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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Perfectionism and its role in Athlete Wellbeing and Help Seeking

Perfectionism and its impact on wellbeing

Many believe that personality contributes to the way people perceive stigmas and their level of openness towards seeking psychological help (Miller, 2008).  Perfectionism is a facet of personality which may have both positive and negative consequences however; most research only focuses on its negative effects (Saunder, 2009). A broad definition of perfectionism is an ‘individual who displays a very high ambition for exceedingly high standards but also experiences harsh self-criticism’ (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990).

One might argue that in sport being a perfectionist is positive because of their desire to achieve, high motivation levels and always looking to improve or better performances (Saunder, 2009) However, it is because of those high standards; sometimes maybe unachievable standards, that they experience a lot of self criticism and low self esteem when targets aren’t met. Therefore research has found high co morbidity with mental health issues; typically depression, anxiety and eating disorders (Egan et al, 2010).

The difficulty with perfectionism is that it carries many admired characteristics as well as negative, Hill et al (2010). For example, the pursuit of high standards would be a very positive trait to carry particularly in sport where the focus is often on self improvement. However, on the other hand perfectionists also tend to have a preoccupation with harsh self criticism which may impact on wellbeing and therefore is associated with psychological imbalance (Hill et al, 2010)

Within sport the term ‘burnout’ is often used; in performance terms it would be characterised by experiencing physical and emotion fatigue, a reduction in their feeling of accomplishment and feeling undervalued (Raedeke and Smith, 2001). Raedeke and Smith also recognise the interplay between burnout and psychological effects, i.e. wellbeing; explaining that individuals at burnout stage may also experience symptoms of anxiety and depression, with perfectionism being a key contributing factor. Jowett et al (2013) found that perfectionist athletes have a very high motivation and drive to succeed and avoidance style of coping. Therefore, seeking help or admitting they need support would lower self esteem and be an admission of weakness contributing to them trying even harder. In time, this potentially leading to burnout – or in this case, further mental health issues.

It is believed that certain personality traits are key contributing factors in the development of burnout and psychosocial distress experienced by athletes (Hill et al 2010). Hill goes on to explain that these personality factors can influence the athletes appraisal process and encourage a vulnerability to experience high levels of anxiety and pressure (Hall et al, 1998) Perfectionism for example can be associated with negative cognitions surrounding achievement and performance
therefore lead to further negative thoughts, increases in anxiety and decrease in wellbeing, what is interesting now is evidence suggesting that perfectionism may act as a predisposing factor to athletes developing burnout during their athletic career (Hill et al, 2008).

Perfectionism and its Role in Help Seeking

Alongside the role perfectionism appears to play in athlete wellbeing, it is also interesting to consider what role it may play in athletes then taking up additional support, or in this case, counselling.  Endler and Parker (1994) describe how there are two methods of coping, problem focused coping and avoidant coping. The two methods are set within the management of stress and attempt to explain the various ways individuals may perceive and effectively then manage their stress. Problem focused coping would be a more pragmatic and analytic approach where the cause of stress is identified followed by a series of steps of how to overcome, these are then practiced. So in effect this is an active coping approach.

Avoidant coping is exactly as it sounds, an individual who either acknowledges the stress exists and so is in denial, or loses interest or the motivation to combat it so they lower their efforts to overcome and simply allow the stress to take hold. Using these approaches to coping and it is interesting to link them back to perfectionism because how they interplay in an individual could be very different. On one hand there is the ‘problem focused’ person who may recognise they simply cannot manage alone and due to their perfectionist traits of self improvement and wanting to get better actively take up support. Or, the avoidant approach where although carrying the desire to improve the individual feels that the uptake of support is an admission of weakness therefore refuses to acknowledge the problem exists and may almost live in denial of the problem. What is interesting is that using the motivational factor of self improvement in perfectionist athletes we can see that there are still different approaches to how these individuals then choose to improve their situation and as with anything it is still up to that person whether or not they choose to engage in the help provided.

In terms of perfectionism and wellbeing, whilst for sport perfectionist traits are useful and desirable the constant striving for better and harsh self criticism when perfect performances aren’t obtained can have a real impact on physical health through over training and disordered eating and also psychological health of low self esteem and depression (Egan et al, 2006). As for the role of perfectionism and help seeking, what Endler and parker (1994) go on to explain is that is very much depends on the individual and the type of coping style they adopt. For some, perhaps those more open and self aware the use of an expert may be seen as a way of self improvement and reaching those goals, for another though it may be an admission of weakness and confirmation that they are struggling therefore an isolated and more self problem solving approach would be used (Endler and parker, 1994).

So, do you know your athletes? Are you able to identify which athletes have perfectionist traits? Do their perfectionist traits benefit or hinder them? Is support available and normalised so all athletes feel comfortable enough to access?