“We all need improved Mental Toughness.”
This conclusion of the first edition of my book, Mental ToughnessMastering your Mind (Harris, 2014), was based on the outcome of my PhD thesis. The South African Springbok Rugby Team was the target group for my research on mental toughness.

It’s for the Springboks and my clients

I have since found that the mental toughness needs for Springbok rugby performance is also needed by me and my clients. I am rediscovering how we all need “springbok rugby mental toughness” to help manage performance and setbacks in sport, work and relationships.

Life, like rugby, can be hard.

I have found that not only does being mentally tough help one to cope, it also helps one to be proactive, which gives us choices for managing challenges.

In recent times I have had to deal with significant challenges in aspects of my sport, business and family life. These have caused me to re-examine and apply my mental toughness skills. Without these it would be so much more difficult to manage change and setbacks.

My involvement in sport and its associated physical demand has always been a feature of my life. But, an ageing body subjected to excessive physical demand has become a lethal combination and it has taken its toll. In the past two years I have had a shoulder reconstruction, total hip replacement and four hernia repairs.

Whilst mental toughness was a major contributor to my achievements in sport, I need it lately to accept and manage my emerging physical limitations. In addition, I am using mental toughness to redirect passion to new challenges, like writing, that do not keep returning me to the operating table.

My College is experiencing escalating costs, tough competitor activity and excessive government involvement. As Clem Sunter put it, “One foreign investor told me the other day that they roll out the red carpet for him in other countries. In South Africa, they roll out the red tape” (Sunter, 2015). Once again I am drawing on new levels of mental toughness to manage and transcend these work related issues.

I am also facing new challenges relating to close and extended family members. These range from serious health problems to financial ruin. In each case mental toughness lessons have enabled me to override and moderate an instinctive blaming reaction and to draw on love and compassion to help them with their situation. Naturally I am cautious about creating hostile dependency or being trapped in a role of enabler and co-dependent.

On the subject of aggression I recall a childhood incident with a junior rugby coach. It was my first rugby game and the coach was giving his pre-match pep talk. I recall him saying about the opposition, “They are a bunch of sissies – if you hit them hard they will lose their will to win.”

As an impressionable young rugby player in my early teens, these words are my first memory of anything vaguely approximating psychological strategy, and by implication, mental toughness. Of course, these motivational sentiments, expressed by the junior rugby coach, were just as easily turned on our teamwhen we lost a game we became the bunch of sissies.

My coach was probably trying to stimulate our killer instinct by urging us to be more aggressive and, in this way, possibly develop a competitive advantage. I assume many people have had similar formative experiences, perpetuating the belief that a killer instinct is the main mental component necessary for sporting success.

Significantly, my experience has demonstrated that aggression, applied in areas outside collision sports, is only effective if it’s applied as part of a broader strategy and if the unintended consequences have been considered. My findings shows that aggression and intimidation applied in isolation can backfire, inspiring the opposition to a winning performance.

Notwithstanding, aggression remains a crucial component in collision sports like rugby, where domination is a key success factor in forcing the opponents into a panicked mental state, whereby they lose composure and make mistakes.

If one reflects on the accomplishments of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Wangari Maathai, they all called upon mental skills beyond naked aggression and became global icons due to their mental toughness giving them a unique perspective and competitive advantage.

When it came to aggression they probably “steeled themselves.” This is a highly evolved way of processing anger, and very different to naked aggression which is raw and unrefined.

Mental Toughness gave the heroes mentioned in the previous paragraph a unique and sustainable advantage over competitors and challenging life situations. It can do the same for us.

Admittedly, nature also gives us a competitive instinct that we can draw upon. However, in this modern era, this instinct alone doesn’t give us a unique and sustainable benefit.

If you take on the approaches that follow my model of mental toughness it will probably help you to: outmanoeuvre the competition; create the results that you want; attract the opportunities, relationships, health and wealth you are seeking; and ultimately create power and influence in your world. You’ll be able to “punch above your weight” so to speak.

On the other hand if you do not do anything with this knowledge, despite knowing it, I believe your chances of success in sport or work and relationships will be relatively slim.

Some people are born with, or have developed, significant physical or technical abilities that help them become successful.  It’s my claim that these abilities are enhanced when supported with mental toughness.  Mental toughness itself can be predisposed. The less likely a person is gifted with a predisposition, the greater their need will be to develop mental toughness. Some people are born with exceptional talent; but the old adage applies, “Talent alone will not prevail.” I believe talent combined with mental toughness is a powerful combination. I also believe that mental toughness is in fact a resource that can, and indeed, must be developed. With a developed mental toughness, even those with little talent can be the best that they can be.

How much of success can be attributed to mental toughness?  In conversation with Professor Ross Tucker he talked about the relative contributions of the mental and the physical to success. He concluded that there is no agreement on how much each grants you. He said, “Some said it was not 50% mental nor 50% physical but rather ‘100% mental and 100% physical’ but it depends on the sport. Canoeing is different to athletics; long jump differs from high jump, both of which vary from the marathon. Downhill skiing no doubt requires substantial parts of each. Mental or physiological, it’s difficult to pin down” (Tucker, Role of Mental Toughness, 2013).

Let’s take performance in golf, as an example. Playing the outer game requires knowledge of the sport as well as its mechanical skills. To improve the outer game you need to increase your game know-how and develop mechanical skills through learning and experience. Your inner game exists beyond the knowledge and logistics of the game. Understanding this intrinsic resource and developing it, has a huge influence on performance. The great golfers understand that the outer game can only take them so far; to get further they need to improve their inner game because it’s ultimately this understanding that will enable them, and you, to improve performance over time.

The relationship between performance and time can be illustrated in a bell curve.  The line of a bell curve starts at the mean. As we invest effort and allocate resources, the performance line forms an upward curve over time. Eventually, other forces exceed the influence of our effort and resources. As these other forces prevail, the curve reaches an apex and starts a downward journey.

The concept of beating the curve means that you adapt and introduce change e.g. renewal, reinvention or innovation, before the apex of the curve while the line is still ascending and there is upward and positive momentum. Initially, a self-enforced change will cause a loss in momentum and the performance line will plateau below the apex as you go through a learning and developmental process.

Beating the curve means this plateau sets up a new bell curve resulting in higher performance over a longer time.

The problem, of course, is our instincts, beliefs and mindsets invariably tell us, “Don’t fix it if it’s not broken.” This is where mental toughness is required. It’s the ability to sense the need for change and to make these changes before you have to i.e. before the apex is reached. If you introduce change at this stage you build on current success and can introduce longer term improved performance by initiating a new, proactive bell curve starting before the apex is reached. This new curve will more than likely cause an initial short-term loss in performance. Accepting this loss is another reason why you need to be mentally tough.

Most people introduce change on the downward slope of the curve. This is driven by the pain of loss and the need to survive. However, reacting to the downward momentum requires a lot more effort and far greater loss is inevitably incurred.

While many factors go into being successful, and performance is a complex subject, it is my contention that having mental toughness is one of the most – if not the most – important factor in gaining a competitive advantage and ultimately having the power, control and success you desire in your sport, work and relationships.

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