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A Definition of Mental Toughness

Updated: May 3

In all my years studying and researching the topic of mental toughness, there is a different meaning and definition for each athlete. You will find a huge body of work from academics on this subject whereby a mental toughness definition is being sought. Jones (2002, p. 205) points out, the literature on mental toughness has a distinct lack of clarity as to its definition “…as well as a general failure to operationalise the construct in a consistent manner”.


Researchers have argued that mental toughness is one of the most used but least understood terms in sports psychology. There are numerous literary contributions dedicated to the notion of developing mentally tough athletes, but the widely differing definitions have only served to induce confusion rather than clarity (Jones, 2002).


The purpose of this blog is to try and simplify and bring clarity to the definition of mental toughness. Not only this, but to also give you the tools and protocols on how to work on improving your mental toughness. It is worth noting that there is no one definitive answer or one way of doing things and I do not proclaim to have the golden egg. You need to explore and discover what works and doesn’t work for you. This will be closely tied to your identity of self and what makes you tick as a human. What are your drives and motivations? What are your goals? What habits do you lean into or shy away from? Getting to know this and know yourself deeper is fundamental when looking to build mental toughness.


There are some very common themes that arise multiple times in this field of study. We will be diving into these in closer detail. Many of these themes are linked with the SquashMind philosophy and training and are presented as practical tools within the app for you to use.


The first and most fundamental step for high levels of mental toughness needs to be CLARITY. A lack of clarity and awareness can be likened to a blindfolded person, trying to find the light switch, in an unfamiliar location, during a moonless night. Pretty lost, hopeless, and random at best right?


A beautiful definition of clarity can be stated as “clearness or lucidity as to perception or understanding. Freedom from indistinctness or ambiguity”.


We are going to explore this concept of clarity a lot more, but first…



WHAT MENTAL TOUGHNESS IS NOT


Let us being by understanding what mental toughness is NOT. Mental toughness is NOT trying and running for every ball, it is NOT showing full effort in each point, it is NOT putting in gruelling practice sessions when you don’t want to and your motivation is low. It is NOT an enforced way to behave and look hard and mean and tough on the surface.


Whoa there!! Hold on a sec you may be saying. Before you stop reading at this moment thinking I have gone completely around the bend, the above list of things; full effort, trying, dedication, body language, etc are a bare minimum when playing competitive sport. This is something that you should have in-built and hard-wired into your systems. This needs to be the low bar entry-point if you really want to get something out of this sport that you are playing. Yes, for sure you can learn to build and develop this on-the-surface mental toughness. Yes, they are seen and deemed as being tough. Yes, they do form a part of mental toughness. But there is a deeper and more important layer we need to investigate.



PHYSICAL OR MENTAL?


Physical preparedness needs to be considered in relation to mental toughens. There is no way that you can just ‘believe’ yourself to be physically competent to take on the rigours of a tough squash match or tournament. You need to get your reps in. There are no shortcuts here! If you are undercooked physically and have cut corners along the way in your training, this will have a huge negative impact on your ability to be mentally tough during a match. The top athletes in the world use their physical training to not only get their bodies ready but also their minds too. They are interwoven. The link here is immensely strong and needs to be valued. However, this blog is not going to go into the depths around this link, but it is worth mentioning at this point that mental toughness needs to be tethered to physical conditioning. It is nearly impossible to separate them in a sport such as squash.


For a deeper dive into this subject, Mark Campbell is on the SquashMind podcast discussing this topic and sharing his insights when he used to train Nick Matthew and Laura Massaro at the peaks of their careers. He reflects on how they used their physical preparations to grow and heighten their mental toughness. However, being just physically strong and ready also does not fully guarantee you will be mentally tough when it counts under pressure. It helps for sure, and as discussed is linked, but there are some deeper layers that need to be explored within the mind and our thoughts and responses to achieve mental toughness whilst competing in the heat of the moment.


Most top-level athletes all have a physical competency that is arguably negligible, however, mental toughness amongst the same players seems to have greater impact on performance. Jones, Hanton & Connaughton (2002) believes there are negligible physical and technical skill level differences at the elite level and consistently successful outcomes are attributed to mental toughness. Furthermore, at the elite level athletes have very small differences in technical and physical capabilities. What separates the good from the great is grit (Duckworth, 2016).



THE HARRY POTTER ANALOGY


“When people talk about me being mentally tough in my career, I believe it was my ability to stick to a tactical plan when the pressure was on – Laura Massaro

!*Spoiler alert*! Look away now if you have not seen the films or read the books and you intend to!


In one of the most famous scenes of the Harry Potter film franchise during The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and Sirius are surrounded and attacked by dementors, who are trying to suck their souls out of their bodies. During this pretty intense and scary scene, Harry witnesses the Patronus (a defensive spell which produces a guardian for protection) in the form a bright stag made of light. The stag invariably uses its powers to dismiss and abolish the dementors and therefore saving Harry and Sirius to fight another day.


