“Toughness is in the soul and spirit, not in muscles.”

Alex Karras. Football Player.

In sport (and life), nobody can expect everything to run smoothly. When testing moments surface, physical attributes like speed and skill will only get you so far. Frankly, a strong frame of mind is often the determining factor between success and failure.

The term mental toughness is arguably overused in sporting circles, but there can be no doubt that it affects sporting performance in a big way. From student-athletes to professional stars, mental resilience will combine with other attributes like Emotional Intelligence to encourage consistently improved performance levels.

What is mental toughness?

Mental toughness is a key component of the winner’s mindset and can significantly enhance many aspects of a person’s life. The definition offered by mentaltoughnessinc.com says that mental toughness is an “ability to resist, manage and overcome doubts, worries, concerns and circumstances that prevent you from succeeding” while people who show it are able to reach senior positions in their careers and recover from setbacks in their personal lives.

People who show mental toughness are also more likely to show Emotional Intelligence, strong motivation levels, and a heightened ability to handle stress or anxiety.

basketball player in wheelchair

The role of mental toughness in sport

When dealing with athletic performance, the recipe for mental toughness can cover a variety of ingredients including grit, determination, resilience, resoluteness, willpower, courage, and heart. Sadly, many student-athletes will build a strong body but neglect the importance of a strong mind.

Despite all of those features, scientists simplify the definition to cover two main elements – resilience to situations that athletes can’t control, and consistency of things that they can control.

Studies into the relationship between mental toughness and sporting excellence have consistently shown that both cognitive and motor skills are higher in athletes who are considered mentally tough. Similar patterns have been seen at the elite levels of sport too, covering team sports and individual sports alike.

Mental toughness is a trait that enables an athlete to work harder and show greater mental strength when things get tough. As such, over 83% of coaches at an elite level believe that it is the most significant psychological factor for determining competitive success and is equally important at lower-level competitions where mistakes and on-field adversity are more common. An athlete who shows mental toughness will display a range of attributes linked to enhanced performance levels. Some of the most telling examples are;

Without mental toughness, peaksports.com states that athletes are more likely to give up, give in, and give less. The reduced effort and workload can affect training or matches, bringing a plethora of negative results to individual sessions and long-term athlete development.

How to encourage mental toughness

Mental toughness is a personality trait that some people are naturally born with. However, people that do not naturally boast mental toughness can develop it. Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton determined (per tandfonline.com) that the development of mental toughness is a long-term process that encompasses a multitude of underlying mechanisms.

While the end goal is to build a natural resilience where the athlete can bounce back from difficult moments in style, it does not have to be a personal battle. Coaches, teachers, parents, and teammates can all help an athlete become mentally tough by providing emotional support in their daily life. Psychologists have played a key role in elite sport for many years and their significance continues to grow, as is shown by the fact that NFL franchises hire experts in mental skills training for 8-12 hours per week. Other sports are also using mental toughness and related mental health issues as a significant part of their routines.

Father and Son working out

Even at the amateur level or student-athlete programs, building mental toughness should be a priority. It can be achieved by;

  • Practising tough drills so that game-day situations feel less daunting and athletes are less likely to be overawed by those circumstances.
  • Focus on eliminating the fear of mistakes, as they are a natural part of playing sports at any level.
  • Build a healthier relationship with setbacks, which includes soaking in the information before getting back on track with a calculated response.
  • Use data analysis to back up the 42-59% of data that a coach can recall, thus enabling the athlete to enter situations with confidence.
  • Focus on consistency by repeating drills so that situations become second nature while the athlete can additionally influence the people around them.

Mental toughness is one of the most important skills to develop both on and off the field. Without it, talent alone cannot achieve true success.

Champions aren’t made in the gyms.

Champions are made from something they have deep inside them―a desire, a dream, a vision.

They have to have the skill, and the will.

But the will must be stronger than the skill.”

Muhammad Ali