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What do we mean when we say a cricketer is mentally tough?

It's a misunderstood, misused term that is not very useful in describing elite athletes

Paddy Upton
Gautam Gambhir: pessimistic and negative, but not mentally weak  •  AFP/Getty Images

Gautam Gambhir: pessimistic and negative, but not mentally weak  •  AFP/Getty Images

At this juncture, it is worth having a conversation about the concept of 'mental toughness', which is currently the most overused and least understood concept in sports psychology. I neither agree with nor use the term.
When helping the Indian players to develop better mental resolve and manage their emotions in preparation for the World Cup, we were not attempting to create 'mentally tough' athletes. Because there is no such thing as mental toughness, and even if there was, the idea of striving to be mentally tough is flawed.
There's no such thing
I contend that mental toughness is like Batman and Superman. We all know them. But they're not real and don't actually exist.
In a review of over thirty published academic papers on mental toughness involving forty-four world-class researchers, it emerged that there is no agreement on the definition of mental toughness. Sport psychologists cannot agree on what mental toughness is. In trying to define this concept, they broke it down into subcomponents like grit, resilience, focus, emotional control, mental control, hardness and so on. Collectively, those thirty-plus papers present as many as seventy-five subcomponents that supposedly make up mental toughness!
Of all the instruments available to measure mental toughness, there are only two that have been validated: The Australian Football Mental Toughness Inventory (AFMTI) and Mental Toughness Q48 (MTQ48). These are the only two instruments that reliably measure what they are supposed to measure.
However, there is no agreement on whether these instruments are relevant for both men and women. There is disagreement about the relevance to different age levels, different experience levels, different levels of competitiveness and, importantly, there is no transfer between sporting codes. Thus, the Australian Football instrument does not necessarily apply to other sports.
Further, when 'mentally tough' players assess themselves, and coaches, who know them well, also assess them, the results are fundamentally different. There isn't even agreement over how players see themselves and how a coach sees those same players. There is also no agreement on whether mental toughness is to do with nurture (something we're taught), or nature (something we are born with).
What becomes patently clear from a review of these academic papers and literature on mental toughness is that sport psychologists, who are supposed to be the experts, cannot define and don't even understand the concept. And yet, as coaches and parents, we continue to use the term and judge players based on it. Players also use it to judge each other and commentators apply it liberally in their descriptions of players.
How then should we ordinary sportspeople interpret the findings and subcategories in those thirty-odd research papers on mental toughness? Let's have a closer look.
I have worked with a few psychopaths. I've seen the so-called attributes of mental toughness in them, which help deliver results on the field. I have also seen what it looks like when their mental toughness is unmasked as psychopathic behaviour
The following is what, and who, some of these researchers studied: 160 elite athletes, ten international performers, twelve mentally tough UK cricketers, eight Olympic champions, and thirty-one elite coaches. In other words, what the world's academics are trying to tell us is that they've studied the world's best.
When we study the best of the best, consider the following as a list of definitions associated with mental toughness: massive belief in self and one's ability; emotional control; clear thinking under pressure; ruthless pursuit of goals; operating well in chaos; not intimidated by others; unaffected by loss and failure; easily spots weakness in opponents; inspirational, popular, influential; and compulsive liar.
I would bet that, until you got to the last point, you were in agreement that this was a pretty accurate list of mental toughness attributes.
However, the list I provided above is not a list of definitions of mental toughness - those are character traits of psychopaths taken from an article on psychopathy.
At this juncture, you'd be perfectly justified in asking why on earth I would include this list of psychopathic traits in a discussion on mental toughness. What if I told you that the academics who studied mental toughness amongst elite athletes might unknowingly have unearthed their psychopathic traits and prescribed these as characteristics of mental toughness? Barring only one or two, the traits are the same.
Okay, so who are these people, and how many of them are out there?
Psychopaths are born with brain functioning that is different from 'normal' people, and this is not reversible. As luck would have it (for them), these brain differences manifest outwardly in that individual possessing many of those performance assets mentioned earlier - all of which are highly sought-after qualities for success (and leadership), and of so-called mental toughness. This is the reason for so many psychopaths achieving such high levels of success in business, as well as in politics and sport.
