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Fastpitch Tip: Developing Mental Toughness

There is an axiom in sports that "the best team does not always win." That's why they show up and play the games. Naturally, we all know that this is true. However, if the most talented team doesn't always win, there are clearly other factors which come into play. The reason for the importance of these other factors is that while talent is inbred and genetic, it is the other factors which can be trained and learned, and which clearly make the difference between success and failure.

There are three components to athletic success. Talent, as stated, is inherent. We have all witnessed the gifted athlete. The second component, skills, are learned through coaching, instruction and patience. The third is the most difficult to conceptualize. It is the mental and emotional factors leading to what James Loehr, Ed.D., calls "toughness." Like skills, toughness is learned and developed. It is the combination of talent, skills and toughness which leads to the highest levels of achievement. Two examples will illustrate this construct.

While it might seem like heresy, I believe it is safe to assume that Michael Jordan is not the most talented basketball player on the planet. Most inner cities have legendary characters whose basketball gifts are beyond comprehension. In New York City, for example, tales of Helicopter Jones plucking quarters off the top of the backboards astonish most fans. The same kinds of examples can be found in every sport. The most gifted athlete is not necessarily the most disciplined, best trained, mentally prepared, well guided athlete and will often wind up never reaching any standards of success.

Another way to look at this is to imagine that talent is made up of units. Zero units for no talent up to 100 units for supreme talent. If we assume that athlete A has 95 units of talent, but accesses only 60 percent of it, then she has 57 units of talent available. If the less-talented athlete B has only 70 units of talent, but uses 90 percent of it, she will have 63 units available to her and behold, the "better" athlete does not come out on top.

Given the above, it is helpful to define and then learn to improve mental toughness. Dr. Loehr defines toughness as "the ability to consistently perform toward the upper range of your talent and skill, regardless of competitive circumstances." He writes that toughness is learned, that it enables one to bring all of her skills and talent to life on demand, that it is emotionally based, that it is empowering and that it leads to the ideal performance state.

The following are key concepts to developing toughness:

1. Walk the walk. Though difficult, it is essential that an athlete make a rigourous assessment of her emotional strengths and weaknesses and then develop a plan for changing the weaknesses. This usually involves "acting as if." For example, if an athlete's assessment indicates that she is insecure, she must develop a plan for acting like, thinking like and practicing the appearance of a secure person. After one-to-two structured months of acting, the feelings of security begin to follow.

2. Develop internal motivation. If the motivation for the sport is external--college scholarships, parental approval, awards/rewards--rather than internal, toughness will not be at its maximum. The athlete needs to continually assess her reasons for participation and to be sure that the needs being met are her own. In addition, she needs to assure that the needs, even if hers, are healthy ones.

3. Learn to focus. The ability to play the game "one pitch at a time" is a true characteristic of mental toughness. It is an interesting phenomenon that softball is a game of 10 seconds of action followed by one-to-two minutes of inactivity. It is the quality of the mental thinking between plays that allows the athlete to perform at her best for those 10-second spurts.

4. Never give up. Learn to eliminate words like "failure", "try", or "can't" and replace them with "will or won't" and "attempts at success." Practice self-affirmations, the ability to have your inner voice be a stream of positive thoughts.

5. Learn to dream. Remember "that which the mind can concieve, the body can achieve." Have lofty visions and goals. Visualize yourself where you want to be. Assert yourself and don't accept no for an answer until you have given it everything you have. Remember our Michael Jordan example. Michael was told by his high school coach that he was not good enough to play. Hmmmm.

6. Study the winners. Read about those who overcome the odds through hard work and study their characteristics. The elements of success in athletics are the same as those for all endeavors of life. Identify mentors and role models.

7. Demand organization and discipline yourself. It is essential to have a plan of success, to be structured and to follow through. toughness and success is not a haphazard event and one needs to have a blueprint for achievement. With a plan, an athlete can continually assess if her behaviors are in the service of her plan, or if not, what adjustments need to be made.

In order to achieve the maximum, it is not enough to just be good. One has to train herself to perform at maximum level at the peak of competition and the training is the mental and emotional components, as well as the physical.