Mental Toughness: What It Is, and What It Takes

When faced with a threat, humans react with one of three instinctive behaviors: fight, flight, or freeze. This applies not only to primordial humans encountering sabretooth tigers in the jungle, but also to us as modern-day athletes. While athletic performance may not involve matters of life and death (hopefully), it still requires us to make a decision to 1) fight—strap in and face the challenge; 2) flight—escape potential perils; or 3) freeze—and simply do nothing. Whether the threat is physical (e.g., a 300-lb defensive back rushing you) or psychological (e.g., a game-deciding penalty shootout), we respond with our most basic instincts for survival. For those of you who choose to fight, sometimes the fight will go in your favor…and sometimes it won’t. But why does this happen? There are so many variables that play out into a particular outcome, and most of them are out of your own control—but there is one game-changing variable that is completely within your control when you face threats of any kind: your mental toughness.

This term—mental toughness—is one I’m willing to guess many, if not all of you, are familiar with. You have probably heard it from your coaches, parents, teammates, fellow athletes, or even the media. Sometimes mental toughness is described pretty blatantly: “Tom stayed strong mentally in his last at-bat,” or “Kelly has a mentality that is unrivaled by her opponents.” But sometimes this concept of mental toughness is more subtle: “Pete fought through the tough calls,” or “Amber was able to stay relaxed in her final free throws.” While the definition of mental toughness will certainly vary from person to person, I would define it as:

The ability to perform automatically, with confidence, across varied situations.
With 652 saves, Mariano Rivera was Mr. Automatic! 

With 652 saves, Mariano Rivera was Mr. Automatic! 

What I mean by the word “automatically” is that athletic performance should be natural. Thinking, strategizing, and analyzing can be done between plays or calls, but there is a moment when you have to simply let yourself play the way you have trained and prepared for. In other words, you cannot think and perform at the same time. In the movie Bill Durham, Crash Davis makes this point clearly, stating, “Don’t think—it can only hurt the ball club.” And, though it may sound controversial, he is right. Depending on your sport, there comes a point in time, a line, where you have to let performance happen. It can be an imaginary line (stepping onto the court), or an actual line (a free-throw line)—it doesn’t matter. When you face that line, you must rely on your automatic processes to take control of the performance you and trained and prepared so intently for. And you must do it confidently. If you lack trust in yourself, you will not perform to your highest potential. The good news is, if you lack confidence, you can build it. You can learn to trust yourself.

The second half of my definition of mental toughness, “across varied situations,” is also important. Your confidence in your ability to rely on automatic processes in situations of high pressure is only useful if you can hone this when you face a variety of “threats”—even if some threats pose less danger than others. Everyone always remembers the high-pressure moments, and who wouldn’t? Those are the times when mental toughness stands out. It doesn’t just happen or appear—it has been worked on; it has been practiced; it has been carefully developed. Which is why, even in the most relaxed situations, the same mental approach must be practiced. Whether you are up 30 points or down 30 points, both are opportunities for you to allow yourself to perform automatically with confidence. As a routine is learned and practiced in low-pressure situations, it will become natural at times when the stakes are higher. Toughness is not only about the big moments—it is also about pushing through when you are bored or uninspired. When you do not want to commit to a process, that’s when you have to be mentally tough.

Because mental toughness is a multidimensional construct, there are four things you must do to prepare yourself. In no particular order of importance, you must first have the motivation to be the best you can be. You cannot be content with being average. You must have the drive to keep pushing yourself to see improvement. Second, you must have confidence in yourself. You must understand that, in order to give yourself an opportunity for success, you need to already believe that you will be successful. There is no room for doubt. And third, you must be resilient. Time after time, you will fail—it is, after all, sports; it is life. You must understand that failure is a learning opportunity. Take those opportunities to reflect, to understand, and to prepare yourself for the next time. Michael Jordan has been quoted as saying,

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
—Michael Jordan

THAT is resiliency. Recognition that, because of the failures, even in high-pressure situations, Jordan learned, and allowed himself to become better and succeed. Finally, at the core of mental toughness, you must have passion for what you are doing. Deep down, you need to love what it is you do. If the passion for your sport, your game, your performance, is lost, the other elements mean nothing.

You are setting yourself up to embark on a mission. And to accomplish that mission you need to be mentally tough: motivated, confident, resilient, and passionate. How are you working to improve those qualities in yourself? Post your tips in the comments section on how you are working to develop more mental toughness!

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Trey McCalla, MA, CC-AASP (Provisional), is a guest contributor to the Volt blog. With an MA in Sport Psychology, he is a High Performance Mental Skills Specialist and a Certified Consultant through the Association of Applied Sport Psychology (Provisional). Learn more about Trey at ASCEND Excelerate Performance.