The Science Behind Increasing Mental Toughness & Reducing Stress

During my years working with Dr. John C. Maxwell, he told me a story from his boyhood. He recalls wrestling his older brother, Larry, in the living room. Larry was bigger and more experienced, which meant he beat John every single time. Over time, the defeats came quicker and quicker, as John became conditioned to lose. One day, his dad was watching and challenged his son, John, to a match. As they wrestled, Dad put up a fight, but as John exerted effort, his father allowed John to pin him down and win. Young John smiled from ear to ear. As an adult, he remembers this key moment. He also recalls his brother Larry never beat him again.

John’s dad knew that once he tasted victory from his effort, he could associate that effort with winning, and keep on trying. He also knew that if his youngest son never won, eventually he would experience “learned helplessness.”

Learned Helplessness

This term is fifty years old this year. Psychologist Martin Seligman initiated research on “learned helplessness” in 1967 at the University of Pennsylvania as an extension of his interest in depression. In experiments with both dogs and rats, Marty and his team discovered that once an individual sees no results after repeated effort, he or she begins to believe that outcomes are out of their control, and they stop trying. They actually learn to be helpless when they feel their work is hopeless.

For student athletes who compete at a higher level, the early stages of practice and drills can foster this same result. Young adults need to see their effort produces some kind of positive outcome, or they reduce or even stop their effort. Let’s face it. We’ve all confronted a tough problem and after a few moments trying to solve it, our minds automatically ask the question: Is this really worth the effort? How badly do I want this anyway? Every coach has witnessed athletes who quit after a few two-a-days, or when the drills become too grueling.

If a goal feels out of reach, people experience:

1. Stress and anxiety. Angst rises when anything feels out of our control.

2. Hopelessness. Despondency increases when we have no vision of progress.

3. Demotivation. We lose inspiration and energy without signs of improvement.

Believe it or not—stress and grit are related.

Learned Industriousness

The good news is, coaches can cultivate an opposite effect with their young athletes. It’s called “learned industriousness.” This term describes a behavioral theory from Robert Eisenberger to explain how people exert more effort when they see even the slightest results. Then, individuals with a history of positive reinforcement for their effort usually transfer this effort to other endeavors. Lab rats that pull a lever twenty times to get food are prone to try harder and longer with other challenges—later. They have been conditioned to sustain effort, believing it will produce results. Endorphins are released from both the feeling of hope and from the positive outcome.

I watched this work for my son, Jonathan, when he was seven years old. One morning he tried to open a peanut butter jar. The lid was tight and after several attempts, he was beginning to question how much he wanted that peanut butter. After a while, he gave up and walked away. When he walked out of the kitchen, I unscrewed the lid of that jar, then screwed it back on just tight enough that it would require effort, but would be possible for my young son to accomplish his goal. I called him back in the kitchen and asked him to try to open the jar one more time. When he assured me he could not, I told him to work at it for ten full seconds. When he did, he opened the jar. He smiled in triumph and from that point on, my son was positively challenged to open any and all jars—pickles, mustard, relish, you name it.

It’s learned industriousness. He applied to other areas what he learned with one jar.

Three Steps Coaches Can Take

Let me suggest three simple steps for coaches to induce “learned industriousness.” Your application will vary, based on your sport. Consider these fundamentals:

1. Give them hope.

Napoleon Bonaparte said it most succinctly: “Leaders are dealers of hope.” Coaches must find ways to give young athletes enough of a workout to challenge them, but just enough that they can conquer it and cultivate hope that they’re growing. In the beginning, coaches may even want to rig the practice, so that first year athletes are given this sense of improvement. Set up initial drills, workouts and practices to insure they require effort but allow players to see results. Hope is vital for effort. When players see progress, they build a “growth mindset.” With no progress, they unwittingly build a “fixed mindset” believing they can’t make a difference.

2. Give them a visual aid.

We are coaching a very visual generation, so we must be intentional about what they’re observing each day. I learned this almost forty years ago, when Head Coach Hayden Frye took over the Iowa football team. Coach Frye was determined to turn their losing ways around. One of the many changes he made was the uniforms. Frye decided the Iowa uniforms should look exactly like the Pittsburgh Steelers, who dominated the NFL at the time. He wanted his players to look at their teammates on game day and see champions. It worked. By 1982, Iowa was playing in the Rose Bowl. He led the Hawkeyes to 14 bowl games and 3 Big 10 titles. Remember: people do what people see. Coaches must find ways to provide visual reinforcement that players’ efforts are paying off.

3. Give them control.

The more ownership a young athlete has over their learning, the more they learn. Metacognition is a crucial element to learning for young athletes. The more they think about their thinking, the more they process what they must do to reach a goal—and it’s not from merely receiving a mandate from a coach. The result? The more they engage and “own” what’s happening. I remember years ago when Coach Mack Brown gave ownership of part of the Texas Longhorn practices to Colt McCoy and his teammates. Suddenly, those young players took responsibility for every result they achieved. Why? It was up to the players to reach their goals. The end of the story led to a trip to the national championship. When a person feels they are in control, it actually reduces stress and liberates them to grow and improve.

Here’s to a team with low stress and high grit this year.

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The Science Behind Increasing Mental Toughness & Reducing Stress