You know the expression “Well, at least we’re all in the same boat”? Of course you do – it’s a statement of solidarity and togetherness. But it’s a bit of a myth, isn’t it? We are all on our own journeys on our own little boats. What saves us is that we are all, for the most part, at least travelling down the same river. And this is actually a good thing!
Navigating difficult situations largely depends on knowing the terrain and adapting to changes in the environment. Pilots do this navigating their boats on a river, we all do this every day in our lives. What makes someone a good navigator is being mentally tough, being adaptive and responsive, approaching challenges with optimism and creativity, and knowing what we bring to the process in terms of our own skill sets. Fundamental to our success is the quality of our “ship.” Knowing what we can of the terrain is one thing; embarking on a journey on the river in a shoddy craft is quite another!
Let’s drop the boat on a river analogy and speak plainly. Life is hard – it can be unpredictable and dangerous and threatening. But it is also highly rewarding, exciting, and necessary. Many people, unfortunately, only see the danger and as such, they avoid the challenges associated with living and exploring. Others, on the other and, view the unpredictability of life with optimism and hope. Mental toughness is the key to finding this hope, leading to success in managing our perspectives as we approach the challenges and realities of living forward.
Mental toughness (MT) will be discussed in detail in future blogs, but at its core, it is how people face challenges, accept their own strengths and areas in which they may be lacking, maintain commitment to persevere through challenge, accept the degree of control they have in different situations, and their own confidence to face any variety of situations. MT incorporates themes consistent with, but not beholden to, popular ideas such as grit, resilience, and “stick-to-it-ness.” While most of us have at least passing familiarity with any of these concepts, MT is an evidence-based approach that has certain advantages over any of these individual concepts. Specifically, MT can be assessed and quantified. It can also be enhanced, which is perhaps the most important aspect of the model. Using evidence-based strategies, we can enhance the MT of an individual or a group – we can, to go back to our analogy, build a better boat.
Working with kids and young adults, I have directly had the opportunity to see the impact that MT can have. Some kids, when facing a challenge at school, essentially bail. They refuse to get up in the morning, there are tears and screaming and yelling before school starts, and more later at homework. They resist efforts to engage them at school, they can become asocial and isolated. We identify them as having anxiety, as having learning problems, of being oppositional. In actuality, their MT resources have been taxed to their limits and they need strategies to enhance their confidence and control, to have them experience a sense of commitment and face challenge with optimism.
Of course, it is important to recognize that there are kids and adults with anxiety disorders, Learning Disabilities, ADHD, serious behavioural disorders ,and Autistic Spectrum Disorder. MT does not negate these real and important conditions. It can, to an extent, explain some of the behaviours/ ways of thinking associated with each and, more importantly, can lead to a path of successful intervention (when coupled with evidence-based intervention strategies associated with each condition). It can also help caregivers with some of the demands of working effectively with challenging youth.
One example: A student with a Learning Disability is frustrated with reading; they are approaching a point of giving up. Interventions have been implemented, but their ability to keep on trying is taxed to its limits. We know how we can help with reading, but their attitude has been eroded by a relative lack of success. They feel like failures and that they will never have success. We can help them with the MT areas of control (knowing what is in and what is out of our control); commitment (the value of sticking with hard things, even in the light of a lack of perceived success); challenge (encouraging them to push themselves to reasonable limits); and ultimately confidence (reviewing how far they have come and honoring their efforts to date). Each of these areas can go a long way to having them reset and try again.
In upcoming posts, we will discuss each of the four main components of MT (Challenge, Control, Commitment, Confidence) and how we can use each to enhance our performance – to build a better boat with which to navigate the ever-changing river on which we find ourselves.