HR Management & Compliance, Recruiting

Mental Toughness: Driving Success both on the Field and in the Field

What is the difference between the most successful professional athletes and those who fall short? In assessing thousands of professional (MLB, NBA, NHL) and NCAA Division 1 athletes, Caliper has found that physical ability, while obviously necessary, is not sufficient in predicting athletic success at the highest levels.


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Professional scouts have long considered the “intangibles,” such as work ethic, field/court instincts, coachability, leadership, confidence, the right mind-set, etc., when assessing young athletes’ potential for success. In this pursuit, the one intangible that may be the most sought after, but least understood, is mental toughness, which can be defined as having the psychological edge that enables one to:
  • Cope better than opponents with the many demands that sports place on the performer, and
  • Be more consistent and better than opponents in remaining determined, confident, and in control under pressure.

So, how can one predict which athletes are most likely to exhibit mental toughness throughout their career? The most successful candidates need such characteristics as the drive to persuade, desire to build professional relationships, curiosity and sensitivity to understand the needs of others, and inclination to solve others’ problems.
However, like athletes, the best-of-the-best professionals can be further differentiated from the pack by the strength of personality traits that supports a mentally tough approach to the job. For athletes and professionals, these traits include:

  • Level-Headedness: The ability to effectively manage the expression of one’s emotions. Individuals who manifest higher levels tend to remain composed in a variety of stress-inducing situations. Those who score lower tend to react more emotionally.
  • Stress Tolerance: The capacity to remain unworried about possible negative consequences. Those showing high scores may remain unconcerned when faced with events beyond their control. People displaying low scores tend to focus on what might go wrong or potential negative consequences before moving to action.
  • Resiliency/Ego Strength: The ability to handle setbacks, criticism, and rejection. High scores indicate that one is less negatively impacted by failure and setbacks. Those who score low tend to internalize failure, criticism, and rejection and often have trouble bouncing back and reestablishing self-confidence.
  • Energy/Persistence: One’s potential to sustain a high level of activity over extended periods. High scores relate to being active and persistent in overcoming obstacles. Those with lower scores tend to be less energetic regarding tasks and may not always persist when necessary to achieve a goal.
  • Self-Structure: Preference for independently determining work methods. A high score indicates the motivation to work independently. Low scores indicate that one may be unlikely to define one’s own work habits and methods.
  • Thoroughness: The tendency to take full ownership of tasks, jobs, and roles. Those who score high tend to take responsibility and can, at times, be perfectionistic. Those who score low tend to be less conscientious and may not always attend to the details required to continue to develop skill sets.

Of course, the relative importance of each of the above traits will differ depending on specific workplace contexts. However, the most successful athletes and the most successful business professionals are able to manage emotions, bounce back from failure, remain resolute and persistent in stressful situations, and take full ownership of performance goals to continuously improve their game or business. Being able to hire and develop candidates with the propensity for mental toughness will make a business team much more competitive in the field—as it does for professional sports teams on the field.

What This Means for the HR Professional

It’s up to the HR professional to take the initiative to understand the type of person who succeeds at his or her organization, because not all businesses require the same type of go-getters.
Nonetheless, a persistent, level-headed, resilient, or mentally tough professional—all other things being equal—will be the most successful. By truly understanding those competencies within an organization, HR professionals will be able to better understand how mental toughness can translate into business success.
So, mental toughness is important—but how do hiring professionals find people who possess it? They won’t have it scrawled across their résumés for everyone to see. Enter personality assessments.
By implementing a scientifically validated personality assessment that can measure the aforementioned traits and look at them in connection with an open position, one can make more informed hiring decisions around which candidates will make the grade. Furthermore, a company will also be able to develop those employees into top performers by truly understanding their areas of developmental opportunities by leveraging the strength they exhibit.
So, whether trying to predict success on the field or in the field, the personality dynamics of the performer really matter. We have found that athletes and jobseekers are more similar than we may have thought, and mental toughness may be what differentiates the good from the elite.

Tom Schoenfelder, Ph.D., is Principal Scientist and Head of Academic Research and Partnerships at Caliper.

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