Six Characteristics of Mental Toughness for Athletes

Mental toughness has taken up permanent residence in the sports world. Athletes strive to be mentally tough and coaches seek recruits who appear to have a tough mindset. But as mainstream as the phrase has become, a question still remains: what does it mean to have mental toughness in sports?

A quick internet search will reveal many definitions of mental toughness for athletes. After sorting them through, it seems a go to definition goes something like this: a measure of an individual’s ability to be resilient, have confidence, remain competitive, and overcome adversity in their life.

This is a good definition, which I agree sums up mental toughness for athletes quite well. However, I believe in order to truly grasp what it means to be mentally tough and hope to build it within yourself, a deeper look into what makes up mental toughness is necessary.

In this article, you will learn what mental toughness for athletes is, and the 6 key characteristics you need to build within yourself in order to become a mentally tough athlete.

But first, it seems helpful to address some common misconceptions that arise when discussing mental toughness in sports.

Common Misconceptions About Mental Toughness in Sports

I usually find it frustrating when looking up a term or how to do something and all that is provided is what the idea is not. But, I understand the necessity of such a discussion when a term has so much misconception around its meaning.

In the past, I have come across many different ideas about what it means to be mentally tough. On top of that, it seems people have varying beliefs about how mental toughness in sports is developed (or not) and who needs to focus on being mentally tough.

Knowing all of this ambiguity, I believe dispelling some of the common misconceptions will help you in moving forward towards building a stronger mind for yourself.

Misconception #1: You’re Born with Mental Toughness

I think that one of the most detrimental ideas to anyone wanting to gain a stronger mind is that we are born with a certain level of mental strength. Admittedly, I used to wholeheartedly believe this to be true, and I've noticed a lot of the athletes I work with have a similar idea.

Thinking in this way not only limits your potential to build mental toughness, but results in one of the worst threats to our mental health: covering up any signs of “weakness.”

If we believe that mental toughness is a gift you’re born with, then we must make it seem as if we were luckily enough to receive it. In my own life, this resulted in hiding any signs of anxiety or depression, especially around my coaches and teammates.

The truth is, mental toughness for athletes, as with physical toughness, must be cultivated. Through repeated efforts, the skill can be built. Yes, some people are naturally gifted in certain areas, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get to that level.

There’s a quote I love which is attributed to a high school coach named Tim Notke. He states, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” Remember that the next time you think you can’t be mentally tough since you feel you weren’t born with a tough mind.

Misconception #2: You Can’t Show Weakness

As I described above, when we think mental toughness is not built, but a natural gift, hiding our weaknesses becomes a reasonable habit. However, being someone who routinely hid any traits I believed to be weak, my opinion is that hiding our weaknesses is in fact weak.

Once you adopt the idea that mental toughness for athletes is a characteristic that needs to be built, revealing areas of weakness becomes necessary. Think about your sport; if you want to improve, what is the first step that needs to be taken?

You have to first admit to areas of weakness, and then work to turn them into strengths. If we stop hiding our feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, and poor confidence we can work on improving these areas.

The more you repress these beliefs and feelings, the worse of an impact they have on your life. By admitting to them and shedding light on areas that need improvement, you are not showing any weakness, rather you are building strength.

Misconception #3: There’s No Room for Vulnerability

A book that really impacted my life, as well as my moms (who recommended it to me) is called Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. In it, she discusses the idea of vulnerability. While really embracing what she had to say, I began to think about how vulnerability plays into mental toughness.

As I mentioned in misconception number two, mental toughness in sports is often associated with the absence of weakness. Being vulnerable refers to revealing this weakness.

Why being vulnerable has become associated with being weak is quite confusing.

The courage it takes to own up to our shortcomings, even to ourselves, is incredible. So for us to say we can’t be vulnerable if we want to be tough of mind is ridiculous. We have to be vulnerable in order to build such a mindset.

Vulnerability does not inhibit mental toughness but rather leads to mental toughness.

Benefits of Being Mentally Tough in Sports

With those misconceptions dispelled, let’s now look at the benefits mental toughness has to offer for athletes. It’s always good to examine the benefits of a trait, especially when the term is used so commonly.

Just because a phrase is popular, doesn’t automatically make it valuable. But, after looking at the benefits of mental toughness, I think you’ll find its popularity is justified in significance.

There are five benefits of mental toughness for athletes I would like to touch on. They are as follows:

  • Improves Motivation: When working towards a goal, motivation is key. You must have that inner drive to push yourself even on the days you feel like giving up. Cultivating mental toughness helps you remain motivated and working in the direction of your goals.
  • Ability to Handle Criticism: Whether you are an athlete, a student, or professional, there is no doubt criticism will find its way into your life. This may come as helpful by the person providing the feedback, but you can take it quite personally. When you develop mental toughness, criticism will become neutral. You’ll be able to view it objectively and learn from the feedback, instead of allowing it to impact your confidence.
  • Increased Positivity: An often undervalued aspect to success, remaining positive greatly improves our performances. Having a tough mindset means negativity will not be as impactful. Providing you with the opportunity to remain positive, even in the most negative of circumstances.
  • Better Resilience: Failure is no friend to success, though be it a necessary piece. On the road to any goal, setbacks are almost guaranteed. One of the greatest traits mental toughness provides is the ability to be resilient in the face of adversity.
  • Increased Self-Belief: We have to hold ourselves to a high degree if we wish to attain success. There is no room for doubts in our minds. But having such confidence and self-worth is not always easy to come by. Developing high levels of mental toughness strengthens our mindset and keeps self-doubts at bay. When negative thoughts no longer control us, it becomes much easier to believe in our capability to achieve our goals.

