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Adolescent Performers’ Perspectives on Mental Toughness and its Development:  The Utility of the Bioecological Model

John W. Mahoney, Daniel F. Gucciardi, Clifford Mallett, and Nikos Ntoumanis

The Big Idea

It would be difficult to find an adult athlete or coach who doesn’t have a favourite quote on the need for mental toughness in competitive sports.  Who hasn’t heard the general adage that success in sports is 10% physical and 90% mental?  Or who among us hasn’t read the mighty locker room posters from the past:  from Babe Ruth, “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up;” from Bobby Knight, “Mental toughness is to physical as four is to one;” for Bill Russell, “Concentration and mental toughness are the margins of success;” or from Yogi Berra the conundrum, “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”

More recently sport psychologists have been busy in the last couple of decades trying to suss out the meaning of mental toughness.  In this paper, the researchers argue that even today what we know of mental toughness hangs exclusively on perspectives of adult athletes and coaches.  They ask: “What about adolescent views?”  Is it a fair generalisation to extend the adult meanings of mental toughness to the realm of youth sports?  Well, what did these researchers discover?  That it isn’t fair.  Some consistency between adults and youth, certainly. But they also found some unique differences on what mental toughness means to youngsters and no matter the performance context (whether sport, music, or academics).

Takeaways

  • Unquestionably, mental toughness is a highly desired attribute in performance contexts.
  • So much so that sport psychology researchers find inquiries into such toughness to give solid purchase on predicting athlete success.
  • Yet until this study, little attention has been given to views on mental toughness from other-than-adults—such as youth athletes.
  • Without more comprehensive sampling, these researchers challenge the popular tendencies to generalise to the youth sport population, ages 11-18.
  • Accordingly, this study focused on adolescent perspectives of mental toughness.
  • But with a twist, they included youth from both academic and music performance contexts in addition to the world of sport for the sake of helping discover and validate a more generalisable understanding of mental toughness.
  • Their research population included 18 pre-selected mentally tough high school students (nine from one all-girl school and nine from one all-boy), and with three students in each of the three performance contexts.
  • The students participated in focus groups, with seven of the students participating in follow-up one-on-one interviews.
  • While there was consistency between adult and youth views of mental toughness on many measures, and while there was similarity across the three performance contexts, there were surprises as well.
  • For these adolescents, mental toughness was predicated on significant others, supportive social processes, critical incidents, and curiosity—characteristics not identified in adult perspectives.

The Research 

Most of what sport psychologists know about the nature and significance of mental toughness has come through research on either inductive or deductive perspectives of adult coaches and athletes.  Typically, we find in this adult population common themes of personal characteristics necessary to give athletes and teams opportunities to perform their best no matter the obstacles faced.

The most recent research literature reports nine mental toughness personal characteristics: belief, coping, focus, motivation, control, sporting intelligence, resilience, personal values, and physical toughness.

But, as the authors of this study point out, such research reporting is based on various versions of adult viewpoints on mental toughness.  They suspect that the adult perspectives may not generalise to other developmental periods such as adolescent youngsters (ages 11-18).  What we know about the related experience of resilience, for example, varies in human functioning in different life stages.  So, to begin with these scientists are focusing on what mental toughness means to a selection of identified mentally tough adolescents.  This age span is particularly rich in maturational, educational, and personal changes—maybe even more challenges than at any other stage of life.

Interestingly, these researchers also argue that in seeking out mental toughness in exclusively sport settings also limits the generalisability of research findings.  After all, other life experiences highly influence the impact of mental toughness. In designing this study, they included representations of mental toughness in academics and music as well.  All three of these performance contexts are affected by motivational, attentional, and strategic demands.

Finally, insofar as the design of this research study, these authors also were influenced by the ever-present interplay in the nature versus nurture debates—to what extent our behaviours are carried by genetic predisposition or lived experiences.  So, they evaluated several contending theoretical models previously used in mental toughness research and in the larger field of psychological inquiry.  They settled on adopting as a framework-model for this study Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecological Model.  The model identifies four development foundations: proximal processes, personal characteristics, ecological contexts, and time.

