But what exactly is it? How do we recognise people who are tough and how can we develop mental toughness in our teams?
I believe that the first stage is to understand what genuine mental toughness is, and is not.
- What does it look like?
- What does it sound like?
In my work as a sport psychologist, it is something that has always fascinated me. I’ve seen many athletes and teams who have crumbled when they’ve hit tough challenges, or when they’re criticised. I have seen some teams that have imploded at crucial times during a game, or during a season. Some panic if they go behind. They seem to throw their game plan out of the window when they’re questioned. Others just seem unable to execute skills that they could ordinarily produce with their eyes shut.
When I look at tough athletes, I don’t tend to see fists banging. The genuinely tough athletes don’t tend to be physically or verbally intimidating. Perhaps they don’t feel the need to be. Instead, the people who show true mental toughness tend to have three distinct qualities.
1. Resilience - Commonly seen as ‘bounce-back-ability’ and the ability to thrive in adverse situations.
2. Tenacity - The ability to keep going and push to the very limit.
3. Composure - The ability to make really good decisions and execute skills to a very high standard, whilst ‘under pressure’.
As you’ll appreciate, these qualities are not only required in sport. Success in any walk of life normally requires a degree of toughness. Whilst researching my latest book, How To Shine, I spoke to world-class performers from a diverse range of disciplines. I was fascinated to hear a twice Michelin starred chef and a US Navy SEAL explaining how they develop mental toughness in their teams. Although there is a huge difference in the demands of a kitchen and a war zone (unless you’re in Gordon Ramsey’s kitchen perhaps), their descriptions were almost identical, word-for-word.
These are challenging times. We are presented with tough tests on a daily basis. Uncertainty is a given. Adversity is a given. Knowing this, we have a simple question…
"How will we respond?"
As a sport psychologist, I am interested to see how athletes respond when they hit challenges. These are the times when I see how tough an athlete really is.
How can we see toughness in action? Look at how people respond when they encounter challenges.
How do they respond to criticism or when they make mistakes? What about a poor run of form or results? Will they come back stronger, or will they wither? Will they hide? Will we hear excuses and blame or see people taking responsibility? Do people choose the easy option or the best option? Do they prefer to push themselves or stick to their comfort zone? How do they respond in ‘pressurised’ situations? Would they resemble rabbits in the headlights, or would they be able to produce a peak performance?
The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about mental toughness in your people. Often the toughest people are not the ones who shout loudest, make the most noise or appear the most intimidating. Sometimes fear can be dressed up as toughness. Bravado tends to be a façade; ‘fake toughness’. I suspect that it is a sign of weakness rather than strength.
Like any skill, mental toughness can be developed and learned. It is not simply an attribute that is inherent in people. Therefore, business leaders and managers can actually help to foster mental strength and toughness in their people, and also develop it in themselves. Once we understand what genuine mental toughness looks like, we have a great starting point!
If you’re interested in learning about how to develop mental toughness, listen to world-record breaking ultra-marathon runner, Andy McMenemy speaking ‘On Mental Toughness’ at the Be World Class Conference 2012.
KEEP IT FREE: Be World Class Conference 2012 - Leeds - Thursday 25th October 2012 bit.ly/OXITHP
— Exclusive (@ExclusiveLtd) August 17, 2012
Simon Hartley is the author of Peak Performance Every Time, published by Routledge and How To Shine, published by Capstone