How to Build Mental Toughness in Sports

The benefits of mental toughness for athletes are known, misconceptions have been destroyed, now the only question remaining is what makes up a tough mind?

Having a lot of experience in exercise and weight lifting, I know that to say someone has a strong body, there are many different muscles that make it up. You have strong legs, strong, arms, a strong core, a strong back, and so on.

So, for mental toughness, I began to wonder if the same kind of makeup was possible. What attributes, if developed, would allow for someone to be called mentally strong? After putting much thought into the subject, I came up with six characteristics that I truly believe make up a strong mind.

1. Self-Awareness

Being self-aware means you have the ability to understand your thoughts, feelings, and actions.

By understand, I mean not only can you describe how you’re feeling, for example, but you also have an idea of why you are feeling that way. This knowledge serves as the foundation for mental toughness.

The other areas I will discuss all stem from having a high level of self-awareness. When you don’t know why you are thinking, feeling, or acting the way you are, it’s easy to become frustrated.

Before I began working on my self-awareness, it seemed as if anxiety and other negative thoughts/feelings were coming out of the blue. And when you don’t know the origin of something, changing it becomes close to impossible.

With the knowledge gained through self-awareness, you will be adding a valuable trait to the makeup of your mind.

2. Self-Confidence

Belief and trust in your skills and abilities defines self-confidence.

When coming up with the characteristics of mental toughness, having trust in your own abilities seemed like a must. No matter what you do, there needs to be the belief within you that you have the necessary skills to succeed.

If you don’t, your mind becomes more susceptible to criticism, self-doubt, and negative thinking. All of this increases the volatility of your emotions.

Developing self-confidence acts as a wall within your mind to outside interference. You no longer will be as reliant on external praise and reassurance when it comes to your skills. The belief is within you and you know you have all the abilities you need to succeed.

3. Focus

Distractions are everywhere in sports. If you want to be mentally tough, you must have the ability to control your focus in the midst of such distractions.

A great example of this is playing an opposing team on their home field or court. This is an easy opportunity for you to lose focus, especially if their crowd is loud and working hard to get in your head.

But by you being able to control your focus, their best efforts won't be able to distract you.

Another example is more internal, having to do with distracting thoughts you have before, during, and after a game.

Let's say you just made a mistake, what are you thinking about going into the next play? If you're unable to let go of the mistake and refocus your attention, it will be very unlikely your performance will improve moving forward.

To build mental toughness for athletes, you must work to strengthen the control you have over your focus.

4. Bouncing Back From Failure

To build a tough mind, you must have the capability to bounce back from failure. In the list of benefits, I described an increase in resilience as a product of mental toughness in sports. What’s interesting is the benefit comes from the necessity of being resilient in order to be mentally tough.

Sports failure, big or small will find us all. Some may only run into minor setbacks, while others will have to deal with large adversities in their lifetime. The question is not whether we will fail, but how will we respond to such failure?

If you want to be a mentally tough athlete, failure needs to become your teacher. With the inevitability of failing, why become frustrated by it? We have the choice to let such events tear us down, or use them in our favor.

By learning from your failures, you take an ordinarily negative experience and turn it into an opportunity for personal growth. That is how you must view failure in order to be mentally tough.

5. Envision Yourself as Successful

The fifth characteristic of mental toughness for athletes involves the way you see yourself in respect to success. Do you simply wish for your goals to be achieved, or do you see yourself as already having accomplished them?

When I think of a mentally tough individual, one attribute that comes to mind is their incredible belief that they will be successful. We just got through talking about the expected failures that will appear in our lives.

If you do not see yourself as successful, how difficult will it be to persevere and stay motivated in the face of such adversity? Only those of us who truly believe, to our core, that we will be successful have a chance of pushing on.

Our self-image dictates a great deal of what our lives will look like. This goes beyond a one time visualization session, too. I am referring to the constant image you have in your head and belief you hold in your heart regarding yourself and success.

If you can begin to view yourself as a success, another piece to a tough mindset will be gained.

6. Self-Management

The final characteristic of mental toughness for athletes is all about how well we can manage ourselves. What I am referring to is the ability you have to control, change, and dictate your thoughts, feelings and emotions.

Low-levels of self-management make having a tough mind very difficult. Here, we often find ourselves blaming others and the environment for how we think, feel, and behave. Since the ability to control ourselves is absent, it seems natural to push the responsibility onto an external source.

But, with the ability to control the thoughts that fill our heads, the emotions they trigger, and the actions we perform we gain mastery over ourselves. This is the epitome of mental toughness.

Through the development of self-management, you will no longer be at the mercy of your surroundings. You gain the power to respond how you choose, instead of instinctively reacting. That is why controlling yourself is the culminating characteristic that makes up mental toughness.

Final Thoughts

Being mentally tough is an important trait to develop if you wish to be a successful athlete. And pay close attention to the wording I just used...develop. You must work to develop mental toughness, meaning, it doesn’t matter whether you associate with having a tough mind or not.

As with physical strength, our minds must be built through continual practice. Removing the common misconception that mental toughness is an inherited gift puts you one step closer to developing a strong mind.

When thinking about what characteristics are needed to build such a mindset, there are six that we must pay attention to.

Through the traits of self-awareness, self-confidence, focus, resilience, seeing yourself as successful, and self-management, you can create the needed mental toughness in sports to accomplish any goal.

I hope that this article was helpful and you gained a better understanding of what it takes to build mental toughness for athletes. Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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