What Does Mental Toughness Look Like?

Mental toughness is a prized “possession” of athletes the world over. Parents talk about it. Coaches demand it. But, how would you know a mentally tough athlete? What traits would they exhibit? What characteristics would you see? How would they behave? What would they say?

What Happens When The Going Get’s Tough?

In my work as a sport psychologist, this is a topic that has always fascinated me. I’ve seen many athletes and teams who have crumbled when they’ve hit tough challenges. I have seen some teams that have imploded at crucial times during a game, or during a season. Some panic if they go behind. They seem to throw their game plan out of the window when they’re questioned. For many years, I defined mental toughness as the ability to stick to the game plan, no matter what. Obviously, I recognise that ‘the game plan’ needs to be flexible and adaptable. However, we should not abandon it completely and start panicking at the first sign of trouble.

I have seen many athletes that seem to shrivel up when they’re exposed to criticism. It is hard for some to take, especially if that criticism is very vocal and comes from 40,000 fans on a Saturday afternoon. In fact, whilst working in a Premiership football club a number of years ago, the coaching staff developed a saying… “when the going gets tough, the tough hide under the treatment table”. We used to see the number of injuries rise (and take longer to heal) when we were struggling and the players were being booed by the fans. The players were actually using the treatment room to escape! Coincidently, our captain (who did the shouting and fist waving) was the most regular visitor to the treatment room if we lost at home.

The Flip Side Of The Coin

Over the years I have also seen many athletes and teams who displayed incredible toughness. Recently, I have also interviewed a range of truly world class people in some very diverse disciplines, so as to understand what differentiates them from their peers. In doing so, I have listened to some incredibly tough individuals, such as mountaineers, polar explorers, adventure racers, extreme athletes and special forces personnel. These people endure some phenomenal challenges, whether it is facing death at the top of an 8,500 meter peak, completing a solo crossing of the Arctic, finishing 66 ultra-marathons in 66 days after being injured on day 2, or running back into battle through a fire-fight to save an injured comrade (and then swimming 2 hours to a rescue boat whilst towing him).

After watching some truly tough people and listening to their stories, I have changed my definition of mental toughness to this…. “the ability to keep going, sticking to the task and not give up, even when every fibre of your being screams at you to stop”.

But not all of us will be at the top of 8,000 meter mountains, or crossing the Arctic Ocean, or running through a gun battle. So how can we see toughness outside of those extreme conditions? Is the tough individual the loudest? Are they the ones who run out of the dressing room screaming? Are they the one who is most physically dominant? Or, are they the ones who will push themselves the hardest? Are they the athletes that are willing to enter their discomfort zone? Are they the people who will venture into the unknown and take on new challenges? Perhaps, the tough athletes are the ones that take complete responsibility for their performance at all times.

Mental Toughness In Action

In 2006, a swimmer (Chris) prepared for the final of a major world event. He’s waiting in the ‘call room’ with the other 7 finalists. One of them, an Australian, comes up to him and rubs his knuckle on Chris’ head. He starts to try to intimidate Chris verbally and physically, he becomes unpleasant in an attempt to undermine Chris’ confidence. Chris sat, looked at him and smiled. He didn’t say a word in response because he didn’t need to. Chris knew that the Australian was in trouble. Why did the Australian feel the need to intimidate Chris? Did he not think he could win the race on his own merit? Did he have to pull Chris back in order to stand a chance of beating him?

Sometimes fear can be dressed up as toughness. Bravado tends to be a façade; ‘fake toughness’. Perhaps it is a sign of weakness rather than strength.

Chris knew that his job was simple. He had to swim 2 lengths of that swimming pool as quickly as he could. He’d worked incredibly hard in training and was as prepared as he could possibly be. He’d overcome considerable adversity to get there, which gave him a deep sense of confidence in his own ability. All he had to do now was to swim 2 lengths of the pool. If he swam quicker than everyone else, he’d win. If someone else swam faster than him, they’d win. If he simply swam as quickly as he could, he’d done his job. It doesn’t get any more complicated than that.

If we want to know what toughness looks like, we can learn a lot from this example. The tough athlete is not the one trying to dominate or intimidate his opponent. The tougher of the two is the one who sat calmly, smiled and looked his opponent in the eye. He’s also the one that remained completely focussed on his job, and refused to be distracted from it.

I doubt you’ll be surprised when I tell you that Chris won the Gold Medal that day!

Simon Hartley is the author of Peak Performance Every Time, published by Routledge.

Published by

Simon Hartley

Simon is a sport psychologist, performance coach and author. His website, Be World Class, helps athletes and business people to get their mental game right. Simon has worked at the highest level of sport with Olympic gold medalists, world record holders as well as Premiership and Championship soccer teams in the UK. Simon has produced a soccer webinar coaching package on how to coach focus, confidence and motivation in your teams.

3 thoughts on “What Does Mental Toughness Look Like?”

  1. Nice article and very relevant. I like your description of those aspects of mental toughness. I am from South Africa and I am running a research programme on mental toughness. I always been partial to Loehr’s definition of mental toughness (“the ability to consistently perform towards the upper range of your talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances”) but I think a combination of this definition and the one you put forward in your article would be very useful. Another intersting perspective on mental toughness can be found in Steve Bull’s work in a book he wrote called “The Game Plan”, which he wrote after completing research with his colleagues on mental toughness among elite English cricketers. It’s one of the most useful models I have found thus far and describes four types of mental toughness, namely, Turnaround Toughness, Critical Moment Toughness, Endurance Toughness, and Risk Management Toughness (while placing self-belief, clear thinking, and resilience at the centre of the model). I am currently researhing this model in the context of mental toughness development in an action research framewwork and it has been working reasonably well.


  2. Hi Gary
    Steve Bull’s model is very useful. It comes from a very practical and highly competitive setting. I have been working in and around first class and international cricket in England for a few years and been fortunate to have seen it in action. There is a lot of very relevant & valuable elements, and a lot that can be learned from the approach that Steve, Simon Timson and the ECB team have been using. As you say, they are very good frameworks!
    You might also enjoy listening to Bruce Duncan’s session at the Be World Class Conference (titled …On Mental Toughness). Bruce is an adventure racer and has a great personal insight into mental toughness – http://www.beworldclass.tv.
    Thanks Gary, have a great day.


  3. This is great stuff Simon.

    I have found that most athletes are very quick to “jump ship” if they are not seeing their anticipated results. Having the discipline to stick to it is what separates you from the pack and put you in that elite category.

    I work with golfers specifically and I tell them that they must enter every practice session and every match with a strategy/plan. This is a new concept for most casual/competitive players. We give them a scorecard that tracks their process, not their score. Our students have found that creating a strategy and tracking their process results is what allows them to stay focused on every shot. To test their discipline, every new student must complete our ‘7 Day Challenge.’ This is a simple, yet effective, test to see how committed they truly are.

    I love your reference to the “discomfort zone”. It is very clever and catchy. Simply put, if you are not experiencing discomfort, you are not growing. Cheers, Greg


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *