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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Deliberate Practice Theory tells us everything we need to know about how a novice athlete becomes an expert athlete

In past years many researchers have focused on the processes that make it possible for an individual to become an “expert” in certain domains such as science, medicine, music, sport, and art (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993). For example, Galton (1896) first attempted to focus on the notion that individuals had an “innate natural ability” and believed that many “experts” were biologically similar. However, the chosen topic has since been the cornerstone of a great and lengthy debate with numerous researchers dismissing Galton’s theory (Bridge & Toms, 2013). Furthermore, Watson (1930), a major contributor within the field of behavioural psychology, also dismissed Galton’s claim by famously stating:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents” .

Who and What is an Expert?

Throughout sporting literature there have been many definitions for the term “expert” which, in order to gain a true understanding, is beneficial. On the other hand, it also results in inconsistencies throughout literature in terms of producing a solid definition. Numerous papers have considered international athletes to be expert performers (Hodges & Starkes, 1996). Although, others have only considered World Champions and Olympians as experts in their chosen sports (Law et al., 2007). In order to know who is an expert performer, it is important to know what an expert performance is.

Again, there are a number of researchers that claim to have defined ‘expert performance’; however, Ericsson’s et al. (2007) definition is sufficient. Ericsson et al. indicated that true expert performance can involve three significant aspects: (1) Expertise should lead to consistently superior performance over that of other experts. (2) True expertise should generate “concrete results”. (3) Expertise can be simulated and measured in a laboratory.

Deliberate Practice Framework

The framework for deliberate practice was a developmental model which was based upon learning effectiveness and as a result, Ericsson et al. (1993) introduced deliberate practice as a major influence on an expert’s development. Ericsson et al. pioneered a study that focused upon the area of expertise. Within the study, the practice record of expert and non-expert violinists and pianists were compared. It was hypothesised that the level of performance generated by the musicians would have direct correlation to the hours spent partaking in deliberate practice. To note, at this point deliberate practice was acknowledged to be an activity that performers are involved in for the sole reason of improving specific skills and abilities that contribute towards performance. The results of Ericsson’s et al. study significantly supported their hypothesis. In line with Simon and Chase (1973), expert musicians were found to have engaged in considerably more practice time (10,000 hours by the age of 20) than non-expert musicians (5,000 hours by the age of 20). However, Ericsson et al. established a difference to Simon and Chase’s findings, in that not only did the expert musicians practice for more hours; but they also participated in a specific and purposeful type of practice, so named deliberate practice. Ericsson et al., also indicated that the activity the expert performer participated in required sizeable effort and concentration (Baker et al., 2005), and were said not to be naturally enjoyable. On a significantly positive note, research within the sporting domain argued this point by stating that many of the aspects of deliberate practice were, in fact, enjoyable (Hodges & Starkes, 1996). The literature provided directly shows support for the deliberate practice framework by providing evidence of a relationship between deliberate practice and performance. Ericsson et al. confirmed the theoretical framework was established.

Since establishing the original deliberate practice framework, many researchers have supported the relationship between deliberate practice and expert performance and has been done so in numerous specialist areas including: wrestling (Hodges & Starkes, 1996), ultra-endurance triathlon (Baker et al., 2005), chess (Charness et al., 2005), long-distance running (Wallingford, 1975), and even in areas such as teaching (Dunn & Shriner, 1999) and medicine (Ericsson, 2004). The deliberate practice framework was first introduced into sport by Hodges and Starkes (1996) with their interest in wrestling expertise. The study followed the methodology of Ericsson’s et al. (1993) in terms of comparing the practice history of international level and club level wrestlers. They concluded that the expert group engaged in lengthier quantities of deliberate practice compared to the non-expert group. These findings further support and validate the deliberate practice framework in its entirety. Although, another significant factor emerged that had previously been dismissed, which was that the expert wrestlers dramatically increased their practice hours earlier within their career as opposed to the non-expert wrestlers who did not (Hodges & Starkes, 1996).

More recently, the theory has since achieved a extensive level of support with Kaufman (2007) stating; “The expert performance approach championed by Ericsson et al. provides a scientific way forward for research on giftedness, and offers exciting new ways to further our understanding of the determinants of high ability within a particular domain of expertise”. Equally, the research has been criticised with Winner (2000) explaining that “Ericsson’s research demonstrated the importance of hard work but did not rule out the role of innate ability”. However, due to the framework being loosely developed from Galton’s (1896) “natural ability” theory it would be un-ideal to dismiss this claim entirely. In order to explore natural ability, this would lead into a different approach entirely and possibly even a different area of profession. In contrast, it was explained that when including individual differences within performance, deliberate practice is a necessary factor (Campitelli & Gobet, 2011).

