17 June 2016

The Fallacy of Mental Toughness: Why the Brain Always Wins

Daniel Gallan

Go and Google “mental toughness quotes”. What you’ll find is scores of one liners from some of the greatest athletes, coaches and world leaders including Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Vince Lombardi and even Donald Trump. What you’ll find is a host of history makers who believe that the abstract concept of mental toughness plays a major role in success. If you ask Dr John Sullivan, a psychologist with experience in many leading teams around the world, what you’ll find are history makers with no idea what they’re talking about. In his recently published book, Why the Brain Always Wins, Sullivan debunks mental myths and shows why coaches and athletes have it all wrong. CONQA Sport explores and challenges this theory.

Have mental conditioning experts been barking up the wrong tree in their search for the hidden potential in athletes and coaches? Could the secret be hiding in plain sight, literally in our own heads? John Sullivan certainly thinks so. Imahe supplied

Have mental conditioning experts been barking up the wrong tree in their search for the hidden potential in athletes and coaches? Could the secret be hiding in plain sight, literally in our own heads? John Sullivan certainly thinks so. Imahe supplied

In competitive sport you need both brains and brawn, and few combine the two like chessboxing. Athletes compete in alternative rounds of chess and boxing, combining one of the oldest, most brutal combat sports, with one of the most cognitively challenging sports, creating a hybrid like no other.

Bouts are won by knockouts, checkmate, judges’ decision or if the opponent exceeds the nine minutes allotted to the chess game.

Chessboxing began in 2003 when Dutch-born Iepe Rubingh, inspired by Enki Bilal’s dystopian graphic novel, Froid Équateur (1992), brought the concept to life. The first world championships were held the same year in Amsterdam in cooperation with both the Dutch Chess federation and the Dutch Boxing Association.

Rubingh won the inaugural belt after his countryman and fellow middleweight fighter, Jean Louis Veenstra, exceeded his chess time limit in the 11th round. Today, the sport has 4 weight divisions for both men and women, attracts fighters and audiences from around the world and is governed by a professional federation – The World Chess Boxing Organisation (WCBO).

The WCBO’s motto, ‘mens sana in corpore sano’ ­­ (a healthy mind in a healthy body) could also be the takeaway philosophy from The Brain Always Wins (2016), the recently published book by Dr John Sullivan and Chris Parker.

Supported by rigorous scientific research, this book asserts a simple but profound argument: “Our brain is the ultimate controller of all we do. Our brain determines the quality of performance in every aspect of our lives.”

No arguments here, but the idea that Sullivan put forward in the interview for this article really does strike a chord.

Sullivan, a sport psychologist and scientist with experience in the NFL, English Premier League, the US military and a host of other prominent sports teams, businesses and leadership think-tanks, wishes to change the language we use when speaking about the mental state of athletes.

Firstly, according to Sullivan, there is a firm difference between the brain and the mind and one should not use the two terms interchangeably. He says, “The mind, quite simply, is what you or I are focussed on in that moment. The brain works in the background.”

What he means is that the brain works independently from our conscious thought. Swallowing, breathing, regulating blood flow; the brain has us covered. Sullivan points out that “the brain is the most sophisticated survival system in the known universe” and deserves more attention than it gets.

If athletes, coaches and managers focussed on the physical brain and brain health, instead of the abstract concept of the mind and the subjectivity around mental health, performances would greatly improve.

Germany's Frank Stoldt (R) delivers a punch to David Depto from the U.S. during the first chess boxing light heavyweight world championship fight in Berlin November 3, 2007. Stoldt won the competition that consists of up to 11 alternating rounds of boxing and 'blitz' chess sessions. Image supplied by Action Images / Tobias Schwarz. 

Germany's Frank Stoldt (R) delivers a punch to David Depto from the U.S. during the first chess boxing light heavyweight world championship fight in Berlin November 3, 2007. Stoldt won the competition that consists of up to 11 alternating rounds of boxing and 'blitz' chess sessions. Image supplied by Action Images / Tobias Schwarz. 

According to Sullivan, words like ‘grit’, ‘toughness’ and ‘character’, which are often used to describe the mental state of an athlete, need doing away with. “They’re completely subjective and research indicates that they don’t correlate with performance,” he says.

This theory is akin to the one postulated in Moneyball (2003), the famous novel chronicling the Oakland A’s remarkable 2002 MLB season, which states that a player’s worth should be determined by measurable variables that are empirically supported, and not by opinion or longstanding beliefs. As Sullivan simply puts it, “Mental toughness is an illusion.”

So where does this leave the mental health industry in sport? If Sullivan’s theory is right, many mental conditioning experts and gurus will find themselves out of a job.

A clinical psychologist himself, Sullivan reassures anyone potentially questioning their profession by stating that his philosophy is not in conflict with psychology or understanding a player’s motivations, behaviours or childhood conditioning. He is arguing that the process of creating resiliency and readiness (both of which can be physiologically measured on the central nervous system) needs to start with the brain as it is the foundation of everything we do and feel.

This is achieved by establishing adequate brain health. Sleep, nutrition, rest, recovery, exercise; there are many ways of achieving good brain health and all are important building blocks. It’s not to say that mental conditioning experts and coaches are not helping athletes achieve sufficient brain health, but rather that because they are starting the process with the mind and not the brain, the results are happenstance. Think of a football team who continues to score touchdowns without acknowledging the importance of their quarterback.

