Understanding and Assessing Mental Toughness Taking Coaching to a New Level

Here at the-Coaching Blog-run by Gerard O’Donovan, our aim is to constantly bring value to those seeking to improve their lives. Therefore we have a policy of publishing articles and materials by guest authors whom we value and appreciate. Today’s guest author is Doug Strycharczyk (UK).

Mental toughness is a narrow personality trait which helps to explain how individuals respond to stress, pressure, opportunity and challenge, irrespective of circumstance. Although its roots lie in resilience theory, mental toughness has emerged as a wider and potentially more useful concept. Usefully it embraces important developments in psychology such as learned optimism, Grit and Mindset.
The concept introduces an important dimension to our understating, and use of, personality.  Most personality models (and measures) focus on behavioral aspects of personality – how we act as well as how we feel when confronted by events. Mental Toughness describes how we think – why we act or respond emotionally the way we do.
This is a fundamental step in coaching and mentoring practice. What someone does can be comparatively straightforward to assess. What is creating this, inside someone’s head, is much more difficult to assess.
This takes the capability for self-awareness and reflection to another, more powerful level. Creating self-awareness is the cornerstone of coaching if one wishes to help the coachee to understand themselves and to do something about it where needed.
Initially working with athletes, Professor Peter Clough (Huddersfield University, UK) identified the core components of mental toughness and how to apply the concept. Work with AQR International around its application in a number of fields, including the workplace led to the development of a Mental Toughness Questionnaire (MTQ48) in 2003 allowing effective assessment of Mental Toughness. In 2017 this original 6 factor measure was upgraded to an 8 factor measure – the MTQPlus.
So … What is the Mental Toughness concept and framework?
Mental Toughness consists of 4 constructs, each which in turn can be subdivided into two factors. This enables leaders, managers, coaches and trainers dig deep into understanding the mindset of their charges. The four factors are called the 4Cs and the 4Cs Mental Toughness concept is now the most popular description of Mental Toughness in the world.
The first is Control. This describes the extent to which a person feels in control of their lives and their circumstances (Life Control) and the extent to which they can control the display of their emotions (Emotional Control). The first is where the sense of “can do” sits and the latter describes the extent to which the individual can manage their own mood and the mood of others.
The second factor is Commitment. This is about goal orientation and achievement orientation. This describes the extent to which someone is prepared to set goals and make promises and, once made, to what extent they will do what it takes to achieve those goals and deliver those promises. Those promises can be made to self or to others.
Control and Commitment together describe what most mean by Resilience. However, Resilience, although a valuable and useful quality, can take two forms. You can be resilient if you have to be resilient or you can be resilient if you want to or enjoy being resilient. The latter introduces a positive element to the former. It is more robust and this is what the next two constructs add.
Challenge is the third factor. This introduces a proactive component to the model. This describes the extent to which the individual will push back the boundaries and stretch themselves – and to accept the risk (Risk Orientation) and how they see all outcomes from this approach (Learning Orientation). Some see learning and opportunity, even in failure and setback. Others decide “they never want to do that again”. It is where openness to learning sits.
Finally, Confidence completes the picture. This describes the extent to which people believe in themselves – have Confidence in their abilities – and to possess the Interpersonal Confidence to influence others and dealing with challenges from others. This component adds a further proactive component.
It’s not difficult to identify how these apply to anyone who seeks to optimise their lives. And in a transformational setting, it’s an absolute must for leadership.
All of the scales and subscales are independent. For instance, some people may be goal oriented, but will not do what is needed to achieve the goal leading to underachievement. Some aren’t goal orientated but will still enjoy working hard, often described as “busy fools”.
Moreover, all the scales interplay with each other. Someone who is high on Commitment but low on Confidence is likely to behave differently to someone who is low on Commitment but high on Confidence.
The opposite of Mental Toughness is not Mental Weakness, it’s called Mental Sensitivity. There is nothing wrong with being at any point of the scale although research shows that Mentally Tough individuals tend to achieve more, enjoy better well-being and adopt a more positive approach to life. Research shows that the Mentally Tough achieves senior positions in organisations much more so than the Mentally Sensitive.
In fact, there are potential strengths and weaknesses at both ends of the spectrum. Self-awareness is the key again central to coaching and mentoring activity.
This is especially true in Executive Coaching where the potential weakness lies in areas such as over commitment, taking too many risks, over confidence and believing “I can do it, why can’t they?”. These illustrate the risks associated with being very mentally tough.
All can be neatly summarised in this representation:

