Mental Toughness: The Psychological Skills (Techniques)

Mental Toughness: The Psychological Skills (Techniques)

Credit: Doug Austin Photo

I coach a college cross country and track team and I have noticed over the years that there are always a few individuals on the team that have the physical attributes that should make them All-American track athletes. They have all of the physical gifts needed to be a great runner. Many of these athletes never reach their athletic potential. If there is no physical reason why they are not reaching their potential then their lack of success must be attributable to something else. I believe and research supports that their inability to achieve their athletic potential stems from their psychological side. 


Psychological characteristics such as mental toughness, goal setting, imagery, realistic performance evaluation and commitment have been shown to be the difference between a medal winner in the Olympics and non medal winners Abbot and Collins (2003). Psychology plays an essential role in the ability of individuals to fulfill their athletic potential. This article will focus on mental toughness. Mental toughness is a broad subject that can be researched in many different ways. I will focus on what I believe are the most important components of mental toughness: the attributes that make up the belief system of a mentally tough athlete and the most important psychological skills needed for mental toughness.

Definition of Mental Toughness

Mental toughness is having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to normally cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer and, specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident and in control under pressure Jones et al. (2002). Mentally tough competitors also have the unique ability to exert control over the varying demands placed upon them in training and their personal life.

Review of Research Literature

Excelling at sport is difficult. The majority of individuals who participate in a sport never reach the elite level. Athletic talent is multidimensional it combines a combination of anthropometric, physical and psychological factors.  Athletes can compensate for disadvantages in one component of talent with strengths in another.  Athletic talent moves beyond the physical and having strong psychological skills such as good attitude and mental preparation are extremely important in the conversion of potential to achievement Abbot and Collins (2004).
The proper mindset, i.e., having the right mental attitude, is needed to excel at sport. All top-level athletes have a mental toughness in them. According to Jones, Hanton and Connaughton (2007) there are four attributes that make up the belief system of mentally tough performers. The four beliefs are: (1) Having an unshakable self-belief to achieve goals; (2) Having an inner arrogance; (3) Having a belief that you can get over any obstacle; (4) Having a belief that your desire will ultimately result in fulfilling your potential.

Unshakable Self-BeliefPhoto Credit: Matt Risley

Mentally tough athletes have developed an unshakable self-belief that they have qualities and abilities greater than opponents. The athlete has a total awareness, a total self-belief, learned from years of deliberate practice. The athlete knows what it took to get to the elite level and knows how to perform at that level Thelwell et al. (2005). Research states that it will take a long time for a real belief in an athlete to build. The more the athletes demonstrated their abilities to overcome specific challenges and reach certain targets, the more it raised their self-belief and confidence. The athletes learned that they could achieve their goals. This belief is built on a very solid foundation; it’s not about hoping and wishing, it’s about knowing as a result of what the athletes have done Jones, Hanton and Connaughton (2007).  In Thelwell’s research on elite soccer players, having total self-belief at all times that you will achieve success was ranked as the most important attribute an athlete can have Thelwell et al. (2005).
When I lived in Boulder Colorado and was training for the Olympic Games I would come in contact with elite track and field coaches from across the globe. I remember one particular conversation with a South African Olympic coach named Bobby McGee about underperforming in races. The conversation drifted to how beliefs and expectations influence performance.  We agreed that most people under-perform in races because of not having that needed unshakable belief in performance. Recently, I came across an article in a marathon journal that quoted McGee on the way runners perform. McGee again emphasized that most people under-perform in races and that he believes only 9 percent of athletes perform up to their potential. These underperforming runners haven’t completed the mental component of race training; they don’t believe they will perform well. McGee feels they are fearful of being too uncomfortable during the race and they’re fearful of falling short of their race goal. As a result, they psych themselves out of a good performance. “There’s a weight of expectation. People become attached to a certain outcome in a race. They run with a brick in their back pocket and end up putting too much stress on themselves. It’s like carrying around a piece of that wall with you, instead of leaving it crumbled on the side of the road” Farb, S. (2008). Over the course of McGee’s coaching career, he has seen a mental trend: People who have been ill or injured and miss training might get to a race maybe 85 to 90 percent prepared to perform up to their potential. They don’t expect to do well. McGee says that in most cases they do exceptionally well. Then they go away, train hard, have expectations for the next race, and don’t do well.  McGee states it’s the weight of expectation without complementary training for the brain that undermines many athletes along the way Farb, S. (2008).  These runners lack the self-belief to be elite. I witness the same phenomenon in my collegiate coaching. Athletes can have the physical talent to perform well, to be an All-American, but they lack the unshakable belief that it takes to be a champion.

