Developing Mental Toughness
Developing Mental Toughness
Sport is a powerful metaphor for business. Fierce competition, winning by sometimes the smallest margins, achieving goals and targets, establishing long-term and short-term strategies and tactics, hard work, perseverance, determination, teamwork, dealing with success and recovering from failure and setbacks are all key elements of both worlds.
Underpinning success in sport and business is the ability to continually move performance to higher levels – what you achieve this year is never going to be good enough next year. Goals and standards move onwards and upwards, resulting in an incessant demand to find new means and methods to ensure the delivery of performance curves that at times can seem tantalisingly, and at other times impossibly, out of reach. These constitute the essential ingredients of pressure, and achieving sustainable high performance under pressure requires you to be mentally tough.
Adrian and I have some valuable and fascinating insights into mental toughness based on our combined knowledge and experience of studying and consulting with some of the world’s best performers, in my case and, in Adrian’s case, actually being one of them! We have wrestled with how best to communicate what is essentially an explicit understanding of the psychology of high achievers based on researching and supporting them, combined with an implicit awareness of how to achieve World Number One status and sustain it over six consecutive years.
Our conclusion is that Adrian and I should present these perspectives separately. We each have our own stories to tell so the remainder of the book is written in the context of our own personal and different perspectives.
This is largely in the form of:
- my identification, explanation and guidance on how to develop and enhance the essential elements of mental toughness;
- with Adrian’s inputs highlighting and bringing alive the key messages and principles involved.
The remainder of this introduction tells the stories of how we came to be so heavily involved in elite sport and how our respective consulting and high achiever worlds collided to form such a powerful perspective on how to deliver sustainable high performance. It then goes on to outline the content and layout of the book and how to get the most from it.
As a child of 12, it was my biggest dream ever since seeing David Wilkie win the 200 metres breaststroke in 1976 to win a Gold Medal at the Olympic Games. I spent the next eight years training and competing at various levels from county to district to national, achieving quite rapid success.
Olympic Gold Medallist
I first represented the Great Britain senior team in 1980 at the age of 15, and carried on making such rapid progress that at the start of the 1984 Olympic year I was already European Champion and Commonwealth Games Gold Medal winner. I was ranked as one of the favourites going into the Los Angeles Olympics in July. From the start of that year I began to feel weighed down by my own expectations; this was my chance to fulfil my dream and also other people’s expectations. I remember reading in the newspaper how I was going to carry on the British tradition of Olympic Gold Medal breaststroke winners – ‘Wilkie ’76, Goodhew ’80, Moorhouse ’84?’
Every race I swam, and indeed every training session I did, became so very important. In fact I over-magnified the importance of every session and every race. Indeed, I came to think that any perceived weakness in the last four months would lead to my ultimate failure. It reached such an extent that in April I was sleeping very fitfully for a maximum of four or five hours at a time. I didn’t know how to cope with the amount of pressure I placed on myself. Even at the Olympics in Los Angeles, having qualified for the final, I remember sitting in the ‘ready room’ half an hour before the race feeling that there was no way I could win. I just didn’t have the tools to cope with the mental pressure. Needless to say, I didn’t win and came an uninspiring fourth. To me that was a failure; I got the same medal as the person who came last – nothing!
The press were equally scathing afterwards, labelling me a failure and suggesting I retire (at the age of 20). My self-belief hit an all-time low and for the next four months my swimming results just got worse. My motivation to train was almost non-existent. I just went because I knew where the swimming pool was and because my friends were there.
One of the keys to rebuilding my self-belief was appreciating some of my past successes and it took my coach’s help to work through that with me, to make me appreciate that I had achieved quite a lot. The other thing that helped me was rebuilding some short-term goals to include things I thought I could achieve rather than aiming for the big Olympic Gold Medal again; it was just too daunting. It took me a couple of years and more successes to start to believe that the Gold Medal was within my control again. I was developing a lot of the skills associated with mental toughness. By 1986 I had achieved the World Number One position and held this through to 1988, the next Olympics in Seoul. I had not changed much of my physical training, but had spent a lot of time developing my mental skills and capabilities. Walking into the final of the 100 metres breaststroke, I believed I was going to win and knew how to handle the pressure, either self-imposed or press-related! It was not a foregone conclusion, but I did actually win that race. One significant moment to test my belief was at the halfway turn where I was in sixth place out of eight. I drew on past experience and belief in my capabilities for a strong last 25 metres and banished negative thoughts from my head. I went on to win the race by just one hundredth of a second.
