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Sport and the four C's of mental toughness

So far, I have spoken of the relationship between sport and mental toughness in general. For the remainder of this chapter, I will explain why sport can be an effective influencer of mental toughness by considering the individual elements of the four C's model; challenge, commitment, control, and confidence.


Earlier in this chapter, I asked you to consider a logical view of sport. In doing so, I said that sport requires goal-oriented actions; in effect, a series of challenges. So if the extent to which we approach challenge is an important element of mental toughness, surely one of the most effective ways to enhance this aspect of it is to expose young people to challenges on a consistent basis. More than simply exposure though, it is the lessons learnt from successes and failures that requires attention. Developing mental toughness doesn't happen by accident! It is through reflection and evaluation that young people can use their experiences in sport to develop mental toughness. This is achieved through feedback. Crust and Keegan (2010) published an interesting study using sixty-nine male and thirty-six female sports competitors from a range of club to national level in a wide variety of sports, which associated mental toughness with physical risk taking. Taking educated risks in sport is seen as desirable because more risky ventures often yield greater rewards. Of the mental toughness sub scales, challenge had
the strongest relationship with physical risk taking. It is worth noting though, that there was also a significant relationship between risk taking and confidence. By combining challenge and confidence, performers are able to experience the desirable psychological state of flow.

Flow is a state often described by elite athletes when referring to extremely proficient performances. It comes from positive psychology, where Csikszentmihalyi (1990) originally defined flow by nine key characteristics:

• balance between challenges and skills

• merging of action and awareness

• clear goals

• unambiguous feedback

• total concentration on the task at hand

• sense of control

• loss of self-consciousness

• transcendence of time

• autotelic experience.

Central to maximising opportunities for flow is a situation where both challenge and perceived skills, or confidence, are high. Csikszentmihalyi posited that athletes who perceive low challenge and skills will demonstrate apathy, those with high challenge but low skills will present anxiety, and those with high skills but low challenge will become bored. If we consider flow to occur when perceived challenge and skills are high, there is clearly synergy between the concepts of mental toughness and flow. This was recently examined by Crust and Swann (2013), who found that forty-five per cent of total variance in flow was predicted by mental toughness, largely coming from confidence, commitment, and challenge.


Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) is an approach used by many sports organisations and governing bodies to foster a talent pathway from the playground to the podium. At the very core of this approach is deliberate practice. There is a notion in sport and other recreational activities, such as music, that it takes around 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to reach an elite level. While I am quick to point out that this
has not been robustly statistically examined, the sentiment correctly identifies that long, deliberate effort, not luck or sheer talent brings about success. The amount of practice required typically equates to around ten years of training. Why is this important? Because it demonstrates that much of the difference between elite and recreational performers can be explained by training and therefore, commitment.

Many people plan to train regularly, such as going to the gym, jogging, learning to play a new instrument etc., but few adhere to their own prescribed regime. At the very core of training, we are discussing commitment. Commitment explains the extent that we go to to keep promises to others or ourselves. If we say that we are going to do something, a committed person will do more to keep that promise than a less-committed person. So how does sport help commitment?

First, sport is very goal-oriented. Whether it is an upcoming match, a big competition, or a season, success in sport is highly measurable and individuals develop fairly precise expectations. With expectations comes pressure from both internal and external sources. We are now in a situation where commitment is required to succeed. Assuming that success is a preferable option to failure, we are therefore much more likely to demonstrate commitment to our goals. This is of course, also closely linked with confidence in this example, as we would need to believe that we are capable of reaching those goals as long as we remain committed to them.

The other aspect of sport to consider is teams. When participating in team sport, we are entering an unspoken agreement with teammates that we are committed to the cause, that we will work for each other and not let each other down. By fostering such an atmosphere, team sport becomes an excellent environment to develop commitment.

Some aspects of training can become highly monotonous and even boring. Imagine training for an endurance run, such as a marathon. This requires commitment to training, and managing the pain barrier. This can often include dealing with injury. Levy, Polman, Clough, Marchant, and Earle (2006) examined the mental toughness of seventy sports injury rehabilitation programme patients and found that those with higher levels of mental toughness perceived their injury to be less threatening (severe), believed they were less susceptible to further injury, and were able to cope better with pain during their rehabilitation.

Clearly, sport requires commitment to be successful; it would not be possible to put in the required hours without such commitment. This
does not have to be restricted to a sporting environment though, and the commitment developed through sport could be applied in many business, health and educational settings.

Maximising performance requires adherence to development programmes. Indeed, one only need glance at a couple of person specifications to see the term “commitment to CPD” in the essential criteria. Such a valued attribute is also evident in the sports arena. As well as physical or technical training, more sports performers now undergo psychological skills training. This includes strategies such as self-talk, emotional control, and relaxation. This relationship was investigated by Crust and Azadi (2010), who found that mentally tough performers were more likely to adopt and adhere to such performance strategies. In their analysis, they found that commitment in particular was a significant predictor of seeking to enhance psychological performance.

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