Authors: Mathieu Castello, Jacob P Reed, Robin Lund, Mick Mack
Kinesiology, Allied Health, and Human Services
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls, IA 50614

Corresponding Author:
Jacob Reed
University of Northern Iowa
203 Wellness and Recreation Center
Cedar Falls, IA 50614
Phone: 319-273-2071

Relationship Between Physical Training, Ratings of Perceived Exertion, and Mental Toughness in Female NCAA Division I Volleyball Players

The purpose of this study was to examine the relationship between participating in a conditioning program, ratings of perceived exertion, heart rate (HR), and mental toughness. Thirteen Division I Volleyball players were recruited while 10 participated in an 8-week off-season conditioning program aimed at improving physical fitness. Before and after the training period, the Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test and Mental, Emotional, and Bodily Toughness Inventory (MeBTough) were completed. While performing the Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test, heart rate was collected. During the 8-week program, session rating of perceived exertion (sRPE) was obtained following each training session. Significant improvement in physiological capacity was observed following the 8-week training protocol; pre (844m ± 196.37) to post (980m ± 200.67), t(9) = -5.50, p = 0.00. Mental toughness scores (as assessed by the MeBTough) did not change significantly during that same time period; pre (145.2 ± 12.3) to post (144 ± 16.72), p > 0.05. Additionally, no significant correlation between the capacity to perform on the physical test, the mental toughness score, sRPE, or maximum HR was found.

Based on these observations, coaches should be cautious in their judgement of an athlete’s mental toughness based on fitness, sRPE, and HR. Finally, it appears that an 8-week conditioning program was not enough to elicit any changes in mental toughness. Mental toughness is a complex phenomenon. As such, coaches should be cautious when assessing an athlete’s mental toughness based solely on the results of a physical test or values provided from the session RPE. Furthermore, the researchers observation that mental toughness did not change over an 8-week training protocol demonstrates that hard physical training does not necessarily improve mental toughness. This result is not definitive but does warrant further investigation.

Keywords: Monitoring, Training Load, Conditioning, Fitness, Sport 

One of the primary requirements for sport scientists is to evaluate an athlete’s current status and examine how that athlete responds to training (8). Fortunately, a multitude of monitoring instruments, physical tests, and new technologies are available to assess a wide variety of variables. These assessment tools allow sport practitioners the opportunity to explore possible relationships that can potentially influence the way athletes are trained and coached. Two variables of particular interest to many coaches and athletes are training load and mental toughness.

To help coaches and practitioners understand the amount of training load experienced by athletes it needs to be quantified. The session rating of perceived exertion training load (sRPE-TL) is one of the most used and reliable methods to quantify the training load with team sports (6, 13) as well as individual athletes (7, 9). This method helps practitioners understand the internal load perceived by each individual athlete. In a consensus statement, Bourdon (3) presented the session-RPE as a low-cost tool, easy to use, interpret and prescribe with a large variety of physical activities. Similarly, heart rate (HR) is often used to quantify the internal load of athletes (2).

Mental toughness is often considered by coaches as an important component of athletic performance and success (11). Thus, researchers and coaches have tried to find a definition and components of mental toughness. Loehr (17) first reported 12 characteristics of mental toughness: physically relaxed, mentally calm, low anxiety, energized, optimistic, enjoyment, effortless, automatic, alert, mentally focused, self-confident, and in-control. An alternative, and generally more accepted, definition has been posed by Jones, Hanton, and Connaughton (14) who defined mental toughness as a psychological advantage that allows athletes to better handle the demands of sport performance and to “be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure” (p.213).

Coaches play an important role in the development of talent and mental skills for athletes (10, 19). Athletes are also aware of and recognize the role that coaches and the environment have on developing their mental toughness (14). However, only 9% of wrestling coaches felt they were able to develop mental toughness in their athletes (11). Weinberg, Butt, and Culp (22) also investigated the perspectives of different National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I coaches regarding their definition of mental toughness and strategies to develop it. Coaches included three main themes in their representation of mental toughness: psychological skills (focus, confidence, knowledge, and mental planning), motivation to succeed (motivation to work hard, persistence), and resilience (rebound from setbacks, handling and performing under pressure). One of the strategies commonly used by coaches to develop mental toughness was to set up tough physical practice environments (intense competitive practices and tough physical conditioning). In this study, coaches reported that the perception of being physically fit contributed to the development of self-confidence and the ability to cope with the pressure of competition. From this standpoint, the authors concluded that putting athletes through hard conditioning training should help build mental toughness. Other researchers have also reported this perceived relationship between physical fitness and mental toughness (14, 15).

