Each of New Zealand’s national rugby teams roared back to snatch victories from the jaws of defeat this weekend. First, the Kiwis (rugby league) won its World Cup semi-final against hosts England with the final play of the game; then, the following afternoon, the All Blacks (rugby union) somehow managed to claw their way back from 7-22 at half-time, defeating Ireland in Dublin also in the dying seconds of the match. That neither side panicked when facing defeat with so little time remaining, is a sobering reminder of what is a prerequisite to prevailing in tight, tense, pressured sporting contests – mental toughness.
One-nil down in an ill-tempered Ashes series, a leading batsman returns home suffering from a stress-related illness, the team ridiculed in the toxic Australian media. Great. These are ideal conditions for the England cricket team to demonstrate its much-vaunted – not least from the mouths of the players themselves – mental toughness.
Several England players made much of their winning mindset in the summer – when they were winning. That’s easy. The environment now is ideal to show what they are made of. It is in these adverse environments that team psychologists earn their keep. What more motivation do the players need? For goodness sake, let’s not pretend there is any mutual respect there. Now get on with rubbing the Aussies’ noses in it. Go one better than three years ago: 4-1 to England. They have to believe it.
Benjamin Markovits (London Review of Books, 7 November) omits the crucial factor in determining success at sport (if we are to interpret success as winning): mental toughness. The funding variables (viz., The Lottery, TV contracts) he cites have helped to identify and develop more talented individuals. But those in themselves would not be enough. Without denying the importance of talent, he ought to have looked more closely at the commitment, discipline, and perseverance that go into success. Winners have talent, yes; but they also have the right mindset.
Using qualitative, quantitative, and mixed-methods protocols, researchers have repeatedly found mental toughness to be the variable with the greatest potency at discriminating consistently between winners and losers. It is this mindset that has separated, for example, the All Blacks (New Zealand’s rugby union team) and the Kangaroos (the Australian rugby league team) from the merely very good.
If physical and technical skills are matched, and environmental conditions do not favour inequitably an individual or team, it is those who are mentally stronger that prevail. Without denying the crucial role of talent, though which by itself is insufficient, it is possession of an achievement mindset that separates the hugely talented from the very best and, in turn, distinguishes the greatest athletes and winners.
That England triumphed over Australia in Saturday’s rugby union Test match owed much to the players’ collective demonstration of what assistant coach Andy Farrell feels are the three qualities that separate great sides: “It’s the intent they have, their concentration for 80 minutes and their calmness under pressure” (Farrell targets autumn clean sweep and delivers warning to Australia, Guardian Sport, 2 November). These constitute mental toughness: confidence, constancy and control.
England’s victory showed that mental toughness not only separates the consistently great, such as the All Blacks (rugby union) and the Kangaroos (rugby league), but can distinguish between those on lower rungs of the rankings ladder.
How do you bounce back from finishing runner-up in the Bundesliga, being hammered in the German Cup final, and, most agonizingly of all, losing the European Champions League final on penalties, having completely dominated the game, conceded a last-minute equalizer, and missed a penalty in extra-time – in your own stadium? Answer: mental toughness.
Matt Barlow’s revealing interview with Bastian Schweinsteiger (Daily Mail, February 18, 2013) showed that the environment that surrounds Bayern Munich – and indeed the German national side – is conducive to achievement. The strong mindset facilitates the outlook that each success is taken as a stepping-stone to a more permanent position of strength. Yes, each has endured setbacks – Bayern Munich’s hat-trick of near-misses last season, and Germany’s surprise defeat by Italy in the Euro 2012 semi-finals – but they bounce back.
For this Vorsprung durch Mentalität, Bayern Munich and Germany remain the most consistently feared and respected opponents: iconic organizations with players who are instilled with the virtues of discipline, hard work, and meticulous planning.
Interestingly, and in stark contrast to England, domestic clubs work with the national team and German players are told that, while they can earn big money and fame in club football, they must succeed at a World Cup to become legends. What odds on this club-country wisdom ever belonging here? Football may then very well come home, as the jubilant Germans sang – in English – at the Emirates.
In various reports in The Times (February 11, 2013), Patrick Kidd (“dogged”, “calmness under pressure”), Mark Souster (“composure”, “discipline”, “collective purpose”), Simon Barnes (“commitment”, “conviction”, “belief”, “moral cohesiveness”, “certainty”), and Owen Slot (“tests of character”, “refused to yield”, “self-belief”) each somehow avoided using the most obvious – and appropriate – adjective to describe the England rugby union team’s performance in Dublin: mentally tough. The talent is a given. But it was mental toughness that, ultimately, got England the victory.