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What is mental toughness?
Author: Dr. Brian Marentette
Published: 5/18/2016
Mental Toughness is one of the most used, but inconsistently defined terms in the sports world.  A Google search of that term returns over 1 million hits – many of which have their own definition of the concept.  To most people, the term “mental toughness” connotes images of athletes running through grueling training courses, pushing their selves to the max while they wipe beads of sweat and dirt from their face.  That concept is not entirely wrong – most people can generally describe what mental toughness looks like in action.  However, do most people know what “mental toughness” means from a psychological perspective?  In addition, can they measure it or identify if an athlete is mentally tough, or weak?  Probably not.  We will try to unpack the research and expert opinions of mental toughness into everyday terms to help people better understand this important concept.

Mental Toughess Defined
Sports psychology researchers have dedicated years of their careers to understanding, defining and understanding the impact of mental toughness on athletic performance.  While the term seems to have gained popularity in the media in recent years, psychological researchers have been discussing the concept since the 1950s and possibly even earlier.  In the last 5-10 years, sport psychologists have generally agreed that mental toughness involves an athlete’s determination, confidence, ability to bounce back from setbacks, and ability to remain calm under pressure.  Mental toughness is really just a collection of other attributes that allow an athlete to outperform their competition.

When does mental toughness affect performance the most?  
In the face of adversity.  When all is going well and an athlete is playing an easy opponent, or is performing well, mental toughness does not affect performance very much.  When an athlete is down in a competition, playing with an injury, or competing in a hostile environment, mental toughness is critical.  Another key situation, which is reflected in the definition of mental toughness, is dealing with setbacks.  Performing after a major mistake or a big play by your opponent is extremely difficult for most athletes.  Their mind shifts away from an automatic mode of execution to a negative-thought ridden mess of self-doubt, replaying the mistake repeatedly, and a tendency to focus on not making another mistake. (All bad thoughts for an athlete trying to execute during competition.)  Mental toughness is what differentiates the best from the average when dealing with challenging times.

How does a mentally tough athlete think?
Mentally tough athletes are confident.  They expect themselves to perform well and win competitions.  They have very little doubt in their abilities.  When they experience a setback or mistake, they blame it on the effort they made and see it as an opportunity to come back and do something the right way.  They do not look at a mistake as a lack of talent, or an inability to perform. 

Mentally tough athletes enjoy the grind.  They seek out opportunities to push their self to the max and put their self in difficult competitions.  They have reached the edge of their limits and may have gone beyond that limit.  They know that to be great, they will have to experience pain, fear, and stress.  They love those experiences.

Mentally tough athletes remain calm.  They do not dread challenging situations or find ways to get out of them.  During these uncomfortable situations, they focus on what they need to do to perform their best.  They are not afraid to make mistakes.  They have learned to control their heartrate and breathing and find comfort in the uncomfortable.  They approach stressful situations with poise.

As the sporting world continues to latch on to new psychological concepts of athletes, mental toughness will remain a major variable in athlete success.  Athletes will continue to strive for greater mental toughness, researchers will continue to find new ways to measure it, and sport psychologists will continue to find ways to enhance it.  Hopefully, with a common understanding of the concept, everyone can find ways to help athletes reach their fullest potential by acquiring and developing their mental toughness.