As increasing emphasis is placed on the assessment and evaluation of athlete’s skills and abilities, the potential relationships between these variables should be examined. One such commonly hypothesized relationship exists between hard physical training and mental toughness. However, as with all data collection processes, it is imperative to avoid passing judgement prior to statistical analysis. An example is using sRPE-TL or the outcome of physical training, including physiological variables such as heart rate, to develop and/or judge an individual’s mental toughness. Because the sRPE-TL is a measure of perception, it is logical that some coaches may view abnormally high or low scores (higher or lower than the team average or more/less than they expected) as a sign of the presence or absence of mental toughness. It is important for coaches to understand the appropriate and meaningful relationship of physical training and perceived effort with mental toughness. Therefore, it is the purpose of this investigation to empirically examine the potential relationship between sRPE, outcomes from a fitness test and mental toughness in female NCAA Division I athletes.


A total of 13 female Division 1 Volleyball players were recruited for this study. Of those recruited, the data from 10 of the participants (aged 19.80 ± 1.23 years) were included in analysis. Three of the participants were unable to participate in either the pre- or the post-test assessments due to circumstances aside from participation in this study (ex: surgery due to previous injury). All of the participants were actively involved in competitive sport and had participated during the Fall 2016 NCAA Division I season. The University of Northern Iowa’s Internal Review Board approval was obtained prior to recruitment after which all participants signed an informed consent for inclusion within the study.

Data Collection Procedure

Mental Toughness Questionnaire
Each participant was asked to answer the Mental, Emotional, and Bodily Toughness Inventory (MeBTough) developed by Mack and Ragan (2008) prior to the pre- and post- testing sessions. This questionnaire consists of 43 questions assessing three constructs (emotional, mental, and physical) related to mental toughness. The emotional construct refers to the ability to control emotion, cope with pressure, and using the right strategies to respond to emotion in competition setting. Whereas the mental construct refers to self-awareness about mental state and capacity to perform while the physical construct corresponds to the perception of being physically ready and fit enough to perform. The test was taken in a classroom setting and the responses of the subjects were fully personal and not influenced by anyone in the room.

Physical Fitness Assessment
A maximal running test was performed during the pre- and post-testing dates. All the subjects were tested together and completed their typical pre-game warm-up before they performed the Yo-Yo intermittent recovery 2 developed by Bansgbo, Iaia, and Krustrup (1). This requires running repeated 20-m shuttles (40m per shuttle stage), back and forth between the starting line and finish line marked by cones, at progressively increasing speeds dictated by an audio bleep. In order to control for any possible relationships with mental toughness and the physical test, no verbal encouragement was allowed from anyone present during testing. Additionally, the same personnel were present for both testing sessions.

In order to evaluate the effort of the subjects and establish a relationship between the total distance completed and mental toughness, maximal heart rate was collected. The subjects were asked to wear a heart rate monitor (Polar Team² version from the beginning of warm-up until the end of the physical test. During the warm-up, the investigators ensured that all the monitors were connected and the transmission was established between the monitors and the receptor. The recording of the data started in same time than the beginning of the test. Each player reached a percentage of heart rate close to the age predicted maximum (21).

Physical Training
During the 8-week training period, subjects underwent their normal physical training protocol with the strength and conditioning staff as well as supplemental work with their sport coaches. Briefly, the training involved a variety of physical tasks including but not limited to: sprint intervals, body weight exercises (both with an individual’s own body weight and the added load of a teammate), stair climbing, and general strength training. An example week is available in Table 1.

Table 1

sRPE-TL Collection
The RPE was collected after each individual session of physical activity prescribed by the coaches, including both pre- and post-tests, using the modified Borg 10-point scale (CR-10 scale) developed by Foster (1998). The investigator came to each player at the end of the training and asked “how difficult was your training today?” in a private manner without anybody influencing the player’s choice. All the participants were familiar with the scale from the previous competitive season. The RPE was collected between 10 and 15 minutes post-session (4). All RPE values were multiplied by total session duration, resulting in the sRPE-TL.

Statistical Analysis
Dependent t-tests were used to determine differences between pre- and post-test assessments. Effect size was calculated using Cohen’s d and interpreted using the scale for recreationally trained athletes where trivial < 0.35, small = 0.35 – 0.80, moderate = 0.80 – 1.50, and large >1.50 (20). The recreational training designation was chosen because the athletes’ exact training history prior to attending university is unknown however, all have had at least one to five years of consistent training. Relationships between acute sRPE and mental toughness were assessed by a bivariate Pearson product-moment correlation. Descriptive statistics are presented as mean ± standard deviation were computed for age, total sRPE-TL, daily RPE and duration, and weekly RPE and duration. Statistical significance was set at p < 0.05. All data were analyzed using Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS 24).

Descriptive statistics are available in Table 2. Differences between pre- and post-test measurements were determined for the MeBTough composite score, Physical, Mental, and Emotional components, total distance completed, percent of maximum heart rate (MHR), RPE and are presented in Table 3. Results of the dependent t-test revealed that there were no significant differences from pre to post in the MeBTough composite score or its Physical, Mental, and Emotional components (p > 0.05). Total distance completed in the Yo-Yo test improved from pre (844m ± 196.37) to post (980m ± 200.67); t(9) = -5.50, p = 0.00. RPE was higher following the 8-week physical training protocol (8.8 ± 1.40) as compared to the pre-test (8.0 ± 1.41); t(9) = 2.45, p = 0.04. Furthermore, no significant correlations were noted between RPE, stages completed, heart rate, MeBTough composite, emotional, mental, or physical construct scores in either the pre- or post-training tests (Table 4).

