The numbers don’t lie when it comes to mental toughness. Batting .333, scoring two goals in hockey, winning 6-3, 6-4 in tennis, shooting a 72 in golf, swimming a 21.26 in the 50-free and compiling a 9-7 record are all exact indications of athletic performance.
Numbers can even suggest a narrative. A 14.5-second split time, 14 made three-pointers, taking 21 shots on goal, serving 17 aces and taking 31 putts all convey some aspect of what happened in a competition. However, numbers don’t tell the whole story. For instance, PGA Tour Shot Tracker shows the exact distances, layouts of holes, statistics and shots of any player—but it can’t show the lie in a bunker, the wind speed, or whether a tree is blocking your shot.
Numbers offer one of the best ways to check our performance, but we must pay attention to the ones that matter. Numbers show if we are playing well under pressure. For example, Eli Manning had eight fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives during the 2011-12 season. Adam Vinatieri has made 20 game-winning field goals in his career. Pro golfer Luke Donald played 16 final rounds in 2011 and finished under par in 15 of them.
Mental toughness is playing consistently, especially when it matters the most. In reflecting on our play, we should ask: Are we consistent? Scott Wood of N.C. State broke the ACC free throw record by hitting 66 straight in 2012. Tiger Woods once made 142 consecutive cuts on the PGA Tour.
Obviously, success is measured differently in each sport, but look at the numbers that convey consistency—such as quality starts in baseball, number of shots on goal in hockey, number of greens hit in regulation in golf, and number of unforced errors in tennis. Then look at your numbers, identify weaknesses in your game and assess your mental toughness. Finally, implement mental toughness strategies in pressure situations to make yourself a more consistent athlete and play better when it counts the most.
Dr. Rob Bell is the owner of Dr. Rob Bell, LLC in Indianapolis, helping athletes, coaches, teams and parents build mental toughness. He is a certified sport psychology consultant with The Association of Applied Sport Psychology. He also works as a caddy on professional golf tours. His first book, Mental Toughness Training for Golf, was published in 2010. A prolific writer, Dr. Bell has been published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Journal of Athletic Insight, Journal of Sport Behavior and Encyclopedia of Sports. He writes extensively on the mental game—for, among others, Runner’s World, The New York Times and STACK magazine—and he has been a presenter for numerous teams, schools and organizations. Dr. Bell earned his B.A. in psychology from Shepherd University; his M.Ed. in kinesiology, with a specialty in sport psychology, from Temple University; and his Ph.D. in sport psychology from the University of Tennessee.