Blog Recap: How Mental Toughness Differentiates NCAA Division 1 and Professional Athletes

Blog Recap: How Mental Toughness Differentiates NCAA Division 1 and Professional Athletes

We recently released a whitepaper on mental toughness and how it differentiates top NCAA Division 1 and professional athletes. If you’d like access to the full whitepaper, click here. Otherwise, we’ve got a short and sweet recap summary for you below.

To start, the chances of athletes making it to the “big leagues” is slim to none. In fact, a high school football player’s chances of playing Division 1 is only 2.7%, baseball is at 2.1%, men’s soccer is at 1.3%, and similarly 1.0% for basketball. Those numbers seem to dip even lower when it comes to athletes being drafted to a professional team. With numbers being so low, athletic ability can’t be the only factor that scouts are looking for. So what are the skills, traits, and other factors they are seeking?

Scouts historically have analyzed prospects’ athletic potential in such physical areas as “explosiveness” (vertical jump, lateral quickness, dribbling speed), shooting, blocking shots, and court versatility. Now, these are important to the success of the team but aren’t the only factors that they consider. Scouts are also looking for non-physical aspects of a player’s game like instincts, court awareness, work ethic, coachability, leadership, and other psychological factors believed to contribute to success. Scouts refer to these as “intangibles.”

Recently, intangibles, like mental toughness, have received quite a lot of attention from the scientific community, although they have struggled with conceptualizing it. There have been many studies that have worked on testing, proving, and providing a guide or outline of how to measure these non-physical aspects.

In 2012, Kaiseler, Polman, and Nicholls found that athletes higher in neuroticism (one of the Big Five higher-order personality traits in the study of psychology) reacted more intensely to on-the-field stress factors while showing signs of lower control over them. They also found that higher neuroticism was associated with greater avoidance when it came to coping with the stress factors, instead of problem-focused coping. Similarly, in 2013, Yeatts and Lochbaum found that temperament or disposition predicts the preferred coping strategy.

Back in 2002, Jones, Hanton, and Connaughton brought together 10 world-class athletes in a series of focus groups and interviews to define the nature of mental toughness.

By working with these athletes, they looked to define mental toughness and to better understand what unique abilities mental toughness can bring athletes. They came up with the following:

“Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sports places on a performer. And be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, confident, and in control under pressure.”

What we can take away from the study conducted by Jones, Hanton, and Connaughton is a better way of describing what mental toughness allows athletes to do rather than what the construct really is.

Now, we must look to test the theory that mental toughness is not a single trait, but instead a multidimensional construct that reflects a combination of the following personality traits:

  • Level-headedness
  • Stress tolerance
  • Resiliency/ Ego-strength
  • Energy/ Persistence
  • Self-structure
  • Thoroughness

These personality traits have been used extensively in assessing an individuals’ potential for success across a wide range of professional, academic, and athletic contexts. These traits have been proven to be related to performance measures such as shooting percentage, rebounds, turnovers, 3-point percentage, and more.

In our whitepaper, we start with a hypothesis stating that athletes with at least one year of professional experience will score higher than NCAA Division 1 athletes in mental toughness, as measured by a combination of level-headedness, stress-tolerance, resiliency/ego-strength, self-structure, and energy/persistence. We conducted our study with 2 samples, one being NCAA Division 1 athletes and the other professional athletes. We measured both groups of athletes against each other by analyzing their Caliper Profile personality assessment results.

Download the entire whitepaper to see how mental toughness differentiates top NCAA Division 1 and professional athletes.