Mental toughness. Are we sexist with our assumptions?

IMG_4310If you caught Susie Wolff on the Clare Balding Show last week you would have seen the interview where she explained a comment made by Sir Stirling Moss. That comment suggested that women do not have the mental skills to race in Formula 1, the former driver followed by telling the BBC “I think they have the strength, but I don’t know if they’ve got the mental aptitude to race hard, wheel-to-wheel.”

Now as a woman with personal experience of sport at the highest level as well as professional with expertise in psychology and cognitive development I find this a very misleading comment. Working through current literature there are of course certain gender differences in men and women. For example, we know that we process information slightly differently and through the general population we find that males are more logical in their processing approach whereas women are typically more emotional and follow a ‘feeling’. But how much does that really matter to mental skill development and performance?

|f we follow the concept that mental toughness (aside from natural personality factors which also play a key role) are mental skills, then surely Ericson’s theory of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance may apply because mental skills are after all, skills. The theoretical evidence presented by Ericson suggests that in most domains of expertise individual differences even among elite athletes are closely related to the amount of deliberate practice. Therefore what’s not to say that one person displaying more mental toughness than another is not related with gender but more because they have the awareness and strategies in place to execute that particular skill and more importantly have practiced it so it has a positive impact on their performance when required

Another element to consider on this topic is that many studies will discuss the benefits of mental skills training however the research does not necessarily measure mental toughness as its own specific variable, studies may also study slightly different aspects within this area, so how can we truly know what mental toughness is? How effective it is? Or even the variables of?

On a more practical level during any work with an individual, self-awareness is at the heart of what we do. This is because in order for somebody to develop effective mental skills which are appropriate and specific to that person they first have to understand how they work, what their emotional, cognitive and behavioural responses are to certain situations. Now we do know that traditionally women are typically more likely to seek support in most health related fields because the social norm is more accepting, however, that does not necessarily mean that they are more self-aware. I have seen both male and females who are equally self-aware and emotionally intelligent. At the same time I have also worked with males and females who have really struggled to self-reflect and build that self-awareness therefore the development of mental strategies and application of has really struggled.

Coming back to the term mental toughness and what it actually means, I personally dislike the term mental toughness as it implies a sense of someone being mentally strong and mentally weak which I find dangerous territory in today’s society. If we delve down the route of assuming that someone not classically mentally tough is therefore ‘weak’ then there is a risk of preventing people from speaking out about their own problems both emotionally and cognitively in case they are viewed in a negative way. This may also impact on help seeking behaviours for mental health problems, something which the field is working very hard to eliminate current stigmas with. So is mental toughness the appropriate word to use? Is there a more suitable and accurate way of describing it? And can we assume that there are such great gender differences when it comes to mental skills, resilience and emotional intelligence?

It is clear from current research that there are certain gender differences in a person’s cognitive abilities, we know there are differences in physical attributes, but there are also a wide range of other factors which may contribute to one individual developing greater mental skills than another which may not be gender specific such as personality, life experiences, practice, adherence and overall self-awareness.

Therefore I would encourage professionals and athletes to first consider the impact of the word ‘mental toughness’ and reflect on exactly what they are developing within such a broad field. And secondly in conversations or practice rather than having set assumptions and gender generalisations actually consider the individual differences. On this, it is the differences of one person to another which makes them unique so work to explore their areas of development, their strengths and empower that person to be the emotionally intelligent person they are capable of being.

We are all creatures of habit, mental skills are successful when the matching of appropriate skills is combined with applied practice, adherence and the belief that they will work. I truly believe that any individual, from any walk of life is capable to develop these skills and be empowered to reach their potential, it is our job as practitioners to help make that possible.

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