The Softer Side of Mental Toughness

By Dr. Allison Belger

Back in 1999, I gave a toast at a good friend’s rehearsal dinner.  It was short and simple, challenging the pop-psychology notion that in order to find true love you must love yourself, first.  I proposed that sometimes it takes someone else to love you enough and in such a way that you can begin to be able to love yourself, second.  My friend’s fiancé, now husband, had given her that gift.  Cheers!

This story is my way of introducing this week’s topic: coming up with a softer, gentler, but no-less-powerful concept of mental toughness in sport and in life.  My original idea for this week was to write an article on mental toughness in sport.  Actually, I’d had that idea a couple of months ago, but after a review of the significant and copious psychology literature on mental toughness—a bit of a rabbit hole– I was left discouraged and unsure of how I could package it all nicely and in a way that would be beneficial to my readers.  As many authors and researchers note, the concept of mental toughness is both omnipresent and largely undefined, making it a bit of a beast around which to wrap one’s mind.  Wrestling and sticking with the topic seemed to require quite a bit of, well, mental toughness.  Admittedly, I gave up the first time around.

This week, I found my way back to mental toughness as a topic.  I was investigating differences between innate ability/talent/potential on the one hand, and learned prowess/acquired skill on the other.  As is often the case, the starting point leads elsewhere, and I ended up knee-deep in research on the ways in which self-control during task completion can be heightened by certain attributes and strategies, typically used by people who are successful in their pursuits.  I stumbled (as I have in the past) upon Carol Dweck’s work on mindset: “fixed mindsets” versus “growth mindsets.”  According to Dweck, a fixed mindset is one marked by a conviction that you either have what it takes or you don’t, and any sign of failure is a vulnerability that should be avoided.  This prevents learning, progress, and development, even if allowing for temporary success.  In contrast, a growth mindset is one marked by openness to learning and availability for working through mistakes.  People with growth mindsets believe that effort and learning is what allows for development and long-term success.  (Dweck, 2006).

I like these ideas, and they got me thinking about how they apply to mental toughness.  Maybe, I wondered, people who have a growth mindset possess more mental toughness than those who have a fixed mindset.  Although likely to be perceived superficially as being less tough than those with a harder, grittier, fixed mindset where failure is not an option, growth-mindset people have as their marked characteristics an ability to not only face “failures” but to welcome setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth.

Further research along these lines led me to a cool study (Legault et al 2012) showing that engaging in self-affirmation (reminding oneself of one’s core values and general goodness, for lack of a better term) prior to completion of a self-monitoring task (pressing a button when you see an M and not pressing when you see a W) allowed subjects to respond more favorably to their errors and learn how to better approach the task while they were doing it.  They also had fewer errors than subjects who were not in the self-affirmation group and hadn’t been asked to identify and affirm their values and self-worth prior to task completion.  Interesting, right?  It seems that reminding ourselves of our inherent goodness and worth gives us permission and courage to acknowledge and face errors head on.  Then, we can make use of these setbacks to create better strategies for the future.  In other words, self-affirmation mitigates the sting of failure and encourages learning.

Perhaps now I was on to something–a kinder, gentler, more accessible concept of mental toughness than what one typically conjures and encounters relevant to elite athletes.  What follows is a brief synopsis of some key conceptualizations of mental toughness in elite athletes.  I will then offer some ideas about how we can tweak the concept, perhaps making it a bit more user-friendly for the less elite among us. Eventually, as is par for the PsychologyWOD course, I’ll apply this all to life off the field and out of the gym.

Brief Review of the Literature on Mental Toughness:

A thorough, if slightly outdated, literature review of mental toughness comes from Jones (2002).  You can find the article online if you want to read all about theories of mental toughness and how it has been defined in the literature.  As Jones points out, despite the wide-ranging views on mental toughness, “there does appear to be some agreement that mental toughness is reflected in an athlete’s ability to cope with stress and resultant anxiety associated in high pressure competitive situations” (p. 206).  Jones’ own study utilized a qualitative approach (interviews and focus groups with ten elite athletes who had performed on the international stage).  He and his team ended up with the following definition of mental toughness:

“Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to: Generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer. Specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure. (p. 209).”  The study’s participants also identified twelve attributes of athletes who are mentally tough.  The top-ranked attributes include:

Having an unshakable self belief in your ability to achieve your competition goals; bouncing back from performance setbacks as a result of increased determination to succeed; having an unshakable self-belief that you possess unique qualities and abilities that make you better than your opponents, and having an insatiable desire and internalized motives to succeed. 

Dewhurst et al (2012) found that “mentally tough individuals have an enhanced ability to prevent unwanted information from interfering with current goals.  These findings support the proposal that cognitive inhibition is one of the mechanisms underpinning mental toughness.”

