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The myth of mental toughness

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We often hear the term “mental toughness.” This expression has a certain “ring” to it, but when it is used in contrast to other concepts in sport psychology, such as stress, thought and emotion management, the notion of “weakness” is somehow introduced. The underlying message being conveyed here is that athletes must only learn to be tough. They can never acknowledge or show any weakness. Any demonstration of stress or emotional disturbance is viewed as taboo.

In my opinion, there is no such thing as mental toughness. If you don’t learn to manage your thoughts and emotions and strictly focus on being mentally tough, you’re putting yourself in a perpetual state of denial. This is not at all helpful, because you’re just trying to hide the fact that you don’t know what to do with your negative thoughts and emotions.

We can’t ignore the fact that stress and negative thoughts and emotions are part of being an athlete. Trying not to think about it by being mentally tough brings us back to the White Bear Syndrome. If I say to you, “don’t think about a white bear” what are you going to do? Think about a white bear. Since it is impossible to get rid of stress, negative thoughts and emotions, why not train athletes to deal with them and take control of their brain activity?

There are two approaches in sport psychology. One is more static, where questionnaires are used to evaluate the level of stress or the emotional state of the athlete in order to help him find his optimal arousal level. This approach holds many positive aspects, but it is not always as effective as I would like to see on the field. I prefer the dynamic testing approach.

We recently worked with a player from the Victoriaville Tigres (Québec League) whose performance had slipped in recent weeks. We wired the player to an EEG (electroencephalograph) and biosensors (heart rate, breathing rate, breathing frequency, body temperature, motion analysis). I then asked him some questions and used a questionnaire to measure the pressure he felt as he faced his goals in order to identify what was going on. When I hit the right button, I could see his brain activity, heart rate and breathing frequency go up. We were quickly (in 20 minutes) able to identify the problem that was affecting him. In order to evaluate the impact on the ice, I asked the coach to design a sequence of plays the player was subsequently asked to go through. However, I made sure to design a little scenario that would induce the same kind of stress we had just identified. Under that kind of pressure, the player’s performance was, as you might expect, disastrous. However, this is what we were after and we collected physiological data about what was going on.

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I went back to the locker room with the player and asked him what he thought about his performance. Using the EEG, I gave him some quick lessons about thought and emotion management. I then asked him to put them into practice. In only about 15 minutes, he was able to manage his own brain activity. I then gave him a step-by-step brain management procedure he would have to repeat on the ice as he faced the same sequence of plays once again. He did great on 60 percent of the plays. However, fatigue quickly set in and his performance dropped once again. When I looked at the physiological data afterwards, I noted that his breathing pattern didn’t allow for sufficient oxygen uptake, which is what led to the premature onset of fatigue.

As a result of this dynamic testing process, the player must now use a step-by-step procedure to manage his brain activity (through thought and emotion management) and incorporate strategies to better deal with his breathing pattern on the ice.

Had we only used questionnaires (a static approach), it would have been impossible to explain the sudden onset of fatigue. Since a player cannot sustain a positive mental state when fatigue impedes performance, it was critical for us to be able to identify this physiological limitation for our intervention to be successful.

Will all this help him improve his performance over time? It all depends on the effort he puts into mastering those two aspects of his game (brain activity and breathing pattern). If he’s serious about it and willing to learn, his performance will improve. This is similar to what happens when a young hockey player first learns how to pass the puck. He initially has to think about every move he makes and this requires a lot of mental energy. After years of practice, however, he doesn’t have to think about it anymore and the action becomes automatic. Over time, and after putting the right kind of effort into it, our player will naturally become capable of managing his own brain activity.

Since our intervention, our player has had five excellent games. It is important for him to continue this mental training, however, in order to further improve his performance. Be sure to read my follow-ups on my blog!

Dr. Denis Boucher holds a Ph.D. degree in experimental medicine. He manages an exercise physiology laboratory in Quebec and a human performance consulting company. He has conducted the pre-season on-ice fitness evaluation program for the Philadelphia Flyers. His clinical expertise is in the fields of exercise physiology, nutrition and sport performance. He will blog for THN.com throughout the season.

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