Exploring sport coaching and psychology
Exploring sport coaching and psychology

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Exploring sport coaching and psychology

5 Sports psychologists explain their work

You have explored learning, feedback and those who experience failure, but what about something you so often hear in commentary and observations about those competing in sport: what are the qualities of ‘resilient’ or ‘mentally tough’ sportspeople?

In the next two activities, you hear from two leading sports psychologists who articulate what these terms, or their own versions of them, mean.

Activity 2 What is this thing called mental toughness?

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

This activity (which takes its name from Jones’ 2002 article on mental toughness) introduces you to sports psychologist Peter Clough, who explains why ‘mental toughness’ is important for school children to master for their general development. Listen to this interview between a BBC interviewer and Peter Clough, and respond to the two questions below.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Peter Clough on toughness
Skip transcript: Peter Clough on toughness

Transcript: Peter Clough on toughness

Liz Barclay:
Now, children have to be tough to succeed, according to Dr Peter Clough, Head of Psychology at the University of Hull. He’s developed a system to teach schoolchildren to be mentally robust, less likely to regard themselves as victims of bullying and to cope with initial failure. He says students with higher levels of mental toughness perform better in exams. Dr Clough, you say your interest in mental toughness stems from working with professional athletes, Nadal and Federer. Are they the ideal examples?
Dr Peter Clough:
I mean, they’re ideal in mental toughness. They’ve also got a lot of talent. Many of us are not blessed with the same levels of talent, but what brings it all together, what I’m interested in is working in high pressure environments, and being a schoolchild nowadays is a high pressure environment.
Liz Barclay:
What exactly do you mean by mental toughness?
Dr Peter Clough:
I think that’s what we’ve achieved at Hull. It’s often mentioned, it’s often mentioned in radio and in interviews, we’ve operationalised it, so mental toughness is the ability to perform at your maximum in hostile environments. You can split it down a little bit more to say, but you see challenge as an opportunity, high levels of commitment, you control the things you can control and you have higher levels of confidence.
Liz Barclay:
So what can learning mental toughness achieve? Are you saying that low ability can be made up for with drive?
Dr Peter Clough
I think to some extent, and I think most listeners would recognise that’s a way forward. But I think on the other side of the coin high ability can be lost on the basis of lacking mental toughness. So what learning mental toughness allows you to do is learn. You need to be put in a situation to fail to move forward in my view. My job then is simply to allow people to learn from their mistakes and be willing to challenge themselves.
Liz Barclay:
So how do you measure the effectiveness of your theory?
Dr Peter Clough:
Well I think it’s a key question, because, you know, it does sound like a bit of a dinosaur theory sometimes, you know, it seems like an old-fashioned approach and perhaps it is. We have a questionnaire developed with my colleagues in AQR, and we can measure mental toughness, that’s a starting point. But more than that, when we actually give people these mental toughening interventions, at the end we measure their mental toughness again. Well obviously, they’re going to say they’re more mentally tough because they’ve been on a mental toughness course. We also look at their psychological, psychophysiological reactions to stress, and we’ve got clear evidence that they can deal with pressure more effectively.
Liz Barclay:
To practically, at a practical level what does a mental toughness course consist of?
Dr Peter Clough:
It’s… it started off life, because I’m a Sports Psychologist and an Occupational Psychologist, it started off life, yeah looking at things like the tall ships race, sending old people ice climbing, a whole range of, you know, what you’d expect. We’ve then developed a classroom version, which obviously most people aren’t interested in outdoor activity, and what it involves, the first, the starting point is getting people to set clear realistic goals. And that is a real issue, you know, with the X-Factor culture we now have, people setting realistic goals based on their talent is the starting point and it’s the crux. Once you get past that, we have an issue then where we can deal with what goes on between people’s ears.
Liz Barclay:
You’re saying that this may be seen as an old fashioned approach. Are you saying it should be out with the sensitive, caring, sharing approach altogether, no more prizes for all happiness lessons and talking therapies?
Dr Peter Clough:
I don’t, it’s never black and white or clear. I am certainly more of the end where, in my view, my research, what we find is happiness isn’t a precursor to successful education, unhappiness certainly stops it, but education’s not about happiness per se, it’s about challenge. So you’re rewarding children. I’ve got a seven-year-old, Emily, who, yeah, is the pride of my heart, and if she’s in a situation where she fails things obviously I feel bad as a parent. However, without that failing experience, without the ability to fail, I think even seven and eight-year-olds are sophisticated now, and they twig that they’re going to get a certificate no matter what they do. So it loses its power.
Liz Barclay:
You expect teachers and parents to be part of this developing mental toughness. But how positively is your theory being received in those circles?
Dr Peter Clough:
I think it’s been received more positively than I thought. It is a positive. If I claim is the answer to everything, obviously people react negatively against it, and absolutely as a Psychologist there is no clear answer to everything, but I think people do see the point, that it’s a tough world. We then get into the debate, do we make it less stressful, or do we allow people to deal with stress more effectively, and I’m of that latter group, that we’re not going to make the world less stressful. It is stressful. When you go into the world of university, when you go into the world of work it gets even more stressful. My job is, therefore, to allow people to prosper in that environment.
Liz Barclay:
Dr Peter Clough. Thank you.
End transcript: Peter Clough on toughness
Peter Clough on toughness
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
  1. What are the characteristics of Peter Clough’s version of mental toughness?
  2. What steps does he describe for enhancing mental toughness?


