As you venture into a career as a Personal Trainer you may come across some clients that encounter crucial moments when their mind has a greater impact on their performance. These moments can make or break a key workout, an important goal that they are striving for, or have a ripple effect on their overall training. Like everything else, acquiring mental toughness doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a skill that needs to be developed. As you train the body physically, it is also important to train your mind - so that when you are confronted with conditions that put you under certain levels of stress, your body can absorb and handle the pressure physically and mentally. So, it would make sense to train both physically and mentally, wouldn’t it?
Graham Jones, a Professor of Elite Performance Psychology at the University of Wales conducted a survey on 10 elite athletes. The athletes were asked to explain the concept of being mentall tough. Most of them replied that they ‘thrived in competition’, ‘were self-confident’ and ‘were able to handle the pressure’. These statements described the athletes’ behaviours, rather than what was going on in their minds. Jones concluded that ‘for an athlete to be mentally tough in sport takes a good degree of self-belief in their ability to achieve their goals and the will to bounce back from performance setbacks. Additionally, the confidence that their skills are unique and is recognised by the desire to succeed’.
According to Peter Clough, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Hull, mental toughness can be considered a personality trait, fundamental to performance, wellbeing and personal development. He says it determines ‘how people deal effectively with challenges, stressors and pressures irrespective of circumstances’. Clough’s model of mental toughness is made up of 4 components that Psychologists call the 4 C’s.
A mentally tough person sees challenges as opportunities and believes they can maintain control in their life. Therefore their blood vessels relax, blood pressure lowers, and the levels of blood volume increase in their brain - which in turn enables them to perform better. In sport, mental toughness gives someone an advantage over opponents by enabling them to cope better with the demands of physical activity. And in everyday life, mental toughness allows someone to better manage stress, overcome challenges and increase commitment.
Can you develop mental toughness? In short – Yes!
Because the human psyche is strongly influenced by not only external but also internal voices, our mental state can benefit from the following psychological tools: Positive Thinking, Visualisation, Attention Control and Goal Setting.
Positive Thinking impacts what is known, felt and believed to be true. Reciting and repeating short affirmations provide a means by which an athlete can mirror the positive messages from friends, trainers and coaches. Self-Talk, an internal dialogue, provides a way of handling nerves and stress. Successful performances can also be positively reinforced at the end of the day by writing down and reviewing the achievements from the past 24 hours. Noah Olsen, who came 2nd in the Cross Fit Games 2019, attests to this by keeping a diary of his workouts, his mental state and what he was grateful for that day. He found that this daily routine helped him to focus on what went well, rather than dwelling on disappointments or perceived failures.
Visualisation, an internal focus on positive mental images, can favourably impact both mind and body. Mental rehearsal is a proven way to prepare for challenges and assert control over your inner voice. Mentally working through steps in as much detail as possible (preparing for a PB deadlift for example) can be as real to your mind as actually doing the activity. A great example of visualisation comes from a reporter who interviewed Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 70’s. The reporter asked why he was always smiling and Arnold replied, “I am always smiling because I am happy that I have already won the next Mr Olympia title”.
Attentional Control increases your capacity to focus. Concentrating on the right thing, especially under pressure, can be learned through setting goals, removing distractions, and using routines to better embed knowledge. For some people this may be the difference between success and failure. According to Clough, ‘If there is one factor that underpins people’s ability to perform at their best, it is their capacity to control their focus of attention effectively’. During the recent World Snooker Championship held in Sheffield, 6 times World Champion and eventual competition winner Ronnie O’Sullivan displayed this attribute in his games leading up to the finals. Several times whilst being interviewed, he could not stress enough that being in the moment and present for each game was key to being successful and winning.
When it comes to goal setting, using clear, realistic, and achievable goals can focus and energise you and provide long-lasting motivation. In other words, breaking the bigger challenges into smaller manageable components that can be tackled individually is key. A novice running a full marathon without prior goal setting or training is a great recipe for failure and possible injury. Breaking down the novice’s goal into small manageable chunks would keep them motivated and give them a sense of achievement from tackling each smaller goal.
Greg Whyte, a former Olympian in Modern Pentathlon and Professor of Applied Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Liverpool, states in his book ‘Achieve the Impossible’: ‘Irrespective of the size and complexity of the challenge, one overarching truth remains: success is not a chance event. Each challenge must be broken down into a set of manageable sub tasks’.
In conclusion, a robust mental toolkit can help you overcome stressful challenges, while ensuring consistently high levels of performance. Like any skill - even one that you are born with - mental toughness must be developed and maintained.