mental toughness

Building mental toughness as an athlete

Amon Fearon - September 16, 2022

Mental toughness is a part of an athlete’s everyday life. From competition prepping to regular training, having a strong mindset is what sets athletes apart from amateurs. But what is mental toughness and why is it so important in sports?

We take a look at how to improve mental toughness and tips and tricks to get yourself up to a professional standard. Let’s get started…


What does mental toughness mean?

Mental toughness is the ability to overcome doubts, worries and concerns that stop you achieving your best. Just like physical toughness, mental toughness requires work and can sometimes take years to harness.

While there isn’t any strict definition, a general agreed understanding of mental toughness is, “…the natural or developed psychological edge that enables an athlete to generally cope better with many demands of sports, such as stiff competition, hard training, and a strict lifestyle.”

Whether you’re at the start of your mental toughness journey or you’re an athlete looking to improve, here’s some of the top qualities of mental toughness among athletes:

  • Performing under pressure and stress
  • Training and competing with a positive mindset
  • Consistency and dedication to training no matter the circumstances
  • Recognising failure as an opportunity to grow
  • Having a healthy confidence is one’s abilities


It’s easy to fall into a toxic trap with mental toughness. It’s all about balance, and tipping too far could result in:

  • Failing to notice when you need a break
  • Having bad attitude to losing or making a mistake
  • Giving up when things get hard
  • Becoming arrogant or over-confident
  • Buckling under pressure


How does mental health affect athletic performance?

Mental health has a huge impact on athletic performance. In fact, studies have shown that:

  • Cognitive, emotional, and behavioural responses to injury are important in determining outcome.
  • Monitoring training loads, getting adequate rest periods, and maintaining optimal nutrition and hydration status are all important in preventing the development of OTS (overtraining syndrome).
  • The prevalence of mental health symptoms and disorders in current elite athletes ranges from 19% for alcohol misuse to 34% for anxiety/depression.


All these things add up over time, especially when you consider that a professional or elite sport career is characterised by more than 640 distinct stressors. When broken down, these include three main points: competitive, organisational, and personal stressors. Here are a few examples of what those might look like:





Training environment


Competition prep




Social support





Performance pressure

Career progression



Of course, that’s an over simplified, top-level view of just some of the things that can affect an athlete’s performance. In reality, there are hundreds if not thousands of reasons why an athlete might not be performing at their best or slowly declining in overall success.


Why is mental toughness important in sports?

Mental toughness is a learnable skill. If taught by coaches to athletes at a young age, mental toughness can help promising athletes throughout their career. Since athletes rely on so much outside of their physical abilities, this need for mental fortitude could be the make or break of their performance on any given day.

In the past, athletes have proven that mental toughness promotes adaptive mental health functioning, well-being, lower stress levels, depression, and an increase in the quality of sleep. All of which are important factors to perform in their sport.

The earlier an athlete starts training mental toughness, the better. Non-elite players tend to only mentally train when in a negative state of mind to combat their reactions. However, by incorporating mental training into day-to-day life, athletes can see real progress in both their mental and physical capabilities.


How to become a better athlete mentally

There are endless ways to train the mental toughness of an athlete. Many coaches will have their own styles and may adapt these on an individual basis depending on the athlete in question. But if you’re looking to improve your mental toughness on your own, here are some top tips from an Olympic athlete:

Goal setting

Setting performance goals, like achieving a new personal best, and setting process goals, such as the execution of technical elements. Some athletes find this more helpful than focusing on outcome goals, like medals, as this draws attention and focus away from the competition at hand allowing them to focus on their performance in the moment.


Using your internal dialogue to include affirmations of strength and talent as well as encouragement and ‘hyping up’. This can help athletes to feel confident and in control to face any challenge.


The mental ability to imagine their discipline in full as though they were performing it in real-time. While perhaps more useful to routine-based sports, this is a good practice for all athletes to master as it enables the individual to prepare for all outcomes – good and bad.

Emotional control

Accepting and embracing all emotions associated with their sport, including excitement, elation, anger, and disappointment. Being aware of these emotions and using them as a force for good will ultimately help with overall performance, general sportsmanship and understanding of athleticism.


How to measure mental toughness

Since mental toughness is a highly personal journey, measuring its success isn’t as easy as the physical aspects of an athlete’s life. However, a lot of coaches and athletes favour using psychological tests to see how they change over time. Two of the most popular tests are:

  • The Clough and Strycharczyk framework (MTQ 4C's)
  • The Mental Toughness Questionnaire (MTQ-18)


While slightly different, both tests aim to evaluate an individual’s self-awareness and reflection that can be used to develop further learning. These are both incredibly useful tools for seeing the change in thinking patterns among athletes. It’s best to pick one and stick to it for future tests to form some consistency which will allow you to truly measure your success.

Mental toughness starts with the right mindset. If you’re wanting to improve your mental capabilities to perform better, get yourself the technical gear you need to make a head start physically and then set out a long-term plan for mental growth.