How to reliably develop mental toughness

Mental Toughness Branson
What is mental toughness?

We are increasingly hearing the term mental toughness referred to. Whether its a sports star overcoming adversity to win, a remarkable survival story of a natural disaster, or superhuman business people who are out to save the world, commentators refer to this human trait as being the secret to success.

Their are in fact 8 factors, identified by Dr Peter Clough and Doug Strycharczyk, that make up the mental toughness construct.

Mental toughness defined

Mental Toughness (not to be viewed as a macho concept) is closely related to qualities such as character, resilience, grit, etc.

However, mental toughness is actually defined as: “A personality trait which determines, in large part, how people respond to challenge, stress and pressure, irrespective of their circumstances” (Clough & Strycharczyk).

4 constructs of mental toughness include: Control, Confidence, Challenge & Commitment.

8 factors of mental toughness include: Learning Orientation; Risk Orientation; Confidence in one’s ability; Interpersonal confidence; Achievement Orientation; Goal Orientation; Emotional Control & Life Control (diagram below).

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The 8 factors explained
Challenge Construct

*Factor 1 of Mental Toughness: Learning Orientation

A large part of this is having an active exploratory mind and seeking to learn from others. Often referred to as a growth mindset, this is contrasted with a focus on performance orientation and the question: How can I demonstrate my competence? This is referred to as a fixed mindset.

The mentally tough typically have a high learning orientation. That is, they approach any situation with the motivating question like, What can I learn?  They know that even setbacks are opportunities for learning.

*Factor 2 of Mental Toughness: Risk Orientation 

Risk orientation refers to an individual’s attitude towards change and new experiences – I am driven to succeed.

Mentally sensitive individuals see this as uncomfortable and something to be avoided. On the other hand, mentally tough individuals see change as exciting, interesting and they can see the opportunity that new experiences present for personal development. Mentally tough individuals are therefore, driven to succeed and push themselves to grow. As such, they typically become leaders in their chosen field.

Confidence Construct

*Factor 3 of Mental Toughness: Confidence in one’s ability

The mentally tough individual believes that they have the intellectual toolkit (whether it be knowledge, skills, education, or experience) to complete a particular task. As a result, they tend to approach new tasks or actions with a pragmatism and self-belief that improves the likelihood of successfully completing tasks.

*Factor 4: Interpersonal confidence 

I can influence others, I can stand my ground if needed.

This is an important skill in the development of self, and engagement with work or personal communities. It also protects against harm or aggression from physical violence or mental anguish inflicted by others.

A mentally tough person may exhibit interpersonal confidence or assertiveness – that is, the ability to influence others or to stand their ground in the face of objections or an alternative point of view from others.

Commitment Construct

*Factor 5: Achievement orientation

I’ll do what it takes to keep my promises and achieve my goals

Achievement orientation relates to an individual’s ability to keep a promise. This requires the individual to have a healthy level of tenaciousness that means they are prepared to do what it takes to achieve goals.

As such, the mentally tough individual is reliable, consistent and known as someone that does deliver on their promises, rather than the mentally sensitive who can shirk commitment in fear of failure. To achieve this, mentally tough individuals break projects down into manageable chunks; they deliver outcomes on time; have a strong sense of conscientiousness. Consequently, they find working to a goal exhilarating and keep growing and generating strong networks with those they commit to.

*Factor 6: Goal orientation

I promise to do it – I like working to goals

This factor relates to an individual’s preference for goals and measures. Mentally tough individuals set high standards for themselves and others.

They like being judged or assessed. Mentally tough individuals accept responsibility. They like ownership, acceptance and responsibility. This is why mentally tough individuals tend to be unphased by competition or adversity.

Control Construct

*Factor 7: Emotional control

I can manage my emotions and the emotions of others.

This factor relates to the extent to which an individual feels they are in control of their life, including their emotions and sense of life purpose.

Mentally tough individuals feel comfortable in their own skin and have a good sense of who they are. This helps them to keep a cool head in pressured situations and focused on what others would find to be impossibly noisy or stressful situations. As a result, the mentally tough are considered to be good leaders and valuable workers in high pressure or stressful roles like working as a paramedic. They are also wonderfully calming to others in times of despair.

*Factor 8 of Mental Toughness: Life control

I really believe I can do it.

Life control relates to how an individual feels and reacts when adverse events occur.  A lot of this comes down to their sense of control or influence over what happens to them.

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Why develop a mental toughness vocabulary

Professor Clough suggests that the key to enabling positive behavioural change is initially creating self-awareness and a vocabulary around mental sensitivity and mental toughness.

This enables you to begin to skillfully understand WHY you mentally respond to events when they occur and, from that, WHY others might respond to you as a result.

Developing greater understanding of the mental toughness construct can give you clarity. In turn you can easily develop coping strategies to address issues that might arise in your daily life.

Can mental toughness be reliably measured?

‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.’ (Peter Dragard)

Emily Johnson (Principal Psychologist) is an accredited facilitator of the MTQ-Plus (Mental Toughness questionnaire), which is a psychometric that reliably measures an individual’s mental toughness.

Where most personality models and measures assess the behavioural aspects of personality “how we act”, the MTQ-Plus psychometric assesses “how we think”. In other words, why we act and respond emotionally to events. It enables us to measure and understand an individual’s mindset in a very practical way, which clearly identifies potential interventions to strengthen their mental toughness.

Want to Measure your mental toughness?

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