Friday, February 22, 2008

Mental toughness

Former Australian cricket captain Ian Chappell explained once that his team saw an opponent's mental weakness as something like a weakness outside of stump: something to exploit.   As in sport, so too in life.  There's often talk of mental toughness in sport, and too often it's when New Zealand sportsmen suffer another ignominious defeat.  Champions have it.  Losers don't. 

But what exactly is mental toughness?  Sports psychologist Patrick Cohn [hat tip AB] suggests there are four key components to mental toughness:

1. Competitiveness: "This is someone who loves the heat of battle," Cohn says. "They're motivated by testing their skills against the next person. Obviously, they love to win and hate to lose. You need that. People might think, 'Well, isn't everyone competitive?' The answer is 'no.' The really competitive person digs deeper than the next guy."

2. Confidence: "Self-confidence is probably the No. 1 mental skill that championship athletes possess," Cohn says.

"Simply put, it is their belief in their ability to perform. They see themselves as winners. They think, act and behave in very confident ways, sometimes to the point it can turn people off."

3. Composure: "This one has a couple of connotations," Cohn says. "The first is: Can you keep it together under pressure at crunchtime? It's the last minute of the game, and you're trailing by three: It's how well you can stay under control emotionally and can perform when you need to.

"The other component is how well you deal with mistakes. Can you stay composed and forget about them? Or do you get upset and frustrated and thrown off your game? Athletes who are composed don't get rattled and compound one mistake into many."

4. Focus: "The idea is to give focus and attention to what's most important — and, when you do get distracted, to refocus quickly," Cohn says. "This is the key component to success in sports such as gymnastics and diving, but it's important in all sports."

As philosopher Andrew Berstein summarises, "It's a spiritual thing. It's in someone's moral character — some indefatigable quality that a person has that they're not going to be denied."

A few lessons there for more than just how we play sport.

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