Using this analogy to further understand mental toughness, the dementors are all the things that pull you away from this very moment. The scoreboard, the bad referee, the thoughts about winning and losing the match, the stories that you think will be gossiped about you whether you win or lose, and so on and so on. These thoughts and distractions serve absolutely no purpose. They are swirling around you. They are clouding your mind and judgement of the situation at hand. They are making you play more emotionally rather than tactically.


On the other hand, cultivating heightened self-awareness and clarity is your Patronus. Your weapon for mental toughness. Your Patronus can evaporate, dismiss, execute, get rid of, send packing, whatever you want to call it, your dementors. This now clears the brain fog that was building. This now allows space in your brain to function fully and properly. To keep you in the moment, the here and now. The brain fog has been lifted. You do not have these dark, destructive, swirling impinging thoughts controlling and dictating to you. Can you get rid of them the same way the stag, the Patronus, did in the film? This does not happen overnight and needs training. It is a skill to be able to do this and a skill you should put a lot of importance in.


“It is the moment-by-moment effort to let go and stay centred in the here-and-now which offers the real winning and losing, and this game never ends” – Timothy Gallwey


GAME PLANNING


Clarity is mental toughness. For me when I have clarity, I know I can execute my plan and therefore be mentally tough in all situations” – Saurav Ghosal

Using the above Harry Potter analogy, one of the key components to achieving and sustaining high levels of mental toughness is clarity. Clarity about what you want to do in the game of squash. Clarity needs to be the first step, the first item on the agenda to help improve mental toughness. When you are clear about what you want to do and how you want to do it, then you can become actionable on this.


Game planning is the biggest tool to employ when it comes to helping with your clarity. Speak to any top athlete in any sport, and game planning is part and parcel of all they do. You will be hard pressed to find an athlete that has not spent countless hours game planning. Writing down their plays. Running through them in their mind. Anticipating all the good and bad situations that may happen. Understating and studying their opponents. This can take many different forms and evolves over a career but writing down your plan and visualising it again and again is one sure way to embed it into your DNA and to grow your clarity.


Having a game plan keeps you mentally engaged in matches. If you formulate a game plan with strategies and patterns that you can use during a match, then it will be a lot easier to stay focused. It doesn’t matter whether you are down 0-5 or up 5-0. Concentrate on sticking to the strategy that got you to 5-0 and keep using it until the game is over. If you are down 0-5, keep fighting and consider whether you are losing because you aren’t executing your strategy, or if you need to adjust your strategy based on what has happened in the match. Focussing on the process is the key to optimal performance, especially in high-pressure situations.


The SquashMind app has a built in Game Planning tool in the Journal section and there is a script to follow before and after each match you play. Try and get in the habit of using this script and over time you can change the questions to suit your needs and how you best retain information. Ultimately, the more you practice game planning the easier it gets to be clear and know what to do when the pressure is on. This can be especially powerful when at the business end of games and matches and when you are looking to convert.


🚨 THE CONVERTING MINDSET BLOG 🚨


“When you are at the back end of those matches, it really is making sure that your mind is completely focussed on where it needs to be, and this is where my game plan and rehearsals before the match kicks in” – Laura Massaro





THE MONEKY-MIND ANALOGY


A simple way to look at the mind is using the analogy of a monkey. Our mind can act and behave like a monkey and become hijacked at a moments notice when we least need or want it. When this monkey takes over, clarity, and therefore the ability to be mentally tough, evaporates.


It’s quite normal when we want to be present, aware, and focussed on the task at hand for the mind to jump around all over the place. We might find it tends to chase after all the little things, to be constantly moving about from the present to the past to the future in fact to rarely be focussed at all. Fortunately, the mind can be tamed. Not by forcing it to stop or trying to make it sit still. We don't want to trap it! That will just stir it up and create even more movement. But by training the mind, having an awareness of when our attention has wondered off and gently bringing it back with a kind and friendly hand. In this way the mind slowly becomes a little less restless. It also becomes more comfortable with this idea of being still and in the moment.


This analogy for the mind has been around for thousands of years. Thankfully so is the knowledge that with time and practice we can learn to train this monkey. This is where mindfulness practice is woven into mental toughness and plays a crucial role. More on this below.



MINDFULNESS


“Mental toughness is the ability to stay calm and composed under pressure when things aren’t necessarily going your way” – Laura Massaro

To be present and in the moment on the court when we need it the most, we need to work on and practice mindfulness. As you have read in the monkey-mind analogy above, it is very easy for our mind and thoughts to become hijacked. The more mindfulness you have in your day-to-day life, the better your chances are of using it when it’s required during a match. I call this the spill-over effect, whereby what you do and how you behave away from the pressure environment in a match can have a direct spill-over into your performances. If you are rushing around in your day and in your tasks, you are constantly distracted, you become negative and defensive when being challenged, you exhibit fixed rather than growth mindset traits, and ultimately you are overall not mentally present, then the odds of you reacting the same way when pressure is applied to the mix will be mirrored. Remember, it’s training the ability to recognise when our attention has wondered off, and that is the real goal here.