Clough et al (2008) offer a model of mental toughness that includes four elements: challenge, control, commitment and confidence.

Brown et al (2006) note that “a mentally tough attitude, deemed desirable in competitive sport, obviated physiological markers of fatigue.”  In other words, mental toughness means being able to push through physical fatigue and keep going.

From David Yukelson, PhD., Sport Psychologist at Penn State University:  Mental toughness means being able to “reframe negative thinking…and look at failure as a stepping stone for future achievement.”

Fourie, et al (2001) identified twelve components of mental toughness. “These are: motivation level, coping skills, confidence maintenance, cognitive skill, discipline and goal-directedness, competitiveness, possession of prerequisite physical and mental requirements, team unity, preparation skills, psychological hardiness, religious convictions and ethics.  The coaches regarded concentration as the most important characteristic, while the athletes regarded perseverance as most important.”

From the University of Austin at Texas (2008) website:

According to sport psychologist, Dr John Bartholomew, mental toughness is keeping “the mind from getting in the way of the performance.”  The article in which he is quoted also suggests that part of mental toughness is knowing how to calibrate anxiety such that one balances the need to be jazzed and ready to roll with the need to feel in control and not overwhelmed by anxious feelings.

And from a less scholarly source online, a website called Fitday:

“…An example of mental toughness, where the prospect of losing can potentially take over, [is when] the athlete stays so focused on the task at hand that he has the potential to do his best each and every time. The exercise of the mind in this process is that of staying present in each and every moment. As soon as your mind wanders off to what happened minutes before or centers on negative thoughts about yourself or others, your potential for sub-par performance increases.”

Finally, from the Navy Seals:…/building_mental_toughness.ppt

Mental toughness involves letting go of negative thinking, overcoming fears by facing them, visualizing and practicing all aspects of something in training so that when it’s the real deal, you’re ready.  Mental toughness for the Seals also means having unwavering self-confidence.

That’s a taste of what’s out there in the mental toughness literature.  There’s plenty more if you’re interested in the topic, and some of the articles and websites offer tips on how to develop your own mental toughness, even if you don’t already feel blessed with the necessary attributes.  For example, Loehr (1994) lists 17 strategies for increasing mental toughness.  Many of them have to do with positive self-talk, a disciplined approach to training and competing, forging unwavering self-confidence, and using imagery and visualization for preparation.

A New Twist on Mental Toughness:

My goal here is not to rewrite the book on mental toughness, nor is it to dispel years of research and intelligent thinking on the topic by people who have spent far more time than I in the trenches studying it and working with elite athletes.  Instead, my goal is to highlight certain aspects of what might be included in a broader concept of mental toughness, if we were to acknowledge traits, outlooks, and strategies that might help us all perform better on AND off the field —not just elite athletes trying to succeed at the highest levels of competition.   Borrowing from some of the above concepts, we can envision a more inclusive version for all athletes, to include the following components (in no particular order):

1.    Making use of failures and setbacks to learn and grow. This involves acknowledgment of your areas of relative weakness and times when you have not excelled.  It involves a recognition that you are not perfect or even special necessarily, but you are determined to learn from your vulnerabilities en route to greater successes.  This component draws from Dweck’s “growth mindset” and what Lagault et al call “incremental theorists” who believe that errors are part of the growth process.

2.    Possessing flexibility, adaptability, and coachability.  It is critical that you are open to feedback from others and can integrate others’ suggestions into your own ideas of what is best for you.  This means striking a balance between knowing yourself and what works for you, while also being available for input from others who might be helpful to you.

3.    Using self-affirmation as a tool.  Prior to training sessions, acknowledge your core values, affirm your self-worth, and recognize the totality of who you are.  This can minimize defensiveness, allow for more open reflection on errors, and lead to corrections in the heat of the moment (competition) without feeling exposed.

4.    Performing at one’s peak when others are watching and the pressure is on.  This is especially consistent with longstanding notions of mental toughness in elite athletes.  The idea here is to avoid the pitfalls of sources of anxiety related to having an audience (see my article on Fear of Negative Evaluation for more on this topic).  While elite athletes often tune out the audience and sometimes report not even noticing the people around them, this version means being able to soak in the energy, admiration, and support from onlookers, while not becoming inhibited or overly anxious because of their presence.

