Mental toughness—its links to current thinking

Doug Strycharczyk

Mental toughness as a concept stands at the crossroads of some of the most important thinking about young people today. Not just young people either, it is important for the development of all people whatever their age. Like many positive psychological concepts, the earlier the development the better. But developing mental toughness or one of its apparent variants (and there are many) is arguably worthwhile at any time. In fact perhaps the biggest strength of mental toughness is to provide an overarching concept that links many of the recent initiatives with young people.

First, there are so many words and phrases that are used to describe what is essentially the same concept—resilience, character, confidence, grit, tenacity, mindset, optimism, purposefulness, heart, will, reliability, future-mindedness, hard working, and even entrepreneurial. Several models add other qualities for descriptors—creativity, forgiveness, generous, gratitude, honesty, humility, joy, thrift, awe, and even love.

Around the turn of the century we have seen the emergence of two similar pieces of work from North America—Carol Dweck's (2012) mindset concept and Martin Seligman's, (2006) learned optimism and learned helplessness concept. Both are described more fully in

this chapter. In the UK Guy Claxton has led thinking around this area and although neither an academic nor an educator, Matthew Syed has added some very useful ideas in his book Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice (2011) which is a reflection on his experiences as an elite athlete. Yvonne Roberts in her work with the Young Foundation has also pulled together a good deal of the thinking in this area.

We like to think that our conceptualisation of mental toughness has done something similar.

We have, we think, one main advantage. Almost every other researcher has focused on their understanding of the concept from the specific perspective of their own discipline—whether it is sports or education. We operate (Doug through AQR and Peter through the University) with every major sector in the economy—occupational, social, health, sports, and education. AQR works in more than forty countries, soon to be almost ninety. Our perspective is very broad, but it is interesting and useful to spot the common themes which seem to apply everywhere. It is also helpful in connecting our thinking to other relevant models such as the theory of motivation. You only need to read Daniel Pink's book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2011), to see the relevance.

In 2011/12, the UK Department of Employment commissioned a paper entitled: “An education for the 21st century: A narrative for youth work today”. Although the paper focused on youth work it spoke to the education community as a whole. Youth work is where non-vocational skills of young people are often developed.

One of its key observations was:

Youth work is concerned with a holistic approach to development, which is fundamental to the emotional wellbeing of young people and promoting greater 'resilience' and 'mental toughness', the quality which determines in large part how individuals respond to stress, pressure and challenge such as change, irrespective of prevailing circumstances.

Outcomes such as increased resilience or mental toughness are products of the capabilities in the logic model described below. Increasingly evidence highlights the link between the development of these capabilities and the achievement of 'harder' outcomes around employment, education and health. (UK Department of Employment, 2011/2012)
In 2012, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility published a paper on social mobility called the “Seven key truths about social mobility”. One of its key findings was personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link and added that one of the challenges for (social and educational) policy in the UK is to recognise that social/emotional skills underpin academic and other successes and that these can be taught.

Well we would mostly agree with that.

When they write about personal resilience and emotional wellbeing we would say they are talking about mental toughness. We would also argue that young people could be shown how to learn to be mentally tough or personally resilient and possess good emotional wellbeing. But it's not easy to teach them to do this. Like most important things in life—it requires hard work and a clear direction. As we'll see in the chapters on developing mental toughness most of the approaches that work are experiential in nature.

So in the UK we are seeing a groundswell of understanding that developing the whole person is vitally important in developing young people who are skilled and talented and hard working. Focusing on knowledge and abilities is too narrow an approach to be truly effective.

In the USA, there have been two key players in creating this kind of understanding and of creating models which have a good degree of accessibility. This is the work of Dweck and Seligman mentioned earlier. With careful thought they can be applied in most situations. The MTQ48, described elsewhere in this book, provides a truly effective assessment tool. Without a measure it becomes impossible to effectively evaluate a model and, perhaps most importantly, it is not possible to fully evaluate the effectiveness of any interventions.

Another issue is that, although the two sets of ideas are not competitive or particularly contradictory to one another, there has developed a curious tribalism amongst the supporter of either model. It's pointless. Both contribute to our understanding of this key aspect of young people's development.

We would like to think that the mental toughness model overarches both sets of thought and helps to explain how they come together. Take Dweck first.

