Which Mental Toughness Groups Do Your Athletes Belong To?

Which Mental Toughness Groups Do Your Athletes Belong To?

I wrote a piece a few weeks ago introducing The Sisu Quiz, a way to measure mental toughness. The Sisu Quiz was developed from a study that I carried out aptly named The Sisu Study which was published in early 2018.

The Sisu Study explained

The Sisu Study had two main goals. The first was to determine whether athletes can be grouped based on their level of mental toughness; think of it as The Myers-Briggs of mental toughness. The second aim was to better understand if mental toughness groups are associated with demographics, sports performance, and sports satisfaction.

The Sisu Study measured eight dimensions of mental toughness (MT): confidence, constancy, control, determination, visualization, positive cognition, self-belief, and self-confidence. If you’d like to learn more about the eight dimensions, my Training Peaks course is based on these dimensions and goes into great detail about each one.

I won’t bore you with all of the gory details of the analysis and results, but here are a few juicy tidbits.

Athletes can be classified by their level of mental toughness

I implemented a statistical technique that groups athletes who are most alike on the eight dimensions. This method essentially looks at the athlete’s score for all of the dimensions and then looks at another athlete’s scores for the dimensions and says “OK, you two have similar scores, let’s group you two together”. Then, it does that for all of the athletes in the study until all athletes have been assigned to a group. Once the statistical technique is finished doing its thing, each athlete ends up with a group number.

Three very distinct groups emerged which we named “High MT”, “Moderate MT”, and “Low MT”. How did we come up with these names? I’m glad you asked.

When you look at the average (mean) score for each dimension by group membership, you end up with a table that looks like this:

*modified for clarity, from:
Zeiger JS, Zeiger RS (2018) Mental toughness latent profiles in endurance athletes. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0193071. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193071

So, what’s really happening?

You can see a lot of things happening in this table.

First, the eight dimensions of measured mental toughness are on the far-left column. You can see the mean score for each group in the subsequent columns. When you look at the mean scores for each group, there are well-defined differences between groups. Notice that the High MT group showed the highest scores for all eight dimensions and the Low MT group showed the lowest scores across the board. And, the Moderate MT group? Well, they landed right in the middle.

Now, this doesn’t mean that an athlete can’t be high in six dimensions and low in two others. Because these are averages, there will be individual variations, but as a group, each category was very consistent.

A few interesting things appeared when looking at demographics and MT group membership. Females and younger athletes were overrepresented in the low MT group compared to males and older athletes. Athletes in the high MT group expressed more satisfaction with their performances and placed higher in their division.

These are important and actionable findings.

How to the implement Sisu results

You might wonder how to put the results of your athlete’s or your Sisu results into action. Here are a few ways to do so for each level of MT.

Low mental toughness

Athletes with low MT often lack confidence and that can lead to poor decisions.

Here is a quote from a low MT athlete: “I love the structured training but right now I think it might be “bad” for me because I push myself to do it even when I don’t feel great.”

This athlete recognizes her inability to back off even when feeling poorly, and this leads to repeated injury and illness. Much of this behavior is due to lack of confidence and the need to derive her self-esteem from the workouts themselves. We are working on building her self-esteem through non-sports activities, visualization, and positive self-talk.

Low MT athletes should focus on raising one or two dimensions of MT at a time. Often, raising just one or two dimensions will raise the others automatically.  

Moderate mental toughness

Moderate MT athletes are generally content with their training, racing, and level of MT. However, when faced with real adversity, moderate MT athletes tend to make excuses and are not self-reflective. Moderate MT athletes should concentrate on constancy, the ability to keep going when things get tough, and control, the perception of being able to personally influence the situation. These two dimensions are best improved by eradicating excuse making and taking ownership for events that occur, while also implementing positive self-talk when things are going badly.

In my experience, moderate MT athletes can be very defensive, so tread lightly.

High mental toughness

It would seem that high MT is the holy grail of mental toughness. In many ways, it is. But, it can also come with a price.

High MT athletes are introspective and do a good job of analyzing their training and racing in an objective manner. On the flip side, high MT athletes can be their own worst enemy because they feel they can use their MT to fight their way through any situation. This can be a detriment in terms of health and well being. A high MT athlete is incredibly determined and can often push away negative thoughts. This means that when the SOS light is flashing, it is ignored.

High MT athletes need to understand that stopping when appropriate is a greater indication of MT compared to forging forward needlessly and recklessly.

Summary

Mental toughness is a complex construct due to its many facets. With the Sisu Study, we have tried to ease the process of measuring MT so coaches and athletes can pinpoint areas that need work. And, don’t rest on your laurels; if you don’t nurture your MT, you might find your MT waning when you need it the most.

Joanna Zeiger

Joanna competed as a professional triathlete from 1998-2010. She placed 4th in the Sydney Olympics and was the 2008 IRONMAN 70.3 World Champion. She excelled at all 3 distances in the sport of triathlon, winning races in the Olympic, Half IRONMAN, and IRONMAN distances in additional to qualifiying for Olympic trials in marathon, triathlon and swimming. Joanna has been a coach and mentor to endurance athletes of all ages and abilities since 2003. In 2013, Joanna created Race Ready Coaching with partner Jared Berg. After receiving a B.A. in Psychology (1992) at Brown University, she went on to Northwestern University to earn her M.S. in Genetic Counseling (1995). Motivated by the excitement of independent research, Joanna earned her Ph.D. in Genetic Epidemiology (2001) at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.