Hope Is What Athletes Call Mental Toughness

I started this blog with the intent of talking about performance and social identity, especially as it relates to Tourette’s Syndrome. Instead I have found myself bouncing around from mental illness to youth sport and from suicide to hope. Last week I questioned my intent and asked myself some questions about what it is I want to achieve here, as recently I have found that a lot has been about hope. I started to think about this as typically I start out each article thinking about the direction my writing will go and often find myself veering off as my thoughts take a new direction. Now, after some reflection, finally I think I have the answer. No matter what happens in life, hopelessness will destroy it. While this is true across humanity, the most instantly observable environment is sport.
I wrote about hope last week in Hope Floats in which rats who learned to trust people would fight harder and longer, believing their efforts would be rewarded, and this week I have been thinking on hope being something that is learned. Most importantly, I was thinking about not just that it is learned, but how it is learned. There are two aspects, one is the individual’s belief in their own basic ability to meet their goals, and the second is the belief that the world will help. Together these two aspects form a foundation leading to hope. My son is the reason I am studying Tourette’s Syndrome. He was diagnosed around 4 or 5 years old after his face became sore from licking his lips constantly. During diagnosis we learned it was a tic. He has since had many other tics, including facial twitches, head movements, and clearing his throat. Contrary to popular belief he has never had coprolalia, the symptom associated with involuntary swearing, which to many is synonymous with Tourette’s Syndrome, but in reality affects a small minority of Tourette’s Syndrome sufferers.
How is this relevant to hope? Because my son has always been good at soccer. Early on he based his social identity on being a soccer player, not a kid with tics. He has high confidence when it comes to playing soccer, and even in years when he was moved to a higher age group he soon felt a part of the team and was never out of his depth. This was most telling this year when he was moved into a team with kids two grades above him. This was based on two factors – the two factors involved in hope – self-confidence and being in a team who welcomed him and made him trust his environment.
At nearly 15 years old he still has his identity in being the athletic kid who is good at soccer, not the kid with tics (like many kids with Tourette’s Syndrome his tics are now considerably less prevalent now he is older). We consider ourselves very blessed because he was encouraged to play sport as soon as he could walk (after he took his first step I told him not to take another one until I put a ball at his feet). Again, to reiterate, it was not just about him being good at soccer and having confidence, the second part is that he was surrounded by people who encouraged him and helped him succeed. Hope, I believe, requires both of these things.
And this is why I talk about hope so much. I once wrote about the difference between practice and rehearsal and how practice is what we do alone, and rehearsal is what we do to help the team. This, too, summarizes hope. We practice to improve our skills, which in turn increases confidence as we begin to feel competent and that we are able to achieve our goals. We then take our improvement to make the team better, which leads to respect and support from team mates. Belief in ability grows, we try new things, achieve new goals, and hope rises. We feel better about ourselves, and identity is formed in something good.
Now, I will say that there is something of a chicken and egg situation here. How can a person low on confidence find the energy and desire to achieve goals if they don’t have the hope and belief they will achieve them? And if they don’t work to achieve their goals, what do their team mates cheer them on for achieving? There needs to be a spark that ignites the fire somewhere and I firmly believe it is an external spark. Once again, I wrote a little about this in an article a while back, about the need to have a mental toughness spotter who will give you the support you need to believe and have hope. I challenge anyone to find someone who has achieved anything in life without someone to believe in them. Every single person I know who has ever achieved anything at all did so because someone helped them and believed in them. In short, they combined what they felt they could already do with the support of someone else and they were fueled on hope.
So what is the difference between hope and mental toughness in performance? Mental toughness is directed hope, focused on a specific and performance oriented goal. Mental toughness is the belief that the individual can overcome adversity, become faster, stronger, and more competitive, learn new skills and achieve their goals. Mental toughness is the energy that tells a person to not give up, to keep trying, and that they can be more tomorrow than they were today. Mental toughness is a learned process in which an individual learns to overcome adversity, stand up against the opposition, and the belief they can rise to the challenge of achieving their goals. Mental toughness sounds a lot like hope.
So coaches – you are not just teaching people how to win trophies and competitions. When you are coaching people, especially young minds, you are teaching them so much more. You are teaching people to fight, to believe, and most importantly, you are teaching them that they can trust you to help them. These components are the ingredients of hope – or if you want to put it in performance terms, mental toughness.


Christian, Husband, Dad, Psych nut. Fan of Stevenage FC, Minnesota Wild, Real Salt Lake & spicy food. INTP. Creator of 'not sure if..' moments. www.socceracity.com & www.psychspot.org

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