10 Things Mental Toughness is NOT

There are many misconceptions about what it means to be mentally tough. In this article

Mental toughness is an idea that carries with it more questions than answers. What does it mean to be mentally tough? How do you know if you are tough? How can you tell if someone has a strong mind?

The sports environment is filled with discussions about mental toughness. It’s a buzzword everyone loves. Athletes want to be mentally tough and coaches are scouting players who have this intangible skill.

Due to the amount of emphasis placed on the concept, it has become important for athletes to be mentally tough. But what happens when you don’t exactly know what that means?

You fall into the trap of trying to appear tough.

This raises all kinds of issues, such as suppressing your emotions and feeling like any sign of weakness will make you a weaker player.

Before you begin working to improve your mental toughness, a baseline understanding of the skill must be present.

Through my research, I’ve landed on six characteristics that are believed to make up a mentally tough individual. These include: self-awareness, self-confidence, self-worth, bouncing back from failure, envisioning yourself as successful, and self-management.

However, sometimes it’s best to take a different approach.

By examining what mental toughness is not, you will be more equipped to embark on improving and utilizing the skill in a healthy way.

10 Things Mental Toughness is NOT

I typically prefer being straightforward when it comes to defining a term. I’ve never been a fan of telling someone what something is not.

Though, in this instance, I see the benefits. I’ve already outlined the six areas which make up mental toughness. It’s now time to take a look at what mental toughness is not.

The reason I believe this to be an important concept to understand is due to the misconceptions that abound when it comes to the mind. These lead to unhealthy behaviors that perpetuate negative thinking and emotions.

To avoid making these mistakes yourself, be sure not to fall into the trap of thinking any of these ten concepts are ways to define mental toughness.

1. Mental Toughness is NOT…Showing No Weakness

Thinking of weakness as being in opposition to toughness is quite common. It’s natural to think weakness means you aren’t tough. However, what exactly is a weakness when it comes to your mind?

Growing up, I believed anxiety, fear, perfectionism, and any other negative ways of thinking and feeling to be weaknesses. This led to me questioning my own level of mental toughness.

I felt as if I couldn’t be tough, since I had these areas which were impacting my performance.

However, the truth is, these are not weaknesses. Weakness is being too afraid to face those areas within our lives which require improvement.

Mental toughness is not showing any weaknesses, but rather, using the weaknesses you feel you have as insights as to how you can improve.

Look to these areas and ask yourself, “How can I improve upon my weaknesses?”

Showing no weaknesses is not mental toughness, but rather, is a weakness due to your inability to progress and improve yourself.

2. Mental Toughness is NOT…Something You’re Born With

One of the main reasons we hold onto the belief that showing weakness means you aren’t mentally tough is the idea that we are born with a strong mind.

We are all naturally inclined towards certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. That comes down to each of our personalities. However, this does not mean your level of mental toughness is immovable.

As you grow up, the toughness of your mind will be formed by experience and influenced by those closest to you. Since mental toughness involves the way you think, this process will be largely impacted by your surroundings.

If mental toughness is formed in that way, do you know what this means? You can continue the development at a conscious level.

Just because right now you don’t feel mentally tough does not mean you can’t work to alter that mindset. Our minds thrive off of repetition. Witnessing a pattern of thinking or a way of behaving on a consistent basis will lead to it becoming a part of you.

Knowing this, if you wish to improve your mental toughness, repetitive effort can be implemented to do so. I’m not saying building mental toughness is easy, but what I am saying is it can be done.

Holding onto the idea you are born either mentally tough or weak gives no room for improvement. Drop this belief and realize your mind is malleable and you can shape it how you wish.

“As you grow up, the toughness of your mind will be formed by experience and influenced by those closest to you. Since mental toughness involves the way you think, this process will be largely impacted by your surroundings.”

3. Mental Toughness is NOT…Only For Athletes

I started off this article by discussing the frequent use of mental toughness within athletics. That doesn’t mean the term only applies to the sports world.

