While predominantly talked about and developed in the armed forces and sports arenas, research suggests that mental toughness is also highly pertinent to workplace performance, psychological health and wellbeing. But what defines mental toughness? A good insight comes from the description of the selection course for the SAS:
"It is designed to break an individual down to see their character, revealing strengths and weaknesses in situations where they are at the absolute limits of human endurance, to come up with a solution to achieve the mission. Selection gives a good insight into the soul of the individual.”
Essentially, it’s the inner discipline needed for true resilience; the determination, endurance and self-belief necessary to successfully navigate all challenges and deal with the discomfiture of possible failure and negative emotion. The appearance of a shiny Teflon coating isn’t enough.
Anyone wishing to building mental toughness must therefore start by identifying the components required for greater positive resilience.
Focus on what you can control
Determine what it is possible for you to influence and change, and let go of the rest. This conserves mental energy and reduces stress levels. Staying focused on the big picture reduces the tendency to get stuck in the minutiae that can otherwise lead us to get bogged down in a mire of "what-ifs".
Change the game to concentrate on the process
Sports psychologists know that a team that focuses on actions rather than results has a higher chance of winning. While winning makes us feel good and is immensely satisfying, concentration on the actions required to get you there alleviates the emotion (that’s to say the fear and anxiety) associated with potential loss, and reduces risk aversion.
Show your passion
Your inner conviction, beliefs and values keep you working hard towards your goals. Checking in regularly with your thoughts and feelings about why you’re doing something reassures and validates your purpose. This elevates mood, provides a greater sense of meaning, and determines the level of drive needed to keep going.
Embrace the possibility of failure
Positive resilience is about embracing a challenge as an opportunity for growth and success, while acknowledging the reality of potential failure. Mental toughness recognises that taking a calculated risk is always part of the process.
Building greater positive resilience requires acknowledgement of our human frailties and imperfections, characteristics we would often prefer to either ignore or downplay. It is through these that we learn how to manage thoughts, feelings and behaviours for both the present and the future.
Being mentally flexible enables different perspectives to be considered, promotes possibility-thinking, and creates a positive feedback loop where taking action further elevates confidence.
Adapt and respond
Our capacity for adaptability enables us to successfully manage changes in our environment and is far easier to achieve when the brain is in a relaxed and rested state. Getting sufficient sleep and taking time out to uncouple from focused work facilitates the mental work done at a subconscious level to consider all options and develop the best solution.
Being mentally tough is increasingly important in our complex and challenging world. Remembering to acknowledge and celebrate all success – and failure – and the contribution made by others creates a workplace where grit, tenacity and the willingness to see things through in the face of adversity are valued and appreciated.