Mental Toughness

by Doug Strycharczyk

What is Mental Toughness?

Mental Toughness can be defined in several slightly different ways, but the definition used here is given below.

Mental Toughness describes the capacity of an individual to deal effectively with stressors, pressures and challenges, and perform to the best of their ability, irrespective of the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Dr Peter Clough, 2002

Mental Toughness is that part of us which determines to a large extent how we deal with stressors, pressure and challenge – irrespective of prevailing circumstances

The key elements are:

to a large extent – it is know known to be a large part of the answer to a lot of questions. It is not the whole of the answer for everyone. Nevertheless studies show that an individuals mental toughness can account for up to 25% of the variation in performance.

Irrespective of prevailing circumstances – mentally tough individuals generally accepts responsibility for their own performance. They show a real “can do” attitude. They do not seek to blame others for their shortcomings – “I would have done it if only my parents/teacher/co-workers would have helped me …”

A demand for peak performance is simply a form of challenge. The better our Mental Toughness, the more likely we are to handle the challenge rather than give way. So our level of Mental Toughness also exerts a major influence over the extent to which we are able to perform to the best of our abilities.

Mental Toughness can be described as providing the link between peak performance and stress management, because you can’t operate to the best of your abilities unless you deal effectively with stressors and challenge.

Note

An individual’s Mental Toughness can vary over quite short periods of time as they have different experiences. Major setbacks, such as bereavement, loss of job, sustained exposure to stressors and so on, can influence Mental Toughness significantly over the short term.

Components of Mental Toughness

Research carried out the Psychology Department at the University of Hull, under the direction of Dr Peter Clough, C Psych, with whom the writer has had the privilege of working, has identified four components to Mental Toughness – control, challenge, commitment and confidence. In 2003, Dr Clough developed the world’s first psychometric measure of Mental Toughness – MTQ48. In 2005, he confirmed that it is possible for individuals to develop Mental Toughness where needed and to improve individual and group performance.

We now have the ability to

  • Describe what Mental Toughness is and how it affects performance, wellbeing and behaviour
  • Measure an individual’s Mental Toughness and make predictions from that
  • Develop Mental Toughness, where needed.

Resilience or hardiness versus Mental Toughness

Mental Toughness is a wider concept than resilience.

Resilience or hardiness is usually described in terms of control, commitment and challenge, comprising three of the four components mentioned above. The concept of Mental Toughness adds confidence to the mix as well. Research shows that, although an independent scale, the level of confidence can have a significant impact on resilience and it is therefore worth considering both together.

Gender difference

Within a particular population, there is little difference in overall Mental Toughness reflected in male and female responses to the questionnaires. On one of the scales – the confidence scale – males tend to score slightly higher on the subcomponent known as confidence in abilities, while females score slightly higher on the other subcomponent, which is interpersonal confidence. But the differences are not statistically significant.

Toughness in our times

It is certainly true that there are stressors around today, at the beginning of the 21st century, which didn’t exist in times gone by. The mobile phone, for instance, means that many can’t truly ‘get away form it all’ when they need to. People are also encouraged to speak about being stressed more openly than ever before.

However, if stress is the big killer, then our growing life expectancy suggests that life is becoming less stressful, even though it seems that we generally consider ourselves to be more stressed than ever before.

In reality, it is very unlikely that the average person is living in a more stressful world than people did in our grandparents’ time, only 50 years ago, when many worked very long hours for low pay, lived in poor housing and generally had a poorer diet and range of eating options.

Go back a 100 years and life was tougher still.

What is more likely to be the case is that, in the past, people simply got on with it and were, in general, mentally more tough. What is likely to have happened is that, overall, we have reduced our levels of Mental Toughness and we tend to allow ourselves to feel more stressed than people would have done in the past.

Dealing with Mental Toughness is an important aspect of restoring our ability to deal with stressors and perform effectively in most circumstances.

Is more better?

Where there is a lot of pressure or challenge, then a high level of Mental Toughness may be desirable. However, many people operate in less stressful circumstances than these and a high degree of Mental Toughness may not always be required.

In fact, people who have very high levels of Mental Toughness can also be mentally insensitive, which may in part explain their Mental Toughness. However, this can give rise to specific personal development needs, particularly when such people have to work directly with others.

Like most individual strengths, when taken to excess or wielded unwisely, Mental Toughness can also emerge as a weakness. Someone who has developed a high level of Mental Toughness may have done so at the expense of other skills that can contribute to good business performance. An example could be a person who has a low sensitivity and empathy with other people. This may assist them to be mentally tough, but will hinder their ability to handle interpersonal relationships well.

Seniority

A major study (2007) has shown that there is a strong positive relationship between Mental Toughness and seniority. The more senior you are, the higher your Mental Toughness score is likely to be.

Typically, the more senior you are as a manager, the greater the complexities with which you need to deal, the greater the pressure to perform (particularly through others) and the greater the possibility of setbacks and problems.

Mental Toughness can help in all of these areas, so the more mentally tough will be more likely to succeed and be promoted.

Key point

The challenge for leaders is to exhibit a high degree of Mental Toughness without losing personal contact with the people they are leading.

It can be argued that this is where Mental Toughness and areas like interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, and so on, come together.