Mental toughness and hardiness at different levels of football

Sports Psychology and Coaching

Master's Thesis 2011 77 Pages

Health - Sport - Sport Psychology



Chapter 1 Introduction
1.1 Research aim
1.2 Hypothesis

Chapter 2 Literature review
2.1 Conceptualising mental toughness
2.2 Characteristics of hardiness
2.3 Training strategies
2.4 Coaching mental toughness and hardiness

Chapter 3 Methods
3.1 Participants
3.2 Measures
3.3 Procedure
3.4 Data Analysis

Chapter 4 Results

Chapter 5 Discussion
5.1 Re-statement of aim
5.2 Interpretation of results
5.3 Limitations of the study
5.4 Conclusion
5.5 Future recommendations

Chapter 6 References

Chapter 7 Appendices

Chapter 1. Introduction.

Sport is no longer a pastime, run and organised by amateurs. Now with the growth of commercialisation it is a multi billion pound business that competes for scarce resources and uses, amongst other things, professional management techniques (Robinson, 2003). Because of the increase and push towards efficiency, success and value for money, it has become of greater interest to players, coaches, administrators, spectators and owners to identify psychological attributes and mental skills associated with superior sport performance, as a primary stage of facilitating their development (Golby & Sheard, 2004).

In football there can be many factors opposing players such as, physical, technical and social demands (Coutts, Reaburn & Abt, 2003). However there has been little research into the emotional factors affecting footballers at different levels (Hanin et al, 2000), in particular, the mental toughness and hardiness of footballers. This is surprising given that an athlete’s psychological response to competition is thought to depend largely on the characteristics and requirements of the sport (Krane & Williams, 1987).

Various other sports have been heavily researched in this area over the years. Research has identified mental skills that distinguish between more and less successful performers across a number of sports such as, golf (Thomas & Over, 1994), rodeo and equestrian (Meyers, LeUnes & Bourgeois, 1996). Psychological attributes will distinguish between players operating at different levels of performance.

Identifying the psychological and emotional traits of footballers at different levels of performance can help to devise various coaching strategies to improve mental toughness and hardiness of footballers.

Mental toughness and hardiness can be defined as the ability to cope and persevere through the struggles and pressures of sports, (Gucciardi et al, 2009). This can be in a game situation or more outside the box, such as getting fit in pre-season, coping with life in the public eye or dietary requirements. Mental toughness is an unshakeable perseverance and conviction towards some goal despite pressure or adversity (Nicholls et al, 2008). This conceptualisation of mental toughness provides a platform from which instruments of measurement can be developed.

According to Loehr (1986), mentally tough performers are disciplined thinkers who respond to pressure in ways which enable them to remain feeling relaxed, calm and energised because they have the ability to increase their flow of positive energy in crisis and adversity. This can be related to footballers as there are many factors within a match or season that could potentially affect them. Pressure, crisis and adversity can occur in the form of, ‘big game’ stress, good opposition, critical fans, achieving maximum potential, achieving results, being beaten by opposition players. Defined by Loehr (1986), the psychological attributes specific to this study and footballers in particular are; Self confidence (knowing that one can perform well and be successful ), negative energy control (handling emotions such as fear, anger and frustration and coping with externally determined events i.e. fans), attention control (remaining focused for 90 minutes), visualisation and imagery control (thinking positively in pictures, or visualising a successful moment), motivation (willingness to persevere through pain or fitness troubles etc), positive energy (enjoying the game you are in) and attitude control (unyielding). Furthermore, Brennan (1998) describes mental toughness as the ability handle situations. It can be somebody who does not choke, does not go into shock and can stand up and be counted in any situation. It involves focus, discipline, self confidence, patience persistence, accepting responsibility without whining or excuses, tolerating pain and having an overall positive approach to a task.

