Getting “Real” on “Mental Toughness”
2005 CareyMumford

If this generation of golfers actually needs something called “mental toughness” - there must be a reason for that - and since it gets various forms of traffic in the media, in forum threads, appears as the main theme of a number of websites classified as sport psychology, and is touted as an attribute of champions - someone, or many someone's, see the ”problem” as so big that it requires all of the above as a fairly large delivery system. That points to something of a majority of players (and others) who are at least considering the possibility that “they” might be among those in need.

The first generalization typically offered for taking dead aim at mental toughness jumps out as “most of us don't have enough of it and need more.”

It may, indeed, seem that way, since about 70% of the population falls into behavior style groups that are low assertive. To make that as clear as possible, Mother Nature's design comes out that Drivers, who make up about 11%, are high assertive and low responsive (quick on the out-go, but slow on the intake). Persuaders, approximately 19% of the population, are high assertive and high responsive (quick to speak and answer). Craftsmen, around 50% of the population, are low assertive and high responsive (slow moving, but among “first” responders). Analyzers (20%) are low assertive and low responsive (keep most things to themselves till that are sure it's right). So it will naturally and normally appear, especially to the 30% who are high assertive, if they are not aware of those genetic differences, that those in the “low” assertive categories “need” to develop toughness. And ordinarily they will be found defining “toughness” in terms of their own styles. Without re-writing the book, it bears repeating that none of us can create self-initiated performance in terms and under conditions that are foreign to our given styles, at least, not without paying considerable price. In golf that price can be both in strokes lost and/or in energy wasted.

Whenever this writer hears the expression “mental toughness,” his skin starts a slow crawl. Think about it. In the first place, whatever does that mean? Should we visualize a turtle with a hard shell, some kind of medieval armor, a bullet-proof vest, a steel helmut, the hard cover stuff called “liquid bandaid,” or maybe just a plain old tank turret? Or perhaps it's the picture of some old walrus who has been in the sun too much and has developed leather skin. If ever there were two-of-a-kind misleading metaphors, we would need to include “muscle memory” alongside ”mental toughness.”  As far as we understand what players seem to be referencing, neither of them exist in reality. They are both gratuitous “tags” placed on notions that no one seems actually able to describe, do, have happen, make, create, or otherwise produce. In other words, they are “hot topics” that should have a “dead end” sign on the warning label of every article that points to ”toughness.”

What seems implied is that one's experience will, in time, produce a thick skin, as in “getting used” to the pressure. In like manner, health care workers are often asked how they manage to deal with death, dying and “all those sick people,” and the perennial assumption is that one becomes “hardened to it after while.”  Both of those are figments of fantasy. Mental toughness might work as a process, were it not for the auto-immune system. Because of the natural order (as in the law of gravity), in order for anyone to “toughen” things up,  that person would have to somehow manipulate or disable one of nature's involuntary, life preserving forces. In other words, you would need to be able to put a strong and impenetrable cover over your immune system. Disabling that system comes out comparable to what happens when you disable your anti-virus computer program. In both cases, unwittingly, you leave yourself undefended and vulnerable to attack.

The auto-immune system does not wander from its appointed rounds. If you are under “attack,” (as in facing stress , pressure, anxious moments, in need of mental toughness) your immune system will first set up a blocking action, followed by either turning to fight, or turning to run away. After awhile, unattended, the system will usually return to balance (but not in the time frames we have for most tasks, especially golf). If one neither knows what is going on or how to manage it, urging issued under the heading of “toughness” will do little more or less than make the situation worse. It's like telling someone who is hopping mad, “not to be angry.”  The next step after that is apt to be demise (”crash” in PC terms; physically or mentally ill in human terms) which will most often go unrecognized till after the fact, which is generally too late.

The message that accompanies the only things available on the “mental toughness” subject, mostly on the internet, is that one can fortify the mind through things like Goal Setting. That begs a question.  What kind of goal setting would that be? One answer we found on the web suggests the following:

Goals must be set for Stress Management, Self-Confidence, “Reboundability,” Winning Concentration, and Imagery and Visualization.  If those sound familiar, they should, since they are quite similar, if not identical,  to headings used when gurus speak about the mental game in general. So is “mental toughness” the same thing as a sound mental game? The recent popularity of the designation “toughness” says “they are different,” but that's only the words. The music is the same. In other words, “mental toughness” is no more or less than a marketing strategy that places a different label on the same old story, in order to sell some more books and CDs.

