Authors: William Steffen1, Conrad Woolsey2, Ronald Quinn3, Brandon Spradley4
Affiliations: 1Wingate University, 2University of Western States, 3Xavier University, 4United States Sports Academy
Dr. Brandon Spradley
Chair of Sports Management
United States Sports Academy
One Academy Drive
Daphne, Alabama 36526
Dr. Bill Steffen is an Assistant Professor of Sport Science at Wingate University and serves as the Chair of the United Soccer Coaches Ethics Committee and a Senior National Staff Coach. Dr. Steffen won two NCAA National Championships in women’s soccer while coaching at the University of North Carolina and has 28 years of NCAA coaching experience, in addition to playing professional soccer for five years.
Dr. Conrad Woolsey is the Director of Sport and Performance Psychology at the University of Western States. As a nationally recognized expert in the field of sport and performance psychology he is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC) through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) and a member of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) Sport Psychology Registry.
Dr. Ronald Quinn is the Director of MEd in Coaching Education & Athlete Development at Xavier University. Dr. Quinn is considered a leading authority in youth soccer and coaching education presenting at prestigious national and international conferences.
Dr. Brandon Spradley is the Chair of Sports Management and an Associate Professor at the United States Sports Academy. Dr. Spradley was a four-time NCAA regional qualifier and a two-time NCAA national qualifier in track and field running on nationally ranked relay teams for The University of Alabama.
Mental Toughness in Coaching
Researchers have explored the mental toughness that is associated with elite athletes as a concept relating to specific activities and sports; however, there is limited research concerning mental toughness among elite coaches. This study expanded previous research by investigating elite coaches’ (N=22) perspectives of what attributes were most important for defining mental toughness in coaching. Results of coaching focus groups interviews yielded several themes which were incorporated into a definition of mental toughness of a coach. Mental toughness of a coach is a complex interaction of several characteristics: (1) a determined mindset; (2) resiliency; (3) confidence; and (4) a strong belief in the coach’s system, processes, and actions; all of these characteristics result in consistent behaviors and emotional responses. Coaches were asked to list attributes that they felt were descriptive of the ideal mentally tough coach. Their list included confident, resilient, consistent, positive spirit, energetic, passionate, optimistic, adaptable, possessing inner strength, and patient. These attributes were discussed in consideration of coaches’ rationale for these choices. Examining mental toughness can positively assist coaches seeking to become the best they can be.
Key words: Mental toughness,sport coaching, psychological skills
Although mental toughness has been studied extensively in recent years (2, 20, 24, 36), the concept has been described as one of the most over-used, yet least understood, terms in sport with nearly all desirable mental attributes linked to sport-related success being classified as mental toughness (23). Previous work in compiling desirable cognitive attributes attempted to better define the concept of mental toughness (4, 23). Crust (8) has more directly approached mental toughness with the following suggestion: “a mentally tough individual would exhibit different patterns of reactivity to standardized stressors, than would a less tough individual” (p. 594). Additionally, Crust (8) reported that observable behaviors could be consistently noted in mentally tough individuals, and behavioral checklists could be created for certain activities. Until recently, there has been little work in this area, considering the historical importance placed on the mental toughness construct (32). However, Crust (7, 8) has written comprehensive reviews of investigations into mental toughness with the goal of establishing a foundation of understanding.
Much of the early research that examined mental toughness has focused on identifying potential constructs that may lead to the development of mental toughness within athletes. Gucciardi, Gordon, and Dimmock (22) identified various roles that a coach may play in helping athletes develop mental toughness. These included the coach–athlete relationship, coaching philosophy, training strategies, and negative experiences. Additionally, many studies have examined mental toughness in specific sports such as soccer (34), tennis (6), rugby (29), swimming (11), gymnastics (33), and cricket (2). Jones et al. (23) has posited the need to examine mental toughness in alternative roles beyond athletics. For example, a recent study examined the impact of a mental toughness training program on early-career English football referees, which led to the referees’ improved overall performance (31). While coaches have frequently been studied to determine their perceptions in relation to mental toughness (35), this has often been framed as the development of mental toughness among athletes. Very little research has explored concepts of mental toughness as it relates to the coaching profession. This study addresses the need to investigate the mental toughness of coaches.
There should be an understanding that while the definition of mental toughness may have common attributes across several roles, there may be differences among differing sport-specific roles, such as those of players and coaches. For example, athlete-specific mental toughness for an offensive lineman in American football may feature many different key factors than mental toughness for a billiards player. Indeed, mental toughness can be expressed in many different ways across different sports (2). Similarly, it can be hypothesized that the concept and constructs of mental toughness among coaches may be quite different than those among athletes. Thus, in order to best assist coaches seeking to become mentally tough, examining a definition and attributes for mental toughness in coaching is appropriate and should be further researched.
