Professor Peter Clough - Development Mental Toughness book

“…you can’t make somebody taller, but you can give them a step ladder…”

THE new Head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Huddersfield is a professor who has gained global recognition for his development of the concept of mental toughness (MT), how it be measured and how it can be harnessed.

Peter Clough is writer and co-writer of almost 50 articles and books on the subject, including 2002’s ground-breaking Developing Mental Toughness, a big-seller acknowledged as the definitive guide.

He has developed the world’s first psychometric measure of mental toughness, named MTQ48, available online in more than 12 languages, including Chinese, and has identified what he calls the 4Cs – Control, Commitment, Challenge and Confidence – as the key traits of someone who is mentally tough.

Professor Clough’s work has helped ensure that the UK is the world leader in MT research and he is involved with a programme involving 10,000 secondary school pupils, aiming to appraise their mental toughness and help them develop self-confidence and ability to set goals for themselves.

“You can’t make somebody taller, but you can give them a step ladder,” he says, adding that students who can develop MT attributes have been shown to cope with short-term pressure and achieve better results.

Students will benefit too

“We are an applied psychology department,” said Professor Clough.  “We hope to measure all our students and develop their mental toughness.  If it helps them get a better degree and better employment, why wouldn’t we?”

His research and publications examine the role of MT in all aspects of life, but Professor Clough acknowledges that it is in sport that the concept is most frequently invoked.  “If you listen to Radio 5 Live you can guarantee that mental toughness is mentioned every few seconds, but is never defined,” he says.

It was sport that helped to draw him into the subject.  Leeds-born, he had a youthful stint as a professional rugby league player with the Bramley club, before concentrating on psychology studies that led to a prolific research career based at various universities and in association with the international training and development company AQR.

Sports don’t come much physically tougher than rugby league, but among the insights gained by the young Peter Clough was that mental toughness is a separate issue.

“People who play sports such as rugby quite like the physical stuff, but that it doesn’t make you any tougher mentally.  Doing what you like doing is never being tough, it just looks tough.  Being outside your comfort zone is what mental toughness is all about.

“Sometimes a quiet everyday grind is what’s tough – turning up for work every day or bringing up your children.” 

Professor Clough rejects concepts of mental weakness.  The opposite of mental toughness is sensitivity, he says.

“Being a sensitive soul makes life more difficult for you, but it’s not a weakness or a personality flaw.  You are normally on the creative end, and your highs are high and your lows are low, while the mentally tough person just grinds it out.”

Adolescents and mental toughness

Professor Clough also has a musical background and this helps to fuel another area of MT-related interest.

“I am fascinated by how people in the performing arts survive, because they are sensitive people when you measure them, but their audition processes are vicious!”

In addition to his practical engagement with mental toughness, Professor Clough also ensures that there is a steady flow of academic research and literature on the topic.  Recent co-authored articles include a contribution to the Journal of Sports Sciences that explores how vigorous physical activity is associated with restoring sleep, psychological functioning, mental toughness and male gender.

An article in Frontiers in Psychology is the result of work with Swiss and German collaborators.  Its aim was to discover if attributes such as higher prosocial behaviour and lower negative peer relationships at the age of five could predict higher levels of mental toughness and lower sleep disturbance in adolescence. 

To carry out the research, 77 children were assessed at the age of five and then again at the age of 14 and the results indeed show that MT traits in teenagers could have their origins in the pre-school years.