Mental toughness

Whereas conversations of mental health were once of clandestine nature, recent decades have seen an exponential increase and acceptance into these realms of conversations. While mental health or the improving or sustaining of emotional states are seen as common, there has also been neglect of evaluating the concepts of mental toughness. 

The idea of mental toughness has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent decades, often drawing the attention of those in academia, athletic practices, and/or journalism. According to the online lecture “Mental Toughness in Sport: Scientific Evidence Needs to Match Enthusiasm” speaker Dr. Andreas Stamatis, Associate Professor of Sport & Wellness at SUNY Plattsburgh, “Mental toughness is available to be developed in environments where it is difficult to deal with conditions, psychological resources are available, and athletes are highly motivated.” 

The concept of mental toughness has deeply been rooted in athletic contexts, however, the benefits of mental toughness can extend into academia, career success, as well as general emotional management. 

According to page 705 of “Mental Toughness, Stress, and Burnout”, mentally tough people typically display four key characteristics including “[. . .] high control over their life and their emotions, show[ing] a positive approach towards challenging situations, demonstrat[ing] high commitment despite adversity, and are confident in their general abilities and interpersonal skills.” 

In recent years, there has been a shift in focusing on mental toughness from an athletic stance to that of an interdisciplinary one.  

According to a article, “Increasing attention has been directed to the relationship between [mental toughness] and performance in domains other than sport or education. The association between [mental toughness] and work performance was first documented by Marchant et al. (2009) who showed that higher levels of MT were associated with more senior managerial positions in a sample of 522 individuals working in United Kingdom-based organizations. However, due to the cross-sectional nature of the study, it was unclear whether [mental toughness] contributed to career achievement or whether holding more senior managerial positions helped develop higher levels of [mental toughness].” 

While there is still much unknown about the field of mental toughness, researchers have more recently taken interest in how mental toughness relates to an academic setting. 

According to MentalToughness.Partners’ website, “Research shows that Mental Toughness in Education has been linked to a number of key factors such as academic engagement, valuing schoolwork, coping effectively, thriving on pressure, attainment, wellbeing, classroom behavior, attendance and transition change.” 

In specific of well-being, mental toughness has been linked to better management of academic stress, and therefore decreased rates of academic burnout.  

According to the 2017 research study “Sex Role Identity, Academic Stress and Wellbeing of First-Year University Students, “[t]he consequences of such excessive amounts of stress have been widely documented. Consequences manifest in the form of fear, anxiety, guilt, and depression, and in certain severe instances suicidal ideation. In addition, there is evidence of poor eating habits leading to weight gain or weight loss, lack of exercise, sleep disturbances, that is, sleeping too little or too much and an increase in destructive behavior, such as increased smoking, drug and/or alcohol abuse.” 

In addition to the negative physical consequences, the article continues “[t]he consequences of such emotional, appetite and sleep disturbances and abuse of substances, further serve to negatively impact upon academic performance; with poor academic results acting in a vicious cycle to exacerbate stress outcomes.” 

It is important to note that in this context academic stress refers to “[. . .] the pressure of a student to achieve positively within the realm of schooling and tertiary education. Perceptions of academic stress may arise due to pressures that the individual places upon oneself or due to pressures that others may place on the individual.” 

Mental toughness is generally believed to be rooted in a strong foundation of resilience, grit and confidence. According to the English Oxford Dictionary, resilience is “the ability to recover quickly from difficulties.” This definition of resilience interrelates with the idea of grit in that resilience can provide a much-needed sustainability. According to a 2013 Ted Talk, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Lee Duckworth described grit as being “[. . .] about intense passion for a particular goal, [meaning] people can demonstrate it in one area, but not others. Those other areas might require self-control, but not grit.” 

Take for example the idea of a musician learning a piece of literature. They may want to play the piece accurately and will sacrifice time to do so, thus incurring grit. If there is a certain section of the literature that proves problematic for the musician over and over again, the continual push to keep practicing and refining that section would be the concept of resilience. Through the combination of grit and resilience, the musician would have the greatest chance of success in playing the piece, contributing to greater confidence in their ability to play it. 

While grit and resilience are traits many would wish for in theory, there is some debate in the academic community regarding the balance between the biological predisposition versus the potential for the development of mentally tough traits. 

According to a article where mental toughness was investigated within the Paralympic community, “[. . .] findings suggest that Paralympians benefited from exposure to highly demanding situations in a supportive environment and this helped develop mentally-tough characteristics and behaviors and individualized cognitive coping strategies. Our findings highlight the association between the adaptive development of personal characteristics by overcoming physical and mental setbacks over a sustained time period. Overall, the findings suggest that to develop mentally tough characteristics and behaviors, athletes, in general, could benefit from exposure to highly demanding situations in a supportive environment.” 

In other words, when an environment is more supportive, it decreases stress and demand and can contribute to increased mental toughness. In an academic context this could include scheduling times with friends to relax, enacting positive reinforcement after an academic success (like going for a walk after a study session or getting ice cream to celebrate a good exam score), or even talking to a trusted friend or adult regarding perceived academic demands and how to develop a more mentally-tough mindset. 

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