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What it means to be mentally tough - a case study

Press release: "A three-domain personality analysis of a mentally tough athlete"

A recent scientific study led by a collaborating team of Australian and American researchers has sought to answer the question, “what makes a person mentally tough?” They did this by performing a case study – a research study conducted on a single person – of a professional Australian Rules football player. In doing so, they provide rich insights into the interior life of a high-performing, mentally tough athlete. The results of this research highlight the importance of studying personality beyond just describing how high or low somebody is on a specific trait, which is most common in personality research. This study’s findings also open up exciting possibilities regarding the research techniques used by scientists who study sports psychology, the science of how psychology impacts athletic performance, physical activity, and exercise. The results of this study were published in the January/February issue of the European Journal of Personality.

In their research, Dr. Tristan Coulter and colleagues examined mental toughness, which was defined by account of certain prized behaviours and values linked to the term in the context of a professional Australian Football League (AFL) club. After identifying a player who was considered to be very mentally tough in this setting, the research team analyzed the athlete across three different “layers” of personality, using a model advanced by psychologist Dan McAdams. In particular, they collected data on the player’s Big Five traits of Neuroticism, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Openness (layer 1); his typical goals and coping strategies (layer 2); and his narrative identity, or the internal life story that gives his existence a sense of meaning, unity, and purpose (layer 3). They found that each of these “layers” contributed to a coherent psychological portrait, painting a vivid picture of the athlete, including some of the reasons for why he was so mentally tough. For instance, the team found the athlete was highly conscientious and had a very low score for neuroticism. His goals were strongly associated with achievement strivings and oriented towards seeking out positive events and possibilities. And his life story was replete with redemptive scripts and a commitment to leaving behind a personal legacy.

In an interview for the European Journal of Personality’s blog, Coulter expressed the importance of studying the different “layers” of personality in his research, in particular, taking account of unique details contained within the life story. He said, I think it was interesting that without knowing his life story, we would not have known the role that religion played in his life and how much it impacted his ability to be resilient. In short, not knowing his narrative is to miss a key mechanism that makes him mentally tough.”  

Currently, personality is still often explored using a trait approach. While this is a conventional way to study people’s personalities, Coulter’s research shows that there are insights to be gained in using a case study methodology. Specifically, by taking a comprehensive look at the personality of a highly committed and persevering AFL player, the study shows that a combination of traits, goals, coping strategies, and internalized scripts depict some of the key psychological resources that contribute to someone’s ability to be mentally tough. In an interview for the European Journal of Personality’s blog, Coulter said, “this case study is testament of the potential of case studies to advance scientific knowledge through the investigation of one individual.”

In the paper, the research team also proposes a model for understanding mental toughness. Through the model, Coulter and colleagues acknowledge the complexity inherent to mental toughness and suggest that the construct is fundamentally linked to the interaction of both social and personality variables. Their work poses intriguing questions for how psychologists and researchers might consider intervention strategies for developing mentally tough performers.

Correspondence about this research may be addressed to the lead author, Dr. Tristan Coulter, at the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Queensland University of Technology, Kelvin Grove, Queensland, 4059, Australia. Dr. Coulter can be contacted via email on tristan.coulter@qut.edu.au. The article can be accessed on the EJP website. The interview with Tristan Coulter with the European Journal of Personality may be found here. Read also the press release of the article by the Queensland University of Technology media team on their website.

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