Winning Edge, 2012).

A potential strategy for the development of Australia’s next elite athletes is a split streaming of adolescent athletes between the age of 13 and 15 into a national mental toughness development program. This falls into the specialising years of  young athletes (Cote, 1999) and at this age, individuals to learn how to interpret, understand and overcome adversity and challenges in life (Gucciardi et al, 2009; Sheard & Golby, 2006). Consent from both parent and young athlete would be required to join the program. As mental toughness attributes are consistent across different sports, a universal program could be designed for young athletes from different performance backgrounds (Crust & Clough, 2011; Horsburgh, 2008). For optimum measurability and objectivity, sports which provide objective results and focus on individual performance would be beneficial to comprehensively analyse the impact of mental toughness coaching on performance. Athlete pathways and high performance coaching are central aspects to Australia’s strategy for the production of elite athletes (Australia’s Winning Edge, 2012).

This program would help researchers to understand the lasting impacts of mental toughness training and the impact of tough coaching environments on young athletes. A longitudinal study would identify if participants exhibited better performances against a randomised sample of non-participant athletes (Hopkins, 2000).  Quantitatively, a multivariate analysis of variance would allow researchers to conduct analysis across more than one dependant variable (Haase & Ellis, 1987), and understand the effectiveness of the psychological training (Biddle et al, 2001).  Qualitative data should be collected to complement quantitative data, allowing deeper analysis from the individual’s perspectives of the training program with triangulation from coaches and parents (Gucciardi et al, 2009b). To combat the issue of recall, qualitative data should be collected using the grounded theory method to be rigorous and thorough, with constant evaluation of data to theory (Gucciardi et al, 2009b; Walker & Myrick, 2006). If an athlete drops out of the mental toughness training program, qualitative data would allow comprehensive analysis of the reasons for withdrawal. Thematic analysis of data would highlight the dropout trends after exposure to a tough training environment (Butcher et al, 2002).

Measurability of the training program is paramount to understand the potential benefits of a mental toughness development pathway. Athletic performance would be measured, especially performance results in the athletes first international events to evaluate the success of the program. In addition to performance measures, pre and post program measurements of psychological development would demonstrate if the identified athletes had improved their ability to meet the objectives of mental toughness (Sheard & Golby, 2006).  Alongside this, attrition rates in both the mental toughness pathways and the control sample should be compared to understand the impact of training environments on participation rates.

As mental toughness is a relatively recent area of scientific analysis, potential research limitations include a lack of clear conceptual definition, which presents an issue of defining clear research objectives (Gucciardi et al, 2009b). This type of development pathway would be breaking new ground in mental toughness research and potentially athletes participating could be negatively affected by a tough environment (Driska et al, 2012). The timeframe of the program will impact on its success, as previous studies have found that participants may become overwhelmed by the information imparted to them in a short time period (Gucciardi et al, 2009b; Sheard & Golby, 2006). As there have been few applied studies into mental toughness development, the age of participants may need to be lowered to maximise efficiency of the program (Bull et al, 2005; Crust & Clough, 2011).

A mental toughness development program would facilitate key mental skills to promising young athletes, meeting the priorities of the Australian Government. This program would enable analysis of the coaching strategies of mental toughness. Success in sport is integral to Australian national pride, but also has ramifications across health, the economy and education which justify the development of a program to improve performances of Australian athletes  (Australia’s Winning Edge, 2012).


Reference List

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