By Amanda Schultz
Wiping the sweat from my eyes, I took a deep breath as the referee handed me the game ball. This was my moment: the biggest match in the history of my 15-year-old volleyball career was tied up at 26, and I had the chance to win it all for my team with this last serve. All eyes were on me. The gym was so quiet. It felt as though I was underwater. My heart was pounding so loud I was convinced everyone else could hear it too. “Don’t miss this, Amanda,” I told myself. “Just get it over the net and in the court.” As the referee blew his whistle, I lingered for one final second, trying to calm my nerves. I tossed the ball into the air, applauding myself on the solid connection, the fabulous follow-through, the flat contact, and watched the ball sail... straight into the net. I was living the moment athletes have nightmares about. I had single-handedly lost the game for my team.
This experience came to mind as I started playing volleyball at Dixie State University. Practices are intense and a lot is expected from every player. However, when it is my turn to perform and the game is on the line, I am no longer afraid. The pressure is not as great because I have been in the same situation hundreds of times, and I know I can do it.
As I pondered this idea, I wanted to know more about what goes through an athlete’s head when the game comes down the wire. I decided to pose the following research question: How does an athlete’s mental game affect their physical performance?
To start, I thought it would be best to further understand how mental toughness relates to athletes. After using the search phrase “athletes and mental toughness” in Academic Search Premier, the first item on the list jumped out at me. The article was simply titled “Mental Toughness” and was written by James G. Skakoon in October 2015. He explains that mental toughness is just as important for an athlete as practicing and conditioning. According to Skakoon, the mind has to be in top shape along with the body. He continues to discuss the disadvantages athletes that are not mentally strong face: shallow-breathing, blurred vision, increased heart rate, and decreased blood-flow. This article helped me to understand the direct impact an athlete’s mind can have on their performance. If athletes do not take time to prepare their minds, the stress of the game can become too much and cause the symptoms that Skakoon mentioned. This article made me think about how physically demanding sports already are without the extra complications added by high-stress. I know I would not be able to perform well if I could not breathe and my head was pounding.
After reading this article, I think I need to do some more research on the body’s response to stress and methods of coping with stress. Since mental toughness is mainly required in stressful situations, how the body deals with stress can also affect how the mind deals with stress. Using the same article database, I found an article titled “Management of Stress and Coping Strategies.” The article was written by Dr. B. Sridevi and Dr. V. Maheswer in 2015. Sridevi and Maheswer discuss the strategies of stress management and reveal specific signs and symptoms of stress. They pinpoint the direct impact stress has on the body and tell of stress indicators like cold, tension, rapid pulse, headaches, and inability to focus. According to Sridevi and Maheswer, the best ways of coping with stress include deep breathing, meditation, positive and rational thinking, and muscle relaxation.
Overall, I found this article very helpful in my research. This article explained to me exactly what stress does to our bodies, and made me realize the correlation between high-stress and performance. I agree with Sridevi and Maheswer when they say that positive thinking is a successful way of coping with stress. If negative or discouraging thoughts are all that run through an athlete’s brain during a stressful moment, then their level of performance is most likely going to drop. I think that if athletes can find a way to utilize coping methods during an intense game, they can increase their mental toughness. Whether it be deep breaths or visualization, coping with the stress can be a good way to condition the mind and enhance mental toughness.
At this point, I decided to further investigate why some athletes perform better under pressure than others. The article by Sridevi and Maheswer made me confident that stress and mental toughness go hand in hand, so now I wonder what makes an athlete more resilient to high-stress. I continued to use Academic Search Premiere, and entered the search phrase “athletes and stress.” After looking at a few of the results, I found an article by Markus Gerber titled, “Are Adolescents With High Mental Toughness Levels More Resilient Against Stress?” In this article, Gerber explains the factors that contribute to an individual having higher resiliency to intense situations. He mentions how society, genetics, and emotional stableness all play a role in developing mental toughness. Gerber describes mental toughness as “the ability and motivation to solve problems, bounce back, learn from mistakes and act self-efficaciously” (164). I think athletes with a strong sense of self-efficacy have an edge when it comes to mental toughness. They know it’s not the end of the world if they make a mistake, yet they are internally motivated to not make that same mistake again. This article brought to my attention the fact that mental toughness also has to do with how an athlete thinks about herself, not just her performance.
Knowing how crucial mental toughness is when it comes to competing, I was curious to know exactly how one measures mental toughness. With that in mind, I did several Google searches using search terms such as “measuring mental toughness” and “mental toughness scale.” After many in-depth searches, I found a promising article by John Wayne Creasy Jr., Doctor of Philosophy at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He acknowledges the fact that mental toughness is a topic that has yet to be explored fully. However, Creasy breaks down mental toughness into five main categories: perseverance, resilience, psychological characteristics, coping strategies, and theoretical foundation. He explains the process of the Psychological Performance Industry (PPI), a strategy that is commonly used to measure an athlete's level of mental toughness. According to Creasy, self-confidence and negative energy control are two measurable attributes that can determine the strength of an athlete’s mental game.
This article by Creasy has me convinced that mental toughness is an area that still needs to be explored. It brought to my attention the fact that while there are some advancements being made, it is difficult to know exactly what makes an athlete think certain things. While I think Creasy is right about more research needing to be done on the topic, I do find his study on qualities that increase mental toughness credible and convincing.
Creasy’s testimonial of measurable qualities mentally tough athletes possess piqued my interest on what constitutes an elite level of mental toughness. In a sport full of mentally strong athletes, what puts one player above the rest? To find out, I did another search in Academic Search Premiere. I found an article from July 2012 titled “Measuring Mental Toughness in Sport” by Daniel F. Gucciardi. Gucciardi emphasizes the importance of attitude, emotional awareness, low anxiety, and maturity when it comes to mental toughness, but he also mentions three other attributes believed to define an elite athlete: outgoing, experienced, and a belief that they control their own destiny. This article really helped my research because of Gucciardi’s analysis of what makes a mentally strong athlete stand out amongst a crowd of fellow athletes. The information I found could be helpful to young athletes trying to train their mind for competition.
Looking back over my research, I think that mental toughness is a crucial component of sports and performance that often gets overlooked. Athletes are getting better and the competition levels are constantly rising. If athletes hope to rise to the top, they need to condition their minds just as much as their bodies. As I conclude this exploratory paper, I know that an athlete’s mind can often get in the way and cause unnecessary stress. Therefore, an athlete’s mental game definitely affects their ability to perform.
Creasy, John Wayne. "An Analysis of the Components of Mental Toughness in Sport." 14 Nov. 2005. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.
Gerber, Markus, et al. "Are Adolescents With High Mental Toughness Levels More Resilient Against Stress?" Stress & Health: Journal Of The International Society For The Investigation Of Stress 29.2 (2013): 164-171. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
Gucciardi, Daniel F. "Measuring Mental Toughness In Sport: A Psychometric Examination Of The Psychological Performance Inventory–A And Its Predecessor." Journal Of Personality Assessment 94.4 (2012): 393-403. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.
Madrigal, Leilani, Sharon Hamill, and Diane L. Gill. "Mind Over Matter: The Development Of The Mental Toughness Scale (MTS)." Sport Psychologist 27.1 (2013): 62-77. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
Skakoon, James G. "Mental Toughness." Mechanical Engineering 137.10 (2015): 16. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Feb. 2016
Sridevi, B., and V. Maheswar. "Management Of Stress And Coping Strategies." International Journal Of Multidisciplinary Approach & Studies 2.6 (2015): 60-67. Academic Search Premier. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.