In fact, one of the best parts about athletes improving their minds is the benefits that trickle out into all areas of their lives.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, building mental toughness will improve the quality of your life.

To gain a better understanding of the incredible effects mental toughness will have on your life, all we have to do is examine a few of the characteristics which make up a tough mind.

The first one is going to be self-confidence. This refers to the belief and trust you have in yourself and your abilities. Now, who of us would not benefit from higher levels of self-confidence?

This leads to higher-quality relationships, more risk-taking, and greater satisfaction within your life.

Another characteristic is resilience. Resilience refers to your ability to handle failure and adversity in a positive way. Now I know every single one of us has experienced a setback in our lives.

Some people may deal with these on a larger scale, but no matter the severity, adversity will always be present. What matters is not the failure, but how you respond to the situation.

By improving your mental toughness, you will gain a greater ability to view failure as a learning experience and use it in a positive way.

So you see, simply by focusing on developing a strong mind, the quality of your life will improve, no matter if you’re an athlete, a student, or anything else.

4. Mental Toughness is NOT…Hiding Your Emotions

If you want to be mentally tough, you can’t show any fear, anxiety, sadness, depression, or any other type of emotion.

From the title above, you clearly know this isn’t true. But it’s the exact thinking many adopt in terms of mental toughness…one held strongly by myself for a long time.

This really plays off the idea I outlined earlier that showing any sign of weakness automatically relinquishes any hopes of you being mentally tough.

By believing that showing your emotions means you’re weak, you allow no room for growth. The idea illustrates a fixed mindset when it comes to mental toughness. The truth is actually the opposite.

I’m not suggesting we should all run around telling anyone who will listen about our emotions. But when a feeling surfaces, such as anxiety, for example, do not hide it from others out of fear of being seen as weak.

Look to these emotions as opportunities for growth. By addressing the negative feelings you have (the ones you believe make you weak) your mental toughness will actually grow.

Keeping the emotions hidden only worsens the effect they have on your life. We all feel it’s not the emotions that are weak, rather the avoidance of such feelings that should be viewed as inferior.

5. Mental Toughness is NOT…Suppressing Your Mind

Sometimes our minds can be a frightful place. The doubts, worries, and concerns that frequent the space in your head can make suppression a safe alternative. But as with hiding your emotions, this is not the optimal pathway to mental toughness.

What I mean by suppressing your mind is pretending thoughts and ideas which are present are not there. Have you ever experienced an unpleasant thought? I’m sure you have, as they’re something we all must deal with on occasion.

How do you typically respond? Naturally, we want to get rid of these thoughts as quickly as possible. No one wants a head full of unpleasant ideas or even memories.

However, is the suppression of such mental impressions what you must do to keep your mind tough? No, while it may seem to be a safe alternative, it does nothing to further your mental strength.

When faced with such an idea, an individual with mental toughness will meet the thought head-on. Sometimes the best way to deal with unpleasantness is direclty.

Allow the thought in your mind, observe it, question it, and then see what you may learn. Do not seek to suppress your own mind, as you never know what it’s trying to teach you.

“Sometimes our minds can be a frightful place. The doubts, worries, and concerns that frequent the space in your head can make suppression a safe alternative. But as with hiding your emotions, this is not the optimal pathway to mental toughness.”

6. Mental Toughness is NOT…The Absence of Negative Thinking

There is an abundance of truth behind the power of positive thinking.

We should all strive to cultivate positivity in our minds as frequently as possible. Though, does the presence of negative thinking automatically mean you are not mentally tough?

While a positive mindset is a key pillar to mental toughness, it does not mean there must be an absence of all negative thoughts for you to consider your mind strong.

Negative thinking can be clustered in the unpleasant thoughts we just discussed. You should seek to rid your mind of such thinking, but do not fear negative thoughts. This is especially true once you feel yourself becoming more positive.

I’ve witnessed this within myself. The more positive I grow, the greater of a surprise a negative thought becomes. It’s easy at that point to question your level of mental toughness.

