The conceptualisation and measurement of Mental Toughness is controversial and has been the subject of considerable debate amongst researchers. However, recent programmes of research within IPEP are making important steps in overcoming these controversies whilst identifying a neuropsychological basis of Mental Toughness.
In 2008, Lew Hardy and Stuart Beattie began work investigating the neuropsychological mechanisms underpinning mental toughness in elite athletes. This research was funded and conducted in partnership with the English and Wales Cricket Board, forming the basis of a four-year applied PhD undertaken by James Bell. In contrast to previous research, this programme has defined mental toughness as “the ability to achieve personal goals in the face of pressure from a wide range of different stressors” (Hardy, Bell, & Beattie, 2014). Appreciating the weakness of self-report measures, James developed and validated an informant-rated measure of Mental Toughness. This measure now forms the basis of assessments of mental toughness in rugby, swimming and the military.
Although there are various interpretations of Mental Toughness, IPEP has used reinforcement sensitivity theory of personality to propose a neuropsychological approach to identifying Mentally Tough Athletes (Hardy et al., 2014). Hardy, Bell and Beattie (2014) found that highly mentally tough cricketers were characterised by high punishment and low reward sensitivities. Follow up studies showed that these mentally tough athletes (as rated by their coaches) detect threat much earlier (due to punishment sensitivity) and prepare for those threats much in advance than their non-mentally tough counterparts.
Bell, Hardy, and Beattie (2013) used the findings to devise a mental toughness training intervention on elite young cricketers. By using desensitising simulation training, punishment cues, coping strategies and transformational leadership, Bell et al. successfully increased the mental toughness (as rated by their coach) of a group of elite young cricketers over and above that of a control group. Since the completion of the research programme, the English and Wales Cricket Board have endorsed this research into their everyday training program for the England Development Programme.
Subsequently, the Mental Toughness intervention is used extensively within golf (Stirling University, PGA education), rugby (e.g., North Wales Women’s 7s) and has been adopted by a number of NFL coaches in America. Upon completion of his PhD, James has held positions within the NFL as lead sports psychologist for the Cleveland Browns and is currently working as the academy psychologist for England Rugby. More recently, IPEP have expanded this line of research and have four PhD students examining the neuropsychological approach to Mental Toughness in diverse environments (i.e. rugby, swimming and the military).
Funded by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Professor Paul Downing, Professor Lew Hardy and Doctor Ross Roberts are currently examining a neurocognitive model of mental resilience, with the aim of producing a deeper understanding of the underpinnings of mentally resilient behaviour. This, in combination with psychometric measures, will support better forecasting of the performance and mental well-being of military personnel. The specific goals of the Ph.D. are to: 1) extend the conceptualisation of mental resilience to include performance and emotional dimensions; 2) understand the neural underpinnings of these different aspects of mental resilience, and 3) examine how psychometric profiles, combined with individual fMRI measures of brain activity, predict performance and mental well-being in recruit training and operational contexts. Such an approach offers the possibility of informing recruitment and training procedures for the benefit of the British Armed Forces.
Research is also investigating how the model of mentally tough behaviour applies in other sporting environments that vary in the nature of threats (i.e. rugby). This research has involved working with a number of premiership academy teams.