- On August 17, 2017
- challenge, commitment, confidence, control, growth, mental toughness, resilience
On August 8th, the Fusion Sport team headed to the Queensland Academy of Sport to hear about all things mental toughness. An afternoon of frank discussion, we heard from elite athletes and sports psychologists alike about what it takes to succeed at the highest level.
1) Discomfort Breeds Growth
Dr David Buttifant — Co-Founder and Director of the NICK Foundation
Dr Buttifant wanted 10 singers. That’s right, singers. In a room of well-known athletes, coaches, physiologists and support staff, Collingwood’s former Sport Science Director wanted 10 people to stand up and sing a song of their choice for 30 seconds.
As Dr Buttifant walked around the room, selecting ‘volunteers’, my heart started to jump out of my chest and I felt that familiar jolt of adrenaline. I’d also forgotten the lyrics to every song I’d ever heard. Luckily, Dr Buttifant spared the Fusion Sport team, but he did push the chosen 10 for 30 seconds of singing.
Ready! And …
“Maybe I could jump out the window?”
Courtesy of American Nurse Today.
Of course, it was all a hoax and no one had to sing. Just a good illustration of how acute stress influences our physiology. Adrenaline spikes, brain fog rolls in and we engage in fight or flight. One guy literally fled the room so he wouldn’t get picked.
But if singing in front of a room of 50 people can lead to large scale brain fart, what is it like for elite athletes on competition day? Sometimes the winners are just those who don’t crumble under pressure.
Thankfully, the experts say that resilience / mental toughness / anti-fragility — whatever you want to call it — can be taught. Which begs the question, how do we teach our athletes to stay cool while stressed? Dr Buttifant says that we must expose athletes to uncomfortable situations: “only through discomfort does growth occur”. One of Dr Buttifant’s preferred techniques to engineer mental toughness (not to mention high red blood cell count) is through his altitude training program.
2) It is Not Weak to Speak
Darius Boyd — Brisbane Broncos Captain, Queensland State of Origin and Australian Kangaroo’s Representative
Darius Boyd is his own worse critic. Once, after losing seven games in a row, he did not leave the house except for training.
He’s always been internal, introverted, brooding. However, after his best mate Alex Mackinnon broke his neck, Darius retreated into his shell even more. It all came to a head when his wife left him. Then he checked into a mental facility.
It turned out to be one of the best decisions of his life. Inside the psychiatric hospital, Darius learnt about techniques that could mediate his diagnosis of adaptive depression and he learnt how to reprioritise his family and football. It was a transformative experience for the rugby league superstar and he has championed mental health awareness ever since.
Giving back to the community has become a form of therapy for Darius Boyd. He spoke candidly about how it felt to positively influence the people who looked up to him and preached the wonders of showing gratitude. He repeatedly hammered home the need to utilise your support network.
Even recently, Darius the footballer has had some tough times — from snapping his achilles almost immediately after returning to the Broncos in 2014 to missing the 2017 Origin decider with a broken thumb. But now equipped with tools that help his mental toughness, he is showing us that openness, honesty and gratitude off the field can enable total badassery on the field.
Darius Boyd and daughter Willow.
Courtesy of the NRL.
Catch his Australian Story: Battling the Blues.
3) Mental Toughness Can Be Taught
Dr Tristan Coulter, School of Exercise & Nutrition Sciences, QUT
Professor Remco Polman, School of Exercise & Nutrition Sciences, QUT
In these two separate presentations, the key takeaways concerned how we can mould mentally tough athletes. Firstly, both presenters stressed that mental toughness is a function of both genetics and environment, and both emphasised that the latter — i.e., our athlete’s training environment — is within our ability to change.
Dr Coulter highlighted the necessary interaction between challenge and support. In order to engender mental toughness, we need to ensure that we challenge our athletes and that they feel discomfort. But discomfort achieves nothing if there is no support network for the athlete to lean on during the tough times.
Professor Polman made a number of interesting points. Firstly, training can be just as stressful as competition. If we are going to support our athletes, it has to be during both training and competition. Secondly, like Dr Coulter, Professor Polman underscored the importance of discomfort. He suggested that mental toughness could be engineered through a range of measures, from training with the senior squad, to being sent out on load, to even being dropped from the team.
Finally, Professor Polman spoke about how mentally tough people can be described by the 4 C’s: Control, Commitment, Challenge and Confidence.
The 4 C’s of Mental Toughness.
Courtesy of Rena Madison.
Control refers to how mentally tough people are calm in the face of emotionally charged environments.
Mentally tough people are committed to working deliberately towards a goal and achieving it.
Mentally tough people view adversity as a challenge to rise to, not as a threat to their self-worth.
Mentally tough people have a confident internal commentary; they do not tell themselves they are going to fail or choke.
Key Learning Points
Discomfort is good. Athletes need to be challenged to grow as people and professionals. But they need support, mentally as well as physically.