Sunday 10 March 2019

Do you have mental toughness ?

Being mentally tough: it’s within all of us!

Mental toughness is something most athletes want to have in abundance. Andy Lane argues that all people can show mental toughness if the situation is life threatening, or the goal is sufficiently important it activates a psychological state characterised by positive beliefs on coping with the pain from intense exercise. This article provides guidance on how athletes and everyday people can access their mental toughness.

At a glance
     Mental toughness is a highly popular concept mainly because its name is so appealing. Almost all aspiring athletes will want to be seen by others and see themselves as mentally tough.
     Athletes from a wide range of sports can display mental toughness, but this article focuses on coping with sensations of fatigue that stem from intense training. This type of training is common for most sport and physical activity.
     Mental toughness is widely debated in the academic literature, and although there is a great deal of debate on its nature, a common element is that it describes the capability to relentlessly pursue personal goals and be able to cope with adversity including sensations of fatigue and pain.
     When the goal is important enough, and where the athlete is highly motivated to pursue that goal, then an athlete will accept experiencing intense pain. A function of intense pain is to question whether the goal is worth pursuing. I propose that it’s not a lack of mental toughness that limits performance, but that the goal is not worth the suffering it brings.

What is mental toughness?

Interest in mental toughness by the academic, coaching and lay community is hardly surprising. Mental toughness is a set of interrelated concepts that describe athletes that are highly competitive, committed, self- motivated, cope effectively, and maintain concentration in pressurized situations, persist when the going gets tough, and retain high levels of self-belief even after setbacks(1).
Research in mental toughness began gathering momentum following Graham Jones(2)  article “What is this thing called mental toughness? An investigation of elite sport performers”. Subsequent research has clarified and expanded knowledge in this area and further studies have demonstrated that interventions such as imagery, goal-setting and self-talk can help athletes build mental toughness(3). As a crude summary of developments in this area, researchers have made theoretical leaps and bounds to define and clarify the concepts, and, importantly, kept an ongoing focus on how to transfer theory to practice. Research into mental toughness is flourishing and this can only be helpful as the concepts it covers have a huge interests to athletes and coaches.
However, the popularity of the topic and focus on elite athletes has led to questions on the extent to which non-elite athletes are mentally tough(3, 4). In this article, I argue that the ability to display mental toughness is within all people and, conscious of that fact, they should learn when they can activate it.

What evidence is there that we are all mentally tough?

People who might seem normal or average frequently display mental toughness in potentially life-threatening situations. Possibly the most powerful literature on the area of pain management is the study of pregnant women going through childbirth(5). An industry has developed to help women manage pain during childbirth; however, it is worth noting that most pain-management interventions are relatively modern (within the last 100 years). Qualitative accounts of women going through childbirth without pain management provide detailed descriptions of mental toughness characterized by dealing with thoughts of death and coping with intense pain(6).
Evolutionary psychologists have argued that humans have evolved to cope with pain and this coping response is hard wired and that we only access this response when situation demands call for it(6). In situations such as childbirth or other potentially life-threatening situations such as military endeavours(7), intense emotions are activated. Emotions have been found to mask sensations of pain(6). If an individual is aware that

this is the process, and effective coping systems are with them, albeit dormant most of the time, then they have the potential to show an abundant amount of mental toughness. If an athlete perceives that sensations of pain are something that has to be endured in order to achieve goals, then they have opened the door to activating their inner mental toughness.

Activating beliefs of mental toughness: “if he/she can do it, so can I”

People have a great deal more resources than they believe they possess and it is the ability to access these resources that is important. However, prior to being able to access them, the first step is to recognise that they exist; that is, say to yourself you can cope with a lot more than you think. One way of changing your view of how much you can cope with is to watch seemingly normal people do extra ordinary challenges. One example is Prof Greg Whyte’s work on Comic Relief challenges, which include some extra-ordinary performance such as swimming the English Channel (David Walliams), running repeated marathons (Eddie Izzard), and swimming in very cold water (Davina McCall). It’s worth remembering the qualities needed to be a comedian/actor bear little resemblance with those needed to be an athlete. Research shows that people learn by watching others and if someone of a similar age, gender, and experience of the task at hand succeeds, then this can develop the thought that if he/she can do it, so can I(8).

Is the goal worth it?

