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Can mental toughness be developed in young people?

Doug Strycharczyk

Given that the succeeding chapters are about approaches to develop mental toughness in young people, the answer to the chapters opening question has to be “yes” and “perhaps”.

There are three important issues to be addressed in this chapter.

First, do we really change someone's mental toughness if we do something with them or do they simply learn to adopt the behaviours and actions of more mentally tough people and find it works for them too? Second, which tools and techniques work … and why do they work? Finally, how can we make sustained change?

But before that there is one more consideration to examine. We are often accused of subliminally suggesting that everyone should be mentally tough. That is far from the case. The mentally sensitive can be very effective, they can lead fulfilling lives and they can be capable of achieving great things too. Learning more about this will be a focus for research and development in the future. More casually, in our work we have found that where mentally sensitive types are successful they are also very self-aware. They know they are mentally sensitive and they work around that.

One person with whom Doug has worked with has been assessed as scoring sten 3 on the interpersonal confidence scale. The person is also a senior manager for a very successful large organisation. She agrees that the score, which places her in the lowest sixteen per cent of the population, is an accurate reflection of her mindset. She doesn't enjoy presentations and meetings. Both figure prominently in her life. She has learned to master doing presentations with coaching support and by progressively building this confidence starting with short presentations to same audiences to the point where she now addresses hundreds for one and a half hours. So gently pushing herself (and allowing herself to be gently pushed by people she trusts) seemed to have worked.

Her approach on managing meetings is also interesting. In her role she has to call many meetings—it's a valuable way of managing many issues. She will call the meeting, set the agenda, ensure that the correct people are invited but she won't chair it—she delegates that role to another. She uses her self-awareness to remain effective. In Covey's word she uses the “strengths of others”.

Despite this, the evidence shows that statistically the mentally tough seem to get a better deal in life in many important respects. They get jobs and they get better jobs, they are better paid, they enjoy better health and wellbeing and so on. Statistically this means that most of the mentally tough enjoy the above mentioned benefits but not all the mentally tough do. Similarly much fewer of the mentally sensitive enjoy these benefits but some do.

So there is an argument for developing mental toughness in many if not most people.

It is also important to remember that mental toughness is a (narrow) personality trait and that it is only one of the characteristics that make up our persona—there are other personality traits and abilities and skills which come into play to make a person. These interact with mental toughness and its components and will either exaggerate strengths and weakness or mitigate any downsides that might arise.

However individual mental toughness is often significant. So it matters.

Back now to the first issue. When working with mental toughness development do we actually change the mindset of the individual or are we equipping them with the tools and techniques that mimic the effective behaviour of the mentally tough? And does it matter?

The answer is that we probably achieve both. If we equip someone to deal better with the challenges of life, does it matter which we actually achieve? We are making a difference whichever way we go. Nevertheless there is small and growing body of circumstantial evidence to show that we can indeed change the mindset of people (young people). There is also research to suggest that mental toughness does change through experiential learning.

We know for instance that studies looking at mental toughness levels at differing ages show that mental toughness steadily develops as one grows older. As one experiences more of life it does seems that people learn from those experiences. A specific small scale study shows that when exposed to situations which create anxiety for mentally tough adolescents not only do they deal with these stressors better than their mentally sensitive colleagues but they also develop their mental toughness further which the mentally sensitive do not do. This provides a degree of evidence that experiential learning is important for developing resilience and mental toughness.

It doesn't appear that young people can be taught to be mentally tough. They appear to need to be taught “how to learn” to be mentally tough.

Nevertheless there is also some evidence to show that you can show young people how to cope with stressors and pressures without necessarily changing their essential nature. They can be taught to adopt tools, techniques, and strategies which enable them to manage challenges, change, and adversity.

For many, learning about these tools and techniques might turn out to be a stage in the process of becoming fundamentally more mentally tough. It's one of the ways we develop our personality—we adopt a behaviour or a set of actions and find these work. So they become habitual and, hey presto!, they are now part of our make-up.

So … what do we know about what works.

The vast majority of interventions that seem to work are experiential in nature. People, and young people in particular, will learn to be more resilient, confident, and risk taking if they try things, find they work and are encourage to repeat them until they find they work repeatedly. This means that there have to be some consistent key ingredients in most mental toughness development activity. These are:

Experiential learning works best. Encourage young people to try activities which need mental toughness or some component of mental toughness if the activity is to produce a satisfactory outcome for them. The mentally tough—the top twenty-five per cent
of the population—do this anyway. They are naturally inclined to experiment and to try things.

• Reflection. Experiential learning only works if you reflect on the outcome every time you do something. It the activity works, reflection helps to understand why it works and encourages you to do more. If the activity hasn't worked, reflection helps to understand why it might not have worked and what might be needed to try again. If that doesn't happen it's too easy to slip into “I've tried that before and it didn't work”.

Many young people will be good at reflection. Many won't be. This is one of the reasons why support activity such as coaching, counselling, and mentoring can be extremely valuable in developing mental toughness. For many this type of guided reflection is essential.

Parents, guardians and teaching staff can also be an important source of this support too. The only problem is that few parents are taught how to do this and not too many teachers are equipped with these skills either.

• Measurement or evidencing progress. One of the challenges in persuading young people into trying a new intervention is that they need to believe that it will work or that it does work. A competent, trusted, and enthusiastic coach, teacher, or counsellor may be able to engage a young person sufficiently for that young person to agree to try something new. That's a good start.

