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What is mental strength and how to develop it?

Athletes constantly hear about the importance of mental strength. Successful athletes and teams often emphasize the significance of mental toughness that leads to victory. If mental resilience is the key to the success of elite athletes, how do athletes develop this crucial ingredient for success, especially in adverse circumstances?

What is mental strength, and what is not?

Mental strength is a skill that helps in overcoming stressful and demanding situations. Mental resilience does not guarantee victory; it helps to overcome difficulties and thus creates an opportunity for success. It is not biologically determined; there is no genetic code for mental toughness. Mental toughness is a learned skill that helps us face challenges. It is an athlete’s ability to remain focused, motivated, and dedicated to their goal, especially in situations when faced with difficulties and defeat.

If we agree that mental strength is a skill, then we can develop it alongside physical and technical skills. Training any skill requires focusing on performance and repeating that process to develop confidence and belief in our abilities. Mental strength is like a backup plan that is activated when things go wrong. It all revolves around anticipating possible events and coping plans. If we do not develop mental strength, our responses are limited, and the result is usually failure.

If you start working on developing mental strength, you will cope better with failure, recover faster after injuries, deal with challenging conditions (weather conditions, delays, faulty equipment, poor refereeing), and face distractions.

Tips for developing mental strength:

1. Anticipate what can shake your concentration and confidence during competition (e.g., a bad referee decision, field conditions, errors…), this is your room for improvement.

2. Visualize how you will deal with that challenge, admit to yourself that you don’t have control over all events and don’t waste energy on things you can’t influence.

3. Create demanding situations that simulate competition, train under pressure to learn to be okay at first, then good, and eventually excellent even in the toughest circumstances.

4. Embrace the unknown, new circumstances bring new knowledge, but don’t expect immediate results.

5. Analyze your performance and recognize the strategies that were successful and unsuccessful; consider what you can change in similar situations.

6. Fight even when it seems like you have no chance; nobody can forbid you from trying and fighting until the end.

Choose whether you want to be a leaf or a canoeist. Both the leaf and the canoeist are in the same situation, but the leaf travels where the river takes it, while the canoeist determines the direction. Don’t let the lack of mental preparation carry you where you don’t want to go.

Matija Kopajtić, mag.psych.

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