Mental Toughness in Atheletes

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Playing a sport isn't just physical, it's also mental. In roller derby both physical and mental toughness plays a role.

“You play roller derby? You must be tough!”

Most derby players have heard these words and with good reason. This is a contact sport and played on skates for an additional degree of speed and skill. Along with the demanding physical requirements of agility, strength, speed, and endurance, even the most mobile skater is regularly on the giving and receiving side of some colossal collisions. While bumps, bruises, and scrapes from hits and falls are common, more serious injuries do occur as well, including broken bones and concussions.

An athlete’s toughness is often considered synonymous with being able to execute challenging skills despite fatigued muscles and the physical toll of hitting other players and the track. In this view, toughness is the bloody, bruised boxer in a Hollywood film that ignores the pain to keep fighting. But toughness is more than a physical trait of performing amidst agony. In fact, the mental component of toughness may be even more important to an athlete’s performance.

A study of elite sports performers published in the Journal of Applied Sports Psychology (What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness?) found that mentally tough athletes possessed two key psychological traits: a strong sense of self-efficacy and an internal locus of control. This means they had an unshakeable belief in their own abilities and viewed the power governing their abilities as coming from within, rather than controlled by external forces.

As a result, the study found that these athletes possessed better coping, confidence, and focus than their opponents when faced with high-pressure situations and the demands of intense training periods.

So what about athletes who do not have such an unwavering confidence in themselves? Can they become mentally tough?

Dr. Jonathan Fader, a clinical psychological who provides training in sports psychology, says yes. According to Fader, an athlete can develop and sustain mental toughness in three ways:

  • Creating routines
  • Utilizing visualization techniques
  • Practicing positive self-talk

According to Fader, athletes often trip themselves up by overthinking an outcome rather than trusting their highly practiced skills and innate talent. So, while strategizing before game day is fine, Fader states that it’s important to have pre-, during, and post-performance routines that allow an athlete to remain calm and present in the moment.

To do this, Fader said visualizing success is vital, and should be positive, detailed, and outlined to exactly what an athlete wants to accomplish with room in mind for what to do in the case of an error.

He also recommended that athletes develop and practice self-talk techniques that are personally affirming and remind them of past achievements.

These skills can help an athlete attain more success and enjoyment out of sport. When applied to other areas of life, however, they can also help individuals improve overall personal achievement and satisfaction.

–Pariah Carey

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