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Mental toughness or mental pliability?

This is an excerpt from Science of Swimming Faster by Scott Riewald & Scott Rodeo.

To begin this section, let's first challenge some of the terminology that has been used in the field of sport psychology and offer a different perspective on the much-overused concept of mental toughness. Setting the stage for that challenge and using our first analogy, we can use basic computer terminology to describe the body (below the chin) as hardware and the mind (above the chin) as software. Although other chapters in this book look at the hardware involved in swimming in detail, this chapter focuses on the software.

Nearly every sport psychology book either addresses or refers to the concept of mental toughness and explains its necessity to elite sport performance. But is it mental toughness or some other attribute that is truly important for a swimmer? Being tough has long been a mainstay in the good-old-boy way of thinking about the mental side of sport performance. But mental toughness does not clearly describe that evasive characteristic commonly associated with elite athletes who consistently perform at higher levels. Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, once said, "The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength or lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will." The "will" that Coach Lombardi was referring to may have been what others over the years have called mental toughness. Unfortunately, we will never know exactly what Lombardi was thinking when he fashioned that famous quotation. But I believe that within the field of sport psychology and possibly in the spirit of Coach Lombardi, we are overdue in developing more descriptive terms that clearly articulate the characteristics we see in athletes who just don't quit. We need a clearer mental picture of "will." Instead of mental toughness, I propose the term mental pliability to describe that special, necessary, and core ingredient seen in most elite performers - those who can perform on demand, under all circumstances, and with consistent high-end results. I see a difference between mental toughness and mental pliability. It's more than just semantics; the difference between the two concepts is the flexibility, adaptability, and "stick-to-it-ness" that mental pliabilitysuggests.

Imagine a solid piece of wood with the same dimensions as a thick telephone book. Let's equate those objects to the concepts of mentaltoughness (wood) and mentalpliability (telephone book). Being mentally tough generates images of someone who is thick-skinned, solid, hard, unshakeable, and seemingly unbreakable, like that solid piece of wood. Yet if one were to take that piece of wood and throw it against something harder, hit it on a sharp edge, or hit it with a hammer, the wood likely would crack, splinter, or break apart. Although, on the outside, the piece of wood appears rigid, solid, and strong, under the right conditions it is not so tough and not so unbreakable.

Now consider a phone book and envision how it would perform if thrown against something hard, hit against a sharp edge, or struck with a hammer. It wouldn't crack, splinter, or break apart like the wood. Instead, it would bend and temporarily change shape to absorb the shock and then return to its original shape. The phone book is malleable; it can change its shape, absorb or deflect force, handle repeated physical contact, and retain its original shape. In short, it demonstrates adaptability and resilience. The only way to break a phone book would be to methodically tear it apart a few pages at a time. Great athletes, like a phone book, can bend or adapt to many situations; they are resilient and do not break under pressure or contact. The ability to adapt to the situation and environment results in the development of resilient durability over time. More than mental toughness, this ingredient is necessary in competitive athletes. This is what I think Coach Lombardi was describing.

So should a swimmer be mentally tough or mentally pliable? Athletes who choose to be pliable will find strategies in this chapter to equip them to move in that direction. Athletes who want to be tough must be prepared to face the consequences of potentially breaking into pieces under those special circumstances that will challenge toughness and try to break them apart - competition! Mental pliability (or plyability), not mental toughness, will connect swimmers' software with their hardware in ways that get them to the wall faster than ever before.

Mental Plyability

Another way to describe the psychological flexibility required to succeed in swimming is as mental plyability, bringing to mind the flexible strength of plywood as opposed to the rigid but breakable structure of a hardwood.


Most of our waking moments are consumed with what we call self-talk. Self-talk is the internal monologue we carry on with ourselves, whenever we are not actually talking aloud with others. The body of knowledge associating self-talk with performance outcomes in athletics and achievement is growing (Weinberg et al. 1984; Goodhart 1986; Gould, Eklund, and Jackson 1992; Van Raalte et al. 1994; Hardy, Gammage, and Hall 2001). In the cited research, self-talk generally has been used to self-calm or relax, self-educate, self-motivate, focus, self-reward, self-criticize, and pass time. Self-talk can be directed inward or at others. It can be constructive, destructive, positive, negative, and move us to or away from action. Self-talk can be neutral or, in some cases, so quiet that we are not consciously aware of the conversation being held. Lastly, self-talk can be believable or not to the person carrying on the internal dialogue.

We often hear coaches or teammates encourage athletes to think positive, focus, see themselves being champions, and more. But the extent to which athletes truly believe what they are being encouraged to say to themselves has a direct effect on whether the self-talk will have any bearing on their performances. Self-talk that is positive and constructive in nature, when channeled in the right direction, can result in improved performance. Unfortunately, self-talk that is negative and destructive in nature will have a detrimental effect on performance. As illustrated earlier in the gravity discussion, nonproductive self-talk tends to be about the past or future, whereas constructive self-talk is aligned with the present ("My job is to swim fast"). The objective of most sports is really pretty simple; in the case of swimming, it's to swim fast.

Most swimmers, thinking back to when they were younger, remember that swimming fast was fun, even though they may not have recognized that they were swimming in the moment or not really caring about the past or what might lie ahead. Swimming for fun was as important as swimming fast. In fact, fun and fast were often synonymous in the minds of great athletes. Unfortunately, the business of sport has a way of systematically driving the fun out of sport and replacing it with a prime focus of swimming fast, swimming faster, working hard, making money, and always setting personal bests. These seeds have been planted, and they often grow into a full crop of negative self-talk that we deal with in sport and in life. It is as if fun, hard work, and progressive improvement cannot occur at the same time as swimmers become more seasoned and move toward higher levels of competition. I wholeheartedly disagree with that assumption. If fun is left out of the equation to swim fast, attempts to swim fast will feel gravitational resistance. It's like swimming against a current rather than swimming with the current or being pulled through the water. The fast suits have been taken out of the pool. If you want swimmers to swim fast, help them put on fun suits. You will be amazed at the progress they make! Swimming fast means teaching and learning the fundamentals of swimming. Sometimes the key ingredients are obvious, but we forget to include them. Fun and the mental part of swimming need to be included.

