Just Imagine: You Can Improve Your Mental Toughness

You’re in the lead, heart pounding, racing forward through the pain toward the finish. In the last moments, you see your competition come up next to you. Do you have what it takes to win?

More often than we might think, the difference between first and second, between winning and losing, between making the cutoff time or just barely missing it, is in our minds. In those last few seconds, did you truly give all that you had? Did you use every single ounce of energy that your body could produce, or were you unable to tap into that last tiny bit? Could you have pushed just the slightest bit harder to edge out your opponent? My guess is that physically, you were capable of more…but mentally, you were not. And if you did not win, this is likely the reason why.

The ability to persevere in the face of pressures, challenges, and adversities is a highly sought-after trait in athletes and coaches alike (Mattie & Munroe-Chandler, 2011). Mental toughness is the key to success and the linchpin of a good performance, so improving it is just as important as improving your physical strength, speed, and stamina. Yet while many know and accept this, few realize the extent to which they can augment their mental fortitude, and further, how much of this improvement can come from within.

To learn how to be mentally strong, we must practice. You want to be ready to grind out those last 100 yards in a race? You practice them over and over, you practice pushing through the pain, and while you are bettering yourself physically, you are also bettering yourself mentally and preparing for the time that it counts. But there is another way to practice, and when done correctly, it significantly predicts higher levels of mental toughness (Mattie & Munroe-Chandler, 2011). This technique is what sport psychologists refer to as imagery.

Imagery can generally be employed by athletes and performers in one of five ways. You can mentally perform specific skills (known as cognitive specific, or CS, imagery), and you can also mentally rehearse routines, plans, or strategies (known as cognitive general, or CG, imagery). Additionally, you can perform motivational specific (MS) imagery, during which you bring to mind images of goal-oriented responses or achievements. Lastly, there is motivational general (MG) imagery, which can be broken into motivational general–arousal (MG-A) and motivational general–mastery (MG-M). MG-A imagery involves bringing to mind images related to the emotional or physiological arousal and the regulation of anxiety associated with competition. MG-M imagery, on the other hand, refers to the act of imagining feelings of confidence, control, and perseverance (Mattie & Munroe-Chandler, 2011).

This level of categorization may all seem like a waste of time, and you might be thinking, “Why should I care? Can’t I just imagine my race and visualize myself winning?” If mental toughness is what you lack and this is how you are attempting to increase it, then you are, in fact, wasting your time. However, if you correctly employ the type of imagery found to be a strong and significant predictor of mental toughness––MG-M imagery, that is––then you are greatly improving your odds at having superlative mental grit when it matters most (Mattie & Munroe-Chandler, 2011).

To be clear, the other four types of imagery are not useless. Various studies have found that each type serves its own purpose (Mattie & Munroe-Chandler, 2011). Yet as you progress in your sport and the competition intensifies, mental toughness becomes clutch as the difference between first and second is often small. Therefore, the use of MG-M imagery can provide that final element of preparation needed to outperform your opponent. The importance of exercising mental strength and resilience during practice should never be underestimated. But we now know that visualizing yourself as self-confident, in control, and mentally tough during competition is also a valuable weapon in its own right (Mattie & Munroe-Chandler, 2011).

The mind is a powerful force. If you let it hold you back, it will not fail in doing so. But if you train it to push through the pain without letting up, if you teach it to work for you rather than against you, then you are enabling yourself to unlock your greatest physical potential. In those final moments, when that head-to-head race comes down to mental fortitude; to whose mind has the power to push on and who gives in to the fight…do you have what it takes to win?

The answer should be an undeniable “yes.”

––Kylie Burgess

Mattie, P., & Munroe-Chandler, K. (2012). Examining the Relationship Between Mental Toughness and Imagery Use. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 24(2), 144-156. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10413200.2011.605422

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