Contrasting characteristics of mental toughness are provided in a study by Fourie & Potgeiter (2001) suggesting that the psychological factors of mental toughness are motivation level, coping skills, confidence maintenance, cognitive skill, discipline and goal directedness, competitiveness, possession of pre-requisite physical and mental requirements, team unity, preparation skills, psychological hardiness and ethics. The study was carried out by 131 coaches and 160 elite athlete recruited from 31 sports. Data responses from the coaches (n=534) and from the athletes (n=488) were content analysed through a consensual procedure and resulted in 41 higher order themes that were summarised into 12 mental toughness umbrella categories. (See table 1 in Appendix 1). Although some characteristics are evident in footballers, the study results show the characteristics from 31 different sports and are generalised and not specific to football.

The present study focused on the many aspects of mental toughness and hardiness of footballers at different levels and explored the relationship between the emotions of athletes and the level of football they play. The intention of the study was to identify the areas of mental toughness and hardiness that are most affected and focus on coaching techniques that can help overcome those factors in order for an athlete (footballer) to reach his or her full potential, (Martens, 1987). In turn, posing the question, what can coaches do to help their players achieve a superior mental toughness when going into a game?

Previous studies in other sports show that elite athletes are unlikely to get phased when competing and are more likely to deal with pressure and other psychological factors than those athletes taking part recreationally.

Superior Hardiness is related to improved performance in sport (Golby et al, 2003). Usually the athletes with more optimism, hardiness or global self esteem may cope more effectively with competitive stress, or specific game situations which may add pressure on the athlete (Nicholls, 2008).

Rhodewalt and Agostsdottir (1984) have found that hardy individuals are more likely to cope with stressors by transforming them mentally into something less threatening. Psychological responses in footballers have been related to a hardy personality, i.e. Contrada et al (1991) found associations with Heart rate and Blood pressure patterns in both the resting state and in response to stressful situations felt during a 90 minute match.

A similar study analysing the mental toughness of rugby league players by Golby & Sheard (2003), shows that out of four international rugby league teams (Wales, England, France and Ireland), the welsh nationality players had a significantly higher mean score on two of the hardiness subscales. Hardiness measures displayed the greatest and most frequently statistically significant differences. The findings concur with previous work indicating superior hardiness is related to improved performances in sport.

Further studies by Sheard (2009), focusing on different mental toughness substrates (positive cognition, visualisation and total mental toughness). The Australian university athletes had a significantly higher mental toughness score than the rest of the competing nations and the Australian team went on to win the tournament. Furthermore, practical implications focus on the potentiality of ameliorative cultural environments.

1.1 Research Aim

The aim of the present study was to investigate the relationship between mental toughness and hardiness of footballers and the level of football at which they perform.

The present study aimed to discover the factors of mental toughness and hardiness that distinguish footballers between recreational and elite levels of performance.

Furthermore the present study aimed to identify the areas of mental toughness and hardiness which affect footballers most. This then will help discover what coaches can do to overcome those areas most affecting footballers.

Therefore, the present study aimed to examine whether mental toughness, hardiness and their respective subscales distinguish between elite and recreational footballers.

1.2 Hypothesis.

Null Hypothesis.

There will be no difference between mental toughness and hardiness of footballers at different levels of performance.


There will be a difference between mental toughness and hardiness of footballers at different levels of performance.

Explained Hypothesis.

Elite footballers will have an overall superior mental toughness and hardiness score than those taking part recreationally.

Chapter 2. Literature Review.

Considerable evidence exists within the extant of sport psychology literature that desirable psychological attributes contribute significantly to superior sports performance (Thomas & Over, 1997).

Moreover it has been suggested that as sports performers move up towards elite levels, only those with adaptive personality characteristics advance (Deaner & Silva, 2002).

Sport is about the revealing of character and inner spirit as much as it is about technical brilliance (Cleary, 2005). For instance, there are many recreational or intermediate level footballers with vast technical and physical attributes or have the potential to be professional footballers but lack in psychological attributes or their personalities do not facilitate the adjustment, meaning they do not fulfil their potential.

2.1. Conceptualising mental toughness.

In sport, mental toughness and hardiness can also be defined as,

‘Coping better than your opponents with competition, training and lifestyle and the pressures that sport can put on a performer’

(Jones at al, 1993).

