Hope Is What Athletes Call Mental Toughness

No matter what happens in life and no matter how well you plan your future, if you experience hopelessness you are destined to fail. This is true across humanity but the clearest example of this, and the most instantly observable environment to witness this is sport. I wrote about hope a while back in an article called Hope Floats, in which rats who learned to trust people would swim harder and longer in the belief that their efforts would be rewarded, demonstrating that hope is something that is learned. In this article we’ll think 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. For a moment we’ll go off-topic to illustrate something. My son is the reason I am studying Tourette’s disorder. 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 that people with Tourette’s swear a lot, he has never had coprolalia, the symptom associated with involuntary swearing. Most people with Tourette’s don’t swear a lot (at least not because of the disorder), and in reality it affects a small minority of people with Tourette’s.

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 being 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 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.

Here are the three takeaways for today:

1 – The relationship between hope and mental toughness in performance is that mental toughness is built on hope. It is the strength that comes from the confidence that an athlete can improve to meet a specific goal.

2 – 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.

3 – Mental toughness is a learned process in which an individual learns to overcome adversity, stand up against the opposition, and the build the belief they can rise to the challenge of achieving their goals.

Mental toughness sounds a lot like hope, which means coaches are not just teaching people how to win trophies and competitions, but also teaching people to fight, to believe, and as can be seen in my own son, may just help to beat the odds and built hope where it is not usually found.

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