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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Gender Roles, Sport and Wellbeing … the link!

When you look at traditional, old-fashioned gender roles in UK society you might think of women as the house wives, the carers, nurturers, the stay at home and care for the young types….wear their heart on their sleeves. For men, you might think of the bread keeper, the ‘man of the house’, protector and provider of the home. Turns out that despite us now being in a very modern 21st century world these stereotypes in gender roles may not have moved on that far!
Turning our attention to sport, how do gender roles play a part? Do they exist?
Recent studies suggest that they do exist and are very powerful in both stigmas, conformity and individual wellbeing! Within sport there are clear gender norms of what is socially appropriate for males and females, these are known to add pressure on the athlete socially and emotionally. The male athletes’ ‘social norm’ might suggest that they are expected to take part in risky behaviours such as binge drinking, sexual promiscuity and aggressive behaviour (Liu and Iwamoto, 2007). Now, we understand that the modern man may not want to behave that way; more that they may want to take time to be with their family, actually show their emotions to others and be the ‘model athlete’ – clean eating, no substance misuse and a very hard and focused work ethic with their training. So what happens if you’re a male elite athlete and you suddenly find yourself in a team where these older masculine gender roles exist? First, let’s have a look at how females are affected by gender roles in sport!
The issue found with female sport is existence of the older stereotypical ‘femininity’ norms (Mahalik et al, 2005). But the difficulty for females lies not necessarily with these normal themselves but within the contradictions that exist between that and the reality of elite level sport. For example to be successful in sport a female athlete would need to show what are typically masculine traits such as competitiveness, aggressiveness and toughness (Beal, 1996) whilst also maintaining their femininity by displaying attractiveness, heterosexuality and maintaining relationships with others. These conflicting themes are not only confusing for the athlete to understand but they are difficult to achieve and cause further issues with self-esteem, physical health, interpersonal relationships and the onset of further mental health problems. Evidence from studies such as this found that females trying to conform to these norms either showed symptoms of, or had current eating disorders and deep issues around their body image (Green et al, 2008).
….So coming back to my earlier question – what happens if you are the athlete in an environment where these gender norms exist? Do you ignore those norms and live your life as you wish risking your social inclusion and acceptance of the team? Or do you conform to the group and the gender roles in place knowing that it will make you unhappy and may even affect your relationships with those you love and your own health?
Sadly although we understand that these gender norms are old-fashioned, out of date and a detriment to the athlete they do still exist and they are very powerful. Especially in the experience and fear of social stigma for those who wish to deviate and actually live their life as they please embracing their own norm as opposed to societies.
But how does that really impact on health and wellbeing longer term? Previous blogs by us describes the prevalence of mental health issues in sport generally, but also emerging from this literature is the relationship between gender roles and wellbeing. Good and Wood (1995) found that male athletes who felt the need to conform to gender roles appeared to hold negative attitudes towards support 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. This was also supported by the findings of Addis and Malik (2003) who found similar differences in attitudes and a underutilisation of services within the male athletic population. 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. Population because of perceived gender roles, claiming that ideologies and masculinity were the main causes.
Norms in society will take some time to change, but so long as media and the individuals in those sports teams continue to reinforce them they will never change and catch up with the real world! Female athletes can be both competitive and aggressive but remain beautiful and great nurturers at the same time; male athletes can be strong and successful without taking part in risky behaviours or being promiscuous.
The more these conflicts exist, the more we risk the wellbeing, health and performance of our athletes so let’s open our eyes to the changes in sport, society and the 21st century. Let’s embrace each athlete for who they are and rather than drag them in to the grey of the majority let’s push them and their individuality in to the limelight to celebrate their differences.

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.