In addition, specifically to a game situation it can be defined,

‘Mental toughness and hardiness is being more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure’

(Rotella, 1998).

Mental toughness is an ability to withstand strong criticism and to avoid becoming upset when losing or performing poorly (Clough et al, Loehr 1995, Alderman 1974, Clough 2002, Goldberg 1998). It can be an intensity or resilience (Loehr 1995), or an ability to maintain an optimal mindset throughout a sporting event (Cashmore, 1992, Jones 2001). Jones (2001) suggests that maintaining an optimal mindset throughout a sporting event can be a 90 minute match when related to football, or a 38 game league season. Being mentally tough contributes towards successful sides winning titles and tournaments, for example Manchester United. This can be the ability to overcome a strenuous period of intense games and is what separates winners from the rest of the contenders.

Loehr 1986 suggests there are seven dimensions of mental toughness. They are self confidence, negative energy control, attention control, visualisation and imagery, motivation, positive energy and attitude control. Possessing the seven dimensions of mental toughness is what distinguishes athletes between success and failure (loehr, 1986). (See Table 2 in Appendix 2).

In contrast, Crust (2008) identifies the components of mental toughness as being, self efficacy potential, mental self concept, task familiarity, value, personal bests, goal commitment, perseverance, task focus, positivity stress minimisation and positive comparisons.

Some factors may affect athletes more than others and certain factors may vary between different sports. Moran, (1996) states that coaches regarded concentration as the most important characteristic, while athletes regarded perseverance as the most important. Further studies show that coaches rated the effectiveness of coaches and sport psychologists in strengthening the characteristics of mental toughness more highly than their athletes did, (Fourie & Potgeiter, 2001). Mental toughness appears to be more significant in individual sports like tennis, and team sports often show that players can hide behind the rest of the team or become content with making up the numbers of a team. However it is the superior mental toughness of a player that distinguishes the elite footballer from a recreational footballer. The superior mental toughness of a player is what makes a winner at all levels of the game. The term mental toughness is intuitively appealing and used equally generously by players, coaches and the sports media, yet usually without adequate definition (Cashmore, 2002). As football is always in the media, footballers at the top level are required to cope with pressure (Goldberg, 1998), to rebound from failures (Woods, Hocton & Desmond, 1995) and possess superior mental skills (Bull, Allbinson, & Shambrook, 1996).

A qualitative investigation of mental toughness by Jones et al (2002) asked 10 international sports people to define mental toughness. The interviewees were then asked to place the attributes in rank order of importance, 12 attributes are identified from the interview, (see table 3 in Appendix 3).

Although the sports are not stated, the study provides an insight to the general attributes of mental toughness.

Footballers, coaches and managers agree that mental toughness is an extremely important attribute to possess if a top level performance is desired. Mental toughness is also an important factor in training. In order to reach high levels of performance, athletes must endure long hours of strenuous training regimes which can be boring and tiring. Footballers must cope with injuries and various uncontrollable factors which will influence the smooth running of their training programs. Being mentally tough can assist in coping with setbacks such as injuries and being able to endure the intensive workload players have to go through to make it as an elite footballer. Another factor affecting the mental toughness of footballers can be stress related in the form of media interest. Mental toughness can help a footballer cope with the inconvenient and upsetting comments which can affect footballers and have done in the past. Even an elite footballer playing at semi-professional level, now has lots of interest in the press and can now have T.V. coverage to take into consideration.

Many potentially outstanding footballers stop competing before they reach their potential because they can not perform at the highest levels whether it is due to nerves, motivation or stress etc.

Many studies, in particular by Bull, Albinson and Shambrook (1996) have identified the key factors as being commitment and desire to reach full potential. Being committed is vital in achieving potential as a footballer and athletes should be asked the following questions;

‘To what extent am I prepared to make the necessary sacrifices in order to succeed in my sport?’

