Mental Toughness: 21 Sport Psychology Experts Give Their View On How To Improve Mental Toughness In Athletes.
Many of us love going to the gym, exercising, or competing. That sense of drive and excitement we feel at the start of our fitness journeys is enough to push us through a gruelling hour of cardio or strength training.
And then, eventually, we all hit the wall. Sadly, for many, this is where everything comes crumbling down.
There are, however, a select few people out there who push through, week in week out, pulling themselves up in order to succeed. These are the athletes among us, consistently managing to find that last kick in a competitive event to drive past the competition.
Here at OriGym, we wanted to know how this can be done. What we found was that it was all down to a little thing called mental toughness…
Naturally, our next question was: is mental toughness something that is innate, or is it something that we can develop with training and practice?
To find out, we tapped into the expertise and knowledge of 21 of the top sports psychologists in the world, to find out how can you improve mental toughness.
The depth and insight we received on this topic, from some of the most established names in sports psychology, was beyond anything we could have expected. Because of this amazing response, we decided to compile the best responses into this comprehensive guide to mental toughness.
Check out their profiles and what they had to say below!
Nothing can be intrusive if it’s welcomed – Dr Steve Graef
Steve is the creator of Mindurance, LLC and a licensed counselling and sport psychologist in Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Counselling Psychology from the University of Akron where he also specialised in sport and performance psychology.
Consider this: “nothing can be intrusive if it’s welcomed.”
Too often, we have negative or destructive thoughts and uncomfortable feelings of physical anxiety. We tend to try to push those thoughts or feelings away, which only causes them to increase in intensity.
Next time, rather than trying to fight, try acknowledging, appreciating, and accepting such thoughts. By welcoming these otherwise intrusive thoughts/feelings we can reduce their intensity. In other words, the ocean will always have waves, we have a choice to drown in them or to get on a surfboard and ride. At the end of the day, the choice is ours.
Recalling your achievements in moments of doubt – Dr Jack N. Singer (President & CEO of Psychologically Speaking)
Dr Jack Singer is a Consultant Paediatrician in a full-time private practice. He trained in Boston USA at The Children’s Hospital Medical Centre and Harvard University where he was a corporation appointment. Dr Singer is now in full-time private practice in general paediatrics, and has a particular interest in Neurodevelopmental paediatrics and Allergy. He also covers all aspects of paediatric medicine.
Mental toughness is a mind-set that anyone can learn, and it definitely makes the difference between good performances, and champion-level performances. The key is recognising when a negative, triggering thought pops into your head, such as “What if I lose?”
At this moment, slap your thigh or pinch yourself while saying in your head, “Stop this silly thinking.” Once you have succeeded in stopping those thoughts, take some deep, relaxing breaths: in through your nose for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and exhale fully out your mouth for seven seconds. Then, recall your greatest achievement and relive it as if you are watching a video of yourself. Finally, remind yourself of your wonderful talents and how those talents will consistently lead to success.
Like any skill, this takes practice to perfect, but it only takes five minutes or so to go through this and the end result will stun you.
We’re in control – Believe in yourself and act on that belief – Clyde Brolin
Clyde Brolin spent over a decade working in F1 before moving on to discover the untapped power of the human mind. His first book, Overdrive, was shortlisted for the Best New Writer award at the 2011 British Sports Book Awards. Other high profile reviews from Olympic gold medallists, world champions and sport personalities have resulted in Clyde becoming one of the most established sport psychologists in the world.
I’ve spent 20 years tracking down the greats of sport and other fields for my books, and the single factor that separates out the people who live their dreams from those who don’t is mental toughness.
To keep going, giving everything in pursuit of a future goal – even when your family and friends doubt you – is often the hardest challenge of all. No one gets a free ride to the top. Every single successful dreamer has had to see off the same nagging doubts, day after day, year after year, for however long it takes them to nail their vision.
The main thing to remember is that mental toughness is not some innate talent, it’s a character trait we learn along the way once we’ve made a big decision. The real trick to mental toughness is simple: we control our minds.
So, here’s my tip: start believing you’re mentally tough – and acting on it – and that’s what you’ll become.
Try this quick pick-me-up routine – Dr John Murray
Dr. John F. Murray is a well-known author, speaker, clinical psychologist and sports psychologist. Known as “the most quoted psychologist in America,” Dr. Murray provides mental game coaching for athletes in all sports. He also provides speaking and executive coaching services for the corporate world, and general clinical psychology services to all of his clients.
Being consistently motivated and energised requires a practised routine. Here is a quick tip I often use with my athlete clients:
Upon waking up, but before getting out of bed, do five minutes of what I call “planning imagery.” All this involves is, while still in bed with eyes closed, organising your thoughts, feelings and actions by seeing yourself doing your absolute best at whatever challenges that day might bring.
Combine this specific task-based imagery with a positive thought or emotion, perhaps relating to your best recent performance in your given sport. Now, get up quickly, take a shower (if you do not take a shower in the morning at least splash water on your face) and remind yourself exactly what you are going to do that day. Finally, give yourself a strong fist pump or thigh slap, smile, and set the plan in action. You are now ready to make it all happen, exactly the way you envisioned it and with an extra pep in your step!
Learn to recognise positive and negative thoughts – Michelle Cleere (Elite Performance Expert)
As an elite performance expert, Michelle helps top athletes, musicians, and executives in competitive fields unlock the power of the mind and summon the mental toughness to be the best. With a PhD in Clinical Psychology, a