“The way you do anything is the way you do everything – Tom Waits

As per the above quote, how can you expect to suddenly turn on an “awareness switch” under pressure when you are not even close to cultivating it in most of your wakeful moments? I would say it is impossible to do. So, you need to begin to make this a habit as soon and as often as possible. Bring mindfulness into your life and begin to practice it where and when you can. Studies show that our brain neurology physically changes and strengthens when we dedicate time to mindfulness practices.


The ability to focus and concentrate appropriately has a positive influence on an athletes cognitive processing under pressure (Sarkar & Fletcher, 2014). Furthermore, Gallwey (1974) states that as one achieves focus the mind quiets and as the mind is kept in the present it becomes calm.


Mindful meditation strengthens the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus in the brain, two key learning areas associated with attention and memory, and it dials down the activation in the amygdala, the brain’s fear centre, so we become less stressed and anxious.


Mindfulness gives people tools for waking up and being aware. Being mindful and present gives you the ability to maximise your play by keeping you in the moment and to keep bringing you back into the moment when your mind has drifted. If you watch Ali Farag for example, he is brilliant at resetting himself and bringing himself back into the moment time after time and this allows him to perform near to his maximum in each match. This is no random event, and his mental practices away from competition allow him to achieve this state when required in a match.


Similarly with Paul Coll, I watched him go 0-2 down in an important semi-final soon after he became World No. 1. Even though the pressure and expectation may have been at its highest he showed no panic or signs of frustration. He looked calm and composed. Clear in his actions and intentions. And from what may have seemed like a precarious position, he was clear with his game plan and went about executing it. Bringing himself back to it each time things got a little frantic or away from him. He chipped away at what he knew would work and had full trust in this. He was only able to do this because of the big word, CLARITY! Without clarity and without sticking to his intentions, I am pretty certain he would have lost this match,


Watch this awesome short video below to help you understand the power of mindfulness and how to try and change your perspective to the passing thoughts and feelings.


In summary, I will encourage you to reframe what mental toughness is for you. I am proposing that mental toughness is the ability to be in the moment time and again when the pressure may be at its highest.


When those dementors are circling around you and doing all they can to destroy you. Mental toughness is the ability to stick to a clear game plan when everything is trying to pull you away from it. The way your monkey-mind can hijack you in an instant. You have a few tools at your disposal to grow your in-match mental toughness.


Use the Game Planning section of the SquashMind app to clarify your intentions. Use the Meditation Timers section in the app to work on your mindfulness. Reflect and iterate constantly by starting a journaling habit. Use formal as well as informal visualisation practices to run through your game plan, strengthening the neural pathways in your brain. The tools are there. You have them within reach. Now pick them up and use them. You will love the journey once you get started, and it is never ending.


Recall the definition of clarity at the beginning of this blog. Now that you have read this far and hopefully understand the strong link between mental toughness and clarity are you achieving this state on the court? “Clearness or lucidity as to perception or understanding. Freedom from indistinctness or ambiguity”. If not, then you now also know how to practice improving your clarity and therefore becoming more mentally tough.


I’ll leave you with a statement and directed action to take away with you and reflect on before playing your next match. Why not have this to hand and remind yourself of it right before you step on court to play next? You can tweak and adapt the wording to suit you, but the essence should be clear.


“Today I play every point to win.


I don’t worry about winning or losing the overall match, but whether I am making the maximum effort during every point.


Because this is where the true value lies”



PRACTICAL TIPS


- Begin by understanding yourself better and becoming a more reflective, curious, and thoughtful person about what makes you tick


- Read the blog on how to game plan and use the Game Planning tool in the SquashMind app to help guide you with this


- Read the blog on mindfulness and begin an intervention for this valuable skill to hone and develop


- Read the blog on journaling, and like mindfulness, begin an intervention on this skill to get to know yourself better


- Read the two blogs on visualisation to understand the powerful impact this practice will have on improving your clarity and therefore your mental toughness


- Become a life-long learner. Be curious. Read books and articles on the subject. Never stop growing or learning about yourself and your mind!



If you liked this blog, please do share with others that may be interested on this subject and find it of use. I work closely with players on all aspects of their game and mind. I offer online Zoom lessons and become a mentor and accountability partner for players. I find 1:1 online lessons immensely powerful for learning and am now using the court more so for practice. Being able to learn away from the ‘distractions’ of playing is proving to be highly valuable.


"Learn online, practice on-court"


Please do get in touch by emailing me: jesse@squashmind.co.uk



Reference list


Duckworth, A (2016) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermilion


Gallwey, T (1974) The Inner Game of Tennis: The ultimate guide to the mental side of peak performance. London: Pan Books. ISBN 978-1-4472-8849-7


Jones, G, Hanton, S, & Connaughton, D (2002) What is this thing called mental toughness? An investigation of elite sport performers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14, 205-218


Sarkar, M, & Fletcher, D (2016) Mental fortitude training: An evidence-based approach to developing psychological resilience for sustain success. Journal of Sports Sciences in Action Vol. 7, No. 3, 135-157

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