‘Do I give 100% in training as well as competition- even if things aren’t going so well?’

‘Am I prepared to put in extra time on physical and mental preparation?’

‘Can I take responsibility for my own development and dedicate myself fully to my training and competition program?’

(Bull, Albinson and Shambrook, 1996).

A study by Loehr (1994) has identified the key factors of mental toughness as being able to cope with pressure. If an athlete cannot cope with pressure, either in training or competition they are not mentally tough. Loehr (1994) suggests that it is an athlete’s emotional response to problems which brings either success or failure as a competitor. A Qualitative study by Thompson, Vernacchia & Moore (1998) have identified confidence, focus and control as major factors of mental toughness in competing. The study focuses on a female college fencer and states; her mind would wander and she’d find it hard to concentrate and would often lose sight of important things like footwork. She underwent a mental training programme which included, goal setting, anxiety management, pre performance routines, attention focus, energy management, visualization training and life development skills. This mental training programme helped to improve confidence, focus and control as well as overcome competition anxiety. This is an ongoing process of assimilation and accommodation. (Thompson, Vernacchia, & Moore, 1998)

In football, Mental toughness can extend to the team as a whole not just as individuals. As a coach it might be worth considering how mentally tough the team is. For a team to compete at a high level each individual must be comfortable in their role and be totally committed to the team effort (Carron.1988, Sports Dynamics). This can lead to a performance by the team which is the sum of each individuals potential, known as synergy.

This still refers back to coaching individuals and helping individuals reach their potential but affects the team as a whole which is vital in football.

2.2. Characteristics of Hardiness.

Researchers have increasingly expressed an interest in ways which people respond to stress and in the coping strategies they use to overcome it.

Hardiness describes the personalities of people who have the ability to view stressful situations in a positive way. A hardy personality should allow one to react to an event or relative to the present study, a 90 minute match, as if it is challenging rather than threatening.

As research relating hardiness to sport is limited, hardiness in a non sporting environment has been assumed to decrease the likelihood of stress related physical illness, mental illness and decrements in performance (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2001).

According to Fourie & Potgieter (2001), Psychological hardiness was defined as the ability of the athlete to reveal a strong personality, emotional and psychological well being, to take charge and show autonomy.

Similarly Clough et al. (2002) states a mentally tough or hardy performer possesses a high sense of self belief and an unshakeable faith that they control their own destiny, these individuals can remain relatively unaffected by competition or adversity. This summarises mental toughness and hardiness in terms of resilience of stress resistance, an individual’s positive response to situations of stress and adversity (Braddock, Royster, Winfield & Hawkins, 1991; Rutler 1987).

Such resilient responses have often been described in terms of hardiness, (Kobasa, 1979). Moreover, Clough et al. (2002) relate mental toughness within the theoretical context of Kobasa’s hardy personality.

The factors of Hardiness (Control, Challenge and Commitment), are defined by Tillich (1952) as the factors that aid one in pursuing the future despite its uncertainty. Relative to football, many footballers may not commit to playing for a higher level club due to fear of uncertainty that they may fail. This is enhanced if they experience support for exercising the cognitive abilities of symbolisation, imagination, judgement, approval and admiration for doing things themselves and see role models who advocate hardiness and show it in their own functioning, (Sheard 2009).

Hardiness is assumed to decrease the likelihood of stress related physical illness, mental illnesses, and decrements in performance, conduct and morale. These improvements are achieved by motivating transformational coping (active, decisive) rather than regressive coping (denial, avoidance) with stressful circumstances (Maddi, 1999).

Coaches need to help their athletes develop a number of mental qualities to overcome the psychological and emotional problems they face when they compete. The qualities that are highly regarded as essential in order to compete at a high level of performance are, ‘the four C’s’, (Cabral, & Crisfield, 1996).

They are commitment - to strive for their goals, confidence - self confidence in their own ability, control - emotional control to focus their energy on the goal ahead of them and concentration - to achieve their goals.

Elite performers usually exhibit these qualities.