5.    Recognizing when it’s time to take a break.  Being able to admit when your motivation has waned or that your intrinsic motivation (self drive) has become outweighed by extrinsic motivation (driven by others) is a critical aspect of being mentally strong.  This can be especially difficult in cases when athletes have been pressured to perform by parents, coaches, or others.  Part of being able to take a step back is having an identity outside of being an athlete, which means thoughtful diversification and embracing life outside of training.  (See my article on taking a break here)

6.    Maintaining discipline about when and how to train.  It’s easy to become totally consumed by one’s training.  Mentally tough athletes can find a way to invest in their sport without it taking over their lives completely and preventing them from having fulfilling relationships and roles outside of their sport.  This involves recognizing the possible psychological underbelly of your athletic pursuits (see my article on decoys here) and being able to step outside of yourself enough to know that not everyone cares as much as you do about your training.

7.    Recognizing the need for significant planning and practice.  You realize that your mind cannot actually overcome all physical pain and discomfort.  You are secure enough to know that this does not mean you are weak or compromised in some significant way.  A great read along these lines is by Dr. Tim Noakes (2001), who writes about a Central Governor Mechanism in our brains that is designed to protect our bodies.  No matter how hard you want to push, your brain will ultimately shut you down if you are endangering your survival.  This means that you must train hard and smart and plan for all contingencies.  In other words, preparation, rather than some kind of macho responsiveness to pain and fatigue, is where the mental edge lies. (see Joe Uhan, 2013 for an excellent synopsis of Noakes’ work and some fabulous strategies for preparing for long-distance events).

8.    Knowing that rest and recovery is as important as active training.  Much like taking a break altogether, it is often difficult for athletes to take care of themselves in between training sessions and to ensure that rest days are protected and are legitimately treated as days of rest.  Training and the endorphins involved can be seductive.  Having the confidence to leave the gym or the trail or the field behind until the next time is a critical component of being mentally tough.

9.    Understanding the need to train one’s mind as well as one’s body.  This means practicing and utilizing strategies such as imagery, visualization, positive self-talk, and keeping a journal.  It also means being open to mediation and other ways of clearing one’s mind of the clutter that can interfere with performance.

10. Engaging in regular introspection.  It is critical to be able to reflect on the ways in which your life outside of sport is affecting your training, and vice-versa.  Reckoning with how you tick, how your past affects your present functioning, and what drives you in relationships with others and yourself will allow you to focus on training and competition goals more fully and successfully, for the long haul.

11. Knowing when you need help.  Asking questions and seeking coaching advice is only part of the deal here. You also need to be courageous enough to know when it’s time to seek help with the mental game and the psychological aspects of training.

It is easy to imagine how these 11 components of a revised take on mental toughness can be applied to life outside of sport, which makes them especially appealing to me.  Given the length and density of this post, already, I’ll save the details of such application for another time.  Meanwhile, hopefully this gets you thinking about the importance of a softer approach to what it means to be mentally tough.  Sometimes it’s harder to be soft than it is to be tough. 


Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D.  (2002).  What is this thing called mental toughness? An investigation of elite sport performers.  Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14: 205–218.

Brown, J.F.M., Wilson, M.A., Sharp, N. C. (2006). “Down But Not Out”: An Exploration of the Psychological Factors that Impact the Unexplained Underperformance Syndrome (UPS). International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching;  Vol. 1(2), p163.

Clough, P., Earle, K,.  Strycharczyk, D., Passmore, J. (Ed), (2008). Developing resilience through coaching: MTQ48. Psychometrics in coaching: Using psychological and psychometric tools for development, (pp. 208-223). London, England.

Dewhurst, S.A., Anderson, R.J., Cotter, G., Crust, L., & Clough, P.J. (2012).  Identifying the cognitive basis of mental toughness: Evidence from the directed forgetting paradigm. Personality & Individual Differences.

Dweck, C. S. (2006).  Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

Fourie, S., Potgieter, J.R.  (2001) The nature of mental toughness in sport.  South African Journal for Research in Sport, Physical Education and Recreation: 23 (2): 63-72)

Legault, L., Alkindhi, T., & Inzlicht, M.  (2012).  Preserving integrity in the face of performance threat : Self-affirmation enhances neurophysiological responsiveness to errors. Psychological Science, 23(12):1455-60

Loehr, J. E. (1994).  The new toughness training for sports.  Dutton: New York, NY.

Noakes, T.D., Peltonen, J.E.,  & Rusko, H.K.  (2001).  Evidence that a central governor regulates exercise performance during acute hypoxia and hyperoxia.  The Journal of Experimental Biology 204, 3225–3234.

From the University of Austin at Texas (2008)

“Don’t Even Think About It”

Uhan, J. (2013).  Peak Performance and The Selfish Brain: The Central Governor and Its Role in 100-Mile Performance.

Yukelson, D. Penn State University online‎


  1. […] Love Read–The Softer Side of Mental Toughness. I love this article. It’s a little on the long side, but well worth reading. Feel free to […]

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