Benefits in education
Up until now there has been limited research into the direct academic advantages of mental toughness. At the University of Hull a number of researchers are actively investigating this area. Some of these are reported in more detail elsewhere in this book. A few highlights of this research stream are described below.
Myfanwy Bugler and colleagues have looked at the relationships between mental toughness, academic motivation, and negative classroom behaviour. One hundred and eighty one adolescents (93 females and 88 males) aged fifteen to sixteen years completed two questionnaires, one examining academic motivation and the other examining mental toughness. Teachers completed assessments of the students' classroom behaviour. Both motivation and mental toughness were significant predictors of classroom behaviour. However, mental toughness was more significantly negatively associated with behaviour.
Helen St Clair-Thompson and her team carried out a series of three exploratory studies, examing the relationship between mental toughness and different aspects of educational performance in adolescents aged between eleven and sixteen. They found a significant association between several aspects of mental toughness and academic attainment and attendance, significant associations between mental toughness
and classroom behaviour, and finally they demonstrated significant associations between mental toughness and peer relationships.
Peter Clough and colleagues looked at the relationship of mental toughness with performance in higher education. The participants were 161 first year university students (105 men, 56 women) enrolled on three different sports-related degree programmes at a large UK university in the north of England. The sample consisted of sport and exercise science students (n = 46), sport coaching students (n = 65) and sport rehabilitation students (n = 50). Two measures concerning academic progress (i.e., credits) and achievement (i.e., end of year grade) were calculated.
The results of the study supported predictions concerning the role of mental toughness in higher educational, as students who passed compared to those that failed their first year of study were found to have significantly higher levels of mental toughness. In addition, the actual academic performance of students with high mental toughness was found to be significantly higher (i.e., mean year grade) than those with low levels of mental toughness. In combination, these results indicate that students with high levels of mental toughness are more likely to pass and proceed (rather than fail and dropout) and achieve higher grades than students with low mental toughness.
Explaining the advantages
Work has begun into trying to identify the underlying mechanisms behind the obvious mental toughness advantage found in many people.
Nicholls, Polman, Levy, and Backhouse (2008) found significant relationships between mental toughness and the use of coping strategies. Consistent with expectations, mental toughness was found to be associated with more problem or approach coping strategies (i.e., reducing or eliminating the stressor) such as mental imagery, effort expenditure, thought control, and logical analysis; but less use of avoidance coping strategies such as distancing, mental distraction, or resignation. This finding suggests mentally tough individuals prefer to tackle problems head-on by actively seeking solutions. Building on this work, Kaiseler, Polman and Nicholls (2009) assessed stress appraisal, coping, and coping effectiveness in a study where 482 athletes reported how they coped with a self-selected intense stressor experienced within a
two-week period. Higher mental toughness was associated with more problem-focused coping strategies and less emotion-focused coping strategies.
Using the MTQ48, Crust and Azadi (2010) found mental toughness was related to the use of performance strategies in competition; namely activation, relaxation, self-talk, emotional control, and goal setting. Furthermore, Crust (2009) investigated whether or not mentally tough individuals experienced different levels of affect intensity (e.g., response to emotional stimuli) than more sensitive individuals. However, mental toughness and affect intensity were found to be unrelated, Crust argued that there is no evidence to suggest that mentally tough individuals are less affected by pressure; they may simply deal with pressure more adaptively.
Dewhurst and colleagues (2012) carried out the first ever study to directly examine the cognitive underpinning of the mental toughness advantage. They did this by using the directed forgetting paradigm, in which participants are given a surprise memory test for material they were previously instructed to forget. Participants with high mental toughness showed better recall of a to-be-remembered list following instructions to forget the previous list. The superior recall of the to-be-remembered list suggests that mentally tough individuals have an enhanced ability to prevent unwanted information from interfering with current goals. These findings support the proposal that cognitive inhibition is one of the mechanisms underpinning mental toughness.
The possible biological base of mental toughness
This new area of research is necessarily speculative but we are beginning to accumulate evidence relating to the biological basis of mental toughness. It is clear that mental toughness can be developed, but is also probable that people are born with a different starting point of mental toughness.
There appears to be a significant biological component as suggested by a study of monozygotic (identical) and dizygotic (non-identical) twins (Horsburgh, Schermer, Veselka & Vernon, 2009). The findings from this study have provided evidence in support of the heritability of this trait and suggested that the expression of mental toughness appears to be largely due to genetic and non-shared environmental factors. This supports the argument that mental toughness, like other personality
traits, has a biological basis. The four subscales of mental toughness all showed a somewhat lower level of heritability than the overall mental toughness score, but individual differences in challenge, commitment, control, and confidence were nonetheless attributable to genetic and non-shared environmental factors.
Following on from this genetic research we were interested to see if there were correlates of mental toughness within the brain. Eighty young adult participants took part in a brain scanning study. All participants were recruited from the general public and from the staff and student populations at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy where behavioural and scan data for this study were collected. They completed the mental toughness questionnaire and also had their brains scanned using MRI techniques.
Of great significance was the identification of a significant positive correlation between high total mental toughness scores and grey matter volume values in the precuneus. This structure plays an important role in multisensory integration, helping individuals deal with multiple stimuli with high levels of competence. In addition, this structure is also involved in taking a first person perspective and when interpreting an action as being controlled by oneself as the agent. This might be a major contributing factor to individual variance in mental toughness, leading to greater levels of life competence, more controlled and diligent actions, and consequently greater levels of efficacy and coping.
In the last fifteen years there has been considerable research interest in the MTQ48. This test is the most widely used measure of mental toughness in the world at the moment and the data generated by these research studies have provided a fascinating insight into the potential role of mental toughness in the real world. Mentally tough individuals appear to be happier, healthier, and perform better. We are beginning to understand the underpinnings of these advantages and this offers an opportunity to develop this aspect of peoples' lives. The biological basis of mental toughness offers some powerful support for the validity of the model. However, it does not mean that mental toughness is fixed, rather it simply says some people are born tougher than others.