To become a better performer, athletes are required to reach peak performance consistently in competition; it can be achieved by using the 4 C’s effectively. (Cabral, & Crisfield, 1996)


Commitment is the tendency to involve oneself, rather than experience alienation from whatever one is doing or encounters. (Maddi, Hoover & Kobasa 1982)

Coaches can help performers develop commitment by working together to identify aims and ambitions, identifying any interests which may conflict with the performers training. Coaches, with the athlete, can create long term and short term SMARTER goals. Athletes need commitment in order to improve their performance. Committed performers work on all aspects of their sport, technical, physical and psychological. Elite athletes usually work on all factors naturally and have the ability to understand what it takes to achieve and possess the desire to achieve it. This is not to say that it cannot be coached.

Coaches can assist athletes in establishing and maintaining commitment; determining the performer’s aims and ambitions, identifying conflicting interests and converting aims into goals.

Determining aims and ambitions- Most performers have dreams and aims, and coaches must identify their aims in order to help achieve them. Coaches must help identify their players’ ambitions, potential, strengths and weaknesses.

Identifying conflicting interests- Performers will have other factors in their lives in addition to their sports. Usually elite athletes have little else other than their main focus in sport. This could affect their mentality towards their sport. Recreational athletes tend to have more going on, or usually take part in other sports which is why they are not totally committed or dedicated to football, in this case. Coaches can identify conflicting interests and develop a player’s commitment to football. The Demographics questionnaire, (Appendix 8) identifies other sports which athletes take part in. Recreational footballers usually take part in other sports on a regular basis, whereas elite footballers are totally focused and commited to football. Once conflicting interests are negotiated between coach and athlete, it is easier to determine session plans and exactly how much time is available to train. This helps coaches propose a realistic target to create a final outcome. If the availability for a player to train is minimal, coaches and players must agree that the final goal should be low. Little training can only result in low achievement.


Elite performers have high self confidence and have to believe that they can carry out a task successfully. Recreational performers can often have doubts about their performances, and this can affect the outcome or make an athlete nervous during a task, affecting their performance on the whole. In football, high self confidence raises self esteem during a game and helps them overcome difficult challenges. In tennis, it has been shown to be one of the factors which differentiate highly from less successful players, (Weinberg, R.S. 1998). Self confidence in tennis players is having self-confidence to play a drop shot at the net in a tense situation to win a point. This can relate to football by having the confidence to play a difficult pass or shot that may win a game in the dying minutes of a game, rather than being content with a draw. Coaches can create practices, sessions and game situations which help performers gain self confidence and provide them with the opportunity to feel competent and develop their self confidence. The more success performers experience, the more confident they become in difficult situations. The most effective way in which self confidence can be achieved is by the interpretation of psychological cues, (increased heart rate, rapid breathing or recreating identical game situations). (Bandura, 1977).

Control. (Emotional control)

Control is expressed as a tendency to feel and act as if one is influential in the face of various contingencies. (Averill 1973; Seligman 1975). It allows an individual to choose the most appropriate course of action when faced with a potentially stressful situation.

Emotions felt and experienced by footballers, i.e.; anxiety, can become potential sources of distraction and interference if not managed appropriately, thus affecting concentration during a game, reducing their level of performance. Coaches can help performers learn how to control emotions so they can channel energy and focus on their game. The most common are found to be stress and anxiety.

Stress and anxiety.

Numerous terms are used to describe stress and anxiety e.g. panic, nerves, worry, activation and arousal. Their affects on an athlete’s performance are explained;

Stress can be positive or negative. If a situation is perceived positively, performers interpret the events as challenging, exciting and exhilarating, like elite performers do. If a situation is perceived negatively, the situation is seen as threatening and performers worry about their ability to cope, like recreational athletes.

Anxiety describes the negative reactions to stress which can disrupt performance by generating worry. Anxiety is brought around by different situations such as;

Fear of physical harm (in particular returning from injury and re-injuring), threat to ego or self image (being beaten by opposition, in particular lower opposition) fear of punishment, fines, post match debrief, retribution by coaches or being dropped.

