The Mental Toughness of Para-Athletes

Mental toughness (“MT”) relates to how well we persevere and perform, especially under challenging circumstances.  When I think of MT in relation to the yogic concept of tapas or self-discipline, one image that immediately comes to my mind is a Paralympian.  These athletes overcome tremendous challenges to become champions.  They do not consider failure to be an option.  How do they do it?  What mindset do they adopt?  What can we learn from them? 

So, of course I googled to find out!

I was lucky to find an article entitled “Developing Mental Toughness:  Lessons from Paralympians” (click HERE for the article) published by Frontiers in Psychology, which sets out certain MT related characteristics Paralympians share broken out into three broad themes: (1) characteristics, (2) cognitions and (3) cognitive strategies. 

One thing I found very interesting is that the athletes cited adverse experiences that initially led to trauma as fueling their intense desire to succeed.  It seems those who experience trauma either develop maladaptive coping mechanisms or alternatively apply the intense negative emotions created by their experiences to fuel positive behaviors. 

According to the article, Paralympians’ MT is strengthened by the following qualities they share:

Characteristics

  1. Determination – when presented with obstacles, they persist until finding a way around the obstacles.
  2. Defiance – they sustain effort despite difficulty or pain.
  3. Pragmatic – not being constrained to fixed ideas or beliefs of others; being able to solve problems by “thinking outside the box”.
  4. Optimistic – not fully comprehending how an outcome could be negative. They interpret events optimistically and expect a positive outcome.
  5. Resilient – they carry on through extremely difficult circumstances without becoming mentally discouraged.
  6. Self-belief – they very high levels of self- confidence.
  7. Independence/Autonomythey place little reliance on external resources and have low expectations of entitlement.

Cognitions

  1. Normalization – they just want to be like everyone else and not be defined by their disability.
  2. Sense of Escape – competitive sports provides them with a sense of escape from their disability and allows them to simply feel like an athlete playing a sport they love.
  3. Non-acceptance of Constraintsthey refuse to accept limitations.
  4. Influence Perceptionthey forge their own identities, raising awareness and influencing the behaviors of others.
  5. Connection – they gain strength from the team environment.

 Cognitive Strategies

  1. Rational Thinking – they use reason and logic when thinking about situations.
  2. Goal Setting – they set goals for various situations from overcoming adversity to achieving performance targets.
  3. Pain Management – they develop personal tools to manage pain during training and performance.
  4. Control – when exposed to demanding situations, they use personal strategies (e.g., breathing techniques and imagery) to control their responses.

So, how can we develop our own mental toughness?  The authors of this article suggest we may benefit from exposure to highly demanding situations in a supportive environment to develop mentally tough characteristics and behaviors and to develop personalized cognitive strategies. 

But I wonder how long we’d need to be exposed to demanding situations before we’ll notice a strengthening our MT.  I better get Googling to find out!

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Tina Ward

Tina Ward

Bean counter; life long expat; yoga teacher; passionate advocate for mental health. I am also the founder of Yogaward International, a free online yoga community with one goal - to use the ancient principles of yoga to improve our mental and physical health.

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