The following was produced in partnership with Chevrolet’s GoalKeepers Project. The Chevrolet GoalKeepers Project demonstrates the possibilities that sports can provide for girls worldwide. Inspire girls to #BeAGoalKeeper with these tips from Fatherly.
The definition of mental toughness varies among researchers and academics, but we all know it when we see it on the soccer field. It’s the kid who bounces back faster from disappointment, who takes constructive criticism well, and who can pick herself up and dust herself off no matter how hard she falls. What doesn’t vary among researchers is the fact that possessing mental toughness is a predicator of success in not only sports, but also in school and at work. And it’s something that can be trained. “All of us, with proper knowledge, investment, feedback, and systematic training can become mentally tougher,” says Colleen M. Hacker, Ph.D., a mental skills coach and performance psychology specialist.
Unfortunately, mental toughness is something that we’re better at teaching our boys than our girls. “The only time people experience mental toughness is in difficulty, adversity, or setback,” says Hacker, who is also co-author of Catch Them Being Good: Everything You Need to Know to Successfully Coach Girls.. “Research shows we treat sons and daughters differently in that regard, and advantage our sons [in amassing mental toughness] as a result.”
The first step, then, to stoking your daughter’s mental toughness may be to change your perception — to view her disappointments on (and off) the field as an opportunity. “A kid who is getting good grades and winning all the games and doing all her chores and getting along with all her friends doesn’t require mental toughness,” says Hacker. Building mental toughness begins with the opportunity to flex that muscle, so to speak.
Once you’ve identified an opportunity, what Hacker calls a Mental Toughness Moment, it’s important to understand that your child is most likely going to have an emotional reaction to the situation, and that’s okay. “There’s a universal reaction to difficulty, to adversity,” says Hacker. “No one likes it. No one likes to lose.” The problem is that an emotional reaction doesn’t offer insightful information, or hints for positive action. So, Hacker coaches her athletes to move quickly past the emotional-oriented thinking of This doesn’t feel good, to the task-oriented thinking of Okay, what’s my response going to be?
Hacker uses three P’s to help gauge an appropriate response: Is this productive, purposeful, and in keeping with the present moment? If your daughter responds to losing the game by saying “I’m terrible, we always lose,” you can help reframe it by ticking off the three P’s. Her statement is neither productive nor purposeful. Nor does it stick to the present tense (it’s projecting the current state of loss to all future games). Instead, ask her to name three things she did well that game, and then three things she can work on. “It’s a process that moves people, mentally, from the initial knee-jerk reaction to being in control again,” says Hacker.
The best news: practicing mental toughness is like working out your muscles — it gets stronger with use and weaker with inactivity. As Hacker puts it: apply the skill, observe, learn, grow, rinse, repeat. For children, the most detrimental thing a parent can do is to not allow kids to apply the skill in the first place, to swoop in during what should be a Mental Toughness moment and “fix it” for the child. Hacker says to let kids have that moment. The mental toughness development potential far outweighs their temporary disappointment (and the tug on dad’s heartstrings). “Being able to handle failure, and rise from the ashes, is a critical life skill that none of us will ever outgrow.”