The body of research conducted in the field of mental toughness has significantly grown the last two decades. Here are some of the key findings:
- It is now recognized that physical talent is not the only component which leads to success (Gucciardi, Gordon & Dimmock, 2008).
- In the scientific and sport community, mental toughness is viewed as one of the most important attributes that will lead to a successful athletic performance (Bull, Shambrook, James, & Brooks, 2005).
- At the highest level it is often the mental game which separates the elite performers from the good performers (Gould, Jackson, & Finch, 1993).
Psychological attributes of mental toughness
Fourie and Potgieter (2001) were the first to identify psychological attributes of mental toughness in sports. The researchers conducted a study which looked at written responses from 160 elite athletes and 131 expert coaches from 31 individual and team sports (Gucciardi, Gordon & Dimmock, 2009.) The data from these written responses showed there are 12 core components of mental toughness identified by the participants, including:
- Team unity,
- Preparation skills
- Motivation level
- Coping skills
- Confidence maintenance
- Cognitive skill
- Goal directedness,
- Possession of physical and mental requirements,
- Psychological hardiness,
- Ethics and religious convictions
Attributes needed to become a mentally tough performer
Jones, Hanton et al., (2002) set out to expand on the understanding of mental toughness by focusing on what essential attributes are needed to become a mentally tough performer. The researchers recruited ten international performers who took part in interviews, focus groups and a rank order task. To extend on their earlier research, Jones, Hanton and Connaughton (2007) conducted a study where eight Olympic champions were interviewed along with three of their coaches and four of their sport psychologists.
The main aim of this study was to develop a framework of mental toughness that would help to identify key attributes that are used in a number of different sports. This study is seen as one of the most in depth investigations to date (Jones, Hanton et al., 2007).
Researchers found 30 key attributes which differed from the 12 attributes which were identified by the international performers in their last study. These attributes were put into sub categories within four central main dimensions. The first dimension was related to attitudes possessed by a mentally tough athlete. The other three related to characteristics which were relevant for three major aspects of an athletes performance: training, competition and post competition (Jones et al., 2007). This is one the most in-depth descriptions of what types of mental toughness may be needed in specific contexts (Gucciardi et al., 2009).
Mental toughness in cricket players
There have been two recent studies which have focused specifically on cricketers (Bull, Shambrook, James et al., 2005) and soccer players (Thelwell et al., 2005) views of mental toughness. Both these studies have focused on mental toughness with a specific sport context. They are recognized as key contributions to the understanding of mental toughness. Bull, Shambrook et al., (2005) interviewed 12 male English cricket players who were recognized as having high mental toughness. Analysis of the interviews showed four core themes:
- Environmental factors : The foundation of the development for mental toughness. Within this theme it incorporated aspects such as parental influences, childhood background and exposure to foreign cricket.
- Tough character: This includes resilient confidence as well as competitiveness.
- Tough attitudes: This included willingness to take risks; a “never giving up” attitude and determination to make the most of challenges.
- Tough thinking: This included being able to think clearly and having high self confidence (Bull et al., 2005).
Mental toughness in soccer players
Thelwell et al., (2005) examined mental toughness within the soccer population where he was trying to expand on the finding of Jones et al., (2002) study. The study comprised of interviewing six male soccer players and comparing their soccer definition of mental toughness to the definition which was proposed by Jones et al., (2002). From the results it was found that there was a high amount of overlap between the two definitions, however the soccer sample saw mental toughness as always being able to cope better than their opponents as opposed to just generally coping better. In the study conducted by Thelwell et al., (2005) it was found that the majority of participants were not uniform in their understanding of what mental toughness actually was. From the results it was found that the soccer players characterized mental toughness as being able to react positively to situations and being able to remain calm under pressure (Crust, 2007). However, from the six participants it was actually found that only half of them enjoyed being under pressure while performing.
Gucciardi, Gordon et al., (2008) provided researchers with a theoretical advancement into the area of mental toughness by interviewing 11 elite Australian football coaches which was developed from a personal construct psychology framework.
The researchers found three components that are key to the development of mental toughness: Characteristics, behaviors and situations.
The characteristics represented 11 bipolar constructs such as: tough attitude vs. weak attitude, concentration versus distraction and resilience versus fragile minded.
The situations related to the different events that the athlete experienced which helped develop mental toughness (e.g. injury, fatigue).
Behaviors related to what the athletes would do in situations that required mental toughness. This research was unique to the area of mental toughness as it looked at how you develop mental toughness (processes) and what outcomes come out from it.