I am sure that developing the key skills around belief, motivation, focus and the ability to handle pressure was the key factor. In other words, I had become mentally tough.
My swimming career continued through to the next Olympics in 1992, and I spent most of those four years with a goal of breaking the World Record and reducing it to an unattainable (for other people!) time. I had shifted my main goal and this motivated me for those years. I stayed at the top of the world rankings until 1991 and broke the World Record three times. By the time of the 1992 Olympic year, however, I had slipped to second in the world and started to feel the youngsters quite literally snapping at my heels! I finished eighth in that Olympic final and retired soon afterwards as I felt that my years at the top had come to an end, and I was fulfilled with my career and achievements.
My first job after retiring was working with the English Amateur Swimming Association to create a Junior Talent Development Programme. I also started work with the British Olympic Association to create a Lifestyle Planning Programme for Olympic athletes. For a while I struggled to work out where a future career might lie, but a lot of it came down to just having confidence and belief in myself and staying focused on the job in hand. In reality, I was managing this transition by using all the elements of mental toughness I had learned.
During these first few years after retiring, I had also carried on delivering the odd ‘motivational’ speech to various businesses. Whilst being financially lucrative, retelling my story soon became empty for me. I found myself wondering what the long-term value might be to those listening, realising that actually it was simply a form of entertainment. I soon realised that I needed a career, and being an entertainer wasn’t it. This coincided with meeting Graham in a bathroom in Florida. We were both working for the British Olympic Association on the preparation camp for the Atlanta Olympics, and our rudimentary accommodation at Florida State University meant that we had to share a bathroom! Over a beer later on, we discussed the key factors that underpin success in sport and their transferability into business. I expressed feeling unsure of the learning I could get across from a stage, and Graham talked passionately about the work he had been doing with business managers in much the same way as he would with a group of elite athletes – over a sustained period and including both group and one-to-one sessions. I realised almost immediately that this was the business opportunity and career that I had been looking for.
In 1995 we started Lane4 with the express aim of bringing some of those tools and skills that I had found so useful to business people around the world. Over the past 12 years we have been working together developing into a more fully-fledged performance consultancy. As I have grown into my new career and role as the Managing Director, I have discovered that there are many similar challenges in running a growing business, for example staying focused on the strategy and goals, and coping with the pressure of the vagaries of the market or competitive environment, as well as my own belief in our proposition and my ability as the leader.
Not surprisingly, of all my ‘old’ skills, it isn’t being able to swim fast that has had most impact on my capabilities as a business leader, but my mental toughness.
Have you ever been in a situation in which you knew that if you could summon up the courage to take on a really big challenge it could change your life? It happened to me a number of years ago when I was firmly and comfortably ensconced within the world of academia. I was busy doing what academics do to advance their careers – engrossing myself in research and writing up the findings for publication in peer-reviewed scientific journals. My particular interest in the psychology of elite performance was fuelled by a passion to explore what makes the world’s best sport performers tick and, in particular, how they deal with the extraordinary pressure they find themselves surrounded by. This interest in elite performance didn’t stop at examining and understanding the key psychological principles of success. I was also working in the real world, consulting with elite performers from a wide variety of sports who were searching for the psychological edge they believed would catapult, or at the very least nudge, them ahead of their rivals.
Applying the psychology of elite performance to business
Then came the day that triggered a chain of events that persuaded me to consider, question and eventually leave behind my comfortable existence. I and my colleague, Dr Austin Swain1, were approached by David, a senior executive in a large global company, who was seeking to apply the elite sport metaphor to help his already successful senior management team step up to an even higher performance level. This presented an intriguing challenge at one level, because I had often pondered how well the principles of elite sport performance would transfer to other performance arenas.
