Reflections on Mental Toughness

Musings and reflections on two modern models of Mental Toughness.

What is mental toughness?

Intuitively we know the great champions are mentally tough (Magnus is much more likely to win after a loss as Nate calculated) and players that faced adversity and collapsed aren’t. 

Mentally tough people achieve their challenging goals consistently when confronted with stressors. 

What are stressors?

Stressors are easily thought of as adverse events like a series of defeats. This definition has to be broadened because ‘positive’ events like an unexpected large lead in a tournament can be disruptive for a player. Typical stressor: one or multiple unexpected losses, loss of luggage, laptop broken … Mind that it’s not just the winner that is mentally tough. Someone can have a very poor tournament but has been dealing with stressors efficiently.

The Goal-Expectancy-Self (GES) Control model 

Christiana Bedford-Thom developed the GES model as a way to understand Mental Toughness. The tenets are :

  • Goals Setting: goals have to be fairly challenging to drive Mental Toughness, when we fixed ourselves too soft goals we will have a different level of follow through. Remember to set goals that are in your control (results aren’t in your control).
  • Self-efficacy, I.e. the specific belief of what you can achieve in a specific situation. 
  • Self Control: the ability to replace and modify our responses – thoughts, feelings and emotions. 

These three tenets allow us to out I place psychological mechanisms to direct Attention, Effort, Perseverance, and specific Strategies. She has tested the model on both runners and cyclists and the research is quite promising. 

Chess example of resilience in this model: a player in a tournament who wants to play their best chess every round (challenging goal) with a strong belief in their preparation and chess shape (self-efficacy) and proper tournament discipline (Self Control) will be able to deal with losses with resilience, continuing their game plan, knowing that there are bumps on the road. They won’t hit the bar in self-pity and keep fighting till the last round. 

The Systematic Self-Reflection (SSR) Model

The SSR model of Crane et al explains how we can achieve resilient outcomes when faced with stressors.

Self Reflexion is the critical piece – being acutely aware of our stress response to that we can consciously design our responses to the situation. With the following steps:

  1. Awareness of the response
  2. Identification of the stressor
  3. Reconsider the initial response to the stressor and set the most adapted response
  4. Objectively evaluate the response
  5. Consider how to respond to the same stressor in the future

Chess example of resilience in this model: a player will be able to acutely gauge his thoughts and emotions after a loss (with high self-reflection). They will call their loved ones, and maybe exercise or meditate (listening to one of my guided meditations!). The current tournament situation can be objectively assessed and they will re-centre themselves for the following games.

There is no such thing as the ideal model of how the mind works but models provide key maps of understanding allowing us to design interventions to modify our behaviours. 

Have a Growth Mindset toward your mental skills

Mental toughness is a process we put into place, not an innate characteristic. It would be incorrect and limiting to think “that player is mentally tough and I’m not” – that’s fixed mindset thinking. Approach the mental game with a growth mindset: there are tools and techniques that will help you improve resilience and mental toughness. 

What can we do to be more mentally tough

  • Have a growth mindset toward your mental toughness skills. If you’ve struggled with resilience in the past, you can improve. 
  • Setting ambitious goals and striving to achieve them helps.
  • Create a portfolio of tools and behaviour of what to do when things go wrong (breathwork, exercise etc).
  • Use visualisation to identify scenarios beforehand. Most visualisation should be on positive outcomes, but up to 25% of all visualization work can be on negative situations to overcome.
  • Become acutely aware of your thoughts, feelings and emotions. Mediation is the key tool for that, by developing the skill of being aware of our thoughts and feeling. Check out my article on the how and why of meditation on lichess.

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