My first realization about mental toughness was that I did not possess much of it. As an 18-year-old playing an age-group sport for my country, I was hugely frustrated that I never seemed able to consistently deliver what I knew I was capable of when it mattered most. And on those rare occasions when I actually did, I was never quite sure how and why, which meant that replicating it next time was pretty much hit or miss.
I often found myself feeling tired and yawning as I ran out on to the field to perform. This didn’t feel particularly helpful to someone who was just about to generate the power and explosion required to hurl a cricket ball as fast as possible at a batsmen standing 60 feet away. By the way, I’m a Brit and what I’ve just described is the equivalent of a pitcher in baseball. I had similar experiences when I played my winter sport, rugby. It was all so puzzling.
With my dreams of sporting fame and fortune derailed by my sheer inconsistency, I had to concede defeat. I realized that I simply didn’t have the required mindset to cut it as an elite athlete, and instead turned my energies to discovering why that was. Why didn’t I flourish in some competitive environments, when at other times I was as good as anyone? What mental shortcomings had stopped me from achieving my sporting potential, and was there any way for me – and others like me – to somehow overcome them? And how could I find the answers to these questions?
I literally stumbled on the best place to start; it was when I went to university to study for a bachelor’s degree in economics. I have no idea to this day why I chose economics but the bad news was I found I didn’t derive much pleasure studying it. The good news is that the university had just introduced a brand new discipline called Sports Science, which included this thing called “psychology.” I changed my major at the earliest opportunity, a course of action that saved my student career. Never one to be particularly enamoured by academic study as a schoolboy, I was amazed at the lure that “sports psychology” had for me. It provided a vehicle for understanding my own underachievement in sports as I quickly realized I had not coped with the pressure of competition very well. I embarked on five years of postgraduate research to find out more about how high achievers in sports are able to deliver consistent high performance in pressured situations.
My second important enlightenment came after I had completed my PhD and spent two years in the Occupational Psychology Research Unit at Sheffield University. Having previously focused exclusively on the psychology of sports, this experience provided me with the wonderful opportunity to study and observe people in another performance setting – work. And I immediately saw striking similarities between the two fields. Like top athletes, I learned that the people at the sharp end of every profession, whether business leaders, surgeons, engineers, or lawyers, have to be able to deliver consistently high performance in environments not always conducive to it. It was clear that mental toughness is the key to enabling people to thrive in a sometimes difficult workplace.
I have spent the last 25 years consulting, studying, and writing about mental toughness. This is all captured in my book, “Thrive on Pressure: Lead and Succeed When Times Get Tough,” published earlier this year. In the book, I talk about how whether it be in athletes or business executives, mental toughness is the capacity to respond positively to multiple, and sometimes conflicting, pressures in order to consistently perform at high levels. Here are pointers on how to develop and strengthen the core skills that underpin this capacity.
Handling Pressure. Being mentally tough does not mean that you never feel stressed under pressure. On the contrary, everyone experiences stress at various times. The key is accepting that it is an inevitable part of performing at high levels so you can then develop skills for handling the pressure.
Stay Strong in Your Self-Belief. Self-belief is an essential element in the makeup of the world’s best performers in business, sports, and more. It underpins the ability to set and achieve stretch goals, take risks, control potentially debilitating fear, and learn from mistakes—all of which are key components of being successful.
Maintain Focus on What Really Matters. Top performers are a testament to the ability to deal effectively with many potential distractions while maintaining focus on the things that really matter. This ability involves accepting that there are factors in the performance environment you cannot influence so that you can focus on the things you can control.
Make Your Motivation Work For You. Ultimately, skills and abilities alone will not enable high performance that is sustainable under protracted challenges. The mentally tough are able to bounce back because they continue to stay motivated despite sustained pressures. Extrinsic motivation, such as pay and reward, is unquestionably a source of motivation for many. But research shows that internal motivation and working for an inherent satisfaction leads to more enjoyment and less pressure.
Graham Jones, Ph.D., is a performance psychologist and director of Lane4, a management consultancy specializing in organizational performance, leadership development, and executive coaching at 10 Wall Street (www.sustainedhighperformance.com).