Can we assess Mental Toughness reliably?
We can. Firstly, by understanding the concept and framework. We are also able to assess mental toughness in terms of these components in individuals and groups through a range of unique high quality psychometric measures. It is normative which enables users to assess mental toughness before and after an event such as a training & development or coaching programme.
Importantly, this means that we can evaluate the effectiveness of programmes in a valuable way. Given the emergence of the focus on evidence based practice in coaching, this is a highly significant development.
Readers can complete a trial version of the Mental Toughness Questionnaire, free of charge, by e-mailing headoffice@aqr.co.uk.
Can we develop Mental Toughness – a more positive resilient mindset?
We can. We can either support someone change their mental toughness or we can help someone how to adopt the behaviours that a mentally tough person would adopt. Either way, many of the benefits of developing mental toughness can be achieved.
All learning is essentially experiential, again reinforcing its application on coaching.  Most interventions fall into 6 broad groupings:

  • Positive Thinking – learning to be affirmative
  • Visualisation – using your head
  • Anxiety Control – learning to manage panic and fear
  • Attentional Control – learning to focus better and longer
  • Goal Setting – planning how to achieve goals
  • The Mental Toughness Questionnaire – understanding and reflection.

Coaches can use the Four Cs model as an individualised framework for diagnosis and analysis while the Mental Toughness Questionnaire offers the opportunity to close the learning cycle- changes in mental toughness can be measured and related to desired outcomes. Along with the evaluation capability, the interventions which are useful here will be well-known to many coaches.
AQR International has developed a workbook which shows how coaches can use Mental Toughness with coaching processes such as the Grow model. Readers can receive a copy free of charge by e-mailing headoffice@aqr.co.uk
How does it fit with other key concepts?
Remarkably well. It is consistent with motivational models such as Maslow and with all Leadership models, providing an additional level of understanding to support development in these areas.
It is also relevant for all so called “soft skills” development. It has a particularly strong role in Coaching and Mentoring where it supports the development of a client’s self-awareness of their strengths and their development needs … and why these exist.
Usefully, the Mental Toughness concept embraces a number of similar ideas such as Mindset, Grit, Character, Resilience and Learned Optimism in one comprehensive and very practical framework.
Importantly, in a world where evidence based practice is becoming the norm, the Mental Toughness concept is itself well evidenced by almost 100 peer reviewed research papers from over a dozen universities.
The concept and the measures are proving to be a key addition to the coach’s armoury.
For more information:

  • Psychometrics in Coaching ”, edited by J Passmore (Kogan Page 2015)
  • Developing Mental Toughness by Doug Strycharczyk and Professor Peter Clough (Kogan Page2016)

Available in hard copy Polish (GWP), Romanian (?) and English (Kogan Page);  e-book version (English) is available through www.aqr.co.uk
Mental Toughness Licensed user programs are available in on-line format (English only – contact headoffice@aqr.co.uk) and in tutor led format in Warsaw (xxxxx) and Bucharest (1st March 2018)
Douglas StrycharczykAbout Douglas Strycharczyk
Doug is the CEO of AQR and for AQR International – Founded in 1989, AQR is now recognised as one of the most innovative (and fast growing) test publishers in the world working in more than 80 countries. AQR established its reputation initially as a leader in Team Building and leadership development. Doug’s work has been featured on BBC Television where Prof John Adair described the material as “highly effective”
Doug has more than 30 years expertise in a variety of Line, HR & Consultancy roles with a number of blue chip businesses. Doug’s areas of expertise also include Organisational Development, Senior Management/Leadership Development and Top Team Assessment.


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