Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Mental Toughness

Superheroes, or most any kind of persistent heroes, have to be tough in order to keep doing what they do, day after day. Lately, I've been reading about mental toughness, a term psychologists use to characterize a quality studied in athletes (particularly elite athletes of various types; Crust, 2008; Nicholls et al., 2009). Mental toughness has four components:

  1. Control: a sense of control of yourself and what happens to you; that is, a sense of being able to shape your destiny rather than passively accepting events as fated.
  2. Commitment: a strong sense of being committed to yourself and your work. That is, being fully involved in something, giving it your best shot.
  3. Challenge: a tendency to see life's downs and obstacles and challenges to be met rather than as threats.
  4. Confidence: A belief in yourself and your ability to meet your goals.

According to Peter Clough, a leading researcher on mental toughness,

Mentally tough individuals tend to be sociable and outgoing; as they are able to remain calm and relaxed, they are competitive in many situations and have lower anxiety levels than others. With a high sense of self-belief and an unshakeable faith that they control their own destiny, these individuals can remain relatively unaffected by competition or adversity (Clough et al., 2001, p. 38).

When I read this quote, I thought of superheroes (or action heroes like James Bond).

Although certain situations may elicit mental toughness more than other situations, research indicates that some people are generally more mentally tough than others (that's why it's considered a personality trait) and it arises from both genes and environment (particularly adversity). For athletes, such adversity includes an exposure to a tough sport environment (challenging competition) and early setbacks through which the person can learn from failure (Bull et al., 2005).

Reading about mental toughness led me to reflect (again) on the perceptiveness of superhero comic book writers--who probably derived the idea of mental toughness from observing the real world. The writers provided many superheroes with both the components related to mental toughness, and the environmental adversity to toughen up the heroes. For instance, pre-spider bite high school student Peter Parker (who becomes Spider-Man after being bitten by a radioactive spider) is characterized as someone who has the elements of mental toughness:

  1. Control: Peter certainly tries appears to have a sense of control; he tries to make things happens socially, and he exerts effort and his school, undoubtedly because he believes that the effort will make a difference.
  2. Commitment: He marches to his own drummer, partaking activities that he enjoys rather than simply going along with the group if he doesn't like the activity.
  3. Challenge: He enjoys challenging himself: He created the web fluid and web shooters (the fluid dispenser) just for fun, to challenge himself.
  4. Confidence: He has confidence in his intellectual abilities and, on some level, has social confidence because he asks his classmate Sally and invites his classmates to the Science Hall exhibit (in the very first Spider-Man story, by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; see Amazing Fantasy #15). Moreover, once he has his powers, he decides to join the Fantastic Four-and he assumes that they'd want him.

And like many people with mental toughness, Peter has experienced adversity (Dienstbeirm 1989): (1) his parents died when he was young, (2) his aunt and uncle-his guardians--have limited financial means, and (3) Peter is socially marginalized, despite his best efforts. And of course Peter's guilt about his unintentional role in the death of his beloved Uncle Ben toughen Peter up.

Spider-Man is only one example, but mental toughness runs rampant in the superhero world: I'm thinking of Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The list goes on.

Since most of the research on mental toughness, though, I got to thinking. Is this personality trait (and it's similarity to qualities possessed by superheroes/heroes) the reason that great sports figures are considered heroes? Perhaps the term hero has become almost synonymous with the qualities of mental toughness.

Copyright 2010 by Robin S. Rosenberg. All rights reserved.
Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. Her website is Click here to take her brief What is a Superhero? Survey.