Here is a short interview which I recently did with one of my clients who is completing a sports science degree regarding mental toughness and mental preparation in combat sports.
How do you define “mental toughness”?
I would define mental toughness in sports as ability to reproduce an athletes best performance under adverse & unfavourable conditions such as stress, pain or fear of injury.
What do you believe contributes to mental toughness (e.g. nature vs. nurture, experiences, environments, upbringing)?
The main contributing factor in developing mental toughness is gaining experience in overcoming obstacles. When an athlete repeatedly comes up against tough experiences and is able to overcome them he will develop mental toughness & confidence which will help him overcome further challenges & tough experiences in the future. It is important that an athlete is gradually tested against tougher opposition. In terms of combat sports this would mean starting off sparring against opponents who are on a similar or lower level and then gradually increasing the level of sparring partners as the athletes confidence & ability increases. It is important that the athlete is not just continually sparring people who he can beat & don’t present a challenge. This may boost his confidence but will give him a false sense of security & his lack of mental toughness will be exposed when he comes up against tougher opposition. The other side of this is that if the athlete is sparring against opponents who are too experienced for him it may be detrimental and lead to him losing confidence in his abilities and ruin his potential for developing mental toughness.
How do you try to instil mental toughness in your athletes?
To help build mental toughness in my athletes I like to use several types of sparring drills & exercises, these may include.
- Line ups – these involve sparring against a group of fresh opponents one after another. This is tough for the athlete as he is already fatigued from the previous rounds & needs to still perform well against fresh opponents.
- Fight Simulation Drills / Circuits – This involves placing the athlete in a series of disadvantageous positions for a set period of time which he must escape from or complete a set task before progressing to the next station.
- Winner Stays On Sparring – This involves a group of sparring partners & an objective such as scoring a take-down or submission, this will result in the winner then having to spar against a new opponent & trying to stay in against new opponents for as long as possible.
- Conditioning exercises such as sprints or ‘burpees’ done at the end of the training session when the athlete is already fatigued and trying to get the athlete to keep going & outworking his training partners.
Do you think there are any downfalls to being mentally tough?
Athletes who are very mentally tough may be likely to push themselves to extreme lengths and may take excessive risks such as continuing to train or compete in-spite of injury. There is also a risk in combat sports that an athlete may allow himself to take excessive punishment rather than quitting. This is obviously very dangerous and can be fatal in some cases.