Prof. Clive Boddy from Middlesex University suggests that one out of every hundred people is born a psychopath. He suggests that one in twenty managers in corporate America is a psychopath, called a 'corporate psychopath' because they thrive in business environments. In industries like the media, the legal fraternity, finance, banking and politics, Boddy suggests one in five top executives or CEOs are in fact psychopaths. Research has not yet been conducted on the prevalence of psychopaths in sport, but do the math.
If this is the first time you've encountered the concept of corporate psychopaths, you may be struggling to join the dots between serial killers and successful businessmen (and athletes). The only difference between a corporate psychopath and Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs) and Co. who torture animals as children and end up as jailed serial killers as adults, is their propensity for violence. Illustrating this point, one study at the University of Surrey on thirty-nine high-level British executives compared their psychopathic traits to those of criminals and psychiatric patients. They found that business executives were more likely to be superficially charming, egocentric, insincere and manipulative, and just as likely to be grandiose, exploitative, and lacking in empathy as criminals and psychiatric patients. The criminals only scored higher than these executives on being impulsive and physically aggressive.
If you're still not quite joining the dots, remember Lance Armstrong, the cancer survivor and seven-times Tour de France champion who put both cycling and the fight against cancer on the world map! A study of Armstrong the cyclist will reveal possibly all you need to know about what mental toughness looks like.
This is the same person that the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) called 'the ringleader of the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen'. He cheated, lied and bullied his way to those seven titles, and when threatened with exposure, he covered his tracks, intimidated witnesses and lied to hearing panels and to the world. When the prosecution presented irrefutable evidence of his doping from twenty-six people, including eleven of his own teammates, he still vehemently denied having ever doped. The prosecution went on to suggest that some of the most shocking evidence had to do with Armstrong's vindictive, mendacious and vicious character. One report suggested, 'He comes across less like a cyclist, more like a psychopath.'
Without going too far down this rabbit hole, the following is worth noting: What sport psychologists, coaches, parents and players are prescribing as a model of mental toughness is equally likely to be the success-producing traits of highly successful and highly functional psychopaths. I have worked with a few psychopaths. I've seen the so-called attributes of mental toughness in them, which help deliver results on the field. I have seen how fans, friends and the media adore these people. But I have also seen what it looks like when their mental toughness is unmasked as psychopathic behaviour. They come across as being narcissistic and entirely self-serving, compulsive (and clever) liars, manipulators without any remorse and an inability to take responsibility for their errors. These are not qualities we should encourage as general conditions for performance.
In short, psychologists themselves cannot agree about what mental toughness is. At best they have provided a list of seventy-five subcomponents to describe the concept. There's also a case to suggest that researchers have inadvertently identified the success-producing traits of a sports version of the 'corporate psychopaths', and are prescribing those as a model of mental toughness. Although only a recently detected (and initially confusing) phenomenon, there are already a few papers published and books written on corporate psychopathy, which we might hear more about in the time to come. One final note is that corporate psychopaths exhibit degrees of psychopathy, with some possessing a greater number of psychopathic traits than others, both positive and negative.
Mental toughness as a failed concept
The second reason Gary and I were not trying to create mentally tough players relates to the judgement directed at athletes based on this. It's sad that someone is either mentally tough, or not. And if they're not mentally tough, they're 'fragile', 'weak', 'soft', 'they crumble under pressure', 'they can't handle the heat', 'they're insecure', 'they're vulnerable' or 'they're doubting'. That's how we label athletes who make mistakes under pressure.
Here's the rub. Except for out-and-out psychopaths, all other athletes, professional and amateur, make mistakes, often under pressure, and all of these so-called mistakes are frequently labelled as 'weak' and 'soft'. Almost every one of us has doubts and insecurities. I have hardly ever worked with an athlete who is fully confident, secure and ever positive. Sure, I have worked with some who are good at hiding their doubts, but their vulnerabilities and insecurities still gnaw away at them from the inside. They try really hard to protect themselves from the public perception that these normal human fragilities are in fact unforgivable weaknesses. But they all have them. The 'mentally weak' labels we place on those who fall short of our unrealistic expectation of perfection are harsh, unfair and I'd say, uneducated.
