Throughout history, society has admired and celebrated sport. Whether it’s playing as a high school athlete, watching your child succeed on the field, or rooting for your favorite team, there is an inherent excitement – and even nostalgia – associated with playing, coaching, and watching athletes excel.
For those with the physical talent, the allure of playing at the highest level of one’s sport can be intoxicating. It is also very unlikely to happen. To put that into perspective, a high school ice hockey player has a 4.8% chance of going on to play in the NCAA D1. In 2018, only 6.9% of all college hockey players were drafted by the NHL. While these low percentages may be discouraging to all but the most elite high school hockey players, the truth is that these actually represent just about the best chance across all of the major sports.
Caliper has studied professional and Division 1 athletes for decades and, within that time, has analyzed the personality traits and behaviors that support the athletic success of approximately 850 individuals playing at the professional level and 1,000 playing in Division 1. Out of that data, emerged a framework that serves as a core success indicator — that framework is mental toughness.
What is mental toughness?
Mental toughness is defined as the psychological edge enabling one to cope better than opponents with the many demands (competition, training, and lifestyle) that sport places on a performer and, specifically, be more consistent and better than opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.
While the term mental toughness has been used extensively by coaches, scouts, players, commentators, and fans for years, the definition has remained relatively vague. Contemplating how the “intangibles” are causally related to on-the-field performance is its own pastime and woven into the culture of sports at all levels.
So while considering the importance of mental toughness is not new, what is interesting is that the traits that make up mental toughness and predict athletic success are some of the same traits we see in the most successful sales professionals. Understanding the role that mental toughness plays in one’s ability to navigate challenges, push through and win, and being able to drill that down into competencies and behaviors, should influence the way that sales talent is recruited, selected and coached to effectively compete in an ever changing environment.
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What goes into mental toughness?
Based on the research conducted, we have been able to break apart mental toughness into 6 inherent personality traits:
Level-headedness – A measure of emotional expressivity, this trait relates to the tendency to effectively manage the expression of one’s emotions. Individuals who manifest higher levels tend to remain composed in a variety of stress-inducing situations. Those who score lower tend to react more emotionally.
Stress tolerance – A measure of the capacity to remain unworried about possible negative consequences, those showing high scores may remain unconcerned when faced with events beyond their control. People displaying low scores tend to focus on what might go wrong or potential negative consequences before moving to action.
Resiliency/ego-strength – A measure of one’s capacity to handle setbacks, criticism, and rejection. High scores indicate that one is less negatively impacted by failure and setbacks. Those who score low tend to internalize failure, criticism, and rejection, and often have trouble bouncing back and re-establishing self-confidence.
Energy/persistence – A measure of one’s potential to sustain a high level of activity over extended periods. High scores relate to being active and persistent in overcoming obstacles. Those with lower scores tend to be less energetic with respect to tasks and may not always persist when necessary to achieve a goal.
Self-structure – A measure of one’s preference for independently determining work methods. A high score indicates the motivation to work independently. A low score indicates one is unlikely to define one’s own work habits and methods.
Thoroughness – A measure of one’s tendency to be concerned with details and to take full ownership of tasks, jobs, and roles. Those that score high tend to take responsibility and can, at times, be perfectionistic. Those who score low tend to be a bit less conscientious and may not always attend to the details required to continue to develop skill sets.
With regard to sports, these personality traits have been used extensively in assessing individuals’ potential for success across a wide range of professional, academic, and athletic contexts. When the traits of a successful athlete are laid over a validated sales job model, the chances of success are almost completely aligned.
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It makes absolute sense that top-performing salespeople are able to handle stressful situations and bounce back from setbacks. They’re able to independently determine their workday and how they will follow-up with their clients, and they are able to maintain their composure during competitive proposal cycles and unpredictable sales situations. Top-performing sales people are not inherently detail-focused but take responsibility for their work and know the steps they need to take to get to a sales win.
Ultimately, those scoring well on the facet of mental toughness in sports have a greater likelihood of being successful in sales.
Applying mental toughness to your talent pool
Translating the mental toughness research into action takes a blend of both art and science. First it is important to build organizational awareness around why mental toughness is important, not just within the sales realm, but throughout the entire organization.
Awareness, of course, is only the first step. Shaping and managing a mental toughness culture through targeted selection and development creates an environment in which employees are more likely to be resilient, effectively manage stress, maintain constructive emotionality, and persist through challenges. Selecting the right talent is, of course, one of the most important aspects of building a mental toughness culture, as it is far easier to shape people who are hired in with innately tough personality attributes then it is to build new habits in those who may not necessarily have the natural proclivity.
Cultivating mental toughness
In addition to new hires, it is also important to understand mental toughness strengths and gaps in existing employees. Quantifying the degree of organizational mental toughness through individual and aggregate analyses and composite indices allows companies to establish and tailor developmental journeys that focus on the aspects of mental toughness on which development can have the greatest impact.
Cultivating mental toughness traits does not happen through a typical sales training workshop, but creating a longer-term campaign to address mental toughness will serve to increase the efficacy of those traditional, training investments. By targeting the innate, personality-driven attributes of salespeople it is possible to reduce significant barriers to success, which up to now have likely been overlooked. It is also important to skill sales managers in the areas of providing strong, structural guidance (self-structure) to enable sales performance, the goal would be to introduce and reinforce this concept through ongoing, sales coaching.
Over the last 20 years or so, while other researchers and thought leaders have touted the importance of grit and mental toughness, the output has largely remained theoretically and motivational, lacking the substance to actually operationalize.
However with this mental toughness construct, organizations can leverage the same insights that professional sports teams have been using to draft top athletic prospects and use it to select and develop mentally tough talent that dominates within the competitive marketplace.