Background: There is growing interest in the research community into ‘mental toughness’ as a factor that contributes to successful performance in a variety of achievement settings (for a review, see Gucciardi & Gordon, in press). To date, most of this research has been conducted in the sporting domain and primarily characterises mental toughness in terms of the ability to handle pressure, remain focussed, and display high levels of belief, motivation, and resilience in stressful situations (e.g., Jones et al, 2002; 2007; Middleton et al, 2004). In recent years, there has also been a growing interest in the concept of mental toughness in military settings within Australia (Australian Department of Defence, 2007; Cohn & Pakenham, 2008; Mathieson, 2009) and overseas (Lopez, 2009; US Army, 2010). Despite growing recognition of its importance for military personnel, there have been no studies, to our knowledge, that have adequately addressed the conceptualisation of military mental toughness. The aim of this study was to address this gap in the literature and improve our understanding of mental toughness in this domain.
Theoretical Framework: Given the exploratory nature of the study, a grounded theory approach was employed in conjunction with the Revised Performance Profile technique (Butler, 1991; Gucciardi & Gordon, 2009) to explore participants’ conceptualisation of mental toughness (see Gucciardi, Gordon, & Dimmock, 2009). This technique stems from a personal construct psychology framework (Kelly, 1991) and asks participants to describe constructs in bipolar terms, thereby facilitating explanations in terms of what something is and what something is not. This is useful in applied settings as it allows relevant knowledge and behaviours associated with constructs to be identified and developed as part of education and training programs.
Method: Purposive and snowball sampling techniques were used to recruit participants. All participants were ADF personnel with many years of military experience. A semi-structured interview schedule (see Gucciardi & Gordon, 2009) was used to elicit participant’s explanations of the key characteristics of, and situations requiring, mental toughness. Each interview was audio recorded and transcribed verbatim, then independently analysed and member checked for completeness (see Sparkes, 1998 for a description).
Results: Bipolar constructs of mental toughness, in rank order of importance, as well as situations when these constructs are considered useful were generated. Preliminary findings indicate that military mental toughness is characterised along multiple dimensions, including: self-belief, positive attitude, handling pressure, possessing domain-specific knowledge, desire/motivation to succeed, physical fitness, and remaining task-focussed. Additional findings will be presented, including those situations in which mental toughness is considered important.
Conclusion: The findings compare favourably with previous studies into mental toughness in the sport domain; however, there were some unique aspects of military mental toughness suggesting it may be context-dependent. It is our aspiration that the findings will provide the basis for (1) defining military mental toughness, (2) developing military mental toughness training programs for ADF personnel, and (3) developing a measure of mental toughness for military application. Overall, we believe this research has great potential to contribute to defence capability by increasing the workplace performance, retention rates, and the general wellbeing of military personnel.