A key aspect that can help decide if someone activates her/his mental toughness is whether the goal is sufficiently important. When we ask athletes whether the goal is important, they tend to report positively. On a 1-10 scale (1 is not important and 10 is highly important), few athletes report a goal is lower than 5, and the variation in terms of importance often starts at 8(9). Therefore, using a rating scale does not reliably provide useful information.
The task below can help you identify which goal is the most important. Rather than rate the importance, it helps the individual work out which goal is more important, and whether trying to achieve one goal might influence attempts to attain another.
Task: Rate and rank your goals
What is your goal?
Reflection on the challenge the goal presents
1. To run a sub 3-hour marathon
“This has been a goal for a while and whilst I have come close (within seconds), I have not achieved it”
2. To run 5km in sub-17 mins
“I have come close to this, but not achieved it. I find the marathon training leaves me a bit tired at times”
Reflection and evaluation
The aim is to compare and contrast the two goals and examine if they could conflict. Having time to go for 2 goals can be an issue and so prioritising one over the other in terms of when they will be attempted can help.
In this case, the athlete needs to focus on one of these goals almost exclusively of the other. Placing the emphasis onto speed required for the 5km and intense pain from lactic acid associated with speed work is a different type of coping than that needed for a marathon. Running pace in the marathon would feel slow in comparison to running 5km, but mental toughness is likely to stem from being able to manage the supposedly slower pace over the final stages.
The suggestion is that the athlete decides which goal to focus on and commits to achieving that. The two goals are arguably in conflict both physiologically and psychologically.
Your go
What is your goal?
Reflection on the challenge the goal presents
Reflection and evaluation

Using psychological skills to build mental toughness

Having identified the goal and worked out that you are committed to achieving that goal; the next step is to develop resources ready to meet the challenges that you could face; that is, getting the qualities that might be described as mental toughness ready for when they are needed. Research has found that use of psychological skills such as imagery and self-talk associate with mental toughness (2,3,10). Both imagery and self-talk are strategies where an individual changes her/his internal dialogue to be able to do a task successfully. Imagery can help achieve this via use of images and self-talk via language.

Text Box: Example of developing mental toughness in a soccer player…
A young professional soccer player has to participate in a multistage shuttle run test (bleep test) as part of his club’s conditioning and assessment programme. The bleep test is progressive and maximal and therefore he will run until exhaustion. The player believes that being one of the fittest players will help him gain an established place in the team. He also believes that the coach likes players to show mental toughness. Therefore, on the day of the test, getting a high score on the bleep test is an important goal, and the player needs to accept that he must produce a maximal performance and this will require coping with intense fatigue.
To develop strategies to show mental toughness, the player should examine their inner dialogue and thoughts when doing similar tasks. Even if the player has not done the test before, there will be a time when he actively made a decision to stop exercising or slowed down; that is, he weighed up current feelings of fatigue against what was causing them, and made the decision to slow down. It is these thoughts and perceptions of fatigue that need to be addressed via self-talk training and imagery; thoughts that say slowdown will not be accepted if thoughts to achieve a certain goal are more powerful. And the decision to slow down is based on perceptions of fatigue, and the individual needs to increase the point where these thoughts occur.


In conclusion, mental toughness is something humans have in abundance and can access this when priorities demand. Where these goals are voluntary where the decision to abandon the goal is an option rather than involuntary, such as life-threatening situations or childbirth, then reflecting on whether the pursuit of the goal is worth the pain that will be experienced can help clarify whether managing the pain will be worth it. Where goals are appraised as highly important, then psychological skills such as self-talk and imagery can help an individual re-programme how they will respond when unwanted thoughts occur during performance.




1. J of Sp Psych in Action, Vol 2(1), Apr,. pp. 21-32. 2011 2. J of Applied Sp Psych, 14(3), 205-218, 2002.

3. J of Sps Sci, 26(1), 83-95, 2008.

4. Personality and Individual Differences 60, 30-35. 2014

5. Ame J of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 186 , Issue 5 ,S160-S172, 2002.

6. Evolutionary and proximate explanations. In: Scherer K, Sander D, editors. The Oxford Companion to Emotion and the Affective Sci. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 158-159.

7. Military Psych, 24:331–345, 2012.

8. Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, W.H. Freeman. 1997. 9. J of Sps Sci, 14, 94, 1996.

Text Box: PEAK PERFORMANCE ISSUE 33910. Case Studies in Sp Science and Medicine. CreateSpace ISBN 420-426, 2014

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