Athletes who can handle these factors tend to be more mentally tough and can perform at an elite level of performance, simply due to the fact that they can overcome interfering factors, like those previously mentioned.


Maintaining concentration for 90 minutes and in training sessions is deemed to be crucial in order to compete at an elite level of performance. Elite performers focus on what is current to their performance and are not affected by surroundings, opposition, past events or ‘what ifs’.

Adapting focus is essential for footballers in particular, for example a player must focus on their awareness of space or positioning, and then they must switch their focus to awareness of opposing players, then focus on a pass or tackle depending on the situation. Elite footballers do this naturally.

An individual’s level of anxiety can affect concentration which can prove critical (Orlick, 2000).

Improving concentration.

Coaches can use trigger words which help athletes regain focus in the same way they can be used to increase confidence or motivation. By simply shouting the word ‘focus’ to players can instantly help them regain focus and concentrate again. The aim being, to reduce anxiety or negative energy, (identified as the main cause of poor mental toughness and hardiness). Highly effective in a penalty shootout or free kick situation. Gallwey, (1986) suggests that a learning strategy can be used to avoid negative self talk and anxiety, and help focus on the task required; Drills include using trigger words, i.e. calling aloud or in your head the direction of the ball or shouting as the ball bounces, the calls are irrelevant to the game or performance but it helps keep the player focused and alert.

Effects on a player.

Cognitive symptoms are the psychological responses to a forthcoming event. Worry, poor concentration etc. can occur between 24-48 hours before a match. These will be more significant if the game is more important such as a cup final or a decisive league game.

Somatic symptoms are the physiological responses such as rapid heart rate, sweating or muscle tension. They usually occur around an hour before the game.

These symptoms can be reduced by easing the anxiety. Anxiety can be eased by putting a player through game situations repeatedly, so they can adapt to game situations. (Hady & Jones, 1994).

Hardiness as a stress buffer.

Personality is an important factor to one’s psychological state and affects the way a person or athlete perceives a difficult situation. Also in a non sport relation, hardy individuals believe they have a commitment to a task or situation and their interpersonal relationships with inner ‘self’, in that they can recognize their own distinctive values, goals and priorities in life (Maddi & Khoshaba, 2001). In relation to football, a player is able to manage their own performance, knowing their objectives, knowing what is required of them and in terms of a career, season or extended period of time, elite footballers tend to prioritise training and football commitments before anything else.

In terms of hardiness being a stress buffer, hardiness moderates the stress illness relationship by reducing the cognitive appraisals of threat and reducing the use of regressive coping (Rhodewalt & Agotsdottir, 1994). Hardiness as a personality trait has been found to eliminate the negative effects of stress in relation to possible mental illness, depression and sports rehabilitation.

Further research which can possibly relate to footballers and stressful events that they may be faced with is a study of occupational stress and burnout in nurses, which reported that hardiness had a moderating effect, resulting in hardy nurses being more stress and burnout resistant than those who were non hardy (Rich & Rich, 1987).

The relation of hardiness to sport performance and football in particular is highly important, knowing that hardy individuals are physically and mentally healthier as a result of their sense of commitment, control and challenge. And more importantly the way in which they handle potentially stressful situations more easily than those who are less hardy.

Hardiness as a performance enhancer.

As well as being able to cope with adverse pressure and overcome any chance of stress related illness, hardy individuals appear to perform better.

Research suggests that the greater the level of hardiness, the stronger the tendency to perceive events or circumstances as less stressful than those who are not hardy.

In terms of performance enhancing, elite footballers who are committed, in control and positively challenged by difficult game situations, see game related stresses as manageable rather than overwhelming.

Positive relationships have been demonstrated between hardiness and basketball performance among university players (Maddi & Hess, 1992).

Some people have a hardy personality in the sense that they possess, for example, coping skills that enable them to thrive under adverse circumstances.


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mental sports psychology coaching



Title: Mental toughness and hardiness at different levels of football