Swimming fast means reverting to the way of thinking we had when we were younger, when we focused on the feeling of swimming fast rather than the absolute and driven objective of swimming faster than everyone else in the pool. The key is to swim faster than you did before. Own your lane! When a swimmer can begin to do that, swimming faster will begin to take on an impressive life of its own.

In the meantime, we have to contend with and remedy the culture associated with competitive sport that has evolved over the years. Unfortunately, a less-than-positive atmosphere that often encourages the development and use of negative self-dialogue has been unintentionally created for swimmers. The following are some of the more common self-talk errors, as well as suggestions to help swimmers convert negative self-talk statements to positive, constructive, and productive self-talk statements.

Focusing on the Past or the Future

"I can't believe I swam so terribly in my first event" (past) or "Now, every stroke and turn of this next event has to be perfect to make up for my earlier bad swim" (future). Not letting go of a mistake or poor performance takes the thoughts and focus away from where they need to be - on the present moment and in the present event! Continuing to carry on these past and future self-conversations clutters up the connection between the body and the mind - physiologically, biomechanically, and psychologically. This kind of self-talk often evolves into a series of errors that contribute to unsuccessful performances. Instead, swimmers should strive to let the past performance go before even heading to the pool for the next event. They need to focus on competing right here, right now, and in this event.

Focusing on Real or Perceived Weaknesses During the Competition

"I am the most inexperienced athlete here," "I've never beaten her before," or "I should have trained harder." Any of these statements might be true, but all are irrelevant at the time of competition. During competition, swimmers who dwell on what they don't have may as well be tying weights to their ankles. Competition is a time when self-talk and mental focus should be fully directed to areas such as being technically and tactically proficient and sticking to the race plan. Swimmers who think that they are at 80 percent of where they should be as swimmers need to give the full 100 percent of that 80 percent (John Wooden and Paul "Bear" Bryant). Thinking about or focusing on what they don't have (skills, absolute feel for the water, and so on) will simply take their swim times to the slow side of the curve. The most logical way to increase performance percentage is through additional deliberate training. Swimmers will not magically create more without investing the time required to improve the requisite skills or fitness level. Simply trying harder is not the answer. The key to swimming faster is to work harder and smarter in training and then replicate that in competition. Self-talk is most productive if swimmers think more about what they are bringing to the pool rather than what they aren't, or think they aren't, bringing to the pool. They will reach a point in their swimming careers where what they have is enough to be successful. The trick is for them to focus on what they have and then give that in the pool with an unwavering commitment.

Focusing on Ultimatum Outcome or Profit Only

"I must win," "I have to finish in the top two," or "I have to beat him." Make no mistake, in sport, as in any business, something is at stake! But the relationship between what is at stake and how important that really is to a swimmer is most clearly found in how healthy the swimmer's perspective is about why she competes. No doubt, every business must be profitable to stay afloat. But if profit (winning) is the bottom-line reason that an athlete competes in sport, profits will be lean and hard to come by in many of the years of competition. Swimmers need to understand, know, and revisit the real reasons that they compete. If it is only about winning, they will regularly be one stroke, one turn, or one hand short of touching the wall behind those who understand the deeper levels of this relationship. Focusing on the result (future) will take them out of the moment and negatively affect their performance. When swimmers stay in the moment and the process (swimming right now), then the probability of an outcome (profit or success) will occur more frequently. If the focus is on the outcome (future), the water just seems to get more difficult to move through as the event unfolds. In the end, swimmers need to create a clear definition of how they define success, in and out of the pool. Success isn't always defined as winning. Swimmers have all won races with a performance that they weren't satisfied with. They have all had races that they didn't win but that felt great. And they might have had a great time as well. The best race occurs when the swimmer has a great swim, feels great, and wins! Success comes in a variety of forms. To stay in the game and be profitable, swimmers need to focus on the process and in that moment.

Focusing on Uncontrollable Factors

"I don't like this pool," or "I don't like this lane," or "I don't like this suit." Thoughts such as these are a waste of precious emotional energy because they focus on elements that are sometimes just out of the swimmer's control. Uncontrollable factors are just that - out of the swimmer's control. No matter how much a swimmer complains about the pool, lane, water temperature, equipment, and so on, it doesn't change anything except that person's attitude and energy level. A good rule when planning is to expect things not to be perfect. That is the business of performance and life. If something is not quite right, the message should be "It is what it is" (Navy SEAL mantra). Get over it and get back in the moment. Be solution oriented in responding to adversity. When encountering an obstacle or challenge, a true competitor sees only two choices - ignore it or fix it, but always move on!

Demanding Perfection

"I have to have a perfect race," "I have to hit exactly the right splits," or "I have to look perfect." Sport is about pursuing perfection, and that is all we really do - pursue it. We can only approximate perfection. That is why every sport has the built-in flexibility of not requiring participants to be perfect. The size of a basketball hoop is larger than the basketball; a golf cup is bigger than the golf ball. Except for the 25- and 50-meter events, swimmers have multiple pool lengths to make up for a slightly missed turn or stroke. Striving for perfection is a great attitude; demanding it is not. We just need to make a personal demand to strive for it!

Learn more about Science of Swimming Faster.

More Excerpts From Science of Swimming Faster