Despite limited education or training programs for assisting with such mental challenges, the stress and pressure felt among coaches has been documented (25). These substantial mental challenges experienced by coaches suggest a need for further exploration and the development of a specific definition of mental toughness for coaches. Such a definition may benefit coaches and athletes by helping coaches survive the rigors of coaching for greater lengths of time. As coaches continue their careers, they will have the opportunity to learn more and continue to polish their craft. This definition of mental toughness would be different from the Jones et al. (23), Crust and Clough (9), and Gucciardi, Gordon and Dimmock (21) definitions of mental toughness for athletes. Attributes should differ substantially as the job requirements for an athlete and coach contain significant differences. In an effort to advance the science of mental toughness related to coaching, the purpose of this study was to explore the concept of mental toughness among a sample of elite sport coaches.
This Intuitional Review Board (IRB) approved study followed the methodology used by Coulter, Mallett, and Gucciardi (5) based on previous work by Jones, et al. (23). Their process, however, used elite athletes instead of coaches to investigate mental toughness through focus group interviews. As in the previous study on athletes, data were gathered from semi-structured interviews and were utilized to define mental toughness. In the present study, elite coaches were operationally defined as having won a world, professional, or National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) national championship. This definition is parallel to the structure of the elite athlete definition provided by Jones et al. (23). Elite coaches (N=93) were contacted and invited to participate via email. The email addressed the purpose, procedure, and requirements for the study. Of these elite coaches contacted, 22 coaches agreed to participate. Each member of the group was then sent a message containing details of the study. Informed consent was obtained. Phone-based focus groups of four to seven coaches were formed based on participants’ available schedules. A coach with training in sport psychology conducted semi-structured interviews with each group, keeping the discussion focused while still allowing individual viewpoints and experiences to be expressed (27). Demographic information included sport, number of years coaching (all sports), levels coached, athletes’ gender, and coach’s ethnicity, gender, and age.
The interviews consisted of three sections: (1) defining mental toughness of coaches; (2) whether mental toughness of coaches can be developed; and (3) what the attributes of the ideal mentally tough coach are. Phone conversations from the focus group discussions were the primary source of data. A second researcher typed transcripts from all conversations, which yielded 30 pages of text. This investigation differed from the methods of Jones et al. (23) as that study’s authors used three athletes per group. Larger focus groups were incorporated in this investigation as several researchers felt larger group numbers yielded richer, more diverse data (1, 13); thus, this study used focus groups consisting of 4–7 coaches. Following the completion of all group calls, data transcripts were grouped into meaning units based on all researchers’ agreement. Three investigators reviewed all commentaries from focus group discussion transcripts. Following review, meaning units (dialog from the transcripts which represented a single idea) were determined. From the meaning units, raw themes emerged and were consolidated into categories. For the next stage, individual coaches received an email containing a written consensus of the definition of mental toughness of coaches based on the focus group calls for reflection and commentary. Additionally, the email contained a compilation of all attributes from focus group calls. Coaches listed their top ten mental attributes of the ideal mentally tough coach in order of priority with one being the most important attribute. Attributes were then ranked on the result of the 22 elite coaches’ responses.
Focus groups produced eight, 15, 21, and 33 categories. The investigators compiled the categories and obtained the following definition from the input of all elite coaches: Mental toughness of a coach is a complex interaction of a determined mindset, resiliency, confidence and a strong belief in the coach’s system, processes, and actions, which result in consistent behaviors and emotional responses. A list of 46 attributes of the ideal mentally tough coach was collected (see Table 1).Table 1 Attributes of Mental Toughness According to Elite Coaches
|Adaptable||Doesn’t ever want to show panic||Patient|
|Analytical||Doesn’t sacrifice respect to gain superficial popularity||Powerful|
|Consistent||Has inner strength||Resilient|
|Controls emotions||Has a positive spirit||Secure|
|Courageous||Has a willingness to push beyond perceived limits||Stoic|
|Detached||Not afraid of what other people think||Strong-willed|
|Determined||Optimistic||Undaunted by small failures|
|Doesn’t ever want to panic||Passionate to improve and get better|
Following the focus group calls, the development of the definition of mental toughness of coaches and the compilation of attributes, coaches were contacted individually to perform member checking. Coaches were emailed the definition of the mental toughness of a coach and asked to consider the definition prior to a phone call from the researchers. Member checking allows members of a focus group to consider the original conversations in addition to considering the results of those conversations. All coaches felt the definition was appropriate and accurate. One coach felt the definition was too wordy and did not roll off the tongue; however, the coach agreed the definition was suitable.
