In recent years, professional sport has progressively become more business-like with an emphasis on efficiency, effectiveness and winning. This has resulted in greater scrutiny and analysis of player performances in the media and by coaching staff, consequentially leading to an increased use of sports psychology by teams and individuals (Golby & Sheard, 2004; Bull, Shambrook, James & Brooks, 2005).
Mental toughness is widely regarded as an important and popular subject in the field of sports psychology, especially with coaches, athletes and the sports media. It enables athletes to cope better than their opponents, especially with the demands that sport places upon them. Therefore making them perform better than their opponents whilst showing continuous improvements (Gucciardi, 2010; Jones, Hanton & Connaughton, 2007; Clough, Earle & Sewell, 2002). Previous research, cited by Jones et al. (2007), showed that 82% of wrestling coaches rated mental toughness as the most important psychological characteristic in determining competitive success.
X Gucciardi (2010); Crust & Keegan, (2010); Crust (2008); Jones, Hanton & Connaughton, (2002) all suggest in their work that mental toughness appears to be one of the most important and most used psychological constructs relating to successful sporting performance and outcomes. Perhaps it is for this reason that mental toughness has attracted considerable attention from sport psychology researchers attempting to understand how psychological factors can underpin success in sport (Jones et al. 2007; Clough et al. 2002; Bull et al. 2005).
According to research conducted by Jones et al. (2007), it was found that 9.33 out of 10 superelite (top international) participants, and 8.7 out of 10 elite (international) participants agreed with the authors previous definition of mental toughness as having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to, generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer and specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure (Jones et al. 2002).
An electronic literature search was conducting using online databases ScienceDirect, PubMed, Ovid and PEDro. The search parameter was set to find ‘mental toughness’. The search produced 3,275 results, with most not being relevant to sport. The search parameter was changed to recover literature with the exact phrase “mental toughness” in the title, producing 27 relevant results. A selection criteria of the publication date preceding 2002 was applied, and short communications/editorials were rejected, leaving 18 articles to be selected.
After scrutinising the contents, methods and reference lists for a final time, 10 pieces of literature were judged to be suitable, and selected for review.
Definitions of mental toughness vary extensively amongst coaches, athletes, researchers, fans and the media (Crust, 2008; Nicholls, Polman, Levy & Backhouse, 2008). Researchers commonly identify positive and desirable psychological characteristics that are associated with success and incorrectly label them as mental toughness, particularly when they are based on investigators opinions, creating conceptual confusion (Gucciardi, 2010; Jones, Hanton & Connaughton, 2002). It is for this reason that mental toughness, in the past, has arguably lacked scientific rigor and found to be replete with contradiction, ambiguity, and conceptual confusion (Jones, Hanton and Connaughton, 2007; Crust & Keegan 2010).
X A recent study by Kaiseler, Polman & Nicholls (2009) argued that most research into mental toughness, in the past, has been exploratory in nature, whereby researchers such as Jones et al. (2002) have explored athletes understanding of the construct, however failing to utilise and incorporate existing psychological theory into their research. Conversely, the work of Clough, Earle & Sewell (2002) integrated previous psychological theory and conceptualised mental toughness; from both the athlete and earlier theory, finding similarities between mental toughness and hardiness in their research. In addition, Clough et al. (2002) further extended the three components of hardiness, adding confidence as a fourth factor, which is consistent with current literature on mental toughness which indicates self-confidence is the most important characteristic of mental toughness (Jones et al. 2007).
Clough et al. (2002) reported that people who are mentally tough have a high sense of self-belief and an unshakable faith that they control their own destiny; these individuals can remain relatively unaffected by competition and adversity. This somewhat contradicts the definition provided by Jones et al. (2002) who conversely suggest that mental toughness represents the ability of a person to cope with the demands of training and competition, increased determination, focus, confidence and maintaining control under pressure (Nicholls et al. 2008).
X The definition by Jones et al. (2002) research, has achieved significant support from several mental toughness researchers who have adopted similar qualitative approaches (Crust, 2008; Bull, Shambrook, James & Brooks, 2005). In particular, Bull et al. (2005) found that whilst examining attributes of mental toughness with elite English cricketers with the attributes put forward by Jones et al. (2002) there were clear similarities in the findings of their study. The main recurring themes were self-belief, desire/motivation, dealing with pressure and anxiety, focus (performance related and lifestyle related), and pain/hardship. This signals the trustworthiness of the data, providing an encouraging and positive reflection upon the work, conducted by Jones et al. (2002).
X Golby & Sheard, (2004) research into the mental toughness and hardiness in rugby league has found similarities with previous research by Jones et al. (2002). Golby & Sheard (2004) reported that international players have significantly higher levels of attention control than performers from division one. An explanation for this would be that players performing to the highest level have a greater capacity for long and intensive periods of total concentration, which is corroborated by Jones et al. (2002) recognition that remaining wholly-focused on the task at hand in the face of competition specific distractions is a key mental toughness attribute for sports performers and athletes. (Golby & Sheard, 2004)
The qualitative research by Jones et al. (2002) used a group of internationally experienced athletes, from a diverse range of sports, and questioned them to find an agreed definition of mental toughness. This has arguably provided an eloquent and thorough definition of mental toughness in terms of what it enable performers to achieve, as follows:
“Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to, generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer and specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure” (Jones et al. 2002, p.209).
Clough et al. (2002) place mental toughness at the base of the fundamentals of hardiness, seeing it as a personality dimension, this is agreed by current research, (Golby & Sheard 2004; Crust & Keegan 2010; Crust 2008), agreeing that hardiness and mental toughness appear to be related constructs. This is not dissimilar with Jones et al. (2002) definition, who using the terms ‘natural’ or ‘developed’ insinuating that coping strategies will or can be taught by sports psychologists. Clough et al. (2002) and Jones et al (2002) both agreeing that mentally tough athletes have been characteristically described as being highly self-confident, challenge-seeking, and low in anxiety (Crust & Keegan, 2010).
X The groundbreaking work conducted by Clough et al. (2002) and Jones et al. (2002) both set the scene with their research and flagged mental toughness as an area of sports psychology that, in order to be fully understood, needs to be examined with scientific rigour by researchers. Bull et al. (2005), comment specifically, that the definition provided by Jones et al. (2002) marks a positive development in the recognition that mental toughness, as a concept, needs greater individual research attention.
Crust & Keegan (2010) comment that although much of the early research into mental toughness suffered from a number of inherent weaknesses, and lacked scientific rigor, recent work has led to greater conceptual clarity (Crust, 2008; Jones et al. 2007). Additionally, they point out that while qualitative research has undoubtedly facilitated a greater understanding of what mental toughness is and how mental toughness develops, more quantitative studies are encouraged.
Crust & Keegan (2010) showed that through their research, they were able to quantify a relationship between mental toughness and attitude to risk taking that was initially revealed in the work by Bull et al (2005). Jones et al. (2007) addressed the recommendations provided in their earlier work and from other researchers feedback. Due to there being no validated measure of mental toughness, they employed qualitative methods to define mental toughness and develop a framework by identifying the key underpinning attributes in a broad range of sports. Arguably creating a solid framework for understanding mental toughness. These examples demonstrate that if researchers use past theory and combine their own findings, a greater understanding of mental toughness can be achieved.
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