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Chapter Five, Part One: Defining Mental Toughness and the 4 Cs of Mental Toughness

Updated: Dec 10, 2021

If you asked ten people to define mental toughness, you would likely get ten different definitions. Some might say mental toughness is resilience, some might bring up working through pain, some might mention the ability to stay focused when it counts. Really, none of them would be wrong! Even psychology research itself has produced conflicting or contradictory findings as to what mental toughness really is. In this chapter, we discuss the attributes that contribute to mental toughness, as well as ways to develop mental toughness.

Defining Mental Toughness

The complexity of defining mental toughness lies on the basis that it is both a trait, something we have, and a state, something we do. Further, it contains cognitive, affective, and behavioral properties. Cognitive factors relating to mental toughness include our internal beliefs, our self talk, and the way we think about ourselves. Affective factors include emotional and arousal regulation, Behavioral factors can include preparation, routines, goals, and other skills that we actually perform. These cognitive, affective, and behavioral factors help us positively adapt and cope with stressful situations. They also serve as protection to our self-esteem and self-efficacy.

The Four Cs of Mental Toughness

The Four Cs of Mental Toughness, otherwise known as the 4C model, breaks mental toughness down into four constructs: Control, Commitment, Challenge, and Confidence.

  • Control is having the ability to be the influence, rather than be influenced, to be proactive rather than reactive. It is having the ability to control your emotions, behaviors, and remain poised. Control helps us remain focused on the task at hand. When we have the ability to control our emotions, we can recognize when our emotions are causing our level of arousal to vary, which can lead to loss of concentration. Our ability to be in control directly influences our concentration.

    • Control includes cognitive, affective, and protective factors.

  • Commitment means pursuing goals, and focusing our time and energy on achieving them. When we pursue goals, we are likely to encounter challenges. Being committed is about remaining dedicated to and determined despite setbacks on the path to achieving our goals.

    • Commitment includes behavioral factors such as routines, goal setting, etc. It has adaptive and coping factors.

  • Challenge. This is about how we appraise possible threats. Do we perceive hardships as threats, or as opportunities for growth? Do we crumble under pressure, or rise to the occasion? Athletes who are able to take on the challenge stay the course, remain committed to their goals, and trust in the process they have developed. A quality of resilience is the ability to perceive stress as a challenge, and to grow from stress.

    • Challenge includes cognitive factors, and helps us adapt and cope.

  • Confidence is the ability to maintain self-belief despite setbacks. Athletes who are confident have strong self-talk, set task and process goals, and trust their training. The more athletes repeat a thought or phrase to themselves, the more likely it is to become a belief. Athletes who think positively about themselves, their training, and their competence, believe in their abilities and are confident when it matters most.

    • Confidence includes cognitive and affective factors, and protects our identity and self-efficacy.

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