What Is Mental Toughness, and Where Can I Get Some?
Research into athletes’ mindsets can help every person become psychologically stronger
When someone is described as being “mentally tough,” it typically signals that they’re resilient, self-assured, and bold. Ask any athlete what the concept means in sports, and they will answer, “you thrive in competition,” “you’re self-confident,” and “you can handle the pressure.” But all these statements describe behavior, rather than what’s going on inside one’s head. They fail to define what mental toughness actually is and how it develops.
In 2002, Graham Jones, professor of elite performance psychology at the University of Wales, set out to answer the question: “What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness?” He interviewed 10 sports professionals competing at an international level — swimmers, sprinters, gymnasts, triathletes, rugby players, and runners — and asked what the concept means to them.
After analyzing their answers, Jones concluded that to be mentally tough in sports takes an unshakeable self-belief in the ability to achieve goals, and the determination to bounce back from performance setbacks. A mentally tough athlete is confident that their skills are unique and is recognizable by an insatiable desire to succeed, Jones writes.
Peter Clough, a professor of psychology at the University of Hull, looks at mental toughness beyond elite athletes and the context of sports. He considers it an actual personality trait, fundamental to the performance, well-being, and personal development of everyone, that determines “how people deal effectively with challenges, stressors, and pressure… irrespective of circumstances.”
Since the human psyche is strongly influenced not only by external but also internal voices, our mental state can benefit from psychological tools including positive thinking, visualization, attentional control, and goal setting.
According to Clough’s model, mental toughness is made up of four components that psychologists call the “4Cs:” challenge, control, commitment, and confidence. A mentally…