  1. Peter Clough talks about people coping in pressurised environments, describing people as
    • not being fazed by challenges

    • having control of the things they can control

    • controlling levels of confidence/commitment

    • learning from mistakes

    He describes how high potential or ability cannot be realised when mental toughness is lacking.
  2. He explains the importance of having clear and realistic goals and setting expectations based on a person’s potential. He also outlines the importance of regulating emotion i.e. not letting feelings distract from what you are doing. In addition, the ability to deal with heightened emotions from anxiety and stress is mentioned. In each case, it is not entirely clear how these ideas are put into practice to enhance mental toughness, but some guidance is provided about goal setting and exposing people to challenges.

Next, you will hear from another sports psychologist, Dave Collins, who talks about the ideas that come from his research: he calls them the Psychological Characteristics for Developing Excellence (PCDE)

Activity 3 Negotiating challenges on the rocky road

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Listen to the following interview with Dave Collins, one of the key authors of the PCDE research.

  1. Dave Collins talks about psychological characteristics. What characteristic of sporting development does he focus on?
  2. What is the connection to snow ploughing and his reference to super champs (champions) and champs in the second half of the clip?
Download this audio clip.Audio player: Dave Collins on PCDE research
Skip transcript: Dave Collins on PCDE research

Transcript: Dave Collins on PCDE research

Dave Collins
The thrust of our work I should say first has been mostly in the teaching of skills, the teaching, testing and developing of skills in young athletes. We developed a set of criteria, which draws heavily on the work of Terry Orlick that we call the PCDEs – the psychological characteristics of developing excellence. And that was really where we sort of came in sort of the mid-nineties in terms of saying ‘This is what someone needs to get them to the top’.
As we then started to extend that into looking at the Talent Development Environment or the TDE. We spotted that a lot of the talent systems, especially in the UK and elsewhere where there were lots of resources, were focused very much what might call a professional setting whereby you removed all the challenges – I think you guys might refer to that as snow ploughing – snow plough clearance certainly - remove all the challenges from the path of the young, developing athlete enabling her or him to focus on – on the challenge of the sport. And what we actually recognised was that that seemed to be a pretty counter productive approach so we came back with this idea which we published in sort of the late twenties that looked at The Rocky Road to Success. For a catchy title we went for ‘Why Talent Needs Trauma’. And since then that’s been a big thrust of our research, If you're a super champ and I'm a champ we might both encounter some challenges around say the growth spurt around thirteen/fourteen. It’s how well I cope with them but more importantly how well I learn from that and enhance my skills and my competence that I take into the next challenge. Does that make sense? So it’s not the incidence of challenge, it’s what I get out of it, what I learn from it and therefore what I bring to the next challenge because of course any pathway is a series of challenges that is the distinguishing characteristic, the biggest distinguishing characteristic between the super champs and the champs.
End transcript: Dave Collins on PCDE research
Dave Collins on PCDE research
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


  1. He focuses on the degree of challenge that a person faces in their training environment and their response to it – in fact he mentions ‘challenge’ eight times and also refers to this development journey as ‘the rocky road to success’ (part of the title of one of his team’s research papers).
  2. He makes reference to snow ploughing as a removal or obstacles and challenge in peoples development paths often being counterproductive. Dave Collins goes on to describe his most recent work comparing super champs and champs and how they cope with adversity; more importantly learning from challenge to enhance their skills and therefore take this into the next challenge. He suggests in his final comment that this is the biggest distinguishing characteristic between super champs and champs. It is not stated in the interview clip but a super champ is one who has 50+ national appearances in team sport or 5 or more world/Olympic medals.

Next, you will go on to explore psychological characteristics in more detail beyond responding to challenges.


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