At the University of Missouri, mental toughness is a skill developed like any other. By getting players motivated, prepared, focused, and emotionally strong, they are ready for anything on game day.
The following article appears in the July/August 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.
By Dr. Pat Ivey, Dr. Rick McGuire, and Amber Lattner
Pat Ivey, PhD, CSCS, SCCC, MCCC, USAW, is Associate Athletics Director for Athletic Performance at the University of Missouri and holds a doctorate in sports psychology. Rick McGuire, PhD, recently retired as Sport Psychology Director for Missouri athletics. Amber Lattner, MA, is a doctoral student in applied sport psychology at Missouri. Dr. Ivey can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
It may be the most frequently asked question among strength and conditioning professionals: “How do you develop mental toughness in your players?” Here at the University of Missouri, the three of us have come together as members of the athletic department’s Mental Performance Team to answer that question.
Our first step was defining what “mentally tough athlete” meant to us. We concluded that this term represents an individual who is motivated, prepared, focused, and emotionally stable. They are accountable for doing what needs to be done and able to display these traits on a consistent basis, even under pressure, which leads to optimal performance.
We then bolstered our understanding of what it means to be considered “mentally tough” using principles from the Missouri Institute for Positive Coaching. Created by Dr. McGuire, Positive Coaching provides coaches a scientifically and philosophically sound way to teach athletes how to consistently compete and perform at their very best. (See “Positive Coaching” below for more on the Missouri Institute for Positive Coaching.)
Based on those concepts, we created the McGuire-Ivey-Lattner Model of Mental Toughness (See Figure One, below). Shaped like a pyramid, it is made up of six tiers that culminate to form our game plan for building mentally tough Tigers: athletes who embody Missouri’s core values of respect, responsibility, discovery, and excellence.
Figure One: The McGuire-Ivey-Lattner Model of Mental Toughness
TIER 1: MOTIVATION
The base of the model develops highly motivated, self-driven athletes. This tier is grounded in Self-Determination Theory, developed by psychologists Edward Deci, PhD, and Richard Ryan, PhD, which states that self motivation is optimized when three basic psychological needs are met: competence (having the knowledge, skills, and abilities to complete a task), autonomy (making decisions by one’s self, for one’s self, and about one’s self), and relatedness (having a sense of belonging).
At Missouri, the Mental Performance Team tries to meet all three of these psychological needs for athletes. For instance, one way we develop their autonomy is by offering them choices regarding when to schedule study hours or which lifting group to attend. This gives the athletes ownership of what they are doing.
Meeting their psychological needs helps facilitate the longest-lasting and most impactful types of individual motivations. These include intrinsic, internal, approach, and positive motivations.
Intrinsic: Are athletes driven to succeed because they find joy in the grind of the journey or are they looking to receive a prize? They should be training and playing because they enjoy it, not to satisfy coaches, parents, or fans. We teach our athletes that wanting something for themselves is more important than someone else wanting it for them.
Internal: Do athletes push themselves through adversity or do they require an outside force to drive them? We want our athletes to be motivated from within.
Approach: Are athletes arriving at training and competitions ready to attack or simply to avoid being punished? We don’t want athletes approaching a contest hoping not to lose—we expect them to want to win.
Positive: This deals with the ethical context of an individual’s motivation. Does a football player tackle an opponent with the aim of showcasing their skills or with the intent to do harm? We want our athletes to execute the fundamentals in the way they are intended.
TIER 2: PREPARATION
There are four distinct areas of preparation that we believe should be intentionally developed. Adapted from legendary sports training expert Tudor Bompa’s model, it is only when each of these areas are fully prepared can an athlete perform at his or her absolute best.
Physical: Sport-specific fitness and conditioning
Technical: Fundamental skills and techniques of the sport
Tactical: Awareness and understanding of the sport
Mental: Perseverance in the pursuit of excellence despite adversity.
Legendary football coach Lou Holtz once said, “Pressure is when you have to do something you aren’t prepared to do.” At Missouri, we are deliberate in ensuring our athletes are well-versed in each of the four domains of preparation so they don’t feel overwhelmed with pressure on game day. Our performance and sport coaches address the physical elements together through practices and training. The sport coaches also handle the technical and tactical pieces. Together with our sport psychology staff, we all work on the mental component.
TIER 3: FOCUS
A big part of building mental toughness hinges on the third tier: teaching athletes how to focus. This ensures they show up locked in and ready to perform in practice and on game day.
Our philosophy is that sport psychology is about “Thinking Right” in sport. We know that wrong thoughts hurt performance and right thoughts help performance.
Focus is a complex skill. Therefore, it can be taught just like any other skill and leads to “Thinking Right.” Athletes are responsible for their own thoughts and can choose to pick the right ones to help their performance.
Understanding that focus is complex, we break it down into five component skills of time orientation, positive self-talk, composure, concentration, and confidence. Here’s a rundown of each one:
Time Orientation: The only time athletes can execute a skill to the best of their ability is when they are totally present in the moment and their minds are fully connected with their bodies. When they aren’t, performance is negatively impacted.
To explain this concept to our athletes, we use an example of a player who has a final exam following practice. If they are thinking about the test during practice, their performance will suffer. Likewise, dwelling on the mistakes they made in practice while taking the exam will negatively impact their grade.
Positive Self-Talk: The most important conversations players have are the ones they have with themselves, and we want those conversations to be positive. We work with players to develop Power Statements—positive, powerful, and productive thoughts about themselves, their team, and their mission. We do mental training workshops in which athletes write down things to say to themselves when things get tough, and we have them practice these statements during workouts. Having these thoughts readily available in the midst of a competition helps our athletes control the moment instead of allowing the moment to control them.
