What is mental toughness?

Doug Strycharczyk

The working definition of mental toughness is:

It's a personality trait which determines, in large part, how individuals respond to stress, pressure, challenge, and change … irrespective of prevailing circumstances.

It sounds a little like it's a definition of resilience. It shares some ground with the notion of resilience but there are subtle and important differences which we will explain in a moment.

From the minute you get up in the morning to the time you go to sleep your life is full of events which will represent, to one extent or another, some form of stressor, challenge, or pressure. If an individual responds poorly to this, they will often become what is commonly described as stressed.

However, many people respond differently to the same events and they will often achieve a very different set of outcomes. They will perform and behave exceptionally well and will appear to deal effortlessly with problems and setbacks which derail others.

This difference is both interesting and important. Firstly we see that it is possible to have two people who are of equal skills and ability, in receipt of the same training, receive the same education and who have equivalent backgrounds find themselves in the same situation but they will respond quite differently.

One will see a testing situation, like sitting an important exam or completing a challenging assignment as an exciting opportunity to prove to someone what they are capable of doing. The other will see the same situation as threatening. The situation they face is to be feared because in their mind there is a risk present which is likely to “find them out” and reveal to themselves or others how poorly they can perform.

Similarly with facing setbacks. One individual, when getting poor marks for an assignment sees that as a wake up call, a learning opportunity which drives them onto doing better next time. The other sees that as a “fatal blow” confirming that they can't do better.

That difference can be substantially explained by the difference in the individual's mental toughness. Mental toughness describes mindset. Faced with identical situations we will respond differently because of the attitude of mind.

Is a young person's life full of stress, pressure, change, and challenge? Of course it is. That is pretty much what a lot of education and development is about. Anyone involved in the development of young people will know that they see very bright people underperform and people with lesser abilities outperform their more talented brothers and sisters.

Some parts of the above definition are in italics. These highlight important elements of the definition.

First we now know that mental toughness is a “narrow” personality trait. That simply means that it is a part of each and every one of us. Our personality determines how we respond each time we are expected to do something. It applies in almost every situation we find ourselves— at work, in school, in play. In study, etc.

We also know that mental toughness is something called a “plastic” personality trait. It was generally thought at one time that past a certain point in a person's development that most aspects of personality were, to a large extent, fixed.

We now know that most of these are in fact “plastic”. They can change and be changed. People can also learn to adopt behaviours which are not their first preference. Some do so more easily than others. This is good news. It means we can train and develop people to see and do things differently when it is appropriate or beneficial for them to do so.

That does not mean that this is always automatically desirable. Mental sensitivity is the other end of the scale from mental toughness. There is nothing wrong essentially with being mentally sensitive. We know that mentally sensitive people can and do lead fulfilling and productive lives. What we do know statistically is that the more mental toughness you possess the more likely you are to perform better in a variety of settings and you are likely to experience better wellbeing. Therefore there may be benefits to developing a degree of mental toughness or learning what a more mentally tough person would do in a given situation and doing it.

The term “in large part” is also significant. Mental toughness can often explain much of the reason why people behave differently (and more effectively) when dealing with stressors. But it's not the only factor and it won't always be the most important factor. But it emerges consistently as a significant factor and for many in some circumstances as the most important factor. For instance, two large studies on young people preparing for tests and examinations, one in the UK and one in the Netherlands, shows that around twenty-five per cent of an individual's test performance can be explained by differences in their mental toughness (as assessed by the MTQ48 measure).

We therefore believe that understanding mental toughness is a part of the solution to many of the issues with dealing a young person's achievements, wellbeing and (positive) behaviour but it is only part of the solution. Often it will be a key part of the solution. It's not the whole of the solution.

Other aspects of personality will play a part, as will things like abilities, skills, environment, resources, interest etc. As will the support available from people like parents, guardians, teachers, and youth workers amongst others.

Finally we highlighted the term “irrespective of prevailing circumstances”. In a sense, this is a statement about accountability. But it's an important aspect of the concept. The mentally tough will more readily accept that they are largely responsible for their successes and failures. They won't point to a disadvantaged background or lack of a particular resource or support as reason for not doing something. They will generally accept that these are just life's hurdles they must handle—and will believe they can do it. Mentally tough people will achieve in most environments. They may feel let down by others—parents, teachers etc.—but they will still possess that inner drive and belief that it's down to them.

Others, who will often be found at the mentally sensitive end of the scale, will feel that some or all of the “blame” for their inability to achieve or perform satisfactorily can be laid at the feet of others. Their sense of “can do” is much less. They don't possess the same level of self belief or of commitment. They are sensitive to their circumstances.

Peter's work, and the work of his colleagues, has enabled us to identify what are the components of mental toughness. An extremely important aspect of that work has been the emergence of a high quality psychometric test called the MTQ48. This is described in more detail later in the book. It provides practitioners of all types a tool for assessing more accurately and more reliably the mindset of a young person (or indeed any person).

The four components are described in the MTQ48 measure through four scales called the four C's—Control; Challenge; Commitment and Confidence. Each one has subscales. The subscales for confidence and control are described below and can be measured through the MTQ48 psychometric test.

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