Mental resilience

Developing mental toughness for your event is essential for success, as Steve Mann explains

Posted on January 28, 2014 by
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London Marathon 2012 Gelana Straneo

Mental resilience is one of the main goals of athletes and coaches alike. So what is mental resilience and how do athletes develop this?

Well, one suit certainly doesn’t fit all. What may be mental resilience in a marathon for example, would be totally different in the long jump. So how do we identify what it means for us?

Every athlete needs to be aware of what kind of stresses their particular discipline presents. For example, a marathon runner needs the resilience to power through physical pain and exhaustion, requiring them to use concentration skills and self-talk in relation to these issues.

The athlete needs to develop a long-term level of mental resilience to get through a season and to stave off burn-out

However, long jumpers need to have the resilience to cope with the pressure of the crowd and narrow their focus to their specific phases on and down the runway for a great performance. This may require more imagery to be used in line with concentration skills to overcome any issues.

These issues, though, are in regards to mental resilience in a performance. The athlete needs to develop a long-term level of mental resilience to get through a season and to stave off burn-out. This requires an open and balanced perspective from the athlete to understand the stresses in their sport and to overcome them.

Take five minutes to list the stressors that can affect you in your discipline when competing or over time in training. This is when we use specific psychological skills to help build resilience towards these stressors, helping us to become mentally tougher athletes.

So how do we develop resilience for the long-term and not just in competition?

Dr Graham Jones came up with a ground-breaking theory on mental toughness that surrounded four main pillars (described below). These four pillars help us to understand how the human mind can remain balanced and overcome mental challenges, no matter what the pressure.

1. Perspective on stress

It is all about becoming exhilarated and energised by stress and not drained by it. You first need to be aware of stress – and then you need to appraise stress differently.

Think of stress on a muscle such as a bench press. This is stress, but as athletes we know this is a good stress because it helps our body learn about the stress and become stronger as a result. In the same way, the mind needs to see stress as something to learn from and become energised to overcome.

2. Self-belief

This is about accepting, respecting and trusting yourself to get through the stressor. This is done through experience, using successes from such aspects as goal-setting or using self-talk to power through.

3. Motivation

You need to be motivated towards mastering skills and enhancing your performance rather than glory or material rewards. These negative motives breed negative motivation and over time negative performance.

4. Focus

What an athlete focuses their mind on will heavily affect mental resilience. The best way to deal with focus is to concentrate on the aspects of performance, training and competition that we can control and ignore the aspects that we cannot.

Combining these four pillars helps develop mental resilience, but these processes need to be tailored to the discipline and the athlete. You’ll need to make sure you have someone who knows what they’re doing with regards to this if you want to blast through to full potential.

» Steven Roy Mann, BSc (Hons), MSc, PGCert, MBPsS, is a performance psychologist and a martial arts coach

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