Prior to the Patriots’ stunning comeback in Super Bowl 2017, quarterback Tom Brady answered the question about what makes his team so special: “Mental toughness.” He could have said exceptional physical strength, training, and superior talent, but he didn’t. What team that makes it to the Super Bowl doesn’t embody these? Mental toughness involves something else, something more.
According to researchers Graham Jones and Sheldon Henton, “Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sports places on a performer. Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.”
Therefore, mental toughness provides a person a psychological advantage over others. This advantage, either innate or developed over years of experience, enables the performer to have superior self-regulatory skills. Jones and Henton placed the attributes of mental toughness into the following general categories:
A belief in oneself forms the foundation of both mental toughness and mental health. We have to believe we deserve good things for ourselves in order to play a part in creating them. We must put aside self-doubt, guilt, worry, and other debilitating emotions that serve only to undermine and jeopardize our best efforts.
- Desire and Motivation
We must want success to create it. That means, we put ourselves in situations where we know we can succeed.
- Performance-related Focus
We might call this focus a competitive orientation. We don’t let challenges sideline us because we enjoy overcoming them. We don’t take “no” for an answer because we don’t see it as an option.
- Lifestyle-related Focus
Super stars like Super Bowl players don’t worry too much about work/life balance. Instead, they concentrate on lifestyle balance. They don’t have a work life and a personal life; they just have a life. Consequently, they make choices that fuel that life. They take care of themselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
- A capacity to deal with competition-related pressure (external) and anxiety (internal)
Both on and off the playing fields of our lives, others call on us to perform at our best when we feel our worst. In every industry and business, the competition can make one winning move and change the competitive landscape. Even the best strategists can’t prepare for every contingency, and no business book can prepare you for every eventuality.
Through the years, we’ve seen mental toughness in the likes of Micky Mantel, Willie Mays, Billie Jean King, Pelé, Jack Niklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Sandy Koufax. We saw it, too, in Tiger Woods right up until he lost it, which marked the downward turn in his career.
Having lost to Björn Berg at Wimbledon, an opponent once commented, “I was playing championship tennis, but he was doing something else.” Champions exhibit mental toughness, but occasionally we encounter players who do this “something else.”
Those with mental toughness figure out what has never been figured out before. Eisenhower did it on D-Day. Caesar did it before crossing the Rubicon. The Vietnam POWs did it for more than 7 years of captivity, and Tom Brady did it in five Super Bowls (at this writing).
Did these people feel anxious and pressured in these situations? They wouldn’t have been human if they hadn’t. But they decided not only to survive but to thrive. They overcame emotional, and in some cases, physical pain to achieve the results they wanted. That’s what it takes to do the “something else” that can help us all go beyond excellence.