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How about “mental toughness”?

How about “mental toughness”?

Doctoral student in clinical neuropsychology

Student-athletes are often plagued by multiple stressors related to school and social activities, as well as the added demands of participating in sports. Indeed, in top-level sporting competitions, athletes are often expected to perform at their best, even under difficult and less-than-ideal conditions. In this case, physical preparation is certainly essential, but not sufficient to achieve optimum performance. That’s what Bob, a character from the cult movie Les Boys, tried to explain to his teammates by evoking the famous expression “mental toughness”. In fact, other factors such as negative expectations, anxiety and fear of injury can have a negative impact on performance (1).

Sports psychology researchers have therefore turned their attention to interventions aimed at improving athletes’ performance through their mental health. More recently, the ability to pay close attention to the present moment, better known as mindfulness, has emerged as a crucial factor for good performance in a competitive situation (2).

What is mindfulness
Mindfulness means being in the present moment with an open, non-judgmental attitude (3-4-5-6). It’s like a workout for your brain, a way of staying strong, fit and mentally resilient. Just as in maintaining excellent physical fitness, the practice of mindfulness requires basic training followed by ongoing, consistent practice. Several mindfulness programs have been set up over the years. The most commonly used in the field of sport is that of Frank Gardner and Zella Moore (2001) (7): Mindfulness-acceptance-engagement (MAC). The MAC approach involves a combination of mindfulness exercises and acceptance techniques, and aims to improve sports performance and overall psychological well-being. Among other things, it teaches non-judgment, awareness of the present moment and acceptance of one’s thoughts and emotions (8).

The benefits of mindfulness
Firstly, studies have concluded that the use of mindfulness-based interventions is effective in increasing attention and positive thoughts in student-athletes9-10. These skills help us to accept our emotions and thoughts as mere transient events, rather than identifying with them11. In practical terms, this means being able to decide when to follow and when not to follow an emotional impulse. An athlete’s behavior would therefore not be determined by certain states that could diminish his or her performance (e.g. a field hockey player who admits to being angry, but continues to occupy his position and scores a goal versus a player overwhelmed by anger who wishes to harm his opponent at the expense of his main objective: scoring a goal) (12).

In addition to the desirable effects on attention, an increase in the acceptance of unpleasant experiences (e.g. negative thoughts or stress) has been observed following the practice of a mindfulness program (13). It’s important to note that acceptance doesn’t mean avoiding negative experiences, but rather exposing oneself to such experiences without trying to change or control them. This avoids overloading the attentional resources required for the athletic task (14). Also, the intention to consciously suppress negative thoughts often contains the object to be avoided. So, ironically, the athlete exposes himself to a greater chance of performing the undesired behavior (e.g. trying not to think about the goal I might miss, involves the image of missing his goal making the behavior more likely) (15-16).

Finally, the authors of one study looked at mindfulness-based interventions to reduce the risk of injury (17). In fact, athletes with higher stress levels are more distracted, and therefore at greater risk of injury (18). Improving vigilance in student-athletes could reduce their fear of making mistakes. Although the study on stress and sports injuries was limited to a small number of participants, the use of the MAC approach reported fewer injuries for the intervention group than for the control group (17-18).

To date, investigations into the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions in improving sports performance in athletes suggest positive results (19). It should be borne in mind, however, that this approach is relatively new, and few studies have focused on illustrating the effectiveness of such a technique in diverse populations. In a world where athletes reach near-perfect physical condition, it may well be “mental toughness” that swings victory from one team to another.

Written by Lysanne Landry, doctoral student in clinical neuropsychology

1. Röthlin, P., Birrer, D., Horvath, S., & Holforth, M. (2016). Psychological skills training and a mindfulness-based intervention to enhance functional athletic performance: design of a randomised controlled trial using ambulatory assessment. BMC Psychology, 4(39), 1-11. doi: 10.1186/s40359-016-0147-y
2. Petterson, H., & Olson, B. L. (2016). Effects of mindfulness-based interventions in high school and college athletes for reducing stress and injury, and improving quality of life. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 24, 1-18. doi: 10.1123/jsr.2016-0047
3. Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N. D., Carmody, J., et al. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230-241. doi: 10.1093/clipsy.bph077
4. Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 882-848. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.84.4.822
5. Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 144-156. doi: 10.1093/clipsy.bpg016
6. Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Delta.
7. Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2001). The multi-level classification system for sports psychology (MCS-SP): Toward a structured assessment and conceptualization of athlete-clients. Workshop presented at the annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Applied sport Psychology, Orlando, FL.
8. Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2012). Mindfulness and acceptance models in sports psychology: A decade of basic and applied scientific advancements, Canadian Psychology, 53(4), 309-318. doi: 10.1037/a0030220
9. Baltzell, A., & Akhtar, V. L. V. (2014). Mindfulness meditation training for sport (MMTS) intervention: Impact of MMTS with division I female athletes. Journal of Happiness & Well-Being, 2(2), 160-173.
10. Goodman, F. R., Kashdan, T. B., Mallard, T. T., & Schumann, M. (2014) A brief mindfulness and yoga intervention with an entire NCAA Division I athletic team: An initial investigation. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 1(4), 339-356. doi: 10.1037/cns0000022
11. Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford
12. Röthlin, P., Horvath, S., Birrer, D., & Holtforth, M. (2016). Mindfulness promotes the ability to deliver performance in highly demanding situations. Mindfulness, 7(3), 727-733. doi: 10.1007/s12671-016-0512-1
13. Keng, S. L, Smoski, M. J., & Robins, C. J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6), 1041-1056. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2011.04.006
14. Gardner, F.L., & Moore, Z. E. (2004). A mindfulness-acceptance-commitment-based approach to athletic performance enhancement: Theoretical considerations. Behavior Therapy, 35(4), 707-23. doi: 10.1016/s0005-7894(04)80016-9
15. Janelle, C. M. (1999). Ironic mental processes in sport: Implications for sport psychologists. Sport Psychology, 13(2), 201-200. doi: 10.1123/tsp.13.2.201
16. Wegner, D. M. (1994). Ironic processes of mental control. Psychological Review, 101(1), 34-52
17. Ivarsson, A., Johnson, U., Andersen, M. B., Fallby, J., & Altemyr, M. (2015). It pays to pay attention: A mindfulness-based program for injury prevention with soccer players. Journal Applied Sport Psychology, 27(3), 319-334. doi: 10.1080/10413200.2015.1008072
18. Andersen, M. B., & Wiliams, J. M. (1988) A model of stress and athletic injury: Prediction and prevention. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 10(3), 294-306. doi: 10.1123/jsep.10.3.294
19. Sappington, R., & Longshore, K. (2015) Systematically reviewing the efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions for enhanced athletic performance. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 9(3), 232-262. doi: 10.1123/jcsp.2014-0017

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