As a mental skills coach, I hear frustrated parents, coaches, and athletes chalk failure up to a lack of mental toughness. Here’s the thing… mental toughness isn’t a line in the sand where failure happens or the ability to white knuckle through adversity until the wheels come off. Furthermore, mental toughness isn’t a fixed trait we are born with or born without. Further-furthermore, youth athletes are in the process of developing mental toughness, just like physical skills!
Mental toughness is a constellation of trainable skills. These skills provide the ability to stay in control of the mental processes that drive high performance. This includes things like managing anxiety and emotion, minimizing distractions, and staying focused on the task at hand. Being mentally tough is about taking the next step, the next rep, and quieting the self-talk, which is trying to convince the athlete it’s okay to quit.
The 4 C's of Mental Toughness
The 4 C's of mental toughness are a framework to understand and develop mental toughness.
The first C is Control. Control is about remaining influential on the moment of action rather than being controlled by external factors like the opponent, distractions, or the scoreboard. This happens by building mental processes that promote consistent self-directed behavior toward the task at hand. For more on this, check out last month’s post on assertiveness. Remaining influential comes from a focus on performance elements the athlete can control.
This includes things like:
- Pre-shot and performance routines
- Knowing and executing position specific tasks and responsibilities.
- Managing emotion and anxiety
- Managing activation/excitement levels
- Staying present, focused, and not influenced by distractions
The next C represents commitment. This is often a bone of contention with parents. When we see our kids sleeping in, goofing off, or not doing what we think is enough, we wonder about their commitment. By default, we think they should do more. A better way to manage an athlete’s commitment and our perceptions of their commitment is goal setting. Clearly defined goals provide something for an athlete to move toward despite obstacles, bad days, or subpar outcomes. Specific goals are crucial in achieving elite status but are frequently misguided, unrealistic, or unclear. Goals are necessary for being committed because they provide direction and feedback through the developmental process. The following breakdown of goal setting will help parents and athletes get on the same page.
- Outcome goals are the place you want to wind up. These are things like winning, standings, or a particular achievement. Most goal setting stops here, but that’s a mistake. There is no control over the outcome in the present moment. An athlete shows up and lets it rip, wondering if what is happening right now is enough to hit their goal. This toggles attention from the task at hand to the potential outcome and degrades performance. Focus on the outcome goal can also be discouraging in the present moment because there isn’t a way to measure progress toward it. An athlete doesn’t know how they are doing in relation to the goal until the end. It is important to set an outcome goal but not to focus on it. I encourage athletes to be outcome aware but process focused.
- Process goals are where the magic happens. These are the incremental steps needed to reach the outcome goal. They must be dialed in to be effective, so don’t let your athlete leave them to chance! When they are dialed in, an athlete only has to do what the present moment calls for. Do each present moment well and the outcome takes care of itself. I like to illustrate this through a simple metaphor many of us parents relate to. Imagine wanting to lose 20 lbs. That calls for a calorie deficit of 70,000 calories. To put it into terms we can all understand, that is 2,815 nachos. If sweets are your thing, that’s 260 glazed donuts. These are overwhelming and discouraging numbers. Am I right? So, think about the process instead. Eat a salad for lunch, and go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. If you do, the outcome will take care of itself. A process focus also allows for feedback. Did what was supposed to happen today (gym and salad) happen? If not, what got in the way? Fix the obstacle right then, in real time, and keep on trucking.
- Also consider performance goals. These are specific milestones during practice and in performance. Performance goals focus on the improvement of a skill relative to one’s own standard. This might be running three miles instead of two or maintaining a faster pace. Performance goals are flexible and within an athlete’s control. It isn’t about the thing you are doing, but the quality with which you do it. Performance goals are effective in practice and competition. In competition, don’t let them become the focus. Stay process focused!
The third C stands for challenge. A top performer looks for areas of growth and doesn’t shy away from difficulty. A mindset that sees obstacles as a path to growth minimizes anxiety, fear, and avoidance. Approaching a challenge (rather than ignoring it) helps disable automatic emotional responses based on fear. Fear-based responses negatively affect physical and mental performance. Sports provide plenty of built in challenges for your athlete to bump up against and master, but you can help add texture by supporting any opportunity to try new, novel, and difficult things. It’s ideal to find challenges just past their ability range. Hard enough to make it interesting, but not so hard it discourages them. This pays off in sports and in life.
The final C is confidence. Athletes build confidence through a combination of training, experience, and learning to overcome obstacles. A confident athlete understands they are in control of their destiny, knowing that their actions impact the performance. A confident athlete is less prone to performance decreasing swings based on emotion. They can maintain a feeling of competence or mastery and the realization that loss or failure isn’t because of overarching deficits in ability, mental game, or performance. Confidence doesn’t always transfer across different domains like sports, social lives, and academics. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, if you support all kinds of opportunities to overcome difficulties, your athlete will develop deeper and richer confidence across the board.
In a Nutshell
Remember, mental toughness isn’t something that we are born with. It’s a cluster of skills developed through training, practice, and experience. Support that development in your athlete and they will perform at the upper levels of their ability consistently. As always, have discussions with your athlete about what you read here. Ask questions, but let them lead. Discuss the 4 Cs and how they think you can help facilitate developing them. Having a common understanding of the structure of mental toughness and a plan to build it, promotes healthy communication between you and them.
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I’m Dr. J. I am a mental performance coach and founder of Mind Right Sports Psychology. I work with athletes and their systems, building the mental processes that drive high performance. This includes individuals, parents, teams, and organizations, from beginners to pros. No matter what level of sport, mental skills training enables an athlete to perform at the upper levels of their ability consistently. If you would like a consultation or to jump right into mental skills training for your athlete, reach out!