Inner Arrogance

The mentally tough athlete will have an inner arrogance that helps contribute to the belief that success is achievable. These athletes can look at their talents and truly now that they have what it takes to achieve athletically at the highest levels. They believe that when they set their minds to something they will accomplish it. One elite athlete describes it as, “… that inner arrogance, that bit of an attitude towards things that I set my mind to. It is never ever giving up and knowing that if I just persevere I know that I am going to be able to do it.  I believe I will be able to do it” Jones, Hanton & Connaughton(2007).  An example of a team that did not have that inner arrogance was the 1988 Olympic Wrestling Team, who did not have their best performances at the Olympics. The team was favored to win many medals but it had a lackluster performance at the games. In interviews after the Olympics the wrestlers felt that they experienced negative feelings and irrelevant and irregular patterns of thought which lead to disappointing results Gould et al. (1999). They did not have the inner arrogance because of negative feelings to perform up to expectations.

Getting Over Obstacles

The mentally tough athlete will be able to fight through any obstacle that may be put in his / her way. It does not matter what the obstacle is the mentally tough athlete will invariably overcome such problems. It is knowing how you are going to punch through it and then learning from that experience. Thelwell, Weston and Greenlees (2005) stated in their study on defining and understanding mental toughness in soccer that players claimed that to be mentally tough you should always cope better than your opponents with the specific demands of the game rather than generally cope better. This is similar to the research of Jones et al. (2002) which also regarded self-belief, knowing you could get over any obstacle as being one of the most important psychological attributes an athlete should have.

Belief That Desire Will Ultimately Result In Fulfilled Potential

The fourth attribute describes how the belief in their desire (hunger) ultimately results in mentally tough performers’ fulfilling their potential. In Gould, Guinan, Greenleaf, et al. (1999) the authors looked at a team that won a gold medal in the 1996 Summer Olympics. The team embraced the Olympic pressure. The team had an attitude that that they were going to win it all. There was no way they were not going to win the gold medal. The athletes viewed this attribute as having the belief that one can actually be that good, that one can actually achieve their goal and this belief enabled them to truly know what they can realistically achieve. Other teams at the Atlanta Olympics were not as successful because they did not ultimately believe they could win the gold medal. The reason the athletes gave for not getting a medal included ignoring mental preparation. There was too much emphasis placed on physical conditioning and the athletes were over-trained and could not have the desire to mentally prepare to win the competition Gould, Guinan, Greenleaf, et al. (1999).

Section II – Psychological Skills of Mentally Tough Athletes

In recent years an increasing number of studies have tried to investigate the effects of mental skills on athletic performance. Researchers have often focused on four mental skills: goals setting techniques, relaxation techniques, imagery techniques and self-talk. While mental toughness is a rare attribute in an athlete, it can be developed through practicing these four key psychological techniques, which are all interrelated and, in some cases, difficult to separate. Studies on mental skills have included endurance running, triathlons, soccer and cricket. Psychological characteristics such as goal setting, realistic performance evaluation, imagery, relaxation and commitment have been identified as factors that differentiate medal winners from non-medal winners. According to Abbot and Collins these psychological skills are highly amenable to specialized training as opposed to personality traits, which are, to a greater extent, inherited. Physical factors have been found to discriminate between athletes in different sports, only psychological factors are able to explain the performances of athletes who are looking to maintain their success. Psychological skills are not a genetic gift; they can be taught.

Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport

Goal Setting

A goal can be described as the object, aim, or endpoint of an action, or what an individual describes as an accomplishment being sought. Goal setting is a widely used and powerful motivational technique for the enhancement of performance and productivity in sport, business and personal life.   Goal setting can improve long-term motivation by eliciting commitment, perseverance, dedication and effort.   Goals provide focus and direction to one’s activities.  There is a consensus in goal setting research that goals are the most effective performance enhancement technique available at this time.
The motivation of athletes to perform to their potential or to sustain maximum effort in order to complete a task successfully has always been a source of frustration for coaches. Motivation comes from within the individual and cannot be observed directly. Since coaches will not be able to alter the athletes’ personality structures, a coach must use certain motivational strategies to encourage improvement and aid his / her athletes in reaching their optimum performance levels. Goal setting is an optimal motivational technique that can enhance performance. According to Dension &Winslade (2006) goal setting as a motivational tool allows the athlete to appreciate that achievement is a do-it-yourself process that motivation is an event that transpires within the individual rather than in interaction with others, and that goal setting is the greatest motivational tool available to them.  Goals tend to increase individual task performance by raising the individual’s self efficacy, i.e., the belief that they can perform a certain task. Individuals with higher self efficacy set higher personal goals.

Athletes use imagery in both practice and in competition, though more frequently for competition then for training Munroe et al. (2000). Athletes use imagery to help themselves improve performance of a particular skill, for psyching themselves up, and to stay focused on the task at hand. It is important for the imagery to be positive and not negative. Munroe talks about a dart throwing study in which participants in the positive imagery group were asked to imagine the dart landing near the center of the target and those in the negative imagery group to imagine a very poor performance with the dart hitting the edge of the board. Participants in the positive group improved their performances by 28% while the negative group deteriorated by an average of 3%. Positive imagery is necessary for an elite athlete do well.

