October 2017 Magazines 89052 - Page 69

Mind, Body & Soul The Science of Mental Toughness Transforming Everything From School Work to Your Tennis Game I By Michelle Vessel F YOU INSTINCTIVELY CRINGE WHENEVER SOMEONE tosses so much as a Nerf football your way then it’s probably incomprehensible for you to understand how NFL quarterbacks run towards thousands of pounds of flesh and bone, only to be crushed by the equivalent of a cement truck. It’s a phenomenon that has piqued the interest of philosophers and other observers of human behavior for thousands of years. How are a few top competitors able to muster up incredible amounts of bravery in the heat of competi- tion, while many others wilt like a petunia when under pressure? In the 1980s, a handful of specialists in the emerging field of sports psychology began to apply more rigorous research methods to untangling this centuries-old conundrum. As soon as the first batch of findings began to roll in, researchers were astounded. From the picture that began to take shape, it immediately became clear that the hard-to-define characteristic of “mental toughness” was much more important than previously believed in the world of elite sports. Indeed, according to some studies, at least 50% of superior athletic perform- ance can be attributed to mental or psychological factors, rather than raw athletic talent or training regimens. What exactly is mental toughness? Before researchers could delve into the specifics of what makes mentally tough athletes tick, they had to grapple with the difficult task of pinning down exactly what “mental toughness” means. It’s a particularly tricky task, because what constitutes mental toughness can differ from person to person and situation to situation. For instance, having the cool head and steady hand necessary to prevail at the free-throw line isn’t exactly in the same category as dodging bullets on the battlefield, although there is definitely a commonality between the two activities from a psycholog- ical perspective. October/November 2017 69