At another level I was fearful that our relative naivety and lack of experience of the business world would present too much of an obstacle to us in delivering real value to what I anticipated would be a busy group of people with better things to do with their time. And what could Austin and I add to what wasn’t already available within their own organisation? This was a huge, well-respected company with a highly-developed human resource department that surely must have ample internal knowledge and experience of the essential principles of performance management! David, on the other hand, was convinced that we could help, citing the large number of similarities between performance in business and sport as the foundation of his confidence.
I will always be grateful to David and his team for their interest and encouragement as we ventured nervously into what for us was uncharted territory. They too believed that there was something valuable in what we had to say and offer, and as I got to grips with ‘P’n Ls’, ‘PDRs’, ‘PDPs’, ‘360 feedback’ and other terminology that seemed baffling at the time, so my confidence grew and I felt that we were making an impact. In fact the work with David’s team had very positive results and it did prove to be that life-changing experience for me. Here was another type of environment hungry for the basics of performance psychology and it was a very responsive environment ready to experiment with many of the key principles of elite sport performance. The crucial factor and learning for me was that the principles applied extremely well to the business environment.
There was actually a second part to this life-changing event, although I didn’t recognise it as such at the time. During my work with the British Olympic Association in helping to prepare the Great Britain team for the 1996 Olympics, I had met former Olympic swimming Gold Medallist, Adrian Moorhouse. As well as his Olympic Gold Medal success, Adrian had been ranked as World Number One for six consecutive years before his retirement in 1992. He had also been applying his vast experience and knowledge of performing at the highest level in sport to business, but Adrian was conscious that he was telling a story of how he succeeded without ever truly understanding the key principles that underpinned it. We talked at length about how his thoughts, attitudes and behaviours fitted around things like motivation, belief, goal setting, focus and handling pressure. We applied a psychologically-based structure to his success story so that it could be told in a more meaningful manner to the business world. We had essentially teamed up as theorist and practitioner, and along with a third partner, Adrian Hutchinson, who provided the commercial experience and know-how, eventually set up a company called Lane4.
You and mental toughness
Lane4’s work with some of the largest and best known companies in the UK over the past 12 years, and its recent expansion into North America and Australasia, reflects an enduring and worldwide demand that provides ample evidence of the power of applying the elite sporting metaphor to business. Numerous common factors across the two domains have already been identified, but one, in particular, stands out as fundamental to being successful in both – pressure. The highly visible and public nature of performance outcomes, together with the consequences of success and failure for performers in sport and business, mean that pressure is a huge factor in both worlds. The often fierce competition and the narrowest of margins that define success or failure mean that performers have to be able to cope with pressure.
Is merely coping with pressure sufficient to enable high performance to be delivered at a sustainable level? This book is underpinned by the key principle that high achievers do more than merely cope with pressure – they thrive on it! And the vital factor in thriving on pressure and moving to even higher levels of performance is the development of mental toughness. Mental toughness lies at the core of the world’s very best sports performers. It enables them to thrive on pressure that others find almost unbearable and merely cope as best they can. It builds and sustains a level of self-belief that makes their dreams become reality when others fall short because their belief isn’t strong enough. It instills a motivation and determination in them to succeed when others are floored by failures and setbacks. It ensures an immovable focus when others are derailed by inevitable distractions. No wonder business executives have recently become enthralled and engrossed in the notion of mental toughness!
Over the last few years Adrian and I have been applying the elite sport metaphor with business executives to develop a level of mental toughness that enables them to deliver consistently high levels of performance under pressure. I have no doubt that you are reading this book because you, too, would like to deliver consistently high levels of performance under pressure. You may have already reached a high level in the corporate world and want to continue your development to achieve even greater things.
Alternatively, you may have high potential and are looking for ways to aspire to your own and others’ high expectations of you. For those of you who may be coaching or managing high achievers or high potentials, this book will serve as a valuable resource for supporting them when under pressure, and as an aid to their general personal development.
