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Posted 06/12/2022 in Category 1

Can we develop mental toughness using mental skills?

Can we develop mental toughness using mental skills?

Many athletes and coaches believe that if they work on the right mental skills they will become mentally tough. Mental skills are any skills in which we use our mind to help us navigate our way in the world. Working out the route to a town you have not visited before might require working out the directions using your satellite navigation system. We need to find the co-ordinates and the satellite navigation does the rest. But what if we could not read so well or use the satellite navigation system correctly, we might end up many miles away from where we intended? Even the best athletes can get the satellite navigation system incorrect like the snooker player, Neil Robertson, who drove to the wrong ‘Barnsley’ for a snooker tournament. So for us as athletes, we need to begin with an end in mind and work out how we plan to get there. In short, mental skills like goal setting and self-talk can help us along the road to the components of mental toughness. We shall refer to four components all beginning with the letter ‘C’: Control, Challenge, Commitment, Confidence. So let’s figure out how we can use four basic psychological skills to help us develop mental toughness.

These four basic psychological skills are goal setting, self-talk, relaxation, and mental imagery. Let’s see how we can use our basic psychological skills to build control, challenge, commitment and confidence. We could use our self-talk to encourage ourselves to maintain control when we have lots of tasks on the go at once. We could use our relaxation skills to breathe deeply when we are under pressure to decide about another play in American football. We could use our mental imagery skills to plan our next shot with the tournament on the line at the 18th hole tee box. The trick here is to realise that most of sport has ample opportunity for us as athletes to show control, challenge, commitment and confidence. We can develop our mental skills: goal setting, self-talk, relaxation and mental imagery to meet these needs each day. On one occasion, we might need to set a goal to run the 6-mile challenge set for us by our coach. We might need to break down the six miles in smaller chunks and work on our pacing. We might need to focus on our breathing to match our pacing so we can complete the challenge. We might feel that the 6-mile challenge is beyond us after a recent training session. We might feel that we cannot get to the finish line because the route is through challenging terrain and we have to imagine what it will look like and navigate our way through it. 

If we remember the four Cs of control, challenge, commitment and confidence, we can see everything we do in these terms. You can ask yourself where is the C in 10km training run on the track?

  • Control - I maintain my focus on my pacing. I keep checking in with myself to keep my pace where I know it can be for the race.
  • Challenge - Can I stay on the shoulder of the strongest runner in the race? Can I keep to the pace like I have done before? Can I use my positive self-talk to keep me at her shoulder?
  • Commitment - Can I hit my kilometre time markers I set out in training? Can I keep encouraging my body and mind to remain on task? Can I remember to breathe like I have practised? 
  • Confidence - Can I maintain my belief in my ability to run at the pace I know I can achieve? Can I run with poise and confidence from all my training? Can I imagine myself meeting the challenges in my mind long before I meet them on the track?


Crust, L. & P. J. Clough (2011) Developing mental toughness: From research to practice, Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 2:1, 21-32, DOI: 10.1080/21520704.2011.563436

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

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