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It was the cruelest twist of all. The cyclists in Christiana Bédard-Thom’s research study were 11 minutes into an all-out 20-minute time trial when—horror of horrors—the screen displaying their power, cadence, and elapsed time went blank. The researchers urged them to keep pedaling, but they had nothing to gauge their effort except their feelings. Exactly two minutes later, the screen flickered back on, magically “fixed.”
How did the riders handle this disruption? That would depend, according to Bédard-Thom’s hypothesis, on how mentally tough they were. When things go wrong, that’s when you find out how gritty you really are.
Mental toughness is a hot concept these days, among both academics and athletes. Its rise reflects the growing recognition that performance depends as much on the brain as on the body, but it has proven to be a slippery concept to define. Bédard-Thom, along with colleagues Frédéric Guay and Christiane Trottier of the University of Laval in Canada, recently presented an updated model to explain what mental toughness is and how to improve it. Her new study, published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Physiology, puts this model to the test.
Mental toughness, according to Bédard-Thom, is a psychological resource that helps you to achieve challenging goals when faced with a stressor that puts your success in doubt. There are two key elements in that definition: initial goals that would be hard to reach under any circumstances, and a situational twist that makes them even harder. Getting the most out of yourself in a 20-minute time trial is always hard; doing it without the data you usually rely on adds a turn of the screw.
Some people shake off these setbacks, and push through to set a personal best anyway. These people are mentally tough—or at least, they’re acting with mental toughness at that particular moment, a distinction we’ll come back to. Others crumble. What’s the difference? What is this “mental toughness” that the former group deploys? Bédard-Thom argues that, along with challenging goals, mental toughness requires self-efficacy (the belief that you’re capable of attaining your goals) and self-control (the ability to resist unhelpful impulses).
Actually, her model goes deeper than that. The three resources (challenging goals, self-efficacy, and self-control) influence your performance via four psychological mechanisms: attention, effort, perseverance, and strategies. All these elements work together and influence each other in ways that, in all honesty, become hard to follow. But the key point is that, in this picture, mental toughness isn’t a stable characteristic that some people have and others don’t. Instead, it’s a process that kicks in when we’re struggling to achieve something in the face of difficulty—and we can improve that process.
Bédard-Thom tested her ideas in two cohorts. The first was a cross-sectional survey of 649 runners describing their most recent race. As expected, those who reported higher self-efficacy and self-control ended up with more successful race outcomes relative to their goals, and the effect was more pronounced for those who had experienced a stressor during the race.
The second cohort was the 20-minute bike trial, which 74 cyclists took part in. In addition to the two-minute screen failure, half of them spent 30 minutes doing a mentally fatiguing computer task before the time trial to sap their self-control. I’ve written about the performance-harming effects of mental fatigue several times over the years. In Bédard-Thom’s study, this particular form of mental fatigue uses up a metaphorically limited supply of self-control and effectively makes people less mentally tough. Sure enough, that’s what appears to have happened when the cyclists were hit with the screen blackout, although the web of statistical connections between all the pieces in Bédard-Thom’s model makes it tricky to draw a straight line from depleted self-control to reduced mental toughness to worse performance relative to pre-race goals.
So how do you improve mental toughness? Bédard-Thom suggests two approaches. The first is to work on your mental skills to improve each of the three components of mental toughness. To set challenging goals, focus on formulating specific and sufficiently difficult targets, and re-evaluate them frequently. To improve self-control, consider mindfulness training and learn to avoid self-control-depleting activities before important training and competition (what you might call a mental taper). And to improve self-efficacy, try positive self-talk.
I’ve written a bunch of times about self-talk as an endurance-booster (e.g. here, here, and here), but this frames it more specifically as a way of boosting mental toughness. As it happens, a neat study from 2020 by Brad Cooper and his colleagues at the University of Exeter looked specifically at the role of self-talk on mental toughness and how it influenced 800-meter running performance. Using individualized cue words to help reappraise negative emotions and accept pain led to distinct jumps in performance in three pilot subjects.
The second approach that Bédard-Thom suggests is environmental: put yourself in stressful training situations so that you can practice the skills and mindset you’ll need to handle stressors during competition. This seems like a delicate needle to thread: you don’t want to turn workouts into unnecessarily unpleasant suffer-fests, but a little stress now and then might be useful.
One example that springs to mind is something an old training partner of mine experienced in high school. They were all warmed up, ready to start an interval session on the track, when the coach suddenly ordered all the runners to go sit on a bench for ten minutes. Then they got up and started the workout as planned. It was a great simulation of the unexpected delays that sometimes occur in track meets, and taught them not to be too precious about the exact timing of their pre-race prep.
In a sense, these sorts of practical examples are why it’s useful to wade through admittedly complex models of superficially simple concepts like mental toughness. You might marvel at the mental toughness of an athlete who goes out and sets a PR after sitting through an unexpected delay. But it’s nothing mysterious: the athlete simply deployed her self-control and sustained her self-efficacy in the ways she’d learned to in practice.
In fact, it all sounds so clinical that I can’t help wondering if there’s something missing from this sort of definition—some sort of intangible it that defines those who bend but never break. That it is what Bédard-Thom, along with the many others who have proposed competing definitions of mental toughness over the years, is searching for. I don’t know if she’s found the final answer, but it’s cool to see researchers grappling with the question.
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