Although Ericsson et al. (1993) suggested that individuals who specialise earlier in their life gain a considerable improvement compared to those who do not, they did not find it a necessary aspect of the framework. Since then, however, the aspect of early specialisation has been deemed a contributor within the framework and suggests that individuals who specialise at a later point in their life are unlikely to surpass the performance levels of those who specialise at an earlier stage (Williams & Ford, 2008).

Due to the research in early specialisation, this has created a belief that in order to become an expert in any domain it is vital to specialise in the deliberate practice needed to become expert in that domain as early as possible. The concept of early specialisation has been subjected to harsh disapproval by numerous researchers in the sporting domain, explaining that early specialisation can lead to many negative consequences. Negative consequences such as significantly increased injury risk (Law et al., 2007), eating disorders (Anshel, 2004), burnout, and dropout (Gould et al., 1996) in young athletes. However, further research has contradicted these claims by stating that the population of athletes who experienced these negative consequences was insufficient compared to athletes who benefitted from early specialisation without any consequences, and thus was suggested that it cannot be significant in predicting future actions (Ericsson, 2013).

The Developmental Model of Sports Participation (DMSP)

With these criticisms in mind, another model was developed from and concurrent with the deliberate practice framework. Cote and colleagues (Cote, 1999) highlighted the importance of early specialisation and produced The Developmental Model of Sports Participation (DMSP). The DMSP is a theoretical framework that combines the athlete alongside their environment. It has also produced additional developmental pathways which include a path for athletes who do not become expert but continue to participate therefore resulting in recreational athletes. With further addition, an early specialisation path was also included, which acknowledges the deliberate practice theory. Recent investigation studies (Bruner et al., 2009) highlighted that the DMSP is the foremost conceptualisation of athlete development in the sporting literature.

To start, Cote conducted a qualitative assessment of four elite athletes, including their families. Derived from the results, he then introduced three chronological stages (years) of talent development with some major alterations. The stages introduced by Cote included the aspects of deliberate play and deliberate practice, are specific to sporting domains, and set a time span from early childhood to late adolescence, in turn drastically increasing the importance of youth development. The stages introduced by Cote were the sampling, specialisation, and investment years. Firstly, the sampling years were suggested to have occurred between the ages of six and thirteen, following the Critical Stages of Talent Development, the first stage was playful activities by nature. However, he discovered that these playful activities integrated into multiple sports. In addition, the presence of deliberate play; which is an aspect defined by Cote et al. (2009) as participating in sport for their own sake, is enjoyable and does not require adult involvement. Secondly, the specialisation years occur between the ages of thirteen and fifteen (Cote et al., 2012). Athletes at this stage were suggested to be focused on only one or two sports and they are involved in frequent and structured deliberate practice. Finally, the investment years are suggested to occur from the age of fifteen and onwards. At this stage the athletes are involved in substantial amounts of deliberate practice, along with offering a considerable amount of time and effort to this stage.

Application

The Deliberate Practice Framework and the DMSP combined can be offered as an explanation for the development of expert performers in multiple sporting domains. Future research using the relevant developmental pathways as a channel may be able to inform and applied to practices and policies within sporting programmes and National Governing Bodies. Further investigation into the developmental history of athletes will highlight vital information about the ideal conditions for learning and practice. Therefore, coaching staff, trainers and parents may be able to utilise this information in order to direct the athlete/performer to take full advantage of their development potential.

Depression in Sport

As we commemorate the 3 year anniversary of Gary Speed’s death, we are reminded of the stark realities associated with depression. Whilst football still has a long way to go before tackling the stigma of mental health issues, the untimely death of Speed has brought about active change in tackling one of football’s biggest taboo subjects. Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed a fluctuation in footballers openly sharing their battle with depression; Lee Hendrie (former Aston Villa midfielder), Leon MacKenzie (former Norwich striker), Stan Collymore (former Liverpool striker), Paul Gascoigne (former England midfielder), Neil Lennon (Celtic FC manager). The Daily Telegraph reported that over a quarter of footballers suffer from depression, with ex-professionals forming the majority of that statistic. Sporting Chance clinic received phone calls from 10 footballers after the death of Gary Speed.

However, depression is not just a football-centric phenomenon. Sportsmen and women are perceived to be placed on a pedestal, immune from the grips of depression, however, they too are humans and victims to this oppressive mental health issue. Countless athletes have battled and continue to battle their way through depression; Dame Kelly Holmes, Iwan Thomas, Freddie Flintoff, Markus Trescothick, Frank Bruno, Ian Thorpe to name a few.