Read that again, and you will notice that list has been offered forever when the question comes up about any kind of effective mental game. Now read it again and you will also find that a relentless, unanswered question remains. How do you put those things in force, in motion, so that they become active and not just rhetorical? What is the plan for implementation that goes with the titles? The desired outcome statements are not new, so what will it take to bring them to life? We all share the desire to have whatever “mental toughness” implies, but except for the “goal setting” statement, which is a process heading, the rest are outcome statements (what you get if you do it correctly, which will only happen where you have a set of directions for assembly). There is seldom, if ever, a game plan included for developing or implementing the steps that would create the indicated result.

So how do you arrive at “mental toughness,” if in fact, such a thing exists? Does the expression mean to carry the value of impenetrable or resilient states of mind? Are we looking to “stonewall” the demons, survive a tsunami, pretend that there is no such thing as fear or anxiety or any other normal emotion? Is it like being hardened to life's hardships? Or learning to give till it hurts so it doesn't hurt as much any more, or is it more like the little moron who kept beating his head against the wall because it felt so good when he quit?

The inference always seems  to be that we can condition ourselves in such a way that we won't feel the pain anymore. But the problem there is that if you don't feel the pain, you may wind up with an undiagnosed terminal illness that ends your journey and you won't even know it till it's too late to remedy it.

The sad part about the “mental toughness” school of thought is that it is a lot like those drug commercials that rattle off the side effects of the “recommended” drug in such staccato tone and number that anyone who is paying attention must know that the cure is likely to be worse than the problem the medication is supposed to remedy. And why is that? Because you cannot force the human, non discriminatory system to go beyond it's natural limits without paying a price, and sometimes that price is very, very high.

OK, so having said all that, here's my take on the subject.  “Mental toughness” is an acquired resilience, available to those and only those, who take a well designed and constructed trip ( no short-cuts) through the developmental stages that match the generic learning (growth) periods in human life. (I didn't dream this up, BTW. People a lot smarter than me did that, but I do know how to put it together). So take yourself on a journey that begins with a decision to trust yourself, then learn how to manage (not control) your gifts (found largely in what you learn from behavior styles), then practice until you master your skills and turn them into habits. Once you have followed that path, you will have an unshakable knowledge base and you will have turned your skills into habits.

Those are the two main ingredients in the discovery and nurturance of confidence. Confidence is not a conferred degree. It is earned from the knowledge of the skills you need, how to develop those skills and transform them into habits. Add a parallel dimension that is found in the building of the actual physical motions and the peripheral resources appropriate to health and strength (including how our non discriminatory systems function) and it is guaranteed to you that the ensuing CONFIDENCE will come as the finest form of “mental toughness” available to human beings, or any other form of human life. That is the way the system works.

There was a bit of humor circulated a couple of years ago, so all may know it already. But as the story went, it seems that Josephus was in desperate financial condition. Being a devout and righteous man, he prayed incessantly for weeks that his heavenly Father would let him win the lottery with the assurance that his goodness would be immediately recognized by his Master. On the day of the drawing, Josephus was dismayed and disappointed by not winning. He fell to his knees and cried out “Why Lord. I've been good, I've been faithful. I've kept all the commandments. Why did you not hear and answer my prayers? Whereupon the mighty, resonant, ethereal voice came back: “Next time, remember that you must first buy a ticket!”

You cannot expect to arrive if you are not willing to buy a ticket and take your trip. If mental toughness is your destination, follow the rules of the game.

And now for the encore. If and when you acquire confidence, that will be accompanied by enthusiasm. I have never met a person with genuine confidence who was not also enthusiastic, and that is the benchmark of those whose striving is an orderly process and not a thrashing mess. Finally, I've rarely known anyone who displayed both confidence and enthusiasm who was a loser. They are all winners and know how to win. They don't even concern themselves with “Mental Toughness.” They already own it.