Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Mental toughness

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Mental toughness:
What is mental toughness, how does it help, and how can it be developed?
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Overview[edit | edit source]

image of athletes
Figure.1 Athletes need mental toughness to win

"It is not the mountain that we conquer but ourselves"- Sir Edmund Hilary- Adventurer and Explorer. One of the first two men to reach the summit of Mt Everest.

Mental Toughness is a concept that has been used in sport psychology for many decades. It is now seen in other domains such as education, work and well-being. It has a wide set of positive psychological attributes that can help a person achieve their goals, through commitment and self belief.

Why do some individuals cope with adversity and stress better than others? Mental Toughness seems to facilitate and maintain a drive that pushes an athlete to succeed even in the face of pain, extreme challenge, high pressure environment and to cope when others would not.

While research into Mental Toughness is increasing and becoming more robust, there still are ambiguities as to the variation of Mental Toughness between individuals.

Focus questions:

  • What is mental toughness?
  • How can psychological theory help one understand Mental Toughness?
  • What are the benefits of mental toughness?
  • How can mental toughness techniques and strategies be developed?
  • How can mental toughness be measured?

Mental toughness[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

What is mental toughness?[edit | edit source]

Initially research on mental toughness focused on elite athletes and was defined as athletes having a psychological edge to assist with the high demands of sport(Gerber & Brand, 2012).

Though Mental Toughness is a widely used term in sports psychology it is the least understood[compared to?]. There is not a lot of evidence to support certain claims and there is some confusion about the concept (Jones et al., 2007).The reason for the confusion and ambiguity is that many of the explanations of Mental Toughness derive from anecdotal and personal accounts of participants. One definition states that Mental Toughness is a natural or developed construct allowing the participants to cope with the demands of training and competing better than their opponents. Individuals that[grammar?] demonstrate Mental Toughness attributes are consistent in their performance and are determined and focused under pressure (James et al,2007). When Jones et al. (2007) interviewed elite athletes and devised the framework listed below, athletes stated that the Mental Toughness attributes fluctuated during their careers and that it was something that they had to continually nurture. Which suggests that Mental Toughness can be learned and it is not something that it wholly innate[grammar?].

Coping is a component of Mental Toughness and is seen as the most important psychological quality that determines success in the athletic arena[factual?]. It is believed that Mental Toughness helps athletes cope with stress. There isn't a lot of evidence to show that athletes always cope effectively and It is unclear how Mental Toughness is related to coping.

Case Study 1ː Alex , Adventurer and high altitude mountaineer.

Alex has over 30 years experience climbing the world's highest peaks. For Alex, Mental Toughness is interpreted differently depending on the task. Mountaineering is a high risk activity which can result in death or disability. Situations are unpredictable and can become catastrophic within a short time. High altitude can impair mental function rapidly and the ability to make decisions and not be controlled by emotions is crucial. Alex stated that Mental Toughness is 'having the "correct" response the moment a response is required'. For Alex, assessing risk, being adaptable and being able to accept failure at the expense of personal achievement are essential components of Mental Toughness.Failure is seen as an opportunity for self development. Mental Toughness is seen as a holistic concept as it incorporates emotional, physical and psychological aspects.

Framework for Mental Toughness in sport; dimensions and subcategories.[edit | edit source]

Devised by Jones et al.,(2007). to identify key attributes of Mental Toughness[grammar?]

athletes after a race
Figure 2. Winning is more than having a strong body

Attitude /Mindset

-unshakeable self belief

-inner arrogance

-pushing through any obstance[spelling?] in ones[grammar?] way

-belief in desire to fulfil ones potential


-not distracted by short term goals

-acheivement[spelling?] becomes top priority in life

-Know when to switch off and on from sport/goals


-long term goals are a source of motivation

-control your environment

-push yourself to the limit


-Handle pressure

-stay focused

-regulate performance


-control thoughts and feelings

-control the environment

Post competition

-handle failure

- handle success

Jones et al., (2007).

Debate about Mental Toughness[edit | edit source]

There is some debate about what mental toughness is. There is no agreed understanding of mental toughness as a concept but is generally defined as personal characteristics that help people achieve and perform to their highest level (Mahoney et al.,2014).

Past research shows that some professionals view mental toughness as a state of mind and others as a personality trait, [grammar?] this debate continues. (Crust,2008).

Four behavioural genetic studies looked at the degree in Mental Toughness between individuals [grammar?] can be due to genetic and environmental factors. Using twin studies it suggested that half of the variation in Mental Toughness is due to genetic factors[factual?]. Genetic research has not identified genes that contribute to variation in Mental Toughness(Lin et al., 2017).