Content & Layout of this book
The content of this book is designed to be thought-provoking, to raise awareness and to provide key pointers as to how you can develop and enhance your and others’ mental toughness. The insights into mental toughness are based upon a number of different sources, specifically:
- my experiences of working with some of the world’s best sport performers and their support staff;
- my experiences of working with performers at all levels of business organisations, including chief executive officers, managing directors and their boards;
- my experiences of working with elite performers in several other contexts, ranging from armed fighting force personnel to musicians;
- my published and ongoing research in the area of mental toughness and high level performance;
- my interpretation of the available theory and research findings in the area of performance psychology;
- Adrian’s experiences of achieving World Number One status and sustaining it over six consecutive years;
- Adrian’s transition from Olympic Gold Medallist to running a successful global company.
The book portrays a journey that begins with understanding why mental toughness is important, and what it actually is. Subsequent chapters then progress into how each of the elements of mental toughness can be developed and enhanced. Brief outlines of each chapter are as follows.
Chapter 2 highlights the enormous role played by pressure in both business and sport and draws parallels between them. It defines what pressure is and describes how it can debilitate your performance.
Chapter 2 also describes how it is possible for you to thrive on pressure through the development of mental toughness.
Chapter 3 addresses what mental toughness is and what it is not, culminating in the identification of the four pillars of mental toughness:
- keeping your head under stress;
- staying strong in your self-belief;
- making your motivation work for you;
- maintaining your focus on the things that matter.
Chapter 4 deals with keeping your head under stress. It emphasises how understanding what stress is, and how it affects you, is the essential starting point. This chapter describes how the vast majority of stress is self-imposed and then presents three ways of keeping your composure under stress:
- managing the symptoms of stress;
- being able to control and change any negative thoughts;
- dealing with the source of stress itself.
Chapter 5 addresses the area of staying strong in your self-belief and how deep, inner belief enables you to deliver consistently high performance under pressure. This chapter distinguishes between self-esteem and self-confidence, and describes strategies and techniques for building both in order to develop and enhance a robust self-belief.
Chapter 6 reveals how making your motivation work for you is crucial in enabling you to remain motivated for the daily grind of work and also to recover from setbacks. This chapter distinguishes between different types of motivation and how some can actually debilitate performance under pressure. It examines what optimal motivation is and how to achieve it on a consistent basis.
Chapter 7 deals with the many potential distractions that you encounter and how maintaining your focus on the things that matter enables you to remain focused on key priorities when the pressure is really on. This chapter also describes how some situations require you to be able to switch your focus, often very rapidly. A number of strategies and techniques for enhancing both types of focus are described.
Chapter 8 concludes the book by addressing the questions I have been most frequently asked about mental toughness:
- What difference will it really make if I improve my mental toughness?
- Can you be too mentally tough?
- Just how easy is it to develop mental toughness?
- What about mental toughness in teams?
- How is mental toughness different from emotional intelligence?
The entire book includes a number of approaches and perspectives that make the topic of mental toughness easily accessible.
- Simple models and frameworks that illustrate the key components of the various elements of mental toughness.
- Stories about performers I have worked with that demonstrate how the core principles of mental toughness apply to ‘real’ business and sport performers.
- ‘Over to Adrian’ sections that bring alive key principles underlying mental toughness and its development.
- ‘Time Out’ sections that provide the opportunity to reflect and build on your growing awareness as you understand more about mental toughness and how you can develop and enhance it. To get the most out of the book do each Time Out as you come to it. I suggest you keep a notebook in which you can record your responses, together with any other thoughts and ideas you bring to mind whilst reading the book.
- ‘In a Nutshell’ sections in each chapter that summarise key messages.
- ‘What Next?’ sections at the end of chapters that deal with the four pillars of mental toughness that spell out actions that will help you develop and enhance each pillar.
- ‘Case Studies’ spanning the whole book that track the development of mental toughness in four performers.
The book is designed with the intention that you can consult separate chapters for guidance on how to develop and enhance specific elements of mental toughness. However, you will benefit most from reading the book in its entirety and then keeping it close to hand as a continual reminder of how you can thrive on pressure.