Carol Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford University. She is primarily interested in motivation, personality, and
how people develop. In 2006 she published a book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Anyone remotely involved in the development of young people should read it. She has introduced the notion of mindset which we will see shortly is very similar to mental toughness.

Within this idea she believes that individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their understanding of where intelligence comes from. At one end of this continuum there are those who think their success is based on innate ability. She described these as having a “fixed mindset”. When you try to do something you can either do it or not do it, because you have the ability or you don't have the ability to do it.

Those at the other end of the continuum believe success is based on a different, opposite mindset. This she called a “growth mindset”. This is based on notions of hard work, learning, training, and good oldfashioned doggedness. Whether or not you succeed when you set out to do something is down to how much effort you put in.

People aren't necessarily self-aware about this. An individual's mindset can often be inferred from their reaction to challenge, change, setback, and failure. Those with a fixed mindset will fear failure. It means (to them) that they are not able enough to do what they have been asked to do. It's a pretty disheartening conclusion to reach about one self.

If a young person takes this view when facing a setback or a rejection (like poor marks for a piece of work) they can damn themselves.

People with a growth mindset are much less sensitive to setback and challenge. They are more likely to see these as one of life's experiences and believe that they can learn from failure. She surmised that those with a growth mindset enjoy better wellbeing and are likely to achieve better performance in most things.

Dweck carried out several large studies which provided a good deal of support for this idea of mindset. Dweck argues that the growth mindset will allow a person to live a less stressful and more successful life.

One of the interesting things to emerge from her work is that when giving recognition to a young person for a piece of work well done, it is much better to praise the individual for their effort than it is to praise them for being clever. The former encourages a growth mindset. The latter promotes a fixed mindset. The table below list a number of qualities Dweck has associated with having a growth or fixed mindset. Virtually all are commonly use descriptors in mental toughness too.

FIXED MINDSET—Risk avoidance; focus on ability rather than effort; effort is disagreeable; success should be effortless; failure can be attributed to others (blame); mistakes and setbacks are to be avoided, circumstances will influence my success, if I can't succeed it's because I don't have the ability.

GROWTH MINDSET—Challenge is good; risk oriented, confidence; learn- ing from mistakes; hard work is important—more important than ability; practice develops ability; people can change; what one person can learn, eve- ryone can learn, I can shape what happens to me, it's down to me.

Only a growth mindset delivers sustainable success. Growth mindset = mental toughness.

Seligman is a professor of psychology in the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Psychology. He is widely acknowledged as the “father of positive psychology” and has published many books on this subject. Flourish, one of his most recent, is to be recommended.

Like Dweck he developed a model about learned optimism and learned helplessness which also appear to have two points at either end of a continuum. His original work on learned helplessness led him to a view that it is a psychological condition where a person has learned to act or behave helplessly in given situations. These situations usually involve some exposure to a setback or adversity. However the significant thing here is that the person will often have the potential to deal with the adversity but will choose not to do so.

Like Dweck he argued that there were two types of people at the extremes of this continuum. Pessimists and optimists. Both learn to be their type.

Pessimists learn to be helpless in a number of ways—they cannot deal with failure and setback and accept their helplessness. They will learn to be helpless if others do things for them and be prevented from learning from their experience. Learned helplessness is a key concept in Psychology and has a significant place in the development of the discipline.

Optimists learn optimism as a result of dealing with events in a positive way—and learning from the experience. Learned optimism was
important in creating a state of happiness. In that state it was also much easier to maintain a level of optimism. Again he argued the optimist got more out of life than pessimists—they achieved more and they enjoyed better health and wellbeing.

Once again the ideas correlate closely with the notions of mental toughness and mental sensitivity.

The table below list a number of qualities Seligman has associated with having a growth or fixed mindset. Once again most are commonly use descriptors in mental toughness too.

LEARNED HELPLESSNESS—Feeling out of control—things happen to you—avoid challenge and risk—lack confidence. Doing things for people teaches them to be helpless.

LEARNED OPTIMISM—Feel in control—visualise a world full of oppor- tunity (happiness) irrespective of real surroundings—confidence. Learning develops optimism. Resilience.

Some of Seligman's ideas are challenged by other psychologists. His attention on subjective wellbeing is not universally popular. Others argue that psychological wellbeing is more important. Nevertheless much of his work is admired and it contributes to our understanding of how young people respond to life events.

