Mental Toughness

by Doug Strycharczyk

Developing Mental Toughness

One of the questions raised by research into Mental Toughness is this: can it be developed?

It is clear that Mental Toughness is linked to performance in situations of high stress or high challenge.

But what of existing staff or team members?

Mental Toughness is a trait which studies show can change as a result of interventions. There is now plenty of evidence, through research and application in real world situations, which shows that Mental Toughness can be enhanced, with a resulting improvement in well-being, performance and reduced stress.

Recent research in Canada (University of Western Ontario) and Italy (Universities of Parma and Modena & Reggio) have, with the use of MRI scan technology and genetic studies, shown that elements of Mental Toughness are hereditary and that the components of Mental Toughness can be located in the brain (correlated with grey matter density in specific parts).

This means that individuals may be born with different levels of Mental Toughness but in many cases it can still be developed for the benefit of the individual.

There is significant evidence that an individual’s Mental Toughness scan be developed through coaching and well as through well established learning and development actions. A widely stated observation is that coaches, counsellors and trainers often comment that the Mental Toughness model provides a framework through which they existing knowledge and skills can be applied more effectively.

One way this can be done is by physiological toughening – that is by experiencing environmental stressors, such as cold or physiologically demanding activities. Outward Bound courses can play a significant role here, since challenging an individual with a physical demand can lead to enhanced confidence and Mental Toughness. Indeed, in its earliest forms, outdoor training was often described as ‘character building’, which is possibly an early description of Mental Toughness.

However, studies also show that careless use of confidence building programmes such as outdoor based training can in fact be destructive if they focus only on confidence building and not the other components of Mental Toughness.

It is also possible and perhaps, in the writer’s experience, preferable, to build Mental Toughness by using more psychological interventions. These make extensive use of sport psychology techniques, a pathway suggested by the pioneering work of the American sports psychologist, Jim Loehr. The techniques used include visualisation, positive thinking, goal setting and attentional (focus) control.

These techniques have long been used in sports psychology – and they definitely work! They need adapting for use in occupational, educational and health psychology, but this can easily be done.

Careless transfer of sports psychology approaches, on the other hand, can be very ineffective and sometimes counter-productive. An important discovery in the research on Mental Toughness is that gently-stretching challenge and pressure will develop an individual’s Mental Toughness (which is why Outward Bound type training can work if competently delivered). However, exposing people to big challenges or sustained pressure can actually reduce Mental Toughness. People can be worn down or their confidence knocked significantly. In such circumstances, people will need extra support and explanation to ensure there is little negative effect from the experience. ‘What doesn’t kill you, does you good’ isn’t generally true.

You can develop Mental Toughness by Dealing or coping with the stressors inherent in your life, or you can directly Develop the MT components of control, challenge, commitment and confidence.