Mental Toughness: It’s a mindset and more than just being resilient

Brian Corrigan, Exercise Physiologist, KPMG Performance Clinic

Have you ever wondered what makes someone a good athlete? Or a good leader? Or a good parent? Why do some people accomplish their goals while others fail?

Usually we answer these questions by talking about the talents of top performers. She must be the smartest scientist in the lab. He’s faster than everyone else on the team. She is a brilliant business strategist. But there is more to the story than that. In fact, your talent and your intelligence don’t play nearly as big of a role as you might think. Research indicates that intelligence only accounts for 30 percent of your achievement — and that’s at the extreme upper end1.

Another crucial component is mental toughness, found to contribute up to 30 percent of the overall variance in your performance, irrespective of what type of work, or task you’re doing1.

But what is mental toughness?

There are a number of ways to define mental toughness with a common definition being an individual’s ability to successfully adapt to life tasks in the face of social disadvantage or adverse conditions. Adversity and stress can come in the shape of family or relationship problems, health problems, or workplace and financial worries, among others. The more mentally tough someone is, the better able they are to take on such challenges.

Mental toughness development is a well-known training technique within the elite sporting world with significant correlations between being more mentally tough, improved physical endurance2 and performance in elite sports such as cricket. It’s also associated with increased success in rugby league. More recently, the business world has applied these techniques in the workforce to increase overall success as a leader.

Mental toughness is not resilience. If you think of a stressful time in your life, resilience relates to what you do to reduce the burden of that stressful event after it’s done, whereas mental toughness is employing cognitive strategies to take that challenge head on, before the event can have its toll on you. Think about a stressful presentation – mental toughness is gearing yourself up to that presentation so you do it well and don’t let stress get to you – whereas resilience is about employing effective strategies after the event so you learn how to recover (like debriefing with friends or rewarding yourself).

Mental Toughness is a Mindset

You can develop your own mental toughness. One method uses the 4Cs (control, commitment, challenge, and confidence) model3. The importance of your mental toughness can be likened to a vehicle; the stronger the vehicle (i.e., mental toughness) the better its ability is to protect its occupants (i.e., our wellbeing) from serious injury during collisions (i.e. emotional and cognitive load).

This translates three ways into your work performance:

  1. You approach tasks with confidence and you are not afraid of the effect of potential setback.
  2. You are resilient; you continue with a task despite setbacks
  3. You are committed to the long-haul; you will see a project from start to completion even if the project’s timeline becomes extended

The ability not only to adapt but overcome stressors is strongly dependent on personal capacity. But it can be improved with exercise, nutrition and recovery (mindfulness, yoga, and visualisation).

So, if you want to increase your mental toughness it’s highly recommended that you make the time to work on yourself.

1 Lili Slackchith Rasprasith, (2015) Why Some Can But Others Can’t: Secrets To Life, Success & Happiness. Bloomington IN Booktango

2 Crust, L., & Clough, P. J. (2005) Relationship between mental toughness and physical endurance. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 100(1), 192-194

3 Clough, P. J., Earle, K., & Sewell, D. (2002) Mental Toughness: The Concept and Its Measurement. In I. Cockerill (Ed.), Solutions in Sport Psychology (pp. 32-43). London: Thomson

KPMG is a platinum sponsor of CAN4CANCER, a CommBank Group community initiative with Tour de Cure which raises vital funds to prevent cancer and find a cure. Our Sydney team practiced their mental toughness by walking up the 38 levels of our Sydney office at Barrangaroo to raise funds.

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