According to Cumming and Hall (2002) mental imagery should be treated similarly to physical practice given that research has suggested a functional equivalence between the two activities. Certain parts of the brain show a pattern of activity during imagery similar to that during performance. Cumming and Hall also state that there is evidence that respiratory indices such as heart rate, which anticipate muscular activity, are also increased during imagery. They found that a significant and positive relationship existed between the dimensions of relevance and concentration. The higher the level of success by an athlete the more use of imagery that takes place. A national class athlete will spend more time each week on mental imagery then a recreational athlete. A coach could explain the importance of imagery to less skilled athletes. Elite athletes tend to find imagery highly relevant to improving their performance, requiring a great deal of concentration and being enjoyable to perform.

Imagery can lead to a more positive interpretation of an upcoming athletic situation. If an athlete is in a positive emotional state then they should perform better and have more positive outcomes. An example given by Jones (2003) is about a climber. After using imagery the climber, rather than feeling anxious prior to a difficult ascent, experiences excitement in that he now believes that he has the skill to climb well and he will indeed climb well. An example in running would be using imagery to run through a race in your head. When you go through your strategy a few times then there is a greater chance you will stick to your race plan once the going gets tough. Mentally tough athletes believe imagery as being highly relevant improving performance.


When an athlete is learning a new task there is typically high level of arousal. There is extensive cortical activity. The athlete usually tries too hard not to make a mistake. Once the athlete goes over their optimal level of arousal their performance will suffer Sinclair & Sinclair (1994). Sinclair uses the example of learning a lay-up shot in basketball. When first learning the skill the ball is often thrown-up of the backboard and not laid-up softly. The ball is thrown because the athlete is too tense because this is a new situation. Another example that I have seen in distance running is learning the steeplechase. The 3000 meter steeple chase takes runners out of their optimal level of arousal when they are first learning the event. The runners have a very hard time staying relaxed when running over hurdles and a water jump. There is considerably more tension when they are faced with getting over a 36-inch barrier that will not move if they hit it. Once a runner learns to relax when hurdling they become more efficient and use less energy both mentally and physically. There is an optimal amount arousal needed to steeplechase and if they are too aroused they will perform sub-optimally.
Patrick and Hrycaiko (1998) stated that relaxation involved learning a three-step approach. The first step required the participants to practice progressive muscle relaxation training. The second focused on centering while stretching before competition. The final step consisted of practicing techniques related to relaxing during competition. The participants monitored their tension levels before and after relaxation sessions Patrick and Hrycaiko (1998).  Participants were at more of an optimal level to compete when they had learned the relaxation techniques.


A way to maintain self-confidence which is needed to be mentally tough is through positive self-talk. Positive self-talk is nearly a universal practice among champions. Athletes who have the ability to focus on one’s strength rather than on opponents’ strengths can generate a sense of self-control. Self-talk can be broken down into three types; motivational (desire to achieve), mastery based (to enhance confidence), and instructional (reaffirming competition goals, using other mental skills).
If a runner is doing intervals and getting tired a good coach may ask the athlete what they are thinking on the rest period between intervals. If he / she gets a negative response from the athlete then coach will know that negative self-talk is occurring and that the athlete needs to learn positive self-talk to enhance confidence. Thelwell and Greenlees (2003) explained that using motivational self-talk helped endurance athletes maintain and increase their drive to do well. It helped them get psyched up and relaxed for a good performance. When an athlete had mastered self-talk there were high levels of focus, self-confidence and an ability to cope in difficult situations. They could focus on task relevant factors not task-irrelevant factors. Positive self-talk will be found in all mentally tough athletes.

Section III – Summary and Conclusion

High levels of motivation and unusual talent are the two influences that lead to high attainment.  The level of an individual’s motivation will determine the frequency and persistence of their interactions with the relevant environment and thereby will influence their development.  Ericison et al. (1993). This paper looked at what scientific research believes it takes to be a mentally tough athlete. It was found that to be mentally tough, athletes have four essential traits: (1) An unshakable self-belief to achieve goals. (2) An inner arrogance. (3) A belief that they can get over any obstacle. (4) A belief that their desire will ultimately result in fulfilling their potential. Without these beliefs it is difficult to reach full potential in sport. The way to establish these beliefs is difficult but they can be attained by practicing key psychological skills which include goal setting, imagery, relaxation and self-talk. The mentally tough athlete will be persistent and will find the way to make most out of his / her physical and psychological talents. The mentally tough athlete will achieve successes on his / her respective athletic playing field.


Mark Coogan is the Head Women’s Cross Country coach and Distance coach at Dartmouth College.  Coogan was a member of the U.S. Olympic team in 1996 competing in the marathon.


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