Mental toughness. These two words conjure up images of sheer bloody-mindedness, a force of will getting you through, barging through obstacles to reach your goal. While this idea of grit and determination can certainly motivate one to just keep going, it may in fact be wrong
Let’s take Makazole Mapimpi – World Cup rugby hero. Yes, for sure he makes tackles and sometimes crashes into someone, but, when he is at his best (scoring a World Cup-winning try!) he is not running through the opposition, but rather around the opposition. His aim is to manoeuvre himself around the ‘danger’, not run headfirst into it.
Our idea of mental toughness seems to have developed into one where we are expected to ‘tough it out’ by simply battering our way through life. Yes, sometimes we do need to go just put our head down and push through, but we will soon burn out if we keep doing this. We rather need to develop mental flexibility. The ability to navigate our way through life’s challenges by finding ways to change and adapt to circumstances is a much more sustainable way of coping with life. This is not to say mental flexibility is any ‘weaker’ than mental toughness (no one would call Mapimpi weak!), it is just a smarter way of dealing with things.
So how do we develop mental flexibility? One great framework you can use is the ADAPT method (developed by Jason Koop), which is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
A = Accept
We have to deal with life as it is. Accepting the situation or the challenge is the first step in being able to effectively cope with it. Too often we get caught up in an emotional loop of ‘I wish this didn’t happen!’ or ‘Why did this happen?’. Of course, we don’t have to like what we are facing, but we need to accept the fact that we are indeed facing it and need to deal with it. Acceptance is not about saying ‘Oh well, this thing has happened and there is nothing I can do about it’. Acceptance is about fully acknowledging that even if you don’t want to, you are going to have to deal with this situation − and then taking steps to do so.
D = Diagnose
Now that you have accepted, you can begin to diagnose the situation by taking an inventory of what has happened or what is going to happen. In other words, what exactly are you dealing with? Be honest with yourself about what’s happening.
A = Analyse
So now you know what you are dealing with you can begin to problem-solve. What resources do you have yourself, or what resources can you tap into from the people around you, to help you with this challenge? What are the various ways you could tackle this issue?
What often gets in the way of effective problem solving is the acceptance part – that’s why it is so critical. When we only half accept what is happening, it is difficult to apply our minds fully to finding a solution while still maybe wishing the problem away.
P = Plan
Now you have some solutions, you can start to plan how you are going to implement a course of action.
T = Take action
You have a plan, now implement it! We all tend to get stuck at times in the analysing and planning phases − overthinking the situation leads to ‘analysis paralysis’. Sometimes we need to decide on a course of action, plan and then implement – if it is the wrong plan we will soon find out, and then can ADAPT again. If we don’t take action, we will never know if we are on the right path.
By doing the above, we can adapt and navigate our way around challenges in a much healthier way. We acknowledge the challenges, know that it’s okay to battle sometimes, and then utilise our coping skills (and those of our support network) to overcome them.
Dr Kirsten van Heerden, Performance Psychologist, Newtown Sports Agency