Coaches submitted a list of the ten attributes that each felt were representative of the ideal mentally tough coach. Attributes were ranked by coaches with 10 points for the most important characteristic, nine points for the second most important characteristic followed by decreasing importance for each decrement in score. A score was obtained by dividing the total number of points for each characteristic by the number of coaches. These attributes included ten characteristics: (1) Confident (M= 7.33); (2) Resiliency (M= 4.42); (3) Consistent (M= 4.08); (4) Has a positive spirit (M= 3.83); (5) Energetic (M= 3.42); (6) Passionate (M= 3.17); (7) Optimistic (M= 2.75); (8) Adaptable (M= 2.67); (9) Inner strength (M= 2.42); (10) Patient (M= 1.92).
The following attributes are discussed with inclusion of the coaches’ comments obtained during the focus groups. Several of the characteristics overlap, but coaches felt these characteristics were necessary to help ‘paint a picture’ of the ideal mentally tough coach.
Coaches felt confidence was a key ingredient of mental toughness for coaches. There were two motivations for this mentioned by coaches. Coaches need to act confident themselves to develop confidence in their athletes (16). Additionally, coaches felt confidence helped produce more productive coaching behaviors. Coach A summarized confidence by saying “mentally tough coaches definitely have the attitude and project that to their players, that you can do this, that kind of confidence, that ‘can do, we are going to figure it out’ type attitude”.
Coaches described the need to endure long hours of involvement. This involvement includes practice and training, planning, recruiting, and travel. Beyond that, coaches need to endure the ups and downs associated with competitive athletics. Coach B described the ideal mentally tough coach as “being able to deal with the adversity and probably the successful moment equally as well”. Thus, coaches felt this characteristic is necessary for periods of both success and struggle.
The “ability to kind of consistently bring together their best effort as a coach, a teacher, to the players to the team that they have no matter what the circumstances” was put forward by Coach C as a necessity for the mentally tough coach. Maintaining a consistent outlook throughout the course of a season with the inherent ups and downs was mentioned by coaches in an attempt to describe attributes of the mentally tough coach.
Has a positive spirit
Positivity was a necessary ingredient for mentally tough coaches. Coach B stated a mentally tough coach was “an optimist that isn’t fazed by a few loses or setbacks, by a difficult challenge with a difficult athlete and player management issues”. Many coaches felt it was easy to fall victim to negative experiences and have those experiences determine an outlook. The mentally tough coach resisted and maintained a positive spirit.
Coach D described the mentally tough coach by stating “They ‘gotta’ have passion for the game. A coach has to have passion for the game and the kids feed off of that, and they know it.” This sentiment was shared by many participants as a source for other characteristics.
The ability to be optimistic, tied to consistency and resilience, was summarized by Coach E’s statement: “The really great coaches, in their core, are optimistic about everything.”
A mentally tough coach will likely have a lengthy career. During their careers, coaches would need to progress and adapt to changing technical and tactical issues in addition to changing social phenomenon. Coach F felt mentally tough coaches “think that mental toughness also has to do with being able to adapt. It’s easy to, just particularly those of us that have done it for a number of years, they kind of go back to what has worked. Well, what worked 20 years ago doesn’t work today and so you got to have that energy to bring, to go after and look after new ideas and re-invent yourself and re-invent your process and plan”.
Has inner strength
Many coaches felt being mentally tough requires fortitude. This inner strength was especially salient regarding coaching-related personnel and management issues. Coach G summarized this sentiment by stating that participating coaches: “think that this capacity to manage people, they are also very strong and powerful, is a critical quality in the mentally tough coach”.
Patience is required to be a mentally tough coach. Similar to resilience, patience was seen to be important as those individuals surrounding the mentally tough coach may not demonstrate patience. The following statement from Coach B summarized this feeling: “Flexible, patient, adaptable … you don’t let your emotions determine your actions. That’s a good point. To me that’s mental toughness too. You know, when you want to shoot somebody, or when somebody should be shot, and you handle it.”
The value of mental toughness for athletes has been established for a long time (18), but this characteristic has only recently been investigated on a more objective basis. Authors have investigated mental toughness in specific activities such as cricket (2), rugby (14, 16, 29), football/soccer (5, 10, 19, 21, 32, 34), ice hockey (28), fencing (12), swimming (11), and gymnastics (33). This investigation examined coaching-related mental toughness. The value of learning more about mental toughness for coaching and elite coaches’ perspectives lies in understanding the specific characteristics that help create mentally tough coaches. Coaches demonstrating mental toughness may be more successful in their careers, and thus, bring more benefits to the athletes they serve and support. The definition of mental toughness based on this investigation supports behaviors that will enable a coach to continue with positive, appropriate coaching behaviors throughout any issues that may arise. This positive motivating factor could help coaches seek to further understand how mental toughness can apply to their performance.
