“The most important attribute a player must have is mental toughness.” – Mia Hamm
Being mentally tough is a crucial skill in life, and can be developed with practice; we will encounter adversity in all aspects (e.g., business/work, athletics, relationships, etc.), and our ability to cope and respond will determine our successes, however success is measured in that context.
One of the early chapters in Mind Gym talks specifically about mental toughness, and briefly explores seven defining characteristics: “They are a set of behaviors and beliefs about yourself, your work, your sport, and how you interact. A person who is mentally tough looks at competition as a challenge to rise up to rather than a threat to back down from.” (p25)
“Competitors take bad breaks and use them to drive themselves just that much harder. Quitters take bad breaks and use them as reasons to give up.” – Nancy Lopez
Some people just love and thrive off the thrill of competition, and have a will to win that drives them to do the work necessary to succeed. Personally, as a defender in soccer I love going against top forwards to test myself and to develop new capabilities. Whenever I lace up my cleats for a game, which happens from two to four times a week, I’m excited by the prospect of great competition.
“You get what the mind sets.” (Mind Gym – p11)
Whenever an elite athlete takes to the field/track/arena/etc., he or she is brimming with confidence that victory awaits. This applies at the macro level (expectation to win the championship), the micro (expectation to hit the shot) and in-between (expectation to win the game).
The literature has me convinced that this goes beyond simply hoping to win, to the point of truly believing (even against reasonable odds) that winning is imminent. These athletes have the mental discipline to tune out completely any doubts and to move on from or selectively forget any counter-examples. It might even seem delusional to an observer, the degree to which they are confident, but this approach leads to positive expectations and visualization, which naturally extend into positive results.
Personally, I struggle a bit with this one: I believe in myself, but I’m also keenly aware of “reality”.
“What has benefited me the most is learning I can’t control what happens outside of my pitching.” – Greg Maddux
Successful athletes, and successful people in general, control their emotions and behavior. They are keenly aware of what is within their control and what isn’t, and they focus their attention only on the former.
“There are scores of players who can hit every shot in the book who never make it into a Grand Slam event. Those who make it are there because they are mentally tougher. They wanted it more.” – John McEnroe
Success take commitment, and it doesn’t come easily (one of my favourite examples of being committed to achieving a goal is Arnold’s Blueprint).
For me, my commitment to help my teams win pushes me on my off days to go for a long run to increase endurance, or to weight train to build strength and maintain my meagre muscle mass, or to run intervals to focus on speed. Sure, I love the health benefits, but a major driver (perhaps even the major drive) is to perform at my best during my games.
I see this characteristic as being closely related to “Controlled”, in that an athlete has to control what they can control, and remain composed regardless of what happens outside that scope and in the face of adversity or unfortunate circumstance.
Already this season, I’ve been in several matches in which we’ve played against teams full of strong athletes and skilled players who just couldn’t maintain their composure to play together at their best. They’d start complaining to the referee or linesmen, or yelling at each other for mistakes. On the one hand, I don’t like to see this behavior because I feel a bit badly for them, but on the other hand I welcome it because it gives my team a huge edge.
Peak performers take risks. In this fantastic statistical breakdown of just how ridiculously, impossibly effective Lionel Messi is, there’s a chart that shows how often he takes on defenders, one-on-one. Messi actually takes on defenders more than any other player in the world (more than eight times per game); he also succeeds more than any other player (about 55% of the time). Still, this means that about four times a game Messi takes on a defender and loses the ball. But he knows that in this context the upside of a success is many times greater in magnitude than the downside of failure.
I am terrible at taking risks, in that I take none (soccer is simply a microcosm of my overall approach). In general, such an approach prevents catastrophic failure but also limits the upside.
Something that amazes me about elite athletes is their consistency. Game after game the top performers deliver consistent results, regardless of opponent or circumstance (the most impressive example of consistency, of which I’m aware, is Roger Federer – I don’t think we’ll ever see another player approach his records for most consecutive Major quarterfinal and semifinal appearances).
I’m keenly aware of my own performance variations, and I’m working hard to be more consistently great.