‘There’s no such thing as tough. There’s trained and there’s untrained. Now which are you?’
Taken from the movie ‘Man on Fire’, this quote succinctly encapsulates the argument put forward in this article – there is no such thing as mental toughness. Yes, that’s right, there is no such thing as mental toughness, or for that matter toughness in general. The argument that I put forward in this article has been lead by the work in this field that has been made by James ‘The Thinker’ Smith in his work The Governing Dynamics of Coaching . By now I hope that I have your attention. Read on to find out more…
Defining Mental Toughness
In the Rugby Strength Coach podcast ‘Mental Toughness is an Illusion’, James Smith contends that coaches often lack the requisite knowledge to deconstruct the mental aspects of the game they coach and so mental toughness becomes the go-to when coaches determine that a player, or team, doesn’t have ‘what it takes’ .
When you ask someone to define ‘mental toughness’, words like tenacity, resolve, durability, persistence, grit and aggression, plus many others, get thrown around. But it’s the sort of question where if you asked 30 people, you would get 30 different answers.
So what exactly is mental toughness? Good question.
The definition given above is highly subjective – ask 30 people, get 30 different answers. What we need is an objective way of defining mental toughness.
When people think of someone that is ‘tough’ they think of someone who stays calm under pressure, who does not falter when the stakes are at their highest, someone who does not experience what we would term a stress response when almost everyone else would be.
Through its stress response (perception of threat to the homeostasis) the human body has a tremendous way of betraying ‘toughness’. If a person is experiencing a stress response (raised heart rate, raised blood pressure etc.) it is impossible to argue that they are not. This is, after all, objective data which cannot be disputed.
As such, the monitoring of a person’s physiological state in different circumstances is crucial. Do they respond to the situation in front of them in the way we would expect someone who is ‘tough’ to?
The Case for Training not Toughness
Toughness is highly situational. Different situations develop different substrates of mental toughness. And toughness in one situation does not result in toughness in another.
People who get bullied at school might be developing their tenacity, resolve and durability, but not the aggression which is a key component of ‘toughness’. So are they truly ‘tough’? Or have they simply become inoculated against the bullying they are receiving? Likewise, many people who are bullies can give it but not take it. Do they have the tenacity, resolve and durability we would expect of someone who is ‘tough’? Or are they simply very good at being aggressive?
Smith puts forward a compelling argument using the example of a UFC fighter and a Navy Seal – two types of people that would widely be viewed as ‘tough’ . Smith argues that if we were to monitor the physiological responses of either the UFC fighter or Navy Seal if their roles were switched (Navy Seal has to go into the Octagon, UFC fighter has to jump out of a plane) and analyse the data, a heightened stress response from both would result. These are not the reactions of people who are supposedly ‘tough’ – sweaty palms and a raised heart rate? After all, these people are used to dealing with highly volatile situations.
In this case study, the heightened stress response results from a lack of preparation. Toughness in one situation has no bearing on toughness in another situation. Those who are the best at what they do are the most prepared for what they do. Training exists, not toughness. When the Navy Seal steps into the Octagon he experiences a stress response because he is not adequately prepared for the situation he finds himself in.
Training must therefore be viewed as inoculation – if you are inoculated effectively you are prepared for the task in hand and so do not experience a stress response that betrays so-called ‘toughness’ . As athletes, this should give us great comfort – if you are struggling at a certain aspect of your game it isn’t because you aren’t ‘mentally tough enough’ to deal with the pressure, it’s because you haven’t been effectively trained to deal with the situation.
In a good book I have recently read, Chasing Excellence by Ben Bergeron, the progress of Matt Fraser and Katrin Davídsdóttir leading up to and through the 2016 Reebok Crossfit Games was charted . Much emphasis was placed on the character traits that these two Games athletes developed between the 2015 Games and 2016 Games which meant that they were able to perform to a higher standard in 2016, especially in the events that they had struggled at previously. Ultimately, they simply trained more on their weak events so were better prepared in 2016. Being mentally tough therefore took a back seat to being better prepared.
In conclusion, mental toughness doesn’t exist. It is a construct that we use when we cannot accurately discern what specific attribute an athlete is lacking. Rather than throw the term mental toughness around it is more prudent to critically evaluate the specific demands of the game and the ones in which an athlete is lacking. Then, rather than simply try to make an athlete ‘mentally tough’ through beating them to the ground, target these weaknesses through a measured training approach. After all, ‘there’s no such thing as tough. There’s trained and untrained. Now which are you?’
References J. Smith, The Governing Dynamics of Coaching.  Rugby Strength Coach Podcast, Episode 36, Mental Toughness is an Illusion.  Powercast Podcast, Episode 163, Toughness is an Illusion.  Ben Bergeron, Chasing Excellence.