The importance of teaching students mental toughness

Tim Prendergast

Tim Prendergast is a paralympic gold medallist and uses his inspirational sporting journey to inspire others as an Athlete Mentor for Sky Sports Living for Sport, a free secondary school initiative delivered in partnership with the Youth Sport Trust. This December, Tim is fronting a campaign for Sky Sports Living for Sport to show students how they can harness mental toughness and refuse to let disability or disadvantages in life hold them back.

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The ability to respond and adapt efficiently when under pressure is a skill that can make a huge difference to the future of secondary school students. Whether it’s having the strength to say no to a situation they are not comfortable with, the confidence to talk in front of a large group, or the aptitude to come through a difficult day smiling – mental toughness is key.

It was a skill which I was forced to learn at a young age when, aged just eight, I discovered that I was losing my sight. My initial reaction was a complete loss of heart and I felt my future dreams had been shattered but taking up running gave me a whole new identity. I quickly progressed from the back of the pack to the one leading from the front and that changed my entire attitude towards myself and my disability. I stopped pigeon-holing myself as the only blind kid at school and, drawing on my own courage and resiliency, made the positive decision to focus on my future career as an athlete.

I may now be a professional athlete but there are still plenty of occasions when I have to be psychologically strong, from forcing myself to get up and out to training at 5:30am on a cold, wet, winters day, to competing in front of 80,000 people at an athletics competition. The students I work with on behalf of the Youth Sport Trust each have their own challenges to face and I feel it is vitally important to ensure they are equipped to cope with school and life in an increasingly fast moving world.

When I am in schools running sessions with students, I discuss what nerves are like, the sensation of getting butterflies, moments of self doubt and all the feelings that the students may have but perhaps don’t realise are common to us all. I talk about how I get nervous before I race, before I speak in front of large groups and when I am trying something challenging for the first time. I also share how I have learned that nerves are good. They are my body’s way of telling me ‘this is important’ and ‘I am ready for the situation ahead’. I make sure nerves are a natural part of my preparations and I work with them, rather than letting them work against me.

A group of secondary school students may appear full of bravado and brimming with confidence on the surface, but underneath it is important to remember that everyone has their weaker spots. Encouraging students to react positively to their fears or moments of self doubt and learn how to overcome them, is one of the greatest gifts a teacher can impart.

Teaching students valuable life skills through practical activities works extremely well. I lead students in games where they can rehearse and test how mentally tough they are without the pressure of being in a real life situation. A good example of this is to run a series of target practice games when students shoot or throw something into a target under controlled conditions before repeating the same task in front of a group of cheering classmates. It’s incredible the difference that having the support of fellow students can bring to their final scores.

My biggest piece of advice to teachers in helping students learn how best to react under pressure is to be open and share their own experience of nerves, lacking confidence and pulling through to a positive resolution. I am very open with students about how my life changed when I lost my sight and both my negative and positive responses to that situation. I’m proud to now hold a Paralymic gold medal and hope sharing my story shows the students I meet that we all face challenges, changes and crossroads in our lives. Nothing is insurmountable and I believe strongly that by being strong and choosing to react positively to whatever comes our way, we can all become winners in life.

For myself, resilience comes from within - the Gold or the Black Box. I talk to students about putting away unhelpful past experiences like losing races, not being picked for a team, bad grades and getting into trouble in a Black Box inside their brains. In my running career I am at my best when I concentrate on the potential and opportunities that lay ahead in my Gold Box which is the future. I encourage students to adapt the same strategy, locking negative past experiences away in their Black Boxes and focussing on putting future goals that they can work towards in their own Gold Boxes.

By being positive, staying focused and drawing on their inner strengths, today’s students will be equipped with some of the main building blocks to success in life. I can’t promise every student isn’t going to face some hurdles along the way, but by knowing how to react positively to adverse situations, they can push through problems and ensure they have the right mentality to achieve whatever they set their minds to.

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