Mental toughness is a success factor

Do you know what makes Tom Brady stand out? Is it his wife Gisele Bündchen? Or is it his performance in NFL? Tom Brady was the quarterback for the New England Patriots in four super bowl final victories. In each instance they won in the dying minutes. When asked why he and the New England Patriots prevailed, he answered, “A lot of mental toughness, we have had it all year” (Brady, 2015).

After the New Zealand All Blacks won the 2015 Rugby World Championship John Mitchell, former All Black coach and rugby commentator, claimed, “The All Blacks set a new mental benchmark” (Mitchell, 2015).

Mitchell’s claim about the All Blacks is even more impressive when one examines the comparative global demographics of senior rugby players. There is a misperception that one of the All Blacks’ success factors is their abundance of senior rugby players. In 2011 this demographic records New Zealand as having 27, 374 senior players. South Africa had      109, 878. The ratio is 4:1 in favour of South Africa (, 2011).

It’s my contention that mental toughness could give all of us marginal gains in sport, work or relationships. Mental toughness helps us to access the right attitude. With the right attitude, even your bad day is the dream of millions. With mental toughness you are better equipped to manage the inevitable tough times and turbo boost the good times. You recognize what makes you uniquely strong and own it. You don’t run from things that scare you, you face them.

Why I talk about mental toughness

When I started using mental toughness as the underpinning theme for talks, I got feedback from an audience member that my presentation was nice. “Nice?” I thought, “nice is a cup of tea.” He rescued the situation by explaining I could improve my presentations by telling more stories. “You should tell the juicy, behind-the-scenes stories.  You were part of the management of the Springbok Rugby Team for years. You’ve been a world champion in surf lifesaving. You must have many stories that will entertain and enthral an audience,” said the stranger.

I reflected on my competitive lifesaving days to extract some juicy tales. I thought about the Clifton Beach Challenge, where for twenty one years, my lifesaving team competed against Springbok rugby players on Clifton beach. But whilst great fun and highly competitive, there were no earth shattering stories that relate to mental toughness emerging from these competitions.

I dug deeper into my surf lifesaving memories of local and international championships and sure enough I found sufficient material that would send Heat magazine into a feeding frenzy. The problem was they were too salacious. I could imagine the front page of the magazine leading with, “Dr Steve Reveals Surf Lifesaving Scandals.”

I concluded surf lifesaving stories could not be revealed. What about rugby stories then?  Surely someone, who went on so many Springbok rugby tours, has some great stories to tell.

When I reflected on incidents with Springbok players I faced a similar situation as I did in lifesaving. Admittedly the behaviour of Springbok rugby players was not as extreme as lifesavers but the stories were still not of the ilk that I could re-tell to corporate audiences or in books.

What about stories relating to Springbok coaches? I received my first invitation, and therefore exposure to Springbok coaches, twenty years ago.  Morné Du Plessis called and asked if I could present to the Springbok team. Of course, I agreed. The moment arrived and I entered the team room with feelings of nervousness, layered with excitement.

I started in a somewhat customary way by asking the group of oversized rugby players what their expectations were.  “Are there any questions before I begin?” My question hung in the room. An awkward silence followed, interrupted by a voice with a typical Johannesburg accent.  “Yes boet, I have a question, who the F*** died and put you in charge?” I knew I was in for a rough ride.

The years went by, and I worked with most coaches culminating in a request from Peter de Villiers, before the phone stopped ringing from Springbok coaches. In each case there were many great stories, and in each instance it would be a breach of confidentiality and professionalism to tell them.  From a stories perspective it’s back to the adage, “what goes on tour stays on tour.” I could never tell these stories and still expect my audiences to take me seriously, when trying to leave take-away value from the talk. I am aware that the situation is different when ex-players or coaches write a book, then the adage seems to change to what goes on tour, goes in their book.

Dr Steve Harris. Motivational speaker, team building, conference speaker, keynote speaker