Mental toughness: the athlete mentality
Throughout life, each and every one of us will face hurdles. Life is never a straightforward path, it’s littered with roadblocks and setbacks that we have to take in our stride. But how we take these challenges on, how we move past them, is what defines us as a person. 2014 Commonwealth Games Silver Medallist Isobel Pooley (Animal Science, 2014), is no stranger to adversity. Isobel missed her chance to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games due to injury, but is now in training to resume competing. As Nottingham students and alumni competed on the world stage at the Commonwealth Games this month, we asked Isobel what it takes to be an athlete and how we can apply an athlete mentality to our everyday lives.
Words by Isobel Pooley
I do athletics purely because I love it. In spite of (or perhaps because of) my recent injury struggles, I now take daily pleasure from being able to train, relishing the small successes that come with taking part in my sport. In contrast, there were many times
in 2016 and 2017 when I wondered if it was simply too tough to keep going and that maybe I should quit high jump. At these moments, I came to terms with the idea of “letting the whole athletics thing go” but somehow, when I really stripped it back, I realised that my motivation for high jumping was pure and simple: I love it. That fundamental truth has propelled me through some big life changes – changing coaches, moving to Germany and setting up a sustainable life here. I realised that nobody was making me do athletics – the decision to continue was mine and mine alone. So often we are shackled by the fear of failure but it’s important to appreciate that, while disappointments and setbacks are always possible, with an open mind and plenty of determination you can perform beyond your wildest dreams!
So what does “Mental Toughness” have to do with it?
Mental toughness for me is an attitude, synonymous with “grit”. It’s what allows you to keep going in spite of challenging circumstances. This is critically important, not just in sport, but in every aspect of life and success. It’s easy to be upbeat and positive when things are going your way but it’s your response to challenges that determines if you will reach the dizzy heights of top performance. Mental toughness is often the deciding factor in high-level sports battles – the athlete or player who can “keep it together” at the crucial moment will be victorious.
Consider this: physical ability and mental intellect are clearly important in sport and in the workplace. But they’re not much good if they evaporate when the pressure is on. This situation is played out so often in high jump, when the strongest athletes mysteriously fail to bring their “A-game” to the event and flunk out at heights that should be easy-peasy for them. Mental toughness is the ability to overcome negative thoughts and embrace the opportunities for success in a situation that could be seen as difficult, threatening or stressful.
When you focus on the potential for success and positively work towards it, you actually make that possibility greater and greater.
How can we increase mental toughness?
Mental toughness is a habitual way of thinking. This means that you have to develop it consciously, practising every day and in a range of situations. Hold standards for yourself and aim to stick to them whenever you can. This doesn’t mean that we should be “tough” all the time - that’s unrealistic and unhealthy. You’re allowed to have a cry sometimes!
There are many techniques we can use to enhance mental toughness. Here are my top tips:
- Break tasks down into manageable chunks and allow yourself the feeling of satisfaction when you pass each milestone. Focus on how far you’ve come, not how far you’ve yet to go.
- Find ways to enjoy the experience as much as you can (music, friends, nice work environment etc.). Reward yourself when you’ve completed a task (e.g. take a walk around or outside the office between assignments)
- Try not to let setbacks get you down too much. We can’t always control what happens to us but we can moderate our response to it. When you get knocked down, consciously decide to get back up again and move on. Trust me, the alternative really isn’t that much fun, and life is short!
- Remind yourself that pain will pass. Every emotion we experience is fleeting – don’t hold on to the negative ones because there is happiness waiting in the pipeline for you.
- Explore and nurture your motivation. What is your “why”? Take ownership of your decision to embark upon a challenge and frame it as an opportunity for success, not failure.
- Commit to a high level of effort. To achieve what others don’t, you sometimes have to do what others won’t. You’ll have to work through some moments where a voice (in your head or externally) says you can’t achieve something. Some people think about overpowering this voice but I think about reassuring it, or rationalising it until later. Doubts are, after all, only human.
We already have all the tools we need to be mentally tough. We just need to practice using them, to give ourselves the best chance of happiness and achievement. When you focus on the potential for success and positively work towards it, you actually make that possibility greater and greater. It’s a double-win, and you’ll have fun along the way when you start to realise you’re far more capable then you think!