Composure: Every athlete has a specific level of arousal that leads them to optimal performance. It is critical for each athlete to know what their optimal level is for different task executions and be able to get into that zone when needed.
One way to control composure is by thoughts. Athletes should think aggressive thoughts to get themselves up into their zone. If they are over-aroused and past their ideal zone, they should bring themselves back down with calming thoughts and statements.
There can be a physical element to composure, as well. For example, some football players bang their chests to psyche themselves up or practice self-massage to calm themselves down. Others use breathing techniques. Focusing on inhaling will bring them up, while measured exhaling will bring them back down.
Every athlete is different when it comes to controlling their composure, so they have to find the right techniques that work for them. We encourage our players to test out different composure approaches at practice so entering their zone will feel natural on game day.
Concentration: In training or competition, there are always distractions that can inhibit athletes from achieving their goals. When players are fully concentrated, they look past these distractions and remain focused on the task at hand.
Our motto when training athletes how to concentrate is, “See it … Feel it … Trust it.” First, they are to visualize their responsibilities for a specific play—so strongly that they can actually feel themselves going through the process. “Trust it” requires the athletes to let things go, believe their preparation will pay off, and be fully engaged in the moment.
Confidence: Confidence is just a thought, so confidence is a choice. We train our athletes to choose confidence every time.
For the last five years, the component skills of focus have been integrated into the Missouri football program by Dr. Ivey, Dr. McGuire, and Head Coach Gary Pinkel through a simple routine called “From the Whistle to the Snap.” Although football is known as a six-second game from the snap to the whistle, we have discovered profound power lies between the whistle and the snap. This is a critical time when our players should execute the skill of focus.
The routine has four steps: deactivate, reaffirm, refocus, and reactivate. For deactivate, we tell the players to “park it” after each play, meaning they have five seconds to let go of any negative thoughts from the previous down. Reaffirm calls for the athletes to use their Power Statements and begin thinking positive thoughts. Refocus refers to the “See it … Feel it … Trust it” mantra. The last step of reactivate requires players to get back into their zones.
We also use verbal cues in practices and games that align with each component skill of focus. For example, when a coach asks an athlete, “Where are you?” the ideal response to drive time orientation to the present is, “Right here! Right now!” This gets athletes to devote all of their attention to the task at hand.
TIER 4: EMOTIONAL STABILITY
This tier ensures our players are emotionally equipped to manage the demands of competitive environments. We aim to develop four emotional markers that performance psychologist Jim Loehr, EdD, developed. They are:
Emotional Flexibility: This allows athletes to adapt when adversity disrupts their routine or causes frustration. We train our athletes to draw upon a range of positive emotions to reframe and mentally process challenging situations.
To reinforce the idea of emotional flexibility with our athletes, we show them a video of an angry fan pouring a beer over LeBron James’s head after a game. Instead of getting angry or retaliating, James just laughed and brushed off the fan’s boorish behavior, showing his emotional flexibility.
Emotional Responsiveness: This skill allows athletes to engage their optimal performance state. We refer athletes to former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis when discussing emotional responsiveness. He was always totally present and dialed in on game day.
Emotional Strength: Withstanding mental, emotional, and/or spiritual pain requires strength. Despite obstacles or adversity, emotional strength allows athletes to carry on in pursuit of their goals.
The example we use for emotional strength is former NFL quarterback Brett Favre. One day after his father passed away in 2003, Favre decided to play on Monday Night Football and had one of the best games of his career. He had to be very emotionally strong to perform as well as he did under those tough circumstances.
Emotional Resilience: Bouncing back after a blow is both a skill and a mindset. Although it is impossible to completely avoid stress or negative situations, we train our athletes to manage them better and recover quickly. When talking to our players about emotional resilience, we like to highlight a player on the team who exemplifies this trait.
TIER 5: ACCOUNTABILITY
Accountability is about athletes doing the things they say they will do and intentionally working toward developing the physical, mental, and emotional habits that lead to mental toughness. Being accountable to one’s self and one’s team are habits that we challenge our athletes to commit to building every day, by making choices that align with our core values. Accountability is consistently choosing to do what you are expected to do and are supposed to do when it is needed.
TIER 6: PERFORMANCE
When athletes are motivated from within, prepared in all facets, focused every day, and emotionally stable, they are modeling what it means to be mentally tough. And when players are mentally tough, their performance improves. Ultimately, the McGuire-Ivey-Lattner Model of Mental Toughness is about winning. If each component of each tier is realized, athletes should be successful on the field.
To view the references for this article, go to: www.Training-Conditioning.com/References.
Sidebar: POSITIVE COACHING
Prior to taking over as the Sport Psychology Director for University of Missouri athletics in a full time role, Rick McGuire, PhD, spent more than 25 years as Missouri’s Head Track and Field Coach, building one of the top programs in the nation. He recently combined his two fields by founding the Missouri Institute for Positive Coaching, which provides sport and strength coaches with six stages for teaching athletes how to consistently compete and perform at their best. The stages are:
1) Discover the calling
2) Build the foundation
3) Cultivate positive and caring relationships
4) Empower growth mindsets
5) Inspire passionate hearts
6) Produce and achieve optimal performances.
To learn more about the Missouri Institute for Positive Coaching, go to: education.missouri.edu/positivecoaching. You can also reach the Institute via email at: email@example.com or on Twitter @MUPositiveCoach.