We're often told to 'face your fear', to embrace it rather than run or hide from it. It turns out, we might also benefit from facing and experiencing negative emotions
I did some of my best and least effective mental conditioning work with Gautam Gambhir, the International Test Cricketer of the Year in 2009. I worked with him up until that time, but I had little to do with him being named the world's best cricketer.
Often, when I got onto the Indian team bus, Gautam would invite me to sit next to him. What followed was predictable: 'Paddy, man, I know I just scored 100, but I should have got 200. I mishit too many balls, I struggled in the beginning, I hit the fielder too many times ... It just wasn't good enough. I need to sort things out.' He would be in mental agony about losing his wicket and about needing to fix things.
He was so riddled with insecurities, doubts and vulnerabilities. He was one of the most negative people I have ever worked with. I tried everything I knew to at least try to get him to be a bit more positive, become more optimistic, and to at least get some perspective.
We must have had fifteen sessions on the bus in one year, but I just couldn't help Gautam shift. Until I came across some research that could potentially help me understand why. It was either that I lacked the skill or knowledge to help Gautam (which could have been the case), or there were some lessons to be learned from Martin Seligman's work on positive psychology.
Positive self-talk, being positive, is very important, especially when we want people to 'believe'. It's the 'Yes, we can' attitude that defined President Barack Obama's first presidential election campaign.
However, research suggests that most people sit somewhere on a continuum between being an optimist and being a pessimist, with 100 standing for über-optimistic and 0 for pessimistic. Gautam was definitely wired towards the 'lower' end of the optimism/pessimism scale; let's say his range was from 20 to 40, with 30 being his normal. When he scored 150, he would be disappointed at not scoring 200. And when he got the ICC Test Cricketer of the Year award, he shifted to about 40, but he very soon moved back to his set point at around 30. When he didn't score runs in 2 or 3 consecutive innings, he'd drop down to 20.
No matter what we did, Gautam was negative and pessimistic. In his remarkably honest interview after receiving the ICC award, he said, 'The award does nothing to help overcome my insecurity. I can't help it.' I'm not letting out any of Gautie's secrets here either; he has openly acknowledged his insecurities and doubting mindset.
Using the popular notion of mental toughness, he was one of the 'weakest and mentally most insecure' people I have ever worked with. But at the same time, he was undoubtedly one of the best and most determined, and successful, Test batsmen in the world. Something he would prove, yet again, in the 2011 World Cup final.
So, when we tell people to have positive self-talk - this pillar or subcomponent of mental toughness - it would probably work for about 50 per cent of them, those who are lucky enough to be wired on the optimistic side of the scale.
When a great athlete who also happens to be wired as an eternal optimist has an accident, breaks their body or worse, is paralysed, they might go from being 95 on the scale to about 75. That is their low end. But they're still very high on the 'positive' side of the scale. And as soon as they accept and then reconcile with their situation, they shift back to 90 or 95 on the scale. And those people are the ones who are generally admired for being mentally tough; the eternal optimists. They become the shining light we all have to aspire to, and they are often encouraged onto the public speaking circuit where they share their optimism in an attempt to help others become as positive as they are. Audiences are inspired and motivated, but only temporarily, before the vast majority return to their normal set point, often the very next day.
Trying to engage in positive self-talk for people who naturally have more negative thoughts can be frustrating, and because they often can't get it right, can cause them to further think negatively about themselves.
In Oliver Burkeman's book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, he suggests taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid, like failure, negativity and death. He makes a case for learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. We're often told to 'face your fear', to embrace it rather than run or hide from it. It turns out, we might also benefit from facing and experiencing negative emotions - or, at the very least, by not running quite so hard from them. Fear of failure is one of the world's most prominent negative thoughts. Failure will happen, so why not rather face and embrace it?
After all those sessions of trying to get Gautie to be more 'positive', which never worked, at least not for any length of time, I changed track and got him to try and accept exactly how he felt.
We made it okay to feel frustrated, negative and disappointed. Once these thoughts and feelings were acknowledged, we'd say, 'Okay. So, what do you need to do to get even better?'
