Susie Burrell

‘your food, your body, your life’

So, a disclaimer before you read this piece. I know that my content is usually focused on diets and nutrition and indeed this is where I do spend much of my professional time, but some of you may know that I have also studied psychology and completed a Masters of Coaching Psychology a couple of years back.

As this is a significant area of interest for me, and for my career moving forward, I have had the goal of doing more writing in this area. So, from this week forward I am planning to post some weekly content that focuses on a range of psychological theories, themes and models. This has the goal of refreshing my own study in this area but to also offer you some useful strategies to help with your own goal directed behaviour. I hope that you enjoy these pieces and to get us started, this week I am focusing on Mental Toughness.

Building Mental Toughness……..a self-management strategy

Of all the psychological theories I studied as part of my undergraduate and post grad psychology degrees, it has been the model of Mental Toughness proposed by Strycharczyk & Clough (2015) that has resonated most when dealing with the challenges of day-to-day life. In difficult times, while our natural instinct can be to look externally to point blame and even feel sorry for ourselves, instead bringing our focus within, and instead work to build mental toughness and emerge with greater resilience is a powerful self-management strategy. As fellow business owners and nutritional professionals, working hard to keep relevant, professionally successful and financially viable in your own business, here are some ways building your own mental toughness may help to guide you through the most challenging of circumstances.

Traditionally applied within an elite sporting environment, the term mental toughness is used in a number of ways. At times used interchangeably with the term ‘grit’, mental toughness refers to a cognitive strength that differentiates those who thrive and remain able to perform during difficult times, and those who do not find that optimal performance is supported when stressors present.

While there is much published that refers to ‘mental toughness’, it is the 4 C’s of Mental Toughness harnessed by Strycharczyk & Clough (2015), that proposes that mental toughness is a product of four pillars; challenge, confidence, commitment and control. According to this framework, it is possible to build mental toughness by developing strategies that strengthen these pillars. Here, ‘challenge’ refers to seeing any difficulties as an opportunity to build new skills and psychological resources. ‘Confidence, having the belief that you are able to manage and deal with the presenting variables. ‘Commitment’, to do what needs to be done to manage or work through issues; and ‘control’, a belief that you have control over your circumstances and how you behave in response to it.

Difficult times will be experienced by all of us, yet with so many of us living in constant stress, a direct result of the intensity and pace of modern life, we are not always in the best place psychologically to aptly manage and deal with extra stressors when they present. Anxiety and depression are common, yet far less common are actively working on building the psychological tools we have to help equip us to manage additional stressors.

Cue Mental Toughness. I first utilised the model when trying to juggle newborns with my business and finishing my Master’s degree, all whilst dealing with some challenging family dynamics. It was intense to say the least. But it was also lucky that the exact subject I was studying was ‘Peak Performance’. One of the assignments given during this course was to utilise a theory presented in the course and basically try it out for an assignment. Not by chance I opted to focus my work on ‘Mental Toughness’. Here, night after night, when I was up at all hours, feeding, washing, burping and expressing for six-week-old babies whilst writing an assignment to finish a uni degree, I would keep my thoughts controlled by focusing on the 4 C’s, seeing my scenario as a challenge and one to practice implementing and building on the 4 C’s relevant to my situation.

Some examples of my documented thoughts at this time: ‘I cannot control the twins crying but I can control how I react to it’; ‘Having these babies is a way for me to work on my own patience’; ‘I am only going to do this once, make it as nice as possible’; ‘I want to be a good mum and do a good job as a working mum, I can do this’; ‘I can sleep tomorrow, being tired for one night is not the end of the world’. Refocusing my thoughts and even behaviours on the 4 C’s helped to keep me focused and motivated, when I could have easily got caught up in the fatigue and emotions of an intense time. I was not perfect but I maintain I managed this time so well because I used it as a time to build my own Mental Toughness.

Mental Toughness has again been on my mind recently from a business perspective. Given the difficulties of COVID and dietetic private practice I have noticed that some practitioners are finding it really tough, having lost a lot of their business overnight, while others are thriving, reinventing their practice to actually be more successful than pre COVID and enabling them to work much more efficiently, remotely and in many cases becoming even more financially successful than they were before.

So, if you too are finding current times especially hard, a quick reframe to see it as a time to build your own psychological resources. Specifically, actively engaging with the 4 C’s of Mental Toughness will instantly create a curiosity and challenging aspect to perceived difficulties. Rather than seeing COVID as ‘happening to us’, there is a shift inward with a focus on building our own strengths to deal with the issues that are presenting. As an example, if your clinic is now quiet, or various work outlets have dried up, a reframe utilising the 4 C’s to build Mental Toughness may be;

Challenge – ‘I am being challenged to find new ways of working that are not dependent on me being physically there’, or ‘This is a sign that it is time to build new skills, finish a project I have not had time too, study or build a product that I can ultimately sell’.

Control – ‘The only thing I can control at the moment is how I react to these challenges and how I spend my days’. ‘How can I spend each day that will leave me feel fulfilled and like I am moving forward despite the current limitations being imposed?’.

Confidence – ‘I am confident that changes to my business as a result of COVID will actually be better long term’; ‘I am confident that I can use this time to work on things I do not usually have time to and that I will be healthier, happier and psychologically stronger as a result of going through this time’.

Commitment – ‘I am deeply committed to making the most of this time, no matter how unsettling it is’; ‘Whatever my business issue is, I will seek out the right advice and changes and commit to the process of change so I am not vulnerable to these issues impacting my business again’.

In life, especially modern life, we are taught to seek out more and more stimulation to achieve satisfaction and contentment and are used to experiencing instant gratification, so we are no longer able to sit with discomfort for any extended period of time. Once you learn the skills to look inward and self-guide through challenging times, life will become a whole lot easier and less stressful in general. And that, in itself is a psychological skillset of the mentally tough.

Strycharczyk, D., Clough, P. (2015). Developing Mental Toughness. Coaching strategies to improve performance, resilience and wellbeing. 2nd Ed. Kogan Page.