Mental toughness has been referred to as one of the most important psychological characteristics for successful performance in sport, but what really is mental toughness, how can we measure it and how can athletes develop it? Keep reading to find out more!
What is mental toughness?
Mental toughness has been defined as the company of one or more learned and inherited values, attitudes, emotions, cognitions and behaviours. These attributes impact the way an individual copes with pressures, stressors, challenges and adversities in training and competitions (Slack, Meynard, Butt & Olusoga, 2015).
Let’s take a moment to unpack that definition…
In its simplest terms, mental toughness is an umbrella term for a collection of psychological characteristics which are central to helping an athlete cope during varying degrees of situational demands.
Some athletes may be innately disposed to managing hardship and adversity well, but we know from the definition, these characteristics can also be learned and developed. This can be through athletes using a collection of resources through mental skills training.
Just like any physical component of sport, these collections of resources that enhance an athlete’s mental toughness, must be learned and continuously trained on a regular basis for them to have a benefit.
Tips for developing mental toughness
Clough, Earle & Sewell (2002) have come up with four components otherwise known as “The 4C’s Model” that can be trained through psychological skills training, which will help to build mental toughness.
We must acknowledge that there are a wide variety of other characteristics which can be developed to help an athlete to cope during varying degrees of situational demands, but for now, we will focus on the four C’s, which are:
Let’s delve into each element a bit deeper of what it might look like for athletes with high and low levels of mental toughness…
This is the degree to which an athlete feels like they are in control of their life, have involvement in decisions and control over their emotions.
An athlete with a high level of mental toughness may feel like they have an influence on key aspects of their training, their personal life, and their own emotions. Whereas an athlete with low mental toughness, may feel they have no influence on what they are doing, and decisions are outside of their remit, which can have a negative impact on their performance.
This is the extent to which an athlete consistently and reliably works towards a goal that they have set themselves.
An athlete with a high level of mental toughness can be relied upon to work hard to do what they say they will do even during a difficult situation whereas an athlete with a low level of mental toughness, will be the opposite and will hide away from the situation and won’t meet promises or expectations.
This is an athlete’s drive to be as good as they possibly can be.
An athlete with a high level of mental toughness, will view challenges such as an injury, or a last-minute change in decision as an opportunity, they will embrace the challenge and adapt to the situation in front of them. An athlete with a low level of mental toughness, will view these challenges as a threat and will try to avoid these situations.
This is the belief an athlete has in themselves.
An athlete with a high level of mental toughness, will poses a high sense of belief in themselves and an unshakable faith that they are able to complete the task at hand whatever it may be. Those with a low level of mental toughness, may have self-doubt and don’t feel they are able to cope with a situation.
So what now?
Now we know what high or low levels of mental toughness may look like for athletes in the 4C’s model. Those who experience little or no control over their situations or emotions, avoid situations, view challenges as threats, or lack lack-belief will benefit from improving their mental toughness so that they can better cope during varying degrees of situational demands.
Psychological skills training has been found to enhance mental toughness as this helps to build an athlete’s collection of resources. For tips on psychological skills training, check out our article here.
How to measure mental toughness?
There is no direct way to measure mental toughness, but there are a number of questionnaires that can be used as a guide to indirectly measure an athlete’s mental toughness, these include:
You may use this table to help inform you of which questionnaire you wish to use depending on your situation and weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of each one.
Other ways to measure mental toughness are through observations, reflections and conversations between the coach and athlete. This will first require the coach and athlete to go through the process of getting to know each other and building a relationship to effectively discuss how the athlete is coping.
In this article, we’ve covered what mental toughness is, provided tips on how to develop the 4 C’s of mental toughness and how to measure it.
Try out some of our psychological skills training tips and you may find as you develop your mental toughness, you are better equipped to handle adversities, stressors and pressures. Be sure to let us know how you get on!
- Liew et al. (2019) Mental Toughness in Sport
If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:
- Dingley, E (2021). Mental Toughness in Sport. Available from: https://sportscienceinsider.com/mental-toughness-in-sport/. [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].
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Emily, co-founder of Sport Science Insider, graduated from the University of Leeds in 2020 and went on to become an accredited S&C coach with the UKSCA in 2022. A former athlete herself, Emily has since gone on to deliver S&C coaching for the Southern Academy of Sport, GB Rowing, GB Taekwondo and works currently as a full-time S&C coach at the University of Leeds.