Mental Toughness Key Dimension #6

by Andreas Stamatis, Ph.D.


  • Context knowledge and success mindset are related but separate.
  • Context knowledge = “the will” + “the ways”
  • “The ways” (perceived paths to reach goals) are highly related to context knowledge.
  • “Wise” people are striving to be aware of the environment in which they need to apply their knowledge.
  • Superior performance intelligence is about helping athletes getting to the top but also stay there.

Context knowledge is defined as an awareness and understanding of the performance context and how to apply this knowledge in achieving success or reaching one’s goals. In this piece, we will try to explain why taking context into consideration is crucial in terms of mental toughness and, ultimately, performance in sport. In order to do that, we will use three supporting theories:
a) The Hope Theory,
b) The Balance Theory of Wisdom, and
c) Superior Performance Intelligence.

1. “The ways”

“The ways” (aka pathways) is about planning on how to achieve goals. High-hoped people exhibit more pathways, sustain pathway behaviors, and pick more challenging pathways (without necessarily perceiving them as more challenging!) than low-hoped people.

For example, a high-hope athlete who wants to make the starting lineup will a) try to hit the gym even at night, b) practice more than their teammates on their technique, c) identify a variety of ways to attack nutrition (e.g., have meal prep days in the weekends, establish sip protocols for optimal hydration), psychology (e.g., read a book on how their favorite player deals with pre-game anxiety), recovery (e.g. ice-baths and self-myofascial release on days after games) and d) keep trying to plan alternative courses of action to achieve that goal, even when obstacles appear (e.g., a minor injury, a stressful week at home, forgot their pre-game meal).

But what are you? Let’s make a quick assessment and see.


  • Can you think of many ways to get out of a jam?
  • Do you think there are lots of ways around any problem?
  • Can you think of many ways to get the things in life that are most important to you?
  • Do you think that, even when others get discouraged, you know you can find a way to solve the problem?

If your answer was YES to all the questions above, congratulations! You’re a high-hope (in terms of “the ways”) individual. In other words, you think highly of your ability to generate ways to overcome obstacles and achieve your goals.

2. The Balance Theory of Wisdom

Throughout time, we, humans, have tried to understand wisdom through several theories:

  • philosophical (e.g., the Aristotelian approach, Christian and other religions),
  • implicit (people’s perception of what wisdom is, whether those beliefs are right or wrong), and
  • explicit (made by experts, mainly drawing from psychology of human development).

Although there is no consensus on one definition, we are going to define wisdom as “the application of successful intelligence as mediated by values toward the achievement of a common good through a balance among a) intrapersonal, b) interpersonal, and c) extrapersonal interests, in order to achieve a balance among a) adaptation to existing environments, b) shaping of existing environments, and c) selection of new environments” (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. The Balance Theory of Wisdom

So, as we’re looking at Figure 1, let’s make a couple of important remarks about wisdom:

  1. Wisdom is defined as the application of successful intelligence.
  2. Intellectual skills are necessary but not enough to reach wisdom.
  3. Wisdom’s goal is not our own good, but the common good.
  4. Wisdom is about balancing:

a. Balancing our own interests (intrapersonal) with the interests of others (interpersonal) and with aspects of the context in which we exist (extrapersonal); and

b. Balancing our responses to the environment: trying to change ourselves to make us more compatible to the environment (adapting) with changing the environment so it’s a better fit for us (shaping) with choosing new environments (selection).

4. Wisdom is about values, such as honesty and courage. Those individual values will affect the utilization of intelligence in the balancing of both interests and responses. Values usually take time to form, perhaps a reason why wise people are older.

In terms of context knowledge, we are very interested in being aware of the environment in which we need to apply our knowledge in order to perform. Here’s an example of extrapersonal interests: It is important to understand the culture of the sport/team/organization we’re playing. Extrapersonal interests are an example of wisdom manifestation.

Here’s another example: you just started playing for a new team. You may adapt to the new environment and accept everything the new coach tells you to do. You may try to change the environment so you can do whatever you think is best. You may try to find some balance between your ideas and the coach’a ideas. You may decide that whatever this new team represents is against your philosophy of playing and you leave to play for another coach. No matter how you apply your knowledge, understanding the context first is key, right? A “wise” judgement is definitely partially based on choosing among several environmental responses.

