The 21 Percent Performance Factor You’re Probably Neglecting

Among the various platitudes you’re certain to hear from politicians and media talking heads in the wake of a local or regional disaster is that the people there are “tough and resilient.” You’ve heard it, I’ve heard it, we’ve all heard it. But is it true?

If toughness and resilience are defined as carrying on with life despite hardships, then it certainly is true that people in all locales and regions are tough and resilient. But isn’t this a rather flaccid definition of “tough and resilient”? Are there not degrees of toughness and resilience, and are the politicians and talking heads who toss these words around like parade candy prepared to aver that all people are tough and resilient in the highest degree?

If you’ve ever experienced a crisis or disaster that affected you and people around you, you know that, like every other psychological trait, toughness and resilience are not equally distributed across the human population. When the shit hits the fan, some people crack, others emerge as heroes, and the rest sift out somewhere between these extremes. But you don’t need a crisis or disaster to see clear individual differences in degrees of toughness and resilience. Any stressful or challenging situation will do—like, say, being an endurance athlete.

Evidence that some athletes are tougher and more resilient than others and that the toughest and most resilient athletes perform better keeps piling up. The latest evidence comes from a study conducted by a team of researchers at Polytechnic of Leiria in Portugal and published in Perceptual and Motor Skills. Before I go any further, I should mention that there is some debate surrounding how to define toughness and resilience, and whether a single, discrete phenomenon truly underlies each of these terms. We won’t go down that rabbit hole, but will instead content ourselves with the definitions cited by the authors of this study:

Mental toughness: a personal capacity to produce consistently high levels of subjective (e.g., personal goals or strivings) or objective performance (e.g., sales, race time, GPA) despite everyday challenges and stressors as well as significant adversities

Resilience: a high-order trait that reflects the ability of a person to maintain normal psychological functioning in the setting of a stressor

Matt Fitzgerald running the 2016 Boston Marathon

Showing my mental toughness at the 2016 Boston Marathon.

More than 300 active ultrarunners were recruited to participate in the study. Each completed standard scientific assessments of mental toughness and resilience. Their scores were then compared to the runners’ rankings in the International Trail Running Association’s Performance Index. Analysis of the data revealed positive associations between mental toughness and resilience and between mental toughness and performance, with resilience as a possible mediator between mental toughness and performance. This makes sense, because in ultramarathon events, mental toughness manifests primarily as a refusal to quit in the face of challenges, while resilience takes the form of an ability to adapt in the face of challenges. In a sense, mental toughness supplies the power needed to push through challenges in ultra racing, and resilience supplies the steering required to channel that power in the right direction.

The authors concluded, “Our findings show that mental toughness, mediated by resilience, explained 21% of the total performance variance in trail runners, providing a new perspective of the possible importance to intervention training in psychological constructs for these kind of endurance efforts. Sports professionals should be aware that mental training should be an integrant part of a holistic psychosocial program.”

Twenty-one percent is a pretty big number. It suggests that a runner with superior toughness and resilience will significantly outperform a runner of equal talent with average toughness and resilience. But how many runners make a concerted effort to improve these mental contributors to performance? I think you know the answer.

Granted, mental fitness is harder to improve than physical fitness. Nearly every clinical psychologist I know operates in a continuous state of moderate to severe burnout because their job is to change how people think and act and most people resist cognitive and behavioral change even when they think they want these things. “They just want to come here and vent,” is the line I hear over and over from mental health clinicians. Coaches practice a bit of psychology too, and it’s the most frustrating part of the job. I recently lost an athlete who just couldn’t find the wherewithal to break out of certain self-limiting thought patterns and behaviors. It made me sad.

Some people can and do become tougher and more resilient, however. How? I’ve written plenty about this elsewhere. If you’re ready to get serious about claiming the most neglected 21 percent performance advantage in endurance sports, grab a copy of my book The Comeback Quotient: A Get-Real Guide to Building Mental Fitness in Sport and Life.

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