Table 2

Table 3

Table 4

Athlete monitoring is a process where sports scientists observe and assess a multitude of relationships throughout an athlete’s career. One of these potentially important variables, mental toughness, is often regarded as an important component of sport performance that allows players to cope with the different stressors of competition such as pressure, stress, and adversity (16). This investigation found that an athlete’s perception of their mental toughness did not change over the course of an 8-week training period, while fitness improved. Additionally, there does not seem to be a relationship between mental toughness (including its various constructs), RPE, HR, and performance in a fitness test over the course of 8-weeks of hard physical training.

Sport practitioners often seem to use intense physical training in an attempt to help develop mental toughness. This investigation sought to determine whether mental toughness changed following an 8-week physical preparation period designed by the strength and conditioning staff to enhance mental toughness. It was found that mental toughness did not change following the 8-week program. These results support previous results indicating that mental toughness did not change over the course of a competitive wrestling season and suggest that mental toughness takes multiple seasons or years to develop (5).

Although no significant change was observed for mental toughness, significant improvement in fitness, as assessed by the Yo-Yo test, occurred. The total training volume for the 8-week period was an average of 17390.25 ± 1405.90 arbitrary units per person. This consisted of an average weekly duration of 377.66 ± 54.57 minutes at an RPE of 6.53 ± 0.82. These findings suggest that mental toughness may take longer to enhance and that improving it may require more than hard physical training.

The present study did not find any correlation between acute RPE and MeBTough scores following the fitness test. This result indicates that work, which is perceived as hard, does not give an accurate indication of an individual’s perception of their mental toughness. One plausible explanation is that the experiences of training and the ability to physically respond to demanding effort is potentially a normal attribute for Division I college athletes of all mental toughness levels. RPE results indicating that the average RPE per session was 6.45 ± 2.68 for a duration of 52.75 ± 16.22 minutes would tend to support this explanation. Since values greater than or equal to 5 are considered “hard” on the modified Borg scale (6) all participants in this study tended to perceive the workouts as being difficult or hard, which also accurately reflects one of the purposes of this particular training program.

Similarly, percentage of maximum heart rate attained in the acute test was not correlated with the composite mental toughness score, its individual constructs, or the distance completed during the test. Comparable to the criterion of a maximal oxygen consumption test, we could expect that a person who perceives herself as mentally tough might reach a higher percentage of maximal heart rate in a physically demanding test. However, the results show that the perception of mental toughness does not relate to percent of maximum heart rate attained for this particular physical test even though the average HR was above estimated HR max.

Like RPE and HR, the total distance completed during the Yo-Yo test was not correlated with the composite mental toughness score or its components. In this study, a person who scored higher on the MeBTough than another player did not necessarily perform better at the test. Perhaps with the nature of the test being maximal, the physical capacity of the athlete limits the completion of the following stage when the speed increases. Results may be different if a submaximal fitness test to volitional fatigue is prescribed. Another explanation could be that an athlete’s perception of mental toughness may not be related to their ability to complete a physical test not directly mirroring their required sport performance.

One particular case from our sample that seems to encapsulate the lack of correlation between variables in this study deserves mention. This individual reported a RPE generally lower than the mean of the team, performed the best in the fitness test, and her results from the MeBTough were the lowest of the team. The results for this individual serve to support our evidence and reinforces the need for sport scientists to empirically evaluate the relationship between variables related to an athlete’s status and response to training.

The generalizability of this study is limited due to the use of female NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball players from one university, which constituted a small sample size. Moreover, it is possible that the 8-week training period was too short to elicit any changes in mental toughness through this type of physical training. However, to the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study to assess mental toughness in both an acute and chronic setting which itself warrants justification of these limitations.

It was the intention of this study to observe a typical winter off-season training phase for a NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball team. Following the winter training phase, only stages completed in the fitness test showed change. Furthermore, a lack of relationship between heart rate, physical performance, RPE, and the perception of mental toughness following a physical fitness test was observed. Future research should assess larger and diverse populations, including various sports genders and ages, varying durations of training, and the mode that attains the largest changes in mental toughness. Finally, determining the magnitude of impact of physical training versus mental skills training (12) on mental toughness should be considered.

Athlete monitoring programs use a multitude of tests to help guide the team or individual to success in sport. These tests allow coaches to assess the effectiveness of their training protocol, thus, resulting in programming changes that benefit the athlete. From these results, we suggest for coaches to be careful when making assumptions on the mental toughness of athletes by judging only their physical or physiological capacity.

The first author was on scholarship during the duration of the study as a part of his assistantship while completing his Ed.D. All authors would like to thank the Northern Iowa Women’s Volleyball team, coaches, and strength and conditioning staff without whom, completion of this study would not be possible. No conflicts of interest are declared from the authors.

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