However behaviour change happens incrementally and the increments can be tiny. For the individual these can be imperceptible. If the young person doesn't see, think, feel, know that something is changing and for the better then they will not believe in the intervention and will stop applying them.

Creating awareness in young people that these interventions work for them is an important part of the reflection process. It is important therefore to introduce some form of measurement or assessment of progress into the application of a new tool or technique and to build it into the reflective process.

This will be easier for some types of interventions. The number grid exercise described in the attentional control chapter does that perfectly. It is straightforward to show a young person that their scores are improving and that this reflects their increased ability to concentrate. It will be harder for positive thinking exercises where there is no clear output which can be used as a score. But it is possible to introduce simple mood measures which over time will show an individual that they are developing in a useful way.

• Purposeful Practice. Change in behaviour or mindset only happens when the new behaviour becomes a habit. This requires repeated application. In the world of sport this is known as purposeful practice. Championed by Matthew Syed in his book Bounce: the Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, he ascribes much of his own development as a world champion table tennis player to purposeful practice. His coaches could introduce new techniques, stances etc. to him but they only worked if he applied many hundreds of hours of purposeful practice to embed them into his overall technique.

That's true for almost everything. We don't all need to be world champions although we should all want to be the best that we can be. Some commitment to practise a new technique until it becomes a habit is required. Some hours, maybe not hundreds of hours.

The world of sport is littered with good examples and, usefully, young persons are often moved by those examples. It's now part of football folklore how Eric Cantona moved to Manchester United and helped to transform the club. He astonished all his colleagues by staying behind after training every day to practice more—and he was already the most skilful player.

The issue of purposeful practice does pose a challenge for those involved in developing young people. It can often require frequent attention from a parent, teacher, or coach which is not easy to do in many cases. We are experimenting with the use of technology. Most young people appear to possess mobile phones. These are now much more than phones—they are mini computers. This can play an increasing role in supporting purposeful practice.

• Selecting interventions that work. This is not as straightforward as it seems. Interventions come in all shapes and sizes and from many sources. Many of the best have been developed by sports coaches and sports psychologists. Others come from areas such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Psychology, Neuro-Liguistic Programming (NLP) etc. Although we find that these disciplines often claim techniques as their own when they are fairly generic across all disciplines. There are many hundreds of tools and techniques. It's an interesting truth that most seem to work. But they don't all work for all people. One important requirement for the selection of interventions is to know, with a good degree of accuracy, what the young person needs. This is where the mental toughness measure is helpful. Working with people who work with young people we often find that the need is misdiagnosed. The tendency is to label young people as under confident and to treat that. One study we carried out in a school in Knowsley, UK, showed that almost half of the young people assessed as under confident in fact had reasonable levels of confidence. Their issues were about commitment and challenge. The coaches working with the young people were seeking to boost their confidence—to little effect. The real issues were receiving little or no attention whatsoever.

Another concern here is that a lot of interventions are faith based. The user believes they work but, other than some personal anecdotes, they often have little or no real evidence for the interventions they use. This will change in the future. This is now becoming the main thrust of our research—but it takes time. This requires longterm studies to show that an intervention makes a difference and that the difference is sustainable.

Yet another issue is why an intervention might work. Is it the intervention? Or is it is the person passionately delivering the intervention? Is it the nature of the recipient? Is it the support they have from parents, friends etc.? It's probably down to a combination of all of these factors.

Having painted a cautious and thoughtful picture, are there interventions that work? There are. You can continue reading. These will be described in more detail in the following chapters but the interventions appear to fall into five broad groupings plus the need for self-awareness. Those groupings are:

1. Positive thinking—affirmations, self talk, turning negatives into posi- tives, etc.

2. Visualisation—guided imaging, using your head to practice, etc.

3. Anxiety control—relaxation techniques, controlled breathing, etc.

4. Attentional control—focus, dealing with interruptions, mindfulness, etc.

5. Goal setting—SMART, balancing goals, how to deal with big goals, etc. These all help to develop the capability to deal with stress, pressure, and challenge, and where appropriate, to cope with these. Most of these are known to most competent coaches, teachers etc. The one area which is regularly overlooked is attentional control. There is growing awareness of its importance. The most common response for practitioners to the understanding of the mental toughness model is “I now know how to make better use of the knowledge and skills I possess”. The key lies in understanding the concept of mental toughness and its components and to link it to what people already do to develop others.

Helping young people to be self-aware about their mental toughness and to show them how it explains a lot of their behaviour, performance, and wellbeing is becoming considered a sixth area of intervention. One of our projects in Knowsley produced an interesting observation. Young people who were assessed as average and above average mentally tough would often require only a little further support. They responded well to new ideas and were more likely to go away and do something about them. Almost as if their innate mental toughness was “kicking in”. The mentally sensitive didn't do this to nearly the same extent.

Again, in a world where we have scarce resources, this indicates a strategy for keeping all young people according to need.

Finally, when working with young people, developing mental toughness appears to be suited to individual and to group intervention. We are beginning to see examples of group coaching and group development which is producing good results. It does appear that working with groups who have a shared need (e.g., they all have low commitment scores) is more effective than mixing mentally tough and mentally sensitive people. Individual are more empathetic towards each other. Moreover when an intervention works for one it quickly spreads to the others in the group.

Similarly Peter Clough working with large numbers of students at Hull University found that matching the coach or tutor to the young person was also beneficial—it produced better results. Again the opportunity for empathy seems to help.

Let's now look at interventions in more detail …

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