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Home arrow Philosophy arrow Developing mental toughness in young people



Self-efficacy has a central place in the history of psychology. It is often used interchangeably with confidence, but in fact they are different. Confidence relates to the strength of belief whereas self-efficacy is more focused on what that belief is directed at. So you can be too confident in some situations, but you can never be too self-efficacious.

Bandura (1986), who developed the self-efficacy model, was convinced that people learn through observing other people. Again suggesting that these core psychological skills can be developed. Some of Bandura's key techniques for learning and developing are:

• Vicarious experiences—seeing other people succeed. The closer these individuals are to the type of the person the observer is, the more powerful the impact
Verbal persuasion—this is the basis of many of the cognitive behavioral therapies available and is the bedrock of coaching

• Techniques that reduce emotional arousal. Dispersing the emotional fog can allow an individual to more rapidly develop.

These techniques are very valuable and form the core of the many of the mental toughness interventions we regularly use.


A major theoretical construct that can be linked to confidence is selfesteem. The key to self-esteem is pride. This pride is related to oneself and is based on both individuals' strengths and an acceptance of their weaknesses. Pride, like so many things, can be enhanced or destroyed by parents and teachers.


It is clear that mental toughness and optimism go hand in hand. Greater levels of optimism have been found to be associated with better mental health, a greater striving for personal growth, better moods, academic and job success, popularity, and better all round coping. It is clear that pessimism is associated with neuroticism and negative moods whereas optimism is principally linked to extraversion, positive moods, and happiness.


Control refers to the extent that we feel that we control our world or believe the world controls us. Control is a key concept in stress management. The seminal work of Karasek has shown us that it is not simply the amount of work we are expected to do that is important, it is the control we have over it. High demands with high control lead to a positive experience. High demands and low control lead to stress and unhappiness. Clearly there is a lesson for educators here, both in their teaching and in their working lives.

The control scale is split into two distinct but related categories: Life control and emotional control. The life control component is linked to controlling one's own future. It is especially important in
understanding, and trying to break down, barriers in the educational system. It is still sadly the case that your socioeconomic status is a major predictor of academic success. It is important that we try to move on the mindset of individuals so that they recognise that they can achieve excellence no matter what their background. Clearly some people have resource advantages, but this cannot be left to be the whole story.

The emotional control component is very important in the classroom or lecture theatre. First, less controlled children are far more likely to act out their emotions than others. Whilst this has a positive side when thinking about positive emotions, there is clearly an issue when dealing with the more negative aspects of the emotional continuum.

For the educator emotional control is an important skill. Again the expression of positive feelings is always welcome, however showing signs of stress and anxiety can unsettle a class and set in train a negative spiral. Emotional openness is often seen as an appropriate end goal, but those on the educational frontline usually recognise the importance of holding in the negatives—biting the proverbial tongue.

Emotional control

Lower scores

Higher scores

Feel things happen to them See issues as “my problem”

See things in terms of guilt and blame

Internalise problems and the feelings that arise from them

Show emotions when provoked or challenged


Show a reaction when criticized Deal poorly with provocation Respond poorly to poor marks

or the prospect of poor performance

Can create a sense of fear and avoidance in others

Good at controlling emotions Understand other people's

emotions/feeling and know how to manage these

Difficult to provoke or annoy Does not appear anxious Impassive when others make

comments which could upset or annoy

Can be insensitive to others remarks

Stays calm in a crisis

Direct their energy to their choices Better at helping others to manage

their emotions

Life control

Lower scores

Higher scores

Believe things happen to them Often believe “I can't do this

because of my … beliefs/ religion/upbringing etc.”

Will readily find excuses for not getting things done

Tends to wait for things to happen rather than take the initiative

Freezes when overloaded Can feel stretched with mod-

est workloads—poor at time management

Comparatively unresourceful

Believe they can make a difference Generally believe “they can”

Comfortable when asked to do several things at a time

Good at planning and time management

Good at prioritising

Prepared to work hard to clear blockages

Happy to take on multiple commitments and know how to deal with them

Will feel they have more choices in life “If this doesn't work I'll do something else”

See the solution rather than the problem


Learned helplessness

The control dimension of mental toughness is closely related to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness refers to the expectation, based on previous experience, where one's actions cannot possibly lead to success. This important idea was proposed by Seligman (1975). When under pressure learned helplessness individuals tend to experience performance decrements. For example Peterson and Barrett (1987), reported that college students with helplessness beliefs obtained lower marks. They tended to be more passive learners, for example seeking out less help from their academic advisors.

The power of attributions

Weiner and Sierad (1975) produced a model of attributions, which is still very relevant today. In this model ability and effort are seen as existing within the person. Ability is relatively fixed in nature, but effort is very
malleable. An individual who believes they control their destiny will attribute success and failure down to these two internal factors. In other words they will succeed because they have talent and worked hard. They fail because they did not have the skills or they simply did not try enough. One of the core philosophies of mental toughness is just that. We are becoming an intensely blame dominated society. Anybody dealing with the public is exposed to the constant threat of complaints. Failure in educational terms is often attributed to the educator, rarely to the student. Clearly it is a combination of the two, and we cannot argue that there is not some bad teaching, but personal responsibility seems to have become rather lost in a cloud of potential litigation. The mentally tough individual is willing to accept the consequences of their actions: both good and bad.

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