In the UK, cognitive scientist, Guy Claxton's ideas on learning power have gained some traction. Learning power is described as the collection of psychological traits and skills that enable a person to engage effectively with a variety of learning challenges.

Claxton sees learning power as a form of intelligence which is rooted, not in abilities, but in personality variables such as emotional resilience. Moreover this power can be developed in most people.

To put it simply—improve your learning power and you learn more and ultimately you become more effective.

Guy Claxton1 has developed a model for building learning power. He identifies a list of seventeen learning capacities grouped around four clusters called resilience, resourcefulness, reciprocity, and reflection.

• Resilience covers the emotional and attentional aspects of learning, and includes perseverance, absorption (or flow), concentration (or managing distraction), and perceptiveness (or attentive noticing). • Resourcefulness focuses on the cognitive aspects of learning, including questioning, connecting (making links), imagining, reasoning, and capitalising (making smart use of resources).

• Reciprocity covers the social dimension of learning, and includes interdependence (balancing social and solitary learning), collaboration, listening and empathy, and imitation (receptivity to others' learning strengths).

• Reflection covers the aspects of learning that are to do with strategic management and self-awareness. They include planning, selfevaluating (revising), looking for further application (distilling) and fluency in the languages of learning (meta learning).

Once again the overlap with resilience and mental toughness is apparent.

In her book GRIT: The Skills For Success and How They Are Grown (Young Foundation), Yvonne Roberts puts forward a compelling argument that Britain's schools need to prioritise grit and self-discipline. Providing evidence from around the world she shows that these contribute as much to success at work and in life as ability (IQ) and academic qualifications.

Over emphasis on exams and academic qualifications has led to these life skills being pushed to the margins. With the UK facing a situation where over a million young people are not in employment, education, or training and tens of thousands of graduates are facing unemployment, she argues that a large proportion of young people have not been adequately prepared for a much tougher and much more challenging economic environment.

In 2011 Matthew Syed published an interesting book Bounce: the Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice which became an international bestseller. Syed is a former world champion table tennis player who experiences the high and the lows of elite sports performance. Now a lead writer for the Times newspaper he is a clear advocate of Carol Dweck's.

Drawing on his experience as an elite athlete, and extensive reading of other models of performance, he argues that for any significantly complex human activity (especially sports and games) natural talent is comparatively unimportance to “purposeful” practice. He believes the wiring of the brain required to succeed is best achieved through significant amounts of “purposeful” practice. This hard work and
purposeful practice is often mistaken for natural talent. Although he is concerned with how young people develop, his writing widens the application of his ideas to other areas of life.

The high performer who appears to have appeared from nowhere will have often served an apprenticeship that no-one will have noticed. The reality is that what most high achievers have in common is a belief that working harder than their peers delivers better development and performance. A belief in their fixed superiority is not their driver.

Syed also draws attention to other factors that he sees as important in performance and wellbeing. None of these ideas are truly his and he acknowledges their provenance. What he does is look at the work of others and seeks to pull them together into some form of more complete picture. These factors include:

• Character and Attitude are important—mind over matter, self belief (even when it's not really there), look for citadels of excellence (work with stars to be a star)

• Choking—control, confidence, dealing with setback, fear

• Learning from mistakes—confidence, it's OK to choke if you do it once …

• Motivational jolts—where does inner drive come from, sustaining it, and “I can do that if he can do it”.

Again all of this pretty much corresponds with what we know is described as mental toughness.

Finally we now see the concept appearing in other world's altogether. Jim Collins wrote Good to Great in 2001. This is one of the most influential books in management in the world. Looking at what are the characteristics of the most sustainably successful organisation over the previous thirty years, he noted that one of the key factors was something he called “hardiness”. He observed that the truly successful didn't avoid difficulty and they faced setbacks as much as any business over the course of their existence. They confronted the brutal facts—they never lost faith.

The net effect is to see that, in recent years, the concepts of resilience, hardiness, and mental toughness have bubbled to the surface in every walk of life. It may not have been “politically correct” to suggest that working harder was a good thing. Being competitive and setting goals and targets has been derided. But these are characteristics of the real
world. The world in which we all live is full of challenge, change, and opportunity. With that comes the potential for, and the reality of, failure, setback, and adversity.

It is what we have to prepare young people for.

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