So what factors contribute to depression in professional athletes?

Whilst exercise is commonly associated with the release of positive endorphins in to the system, the conventions of professional sport can be detrimental to the human mind. Confinements of victory and defeat, the bitterness of injury, the pressure to retain/regain position on the team, concerns over ability to perform, internal/external pressures and sacrifices, and the relentless spotlight of the media can very often lead to a breaking point in mental resilience.

As previously mentioned, former professional athletes are increasingly predisposed to suffering with depression. This can be the outcome from a variety of factors; extreme change in environment (from adrenaline fuelled competition to an empty void and loss of routine), loss of identity, cessation of elite demands, and biological factors (significant decrease in serotonin levels).

Tackling depression in sport.

The death of German goalkeeper, Robert Enke, who committed suicide in 2009 after losing his battle against depression, sparked the creation of the Robert Enke Foundation, which provides 24 hour support to players who are experiencing mental health issues. Not only this, the PFA released a 36 page document about depression to ex-footballers after the death of Gary Speed in order to provide additional support and advice.

Other forms of support can be found in a variety of places. Utilizing your expertise in your sporting area, such as coaching and a supervisory role can help to alleviate an onset of depression. Consulting a sport psychologist is also a very good and specific route to apply techniques (check out our website to see a range of services that we can offer you; www.mindinsport.com ).

At this point, it would seem apt to quote comedian Jason Manford as he commemorated Robin Williams, in saying “The world needs you even if you don’t think it does. I promise, we need you here, now.”

Samaritans – 08457 90 90 90

An athlete’s story: Clean eating and intense training– where do we draw the line?

I’m writing this blog today not as a professional in mental health, not somebody who offers emotional support nor as a therapist but for the rare occasion, as myself in the role of athlete. This is a topic close to my heart because I have seen the effects of over training and food restriction take hold of those around me but I have also experienced areas of this myself across my teenage years and even to this day …

Elite sport is a very unique culture, performance is key and in order to achieve that level of excellence people’s standards of wanting perfection in everything from physical attributes, conditioning, aesthetics through to our personality types are extremely high! So, in a world where this is the norm how do we know what is healthy? How do we know when we are within a healthy zone of training, eating and performance culture without crossing that line in to routine, obsession and unhappiness? And beyond that in to eating disorders and further mental health issues?

I guess the real answer is that for most, we probably don’t! Not least until we are caught in that cycle and experiencing these things for real! You will find much research in sport discussing the importance of good nutrition, there is of course evidential backing for clean eating, fuelling your body efficiently and ensuring our ‘machine’ – our only vessel to execute greatness in sporting domain is appropriately fuelled! Likewise, with the training in order to achieve the very best standards in sport (regardless of the sport) you will find hours of practice, dedication, rehearsal and conditioning are essential to meet the mark – rest and recovery of course being just as important in that!

Now with the amount of sport science involved in sport these days athletes are very well looked after in these respects, we can trust in the team around us to provide us with the information, programmes and support to achieve these high standards. However, to follow such routine takes a certain type of person…

Somebody said to me once when I was a young athlete ‘in order to make it in sport, you have to have an element of craziness about you’, now at the time I didn’t understand what this meant. But years on, through many or the usual ups and downs of sport, more understanding of the sporting culture and greater self awareness in knowing my own habits I realise they were fairly accurate! That’s not to say I’m crazy or those around me are crazy, but I realise that there is certainly an element of obsession, addiction, routine and perfectionism that comes with the territory of making it in performance sport.

What can start as a routine and merely ‘following the programme’ quickly becomes your world, your whole world starts to revolve around the sport, the eating and the training you do … but that’s normal isn’t it? Because you have targets to meet? Goals to achieve? And this is only way to get there?!?!

In some respects those goals keep you going, they motivate you and inspire you to keep going, keep pushing and striving for perfection. One of my favourite quotes was given to me by my father (an ex international rugby player himself) and that was ‘by aiming for perfection we can reach excellence’. This has almost become my own motto – but in my training for big competitions where I stuck to training religiously and clean eating, no drinking, no going out, routine and discipline in everything I did, it quickly started to turn to something else….

Although training brilliantly in the gym and feeling great physically, there came a point where I noticed starting to feel unhappy about following the plan for myself. I envied those around me indulging in what they wanted, I couldn’t allow myself to have that treat or cheat meal in fear of the guilt that would follow, I never wanted to break the routine because id set myself a target and if I didn’t follow it through till after competition that would meant I failed, I would have lost, I would have done myself an injustice.