Mental toughness is often seen as distinct concept unrelated to mental health but they share overlapping concepts and mental toughness is associated with positive mental health(Gucciardi et at.,2017).

Caddick and Ryall (2011),[grammar?] have critiqued Mental Toughness constructs in sport for several reasons. The narrative of the sporting hero who has overcome all adversity to succeed is unobtainable for most athletes. Generally a small proportion of athletes are elite. Personal excellence is less valued than winning. The traits in Mental Toughness that athletes possess, such as perseverance, focus and endless motivation should be valued regardless of winning. Individuals who cannot obtain the high standards of Mental Toughness can be seen as morally inferior. For example being told to "push through the pain", even if it means risking injury.

Some athletes have had clinical depression and still be able to perform at elite levels. This appears to be at odds with the construct of Mental Toughness, professionally athletes were performing but personally and emotionally were struggling. This makes it harder to fully understand the concept of Mental Toughness because the attributes are associated with better psychological wellbeing but also co [grammar?] existing with a mental illness such as depression (Anderson, 2011).

Case Study 2.

Andre Agassi is considered as one of the world's greatest tennis players in the last several decades. He had a very successful career but his autobiography reveals that he did have self doubt and struggles. He may not be considered a Mentally Tough athlete according to Mentally Tough criterion. It raises the question, if one needs to be Mentally Tough to be at the top of one's game, how does it explain individuals who succeed but are not Mentally Tough?(Anderson, 2011).

Measuring Mental Toughness[edit | edit source]

Early research focused on qualitative approaches designed to conceptualise what Mental Toughness in sport was. More recent approaches utilize a qualitative approach using psychometric inventories looking at relationships between key correlates and more recently retrospective interviews and intervention programs(Gucciardi, et al,20110).

The Mental Toughness questionnaire (MTQ48) is used to assess characteristics of Mental Toughness. It assesses Mental Toughness in total and has 4 subcomponents.

control(emotion and life)- acting and feeling as though one is influential.

commitment-tendency to involve oneself and not feel alienated from an encounter.

challenge- see life as changeable and view threat as an opportunity.

confidence(interpersonal and abilities)-unshakeable faith and self belief in ability to succeed.

Individuals that scored high on Mental Toughness and in particular the sub components of control and confidence were better able to tolerate a physical endurance task than those that had lower scores. Other research using the MTQ48 questionnaire showed that individuals with higher scores were able to cope with pain better and more likely to adhere to physical based therapy after sustaining an injury (Nichols et al.2008).

How does mental toughness help us to have better lives?[edit | edit source]

Mental Health-one longitudinal study of Mental Toughness was positively associated with life satisfaction, well adjusted individuals have less stress, less depressive symptoms and higher life satisfacion[spelling?]. Maladjusted individuals have lower levels of Mental Toughness. In one sample group of 284 high school students and 140 undergrad students [grammar?] it was shown that Mental Toughness moderated the relationship between depressive symptoms and stress (Lin et al., 2017)[explain?].

Sleep quality-studies reveal that individuals scoring higher on Mental Toughness have better sleep efficiency, less awakenings and greater deep and rapid eye movement sleep (Lin et al.,2017).

Stress and coping-Mental Toughness has been linked to a range of abilities such as coping better, better emotion control and problem solving (Lin et al.,2017).

How can Mental Toughness be developed?[edit | edit source]

Being in a competitive environment that builds perseverance and self confidence[grammar?]. This lays the groundwork for the development of Mental Toughness. Overcoming early setbacks have shown to create a mindset that can be developed into Mental Toughness. In sport, coaches and parents can help develop Mental Toughness through mentoring, teaching and nurturing skills. Practice environments that are competitive and high pressure assist in the building of confidence which leads to Mental Toughness. Build both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The use of mental skills, goal setting, self talk and imagery can help direct focus, build self belief and confidence. Teaching cognitive re [grammar?] structuring can help an athlete turn negative thoughts into positive ones using rationalization techniques. This could include identifying a negative though and trigger, stopping the thought and replacing it with a positive one(Weinberg&Butt,2011).

Coaches have a big impact on how Mental Toughness develops, especially during school years. A coach guides the attitudes and performance of the team and the individual. This is done by modelling certain behaviours, creating a positive environment, being a good communicator and teaching mental skills such as imagery and relaxation. These skills need to be used continually to be effective in the development and maintenance of Mental Toughness(Madison et al ,2020).