Seligman contends that it is possible to learn to be more optimistic about a negative situation; he calls it 'learned optimism'. Let's use the example of a batsman scoring three low scores in a row. An optimistic approach would be to attribute it to external circumstances. 'It was unlucky', rather than the pessimistic approach of turning the mirror inward and blaming yourself by saying, 'I'm not good enough'. Next is to see it as a setback in one small area of your life: 'It's just my batting, but so much else about my game and life is great', rather than an all-encompassing negative perspective of 'I'm a failure'. Finally, and not necessarily in this order, is to see that the failures are temporary. 'This will soon pass and I'll be back to scoring runs', rather than 'I don't know if I'll ever get out of this slump', which is the more permanent worldview of the pessimist.
Because of the way they view problems, pessimists suffer 'poor form' for longer than optimists. In fact, Seligman's work suggests pessimists are eight times more likely to become depressed when bad things happen, they do worse at school, in sport and at their jobs than their talent suggests, have poorer health, shorter lives and rockier relationships. This is a tough pill to swallow, considering that over 50 per cent of people are wired on the pessimist side of the continuum. The good news is that optimism can be learned, by attributing the problem to external factors, seeing it happening in only a small area of your life, and as being temporary.
'Mental toughness' is closer to being a placebo prescribed by coaches, psychologists and academics who don't really appreciate the art, beauty and complexity of working with athletes as individual human beings first
It's also worth mentioning that a dose of pessimism is healthy, especially in situations where mistakes may have significant consequences. Where optimists will charge ahead with full (sometimes unfounded) confidence and without much considered thought, pessimists will think through everything that can go wrong, take necessary precautions and come up with contingency plans. Pessimism helps by preventing us from taking unnecessary risks or acting recklessly. Any athlete engaging in a dangerous sport needs to have a healthy dose of pessimism. Too much, and they'll never get out of the starting blocks; too little, and they may not reach the finish line. George Bernard Shaw famously said, 'Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.'
Because people are different, the concepts of being mentally tough, positive and optimistic, or of being in control of one's emotions, at least outwardly, are unrealistic for everyone. M.S. Dhoni, as an example, has incredible emotional control. He never shows emotion, and he is lauded for that. Just as with being openly optimistic as opposed to being pessimistic, 'having emotional control' is sometimes seen as evidence of a player's mental toughness. But I would go as far as to say, with the greatest respect for MS the man and the cricketer, that it is not emotional control, but lack of access to emotions. MS is not wired as an emotional type. It's almost as if he doesn't have them; a performance-enhancing gift from birth. Imagine taking that trait as the ultimate characteristic of a 'mentally tough' athlete, and then try to prescribe that to someone who is very emotionally wired, like his successor Virat Kohli. Virat uses his visible and overt emotional charge to drive his success, whereas MS's success is facilitated by his lack of emotional charge.
The emotional and mental side of the game does not have generic prescriptions for performance. 'Mental toughness' is perhaps not even a generic drug. It's closer to being a placebo prescribed by coaches, psychologists and academics who don't really appreciate the art, beauty and complexity of working with athletes as individual human beings first, and as high performers second. When the placebo doesn't work, the athlete gets blamed.
Judging athletes who are not 'mentally tough', optimistic and positive, inhibits us from effectively dealing with the legitimate mental side of the game -specifically when instruction-based coaching is the preferred method.
I honestly believe that we should do away with the concept of mental toughness and replace it with something that is more real and relevant to most people. It has to be authentic to the individual and something he or she can relate to. The overwhelming majority of players lack confidence, have insecurities, doubts and vulnerabilities. So do most of us. We're human and this is normal. Let's keep it real.
With this in mind, our strategy with the Indian team was not to convince the players of how special and tough they were. The media and fans tried to convince them of that 24/7. Our job was to convince the players that they were actually human, and thus to keep things real. Enclosed in that acknowledgement were relief, understanding of the self, and the tremendous power that flowered in conditions that could otherwise easily see self-proclaimed superstars choke up.
Excerpted with permission from The Barefoot Coach by Paddy Upton, published by Westland Sport