Now my reasons for this structure was certainly not weight based!!! And in reality I was very rational in that I knew I was never going to suddenly put on lots of weight or my performance suddenly dip – it was purely the target and expectation I had set myself. But that wasn’t the driving force for me…

Wanting to go in to big competitions knowing I had done everything I possibly could to be the best I can be, that was my motivator – that has always been my number 1 motivation in everything I do. ‘TO BE THE BEST ME’ not to look back and think I could have done any more.

So how do we break the cycle? I guess for me, as somebody who experienced over training as a teenager I know my signs and indicators a lot better. I can recognise that there is a difference between what is needed and what I want, I know my body a lot better. I know when I can push it but also when I need to rest. I can recognise when that need for excellence is starting to become more of an obsession than a lifestyle.

For me, a healthy mind is a healthy body – I have always been a strong advocate of this message not only because of the research available but because I feel it myself! I follow a healthy lifestyle, I sleep well, I don’t drink very often, I eat well and make good food choices and I also work hard in the gym. As much as I love to feel great inside and out from this choice of lifestyle I can also now see that times where I am really craving rest, something different, spontaneity of eating whatever I fancy, having a drink with a meal etc it is probably because I need it. And that’s ok!

I have learnt that actually I feel much happier by following that lifestyle but allowing myself to enjoy things around me and the things I crave. I always think that being rational, having perspective and also just enjoying life, and allowing yourself to be happy helps with making these choices…

There is so much pressure on athletes to look and be a certain way, so much media attention around lifestyle, fitness and clean eating that images and advice surround us everywhere we turn. But there are two rules people all need to follow when taking on any of these lifestyle changes;

  1. Each person is different, you have to learn what works for you, what you want, what your body needs and also your mind needs, emotionally where do you sit with all of this?
  2. You have to be happy! If you aren’t happy then is it working for you?

Life is far too short not to be happy and I know for me my performance is crucial, clean eating is important as is my training but ultimately if I do all of those things and aren’t happy along the way then that’s the failure. The failure and injustice isn’t in skipping a session to rest, having that lie in, or eating something bad, the failure is depriving my body and mind of things I want, the things I need and I now realise that by actually by doing that from time to time it helps me keep a good equilibrium. I am able to sustain an all-round healthy lifestyle, one that is disciplined, positive and performance based – not robot like!! Most importantly one which fits me!!!!

Attitudes towards counselling Services in Sport – does gender play a part?

Recently there has been another surge in media attention around the amount of individuals in performance sport with mental illnesses and the accessibility of counselling services due to more athletes and staff speaking out about their own battles with mental illness. The stigmas associated with seeking mental health support for those involved with sport has been well discussed and documented but how much does gender play a part in this? Is there a difference between how men and women feel about counselling services? Are certain populations more likely to access support?
Research in to counselling services and psychology support recognises that gender is a significant factor in how individuals perceive their need and use. A study which examined the attitudes towards male athletes who accessed mental health support reported that men were viewed more negatively than those who may have seen a sport psychologist for example, using terms such as ‘weak’ (Raalte et al, 1992). However when the study was repeated within a female athlete group there was no significant difference in attitudes towards others seeking mental health support (Brooks and Bull, 2001). This has also been supported by findings of Addis and Malik (2003) who found similar differences in attitudes and an underutilisation of services within the male athletic population because of perceived gender roles, claiming that ideologies and masculinity were the main causes. Good and Wood (1995) focused a little more in depth on these gender roles and found that male athletes felt the need to conform to such roles and hold negative attitudes towards the services because ‘real men’ have control over their emotions, are powerful and have a better self reliance therefore there is no need to access support.
Alongside these perceived gender roles, the athlete’s level of openness also has an impact on attitude formation and uptake of services. Generally speaking individuals who are more aware of their emotions and more open to the idea of counselling are more likely to access the support (Vogel et al 2007) but gender differences have also been found within levels of openness within the population. Women are found to have more favourable attitudes towards accessing mental health support than men (Fischer and Turner, 1970; Leaf, Bruce, Tischler, and Holzer, 1987). This is supported by Komiya, Good and Sherrod (2000) who also found that female athletes have a higher level of emotional openness, a more positive attitude towards mental health support therefore experience less self stigma and are more likely to access such support.
What this research indicates is a clear difference in gender roles, how social stigmas affect males and females in different ways, and how there is an evidential backing of females being more open to access support services; whether that’s counselling or psychology in general. This means that for the professionals working in sport we need to be warm and welcoming and ensure any fears around such judgements are reassured and eradicated, but more importantly for the world of sport in general to ensure we keep working to tackle these stigmas, eliminate old fashioned gender stigmas which exist in sport and do more to encourage the uptake of relevant support for athletes.