Psychological theory[edit | edit source]

Self Determination Theory- can help to explain the motivational antecedents of mental toughness, [grammar?] it is a meta theory of human motivation and considers to what level our actions are chosen and acted upon. There are three innate and universal psychological needs, autonomy, competence and relatedness. These growth needs drive our behaviour and lead to psychological development and growth.[factual?]

Autonomy is the need to make one owns choices and have control over their direction.

Competence is the need to gain mastery of tasks and develop skills, doing so will increase the likelihood that they will have the confidence to achieve goals.

Relatedness is the need to feel connected to others and social environments.

satisfying or thwarting psychological needs is dependant on social contextual factors. Nurturing environments that enhance one's psychological needs, encourages growth and development. Thwarting psychological needs through a controlling environment will stunt psychological growth. The factors that are identified in contributing to Mental Toughness have shared similarities as Self Determination Theory principles. Coaches can encourage Mental Toughness development in athletes by forming trusting relationships which attend to relatedness, create challenging pressurized situations that attend to competence and include athletes in preparation and competition which attends to autonomy(Mahoney et al,2014).

Test your knowledge about Mental Toughness

Choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

1 Can developing mental skills help an athlete develop Mental Toughness?

It would not be helpful to develop alternative ways of thinking
No , you either are Mentally Tough or you are not Mentally Tough
Thinking a certain way wont help you become a better athlete
Mental Toughness does not help one become a better athlete
Teaching mental skills such as changing one's thoughts can help with anxiety which then improves performance

2 According to Self- Determination Theory, there are psychological needs that drive one to achieve psychological growth, they areː

safety, security and self esteem
autonomy ,competence and relatedness
certainty, variety and significance
meeting love needs, being liked and respected
I am mentally tough so I don't care

3 How can Mental Toughness be developed?

Push yourself through pain and hope that you don't do permanent damage to body and mind
Develop a strong ,trusting relationship with one's coach who can model helpful behaviours and teach coping skills
Imagine that everything will be ok. Nothing else needs to be done
Keep pushing myself until the skills develop
They cant be developed ,you are born with the innate ability to be Mentally Tough

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Mental Toughness has no unified concept and therefore there is not much literature linking psychological theory to Mental Toughness. Research has shown that Mental Toughness does appear to help athletes deal with the demands of training and competition. Studies on students have revealed that higher levels of Mental Toughness lead to better sleep, better emotional control and enhanced problem solving[factual?]. All of which lead to better psychological well being[grammar?].

See also[edit | edit source]

Depression in athletes (Book chapter, 2014).

Extreme sport motivation (Book chapter, 2016).

Positive psychology (Wikiversity)

Self-determination theory (Wikiversity)

References[edit | edit source]

Andersen, M. B. (2011). Who's mental, who's tough and who's both? Mutton constructs dressed up as lamb. In D. F. Gucciardi & S. Gordon (Eds.), Mental toughness in sport: Developments in theory and research (pp. 69–88). Abingdon: Routledge.

Gucciardi,D.F.,Hanton,S.,&Fleming,S.(2017).Are mental toughness and mental health contradictory concepts in elite sport?A narrative review of theory and evidence. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport,20(3),307-311.doi:

Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2007). A Framework of Mental Toughness in the World’s Best Performers. The Sport Psychologist, 21(2), 243–264.

Lin,Y.,Mutz,J.,Clough,P.J.,Papageorgiou,K.A.(2017).Mental Toughness and Individual Differences in Learning, Educational and Work Performances, Psychological Well-being and Personality:A Systematic Review.Front.Psychol.8:1345. https://doi:3389/fpsyg.2017.01345

Madison Q. Hunt, Courtney E. Novak, Leilani A. Madrigal & Tiffanye M. Vargas (2020) Strategies for Developing Mental Toughness in High School Athletes, Strategies, 33:1, 14-19, DOI: 10.1080/08924562.2019.1680330

Mahoney,J.,N.,Ntormanis,C.,Mallett.,&D.,Gucciardi.(2014). The motivational antecedents of the development of mental toughness:a self -determination theory perspective.The International Review of Sport and Exercise Physiology,vol.7,2014,(1)184-197 .https://doi.org110.1080/1750984x.2014925941

Weinberg,R.&Butt ,J.(2011).Building Mental Toughness In D. F. Gucciardi & S. Gordon (Eds.), Mental toughness in sport: Developments in theory and research (pp. 218–285). Abingdon: Routledge.

External links[edit | edit source]

Mental Toughness :think differently about your world.(Ted Talk ,2012).

20 Books that help create Mental Toughness

Podcasts about Mental Toughness

Resilience and Mental Toughness building exercises

The Science Behind Mental Toughness (Ted Talk, 2015).