Accordingly, there were two aims of this study.  First, the study focuses on adolescents’ perspectives on mental toughness and its development across different performance contexts (sport, academics, and music). Second, the study was intended to investigate the possible utility of the bioecological model as an integrative framework for understanding mental toughness and its development in adolescent performers.

What was the method of their research?

First off, they selected two independent gender-specific high schools, one all boys and the other all girls.  The schools were both consistently highly recognised for their competitive achievements in all three of the performance categories.  The respective Deans of each category were asked to identify students in their schools who were self-referenced high performers (not necessarily elite performers but students who performed to the best of their abilities).

Eighteen students were selected, nine girls and nine boys (ages 13-17).  Three males and three females represented each category (e.g., three male and three female musicians).  The students were assembled into two semi-structured focus groups, one group for each gender with all categories represented. A worksheet was used to elicit the personal characteristics that the students believed enabled them to do their best no matter the circumstances.  Group discussions followed.  Two weeks after the focus groups, three male and four female students were selected for one-on-one interviews. These students were identified as particularly articulate and thoughtful about their points of view.

What did they learn about mental toughness?

Based on the worksheet activity with the 18 students, nine personal characteristics of mental toughness were identified.  There were four personal forcespersistence, drive, high self-expectations, and support-seeking.  There were five personal resourcesforethought, social intelligence, heightened awareness, self-belief, and optimistic thinking.

These characteristics were consistent with the predictions one might have for the Bioecological Model.  The personal forces characteristics pointed to temperaments and motivations to sustain emotional and behavioural control.  The personal resources were defined by past experiences, skills, and intelligences of individuals.  Contrary to the adult reports, the adolescents did not point to personal demands as a component of mental toughness.  The other personal characteristics were consistent with the research literature from adults on mental toughness. What did not appear in the adolescents’ perception of mental toughness were control and physical toughness.  The absence of these characteristics was thought to be: 1) due to the addition of academics and music, both ostensibly less physically active, and 2) the wildly changing physical attributes of growth and development during adolescence suggesting lack of control.  The findings were consistent across all three performance contexts.

Unique to the adolescents’ personal characteristics included three surprisesForethought, social intelligence, and support seeking have not been reported in the mental toughness literature.  The thinking here might be that forethought might be connected to the perceived time management necessary to balance their commitments; and that social intelligence and support seeking are connected to the preoccupations of adolescence with social identity and social roles.

When these findings are compared to the results of adult perceptions of mental toughness, there is in fact a “core group” of personal characteristics that help youngsters attain and sustain performance standard.  Further, that these characteristics are consistent across all three performance contexts (sports, academics, and music) and diverge from those personal characteristics thought important by adults.

What about the integration of these findings with the Bioecological Model?

Recall that there were four markers of this bioecological model:  proximal processes, personal characteristics, ecological contexts, and time.  These markers were visible in the adolescents’ description of mental toughness.  Here are the summarised adolescents’ views integrated with the Bioecological Model:

  • The key to mental toughness insofar as proximal processes are concerned is repeated exposure to autonomy, encouragement, challenges, and role modelling.
  • The emergence of curiosity as a personal characteristic suggests the need for agency in the youth individuals; how social support and critical incidents help individual development; and how curiosity may be the way to even see failure as opportunity.
  • Adolescents were quick to identify significant others and role modelling as supportive social processes and useful in facing the challenges of ecological contexts with mental toughness.
  • Early successes (time as the onset of events) were positive experiences as were the positive influences of failures as necessary developmental opportunities.

Concluding comments

In the end, these researchers do report adolescent perceptions of mental toughness to be consistent with adult views, but also unique to those adult descriptions.  The implicit suggestion is that easy generalisations on the nature and significance of mental toughness from adult to youth are not so easy.  The surprising appearance of forethought, social intelligence, and support seeking as elements of such toughness are telling yet unnoticed and necessary characteristics of mental toughness in youth development.