What is Mental Toughness?

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Mental toughness is a term frequently used within sporting contexts, often being hailed as the principle reason for victory, or the sole explanation for loss. 

Coaches, supporters, commentators, and journalists colloquially describe athletes as either mentally strong or mentally weak, but is it appropriate to applaud or condemn a player using this catch-all phrase? The answer is no.

We can use the term fitness to illustrate this point. There are many different aspects of fitness, such as speed, power, agility, endurance, strength, mobility, etc. An elite marathon runner has high levels of endurance, but not necessarily high levels of strength. In contrast, an elite sprinter has high levels of strength, but not necessarily high levels of endurance. Yet we can describe both of these athletes as having a high level of fitness. They are both fit, but they possess distinct fitness characteristics.

Mental toughness characteristics

Distinct characteristics are also prevalent within mental toughness. These traits include fight, inner drive, critical moment control, resilience, emotional control, capacity for change, team player, and honesty. For example, one athlete may exhibit a lot of fight, but little emotional control. Another could be high on the inner drive scale, but low on the critical moment control range, and so on. 

So what differentiates these characteristics of mental toughness? Here are some simple definitions which highlight the specific qualities for each of these traits…  

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Fight

Athletes who have fight are confrontational, aggressive, and like to get into a battle with the opposition.

Inner Drive

Those with inner drive are highly motivated, have a strong work ethic, and are capable of working independently of coach, parental or external input.

Critical Moment Control

Possessing a high level of critical moment control allows an athlete to remain clear-minded when the pressure is on, therefore leading to good decision-making when under stress.

Resilience

Resilient players are able to bounce back after setbacks, don’t let disappointments affect them, and are capable of refocusing after making a mistake.

Emotional Control

Players with good emotional control can regulate their emotions so they are in the optimum mindset for performance. If they need to be calm and controlled, they have the skills to lower arousal and clarify thinking. If they need to be pumped up, they also have the ability to increase arousal and aggression levels.

Capacity for Change

Athletes with the capacity for change are open-minded and listen carefully to what coaches and experts have to say. They learn quickly and are able to change their techniques and behaviours. 

Team Player

Team players are considerate of others, provide energy to the team, work hard in training, and show leadership skills when appropriate.

Honesty

Honest athletes are able to reflect on their performance in a genuine and open manner, they are able to take critical feedback, and identity which areas of their game need to be improved.

Mental toughness development

The majority of athletes are strong in certain aspects of mental toughness, whilst being less developed in the other areas. Strengthening most, if not all, of the distinct traits of mental toughness, will enable an athlete to survive, and thrive, in a wider spectrum of sporting situations and conditions…and then, perhaps, the term ‘he/she is mentally tough’ can be applied correctly and appropriately to that athlete.

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