Mental toughness key in sports


Mental toughness is a key to success. A combination of will power, focus, persistence and strength, it’s often the difference between good and great, winning and losing.

Just ask an NFL place kicker.

The Bears’ Cody Parkey was dubbed the most hated man in Chicago last week when he “double-doinked” a potential game-winning 43-yard field goal off the upright and crossbar, ending his team’s season. Just moments before he’d split the uprights, right after the Eagles called a time out in an attempt to ice the 26-year old kicker. It worked.

Parkey had hit the uprights in missed kicks four times in one game earlier in the season, so the cruelty of this deja vu moment was palpable.

The Steelers felt the pain of missed field goals, and even extra points this season as well. And even the greatest NFL kicker of all time, Adam Vinatieri shanked a gimme 23-yard field goal attempt, as well as an extra point in the Colts’ playoff game this past weekend.

Performing at that ultra-elite level under that ultra-extreme degree of pressure, millions of people watching and millions of dollars on the line, is almost unimaginable.

The greats, like 46-year old Vinatieri can do it for decades, making amazing kicks in all kinds of conditions, including New England snowstorms.

Others could easily crumble at the very thought of being in that high-pressure situation.

But these moments are great learning opportunities for those trying to develop mental toughness.

The true test of toughness comes in what happens next: does an NFL kicker miss one field goal and then get into his own head, dwelling on the mistake? Or does he shake it off, refocus and move forward to face the next big challenge?

These are the questions that young athletes also face every day, whether it’s a basketball player on the free-throw line, a wrestler in a big match.

Rising to the occasion is awesome, the feeling of accomplishment the payoff for the hard work, dedication and focus it takes to make the shot or win the bout.

But we perhaps learn more in the missed shots, and even more still in the shots we don’t have the courage to take.

Failure, disappointment, loss: all are part of taking risks in those pressure-packed moments in athletics, and in life.

Fortitude, determination, spunk: all qualities that help us face those situations, aka opportunities, in the athletic arena and in the real world.

Psychotherapist Amy Morin, an internationally renowned author and speaker on the topic of mental strength reminds us that building emotional toughness is like building physical strength. It takes commitment and practice to form the habits that lead to a strong psyche.

Learning that lesson in athletics, experiencing the chance to perform under those challenging circumstances is priceless.

And win or lose, those moments prepare us for the greatest opportunities of the future.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org. Her column appear son Tuesdays.