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Mental Toughness Among Athletes

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Mental toughness has been discussed in the sports literature for many years. Indeed, mental toughness has been related to both business and sporting worlds owing to the alignment and common framework it carries. Here, I outline 10 key characteristics of mental toughness among sports performers.

Ability to bounce back from defeat

Sports performers will experience defeat. Champion performers like Michael Phelps, Novak Djokovic, Lionel Messi and Lewis Hamilton have suffered from defeat. However, elite performers have this innate ability to bounce back. The ability to bounce back is imperative in order to restore positivity and self-confidence.

Performers channel their deep inner sanctums and respond by fuelling their fire on defeat to achieve future success. In other words, defeat hurts enough for them to bounce back.


A resilient performer will look at each task and perform to their maximum to achieve the end goal. Resilience does relate to the ability to bounce back and also to work on coping under pressure. Resilience is a characteristic that performers can use to build self-confidence with the use of mental skills. A good example of resilience is from tennis where performers fight back from two sets down during tournaments.


Performers need to have consistency and stability within their performance and training. The drive theory is associated to forming habits and the more you do something (e.g. kicking in football) the better you should become. Consistency is also about mental and physical preparation within your own sport.


Sport contains with it an array of emotions that can influence and impact outcomes. The purpose of composure enables performers to execute tasks with maximum application and minimal energy expenditure. For example, the mind and body require balance prior to a gymnastic routine being successfully executed. Performers who are unsuccessful may indeed be anxious of the outcome that leads to failure.

Nervousness and tension created will only subject the body to tighten and mind to get confused.


There is no doubt that performers require both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in order to be champion athletes. The inner self-belief is imperative as it outlines desire and commitment. Based on this inner self-belief performers can use extrinsic motivation to influence their choices. The key to motivation is having the ability to set process-related goals and to achieve these effectively.


Given the nature of sport and its fluctuating fortunes it is important to consider confidence. There are a range of models that direct the purpose of confidence. In short, confidence can relate to the ability of being aware that you can achieve a set goal or execute a certain skill. When self-doubt occurs, levels of confidence will be low. When a performer builds self-efficacy levels of confidence increase.


Aligned closely to confidence is desire and the willingness to achieve. Desire is also formed from an inner belief that success can be achieved. When teams have set goals and believe that they can achieve them it is noticeable to assess positive body language. Conversely, when teams are disjointed there is the opposite effect of poor body language.


A top performer will always be organised in order to achieve their goals. Organisation is based on many aspects of which some are subtle but just as important. Preparation and arriving punctually are key characteristics of being organised. Following key instructions and understanding these are also important. For example, a performer who is organised is most likely to be prepared and focused on the task at hand.

Attention to detail

This is a key ingredient that top performers possess. It is evident within elite sport (performers or coaches) can tactically spot something much quicker than others.

Considering elite sport contains within it fine margins then attention to detail becomes important. Indeed, within some team sports there is evidence of the use of GPS systems to assess how much ground performers have covered.


Performers who want to achieve success need to be determined. Determination is formed from inner self-belief. It is through determination that performers become successful and finds ways to progress onto the next level. Recent examples of determined performers who have successfully moved onto the next level include Andy Murray, England Rugby Union and the Indian Test Team.

Built into mental toughness is reflective practice. In other words, to be mentally tough one should use reflective practice that provides opportunities to assess strengths and build on areas to improve. One common strategy to align this opportunity is through goal setting. Taken together, mental toughness, reflective practice and mental skills are aligned to support and facilitate performance.

Gobinder Gill teaches psychology and research methods. 


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