Sullivan admits that he is not reinventing the wheel with his book, and references how scientists in a variety of fields support the “brain first” model. Why he wrote the book, he says, is because science has failed to adequately convey its findings to a broader audience. “That is why we still use terms like muscle memory – as if muscles can have memory. I’m standing on the shoulders of many people who have come before me. They have just stayed in their lanes. I’m trying to reach out to the world.”

This lack of understanding from the general public starts at an early age and permeates through high school, on to college, and into the locker rooms and general managers’ offices of elite sports teams. Generally speaking, unless an individual has actively sought to learn more about the brain, the perception that it is a mysterious black box remains.

Sullivan is adamant that through education, long-held beliefs and myths in sport can be relegated to the scrap heap. After all, football teams in England once trained without a ball in the hope that, come match day, the players would be hungry for it and therefore not give up possession easily. The competitive nature of sport demands progress, and while some (particularly mental conditioning coaches) may criticise Sullivan, he is certainly looking to turn the wheel and usher in a new era with a new approach.

Take the concept of instincts as an example and Lionel Messi as a case study. When the diminutive genius slaloms through defenders with the grace and ease of a monorail on tracks, many assume that he is tapping into the mythical “zone” – the Valhalla of the sports world where only the very best gain access. Athletes and coaches in all sports speak of entering the “zone” and the rest of us take it for granted that such a place exists.

In a previous article, we spoke of Darren McFadden’s 40 yard dash at the 2008 NFL combine. Now with the Dallas Cowboys as a running back, McFadden crossed the line in a lightning quick 4.27 seconds. He phoned his coach elated, but admitted he had no recollection of physically running. That his consciousness took a back seat and things happened automatically.  

Once again, Sullivan pours cold water on any romantic notions this story may conjure up. “It is not subcortical and he did not enter any type of “zone””, he says. “To run, you’re using the somatosensory cortex. It is cortical. What is happening here, and with any athlete who mistakenly thinks they’ve entered a higher state of consciousness, is that he has become so efficient at the brain level because of his emotional management. High efficiency, with the least amount of energy to enter a state of equilibrium of brain and mind. His consciousness, where overthinking takes place, took a back seat and allowed his brain to take over. Without supreme brain health (achieved by proper nutrition, recovery, etc), he would not have been able to get there.”

Gut instincts are trainable. Entering the “zone” should not be seen as something that happens accidentally. Since this state is entered through a neuro-physiological process, and not through a series of subjective interpretations of abstract events, it can be replicated and improved.

Like any physiological trait, this variable is bracketed and human variation dictates that not everyone can imitate Messi in this regard. But that doesn’t mean that a coach or athlete should assume that they can’t.

The Brain Always Wins, the recently published book from Dr John Sullivan and Chris Paker, seeks to educate, inform, and hopefully, debunk some long held misconceptions about the brain and the mind. Image supplied. 

The Brain Always Wins, the recently published book from Dr John Sullivan and Chris Paker, seeks to educate, inform, and hopefully, debunk some long held misconceptions about the brain and the mind. Image supplied. 

Sports practitioners like to explain things as simply as they can. If Sullivan is right, we are entering into a world where subjectivity and chance can be explained with scientific data. We can train variables that we assumed were simply gifts bestowed upon the few. So why (as Sullivan assures me) if the military has known this for years, is sport so slow to catch on?

“It’s a cultural thing,” Sullivan says with an exacerbated laugh. “There is no way in. Sport is very traditional and changing things takes time. Many coaches in the NFL are still reluctant to embrace psychology and mental conditioning. Many in sport are reluctant to embrace sport science and sport psychology, trusting only what their eyes can see." 

Sullivan does point out that this reluctance to change is not malicious; it’s simply the result of the steadfast nature of sport where authority and hierarchy are respected. It is also convenient. While adapters are common, and innovation more often than not leads to success, tradition is a hard thing to break – “what worked for me will work for you” says the experienced coach to his understudies. It could also be a reluctance to change on the part of the mental gurus and conditioning experts who may find their methods outdated.

More than anything, however, Sullivan believes that it comes down the terminology used when describing these concepts. “Language is key. Illusions and myths are allowed to persist because we don’t challenge them and keep calling them by the wrong name,” he says. “Without the proper nomenclature nothing will change. We will continue to see sleep problems, nutrition problems and mental problems but they won’t get fixed. It’s physiology. What I’m proposing is bringing it back to the basics. The brain has to be the start point. Fixing the mind without addressing the brain is just not possible and those mental experts could be doing more harm than good.”

We’ve spoken about concepts like form, pressure, choking, psychology, motivation and self-esteem, and have made assured arguments for them supported by some of the most respected figures in world sport. To simply throw these terms away is not helpful. What needs to be done is incorporate these concepts with a top-down model that begins with the brain and its health, and then move on to the mind.

Experience should never be discounted, and handling an in-game situation is not something that can be replicated in practice. Sullivan’s book should not be seen as a replacement for sports psychology and mental conditioning, but rather as another tool that helps further the industry and dilutes the subjectivity that makes elite sport so unpredictable. 

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town from 5 - 7 October 2016.

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