Several researchers have investigated the way in which mental toughness is developed (15, 17, 18, 22, 30). Indeed, if mental toughness is such a desirable characteristic, sport psychology practitioners need to pursue ideas regarding its development. By listing attributes of the ideal mentally tough coach, coaches seeking to continue to improve by becoming more mentally tough can work to develop these characteristics. Several of these characteristics can be developed and demonstrated over time; thus, developing mental toughness is an experiential improvement process.
The paradox between the mental toughness attributes, consistency and adaptability, may be better understood through further examination of the coaches’ focus group discussion comments. In the discussions, the focus of consistency was on coaches’ personality traits and interaction styles with others. Adaptability was considered necessary for technical and tactical changes needed for successful training approaches and game(s) strategy management. Additionally, changes in social phenomena, such as evolving technology, may require coaching changes.
The leading factor, confidence, may be an elusive attribute to develop as a beginning coach may not experience much success as defined in terms of winning percentage. Coaches may need to focus on other positive developments, including personal development through means such as education and team/athlete process gains, in order to help foster increased confidence. Given the importance that these successful coaches placed on confidence, coaches seeking increased mental toughness through greater confidence should further their education relative to their sport and coaching methodology. Coaches should take advantage of opportunities to coach in a variety of circumstances in order to add experience and skills to their repertoire. These factors may enhance confidence within the coaches to be able to effectively use mental toughness skills.
Resiliency may be increased through coaches’ discussions of obstacles with mentors, peers, and staff. Learning how other coaches deal with difficult times may help coaches develop solutions to aid in resolving problems occurring throughout their careers.
Coaches may develop adaptability to changes in technology and the way in which it is used by young people through establishing a relationship with someone with expertise in information technology (IT). If a coach is affiliated with a school or other organization, collaborating with a sports information director for support to stay aware of changes in social media and other applications can help a coach understand players and communicate more effectively.
Professional development may help coaches become aware of tactical or technical changes relevant to their sport. Membership and participation in professional organizations may help coaches learn new methods and make tactical changes within their specific sport. Coaches who are current with rule changes can help players initiate new strategies to make best use of these shifts and modifications.
This investigation was limited to coaches in the United States; thus, there may be cultural differences found in future studies in different countries. Further studies would be necessary in order to assess elite coaches for mental toughness and inquire as to their development of mental toughness.
By studying mental toughness for coaching, the hope is to increase the quality of coaches leading to improved performances and satisfaction for both coaches and the athletes they serve. Defining mental toughness in coaching and identifying the attributes can assist toward this desired outcome. By further investigating the attributes of the ideal mentally tough coach, coaches choosing to continually improve can look introspectively for characteristics within themselves to improve. Additionally, sports psychology professionals should also seek to develop appropriately designed training or educational programs in order to assist coaches in developing professional mental toughness.
APPLICATIONS IN SPORT
Identifying attributes of mental toughness can serve the coaching field in a variety of ways, particularly helping coaches develop at all levels of sport. Coaches who consistently develop attributes of mental toughness may become more effective coaches and better serve their athletes. Through this study and continued study of mental toughness for coaching, the hope is to increase the quality of coaches leading to improved performances and satisfaction for both coaches and the athletes they serve. Defining mental toughness in coaching and identifying the attributes can assist toward this desired outcome. Many of the characteristics revealed by elite coaches are attainable through continued coaching practice. A danger to this process is each attempt has no guarantee of succeeding on an initial attempt. Coaches may be hesitant to try ideas and activities that may not provide quick, positive results. In a field increasingly emphasizing immediate results in terms of wins and losses, coaches may not be granted the amount of time necessary to attempt methods to develop mental toughness and learn from unsuccessful endeavors. Progress toward increasing mental toughness can be made as coaches learn from both successful and unsuccessful attempts at becoming more mentally tough. Coaches, assistant coaches, sport psychologists, and athletic administrators should be aware of the characteristics of a mentally tough coach and steps necessary to developing mental toughness. Coaches should strive to progress each of the characteristics listed in this study with the support of others associated with their athletic programs including their athletes. Through the list of characteristics of the ideal mentally tough coach, support staff can aid coaches seeking to develop mental toughness by regularly evaluating coaches’ progress on each of these characteristics. By further investigating the attributes of the ideal mentally tough coach, coaches choosing to continually improve can look introspectively for characteristics within themselves to improve. Additionally, sports psychology professionals should also seek to develop appropriately designed training or educational programs in order to assist coaches in developing professional mental toughness. Athletic administrators should provide time for coaches to make strides geared towards improving mental toughness. The potential benefits to coaches and their athletes can improve coach and athlete satisfaction and performance.
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