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Prior to the Patriots’ stunning comeback in Super Bowl 2017, quarterback Tom Brady answered the question about what makes his team so special: “Mental toughness.” He could have said exceptional physical strength, training and superior talent, but he didn’t. What team that makes it to the Super Bowl doesn’t embody these? Mental toughness involves something else, something more.

According to researchers Graham Jones and Sheldon Henton, “Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to generally cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sports places on a performer. Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure.” Therefore, mental toughness provides a person a psychological advantage over others. This advantage, either innate or developed over years of experience, enables the performer to have superior self-regulatory skills. Jones and Henton placed the attributes of mental toughness into the following general categories:

Self-Belief

A belief in oneself forms the foundation of both mental toughness and mental health. We have to believe we deserve good things for ourselves in order to play a part in creating them. We must put aside self-doubt, guilt, worry and other debilitating emotions that serve only to undermine and jeopardize our best efforts.

Desire and Motivation

We must want success to create it. That means we put ourselves in situations where we know we can succeed.

Performance-Related Focus

We might call this focus a competitive orientation. We don’t let challenges sideline us, because we enjoy overcoming them. We don’t take “no” for an answer, because we don’t see it as an option.

Lifestyle-Related Focus

Super stars like Super Bowl players don’t worry too much about work/life balance. Instead, they concentrate on lifestyle balance. They don’t have a work life and a personal life; they just have a life. Consequently, they make choices that fuel that life. They take care of themselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

A Capacity to Deal with Competition-Related Pressure (External) and Anxiety (Internal)

Both on and off the playing fields of our lives, others call on us to perform at our best when we feel our worst. In every industry and business, the competition can make one winning move and change the competitive landscape. Even the best strategists can’t prepare for every contingency, and no business book can prepare you for every eventuality.

Through the years, we’ve seen mental toughness in the likes of Micky Mantel, Willie Mays, Billie Jean King, Pelé, Jack Niklaus, Arnold Palmer and Sandy Koufax. We saw it, too, in Tiger Woods right up until he lost it, which marked the downward turn in his career. Having lost to Björn Berg at Wimbledon, an opponent once commented, “I was playing championship tennis, but he was doing something else.” Champions exhibit mental toughness, but occasionally we encounter players who do this “something else.”

Those with mental toughness figure out what has never been figured out before. Eisenhower did it on D-Day. Caesar did it before crossing the Rubicon. The Vietnam POWs did it for more than seven years of captivity and Tom Brady did it in five Super Bowls (at this writing). Did these people feel anxious and pressured in these situations? They wouldn’t have been human if they didn’t. But they decided not only to survive, but to thrive. They overcame emotional, and in some cases, physical pain to achieve the results they wanted. That’s what it takes to do the “something else” that can help us all go beyond excellence.


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Linda Henman

Dr. Linda Henman is one of those rare experts who can say she’s a coach, consultant, speaker, and author. For more than 30 years, she has worked with Fortune 500 Companies and small businesses that want to think strategically, grow dramatically, promote intelligently, and compete successfully today and tomorrow. Some of her clients include Emerson Electric, Boeing, Avon and Tyson Foods. She was one of eight experts who worked directly with John Tyson after his company’s acquisition of International Beef Products, one of the most successful acquisitions of the twentieth century.

Linda holds a Ph.D. in organizational systems and two Master of Arts degrees in both interpersonal communication and organization development and a Bachelor of Science degree in communication. Whether coaching executives or members of the board, Linda offers clients coaching and consulting solutions that are pragmatic in their approach and sound in their foundation—all designed to create exceptional organizations.

She is the author of Landing in the Executive Chair: How to Excel in the Hot Seat, The Magnetic Boss: How to Become the Leader No One Wants to Leave, and contributing editor and author to Small Group Communication, among other works.

Dr. Henman can be reached at linda@henmanperformancegroup.com.

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