Side note: Tacit knowledge, an aspect of practical intelligence, is the core of this view of wisdom. Although formal knowledge is important, it’s not enough (e.g., academic vs. practical problems).

3. Performance Intelligence

SPI is comprised of three major components: a) Knowing how to maximize your potential, b) Knowing how to work with your environment and c) Knowing how to deliver high performance (see Figure 2). In terms of context knowledge, we are really interested in all the three sub-components of “knowing how to work with your environment” and with just “delivering” of “knowing how to deliver high performance”. Let’s start, shall we?

Figure 2. The Superior Performance Intelligence

A) Knowing how to work with your environment

a) Knowing your environment

This is about being aware of the performance environment and it’s com­prised two tertiary components that distinguish the environment even further: “knowing your controllable environment” and “knowing your uncontrollable environ­ment.”

  • Knowing your controllable environment

This includes factors over which you are able to exert a significant degree of control, such as knowing your arena or your staff.

  • Knowing your uncontrollable environment

Factors over which we have little or no control over, such as NCAA game regulations and constraints.

To sum up, “knowing your environment” involves having a deep understanding and clear perception of the performance environment, including distinguishing between knowledge and information (information = data; knowledge = understanding data).

b) Shaping your environment

This is about developing the performance environment that will deliver sustained success and it’s comprised of five tertiary components: “defining and commu­nicating the vision and goals,” “surrounding yourself with the right people,” “fostering collaboration,” “challenging orthodoxy,” and “using your emotional intelligence.”

  • Defining and Communicating the Vision and Goals

Awareness of the environment around you provides a foundation for figuring out what is possible, which will help you create the vision in terms of clearly defined, interconnected goals.

  • Surrounding yourself with the right people

Delivering high performance in the long-run depends on having people with the right expertise around you.

  • Fostering collaboration.

Collaborating with teammates and colleagues whose goals are aligned with yours.

  • Challenging orthodoxy

Challenging the ways things have been done. Different results require different ways.

  • Using your emotional intelligence

Reading emotions, understanding emotions, and using emotions to create a better environment.

To sum up, “shaping your environment” is mostly about making certain you have the appropriate people around you who are equally committed towards common goals and are challenging constantly the established ways.

c) Being in tune with your environment

This is about the daily communication and involvement with the performance environment and is comprised of three tertiary components: “being agile,” “building and maintaining relationships,” and “staying humble.”

  • Being agile

In a fast-moving world, having the ability to find ways to overcome obstacles and adjust to new conditions is crucial.

  • Building and maintaining relationships

A combination of soft skills to create and preserve day-to-day relationships.

  • Staying humble

Every person matters in an environment where teamwork is praised and everybody is equal.

To sum up, “staying in tune” with your performance environment requires reacting quickly to changing circumstances and maintaining supportive relationships, which is supported by humility.

B) Knowing how to deliver high performance


  • Performing under pressure

Dealing with intense pressure and staying calm and collected.

  • Trusting yourself

Having faith in your abilities and believing in yourself.

  • Con­trolling the critical controllables

Compartmentalizing your focus based on the significance of the parts you can control.

  • Seizing opportunities

To be able to consistently seize the moment when those critical moments come.

  • Knowing when to alter course

The ability to identify when executing the pre-determined plan is not the best choice anymore and when to stop going all out for success.

To sum up, “delivering” involves knowing how to perform when under pressure, trusting your intuition, recognizing patterns, deciding quickly, committing to doing what’s necessary, and focusing on the most important controllables.

So, SPI is about helping athletes getting to the top but also stay there. Knowing the context and how to apply knowledge have been proven key components.

For more information, please see:

Jones, G. (2012). The role of superior performance intelligence in sustained success. In S. Murphy (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of sport and performance psychology (pp. 62–80). New York: Oxford University Press.

Snyder, C. R., Harris, C., Anderson, J. R., Irving, L., Sigmon, S. T.,Yoshinobu, L., et al. (1991). The will and the ways: Development and validation of an individual-differences measure of hope. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 570–585.

Sternberg, R. J. (1998). A balance theory of wisdom. Review of General Psychology, 2, 347–365.

What’s next? Let’s break down another key dimension. Let’s continue with generalized self-efficacy.

In the meantime… live intentionally, NOT habitually,

Associate Professor, Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, SUNY Plattsburgh. Mental Toughness specialist