But it’s natural to have negative thoughts, even if you feel you’ve built an impenetrable armor of positivity. None of us are immune to such thinking.

As with any form of thought, use negative thinking as a means to understand and learn more about yourself. That shows true strength.

7. Mental Toughness is NOT…Having Perfect Self-Confidence

Self-confidence is a key component of being mentally tough. Once you have that belief within yourself, handling criticism, failure, and objections becomes much easier.

The resilience confidence provides is overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean it must be perfect. What would perfect self-confidence be anyway? There is no way of defining it, as I don’t believe it is an idea that can be described in such a way as perfect.

As with any trait we possess, it’s constantly changing and adapting the more we grow as individuals. You may think perfect self-confidence means you never doubt yourself.

I could see that as a possible option, but who doesn’t have a thought of self-doubt pop into their head every now and then? You aren’t mentally weak simply because you have a moment of self-doubt.

It’s natural to doubt ourselves occasionally. Don’t feel that simply because you question your skills or talents means you’ve lost all toughness of mind. Recognize these doubts, and once again, use them to progress within your mental toughness development.

8. Mental Toughness is NOT…Never Failing

If we all believed failing was a sign of weakness, none of us could be recognized as mentally strong. Adversity is a natural part of life. In all honesty, the more successful you become, the more failures you will be faced with.

It’s not the absence of such failure that is mentally weak, but the way you handle such a setback that determines the level of your strength.

I think one of the reasons we see failing as a weakness has to do with either our own response to failure or how we’ve seen others react when faced with a similar situation.

There are two ways failure can be handled. One is taking it as a personal defeat. Allowing the situation to eat at you, gnawing away any ounce of self-confidence you have left.

The other option, which is where mental toughness is revealed, is using failure as a learning experience. While it may seem odd, we can view setbacks as positive experiences of personal growth.

Just think about each time you fail as another lesson learned. You take the experience, see what you can take away from it, and then move on. Doing so shows incredible toughness and a mind willing to learn from its own mistakes.

9. Mental Toughness is NOT…Having No Fear

Do you believe you must be fearless in order to be mentally tough? Is it a requirement to never feel an ounce of fear, or show any indication of being scared?

No, there is no such requirement. In fact, if you never felt fear, there would be no need to be mentally tough. You would be immune to feeling scared, therefore, what situation would require you to show strength of mind?

Being scared, facing that fear, and moving forward is where mental toughness thrives. You may be terrified, with every centimeter of your body trembling, yet you still take action.

Now that shows one mentally tough individual. So, it’s not the absence of fear which makes you mentally tough, but the presence of fear accompanied by incredible amounts of courage.

“Being scared, facing that fear, and moving forward is where mental toughness thrives. You may be terrified, with every centimeter of your body trembling, yet you still take action.”

10. Mental Toughness is NOT…Blaming Others

How do respond to the world around you? At the very core, there aren’t a whole lot of options to choose from. Either you take responsibility and ownership for your life, or you blame others.

This goes for the way you feel, how you think, and the behaviors you display. If you are striving to be mentally tough, your options are even more limited. There is no room for blame in the mind of someone who is mentally tough.

Someone with a strong mind takes ownership of how they feel. They understand the responsibility and power they hold to feel a certain way and change anything they don’t like about their life.

One of the worst mistakes you can make is believing mental toughness can survive while you continually blame others or your environment for your life.

If you are striving to be mentally tough, you must take full responsibility for every aspect of your life.

Final Thoughts

Seeking to strengthen your mind is a valiant effort. As an athlete, performer, student, professional, or anyone else, being mentally tough will elevate your life.

Being strong-minded provides you with more confidence, a higher sense of self-worth, and the ability to be resilient.

There are quite a few misconceptions regarding what mental toughness is. I hope that this article has served as a way to dispel some of those faulty beliefs.

I hope you enjoyed the article and if you did, please feel free to share it with others. If you have any questions about mental toughness or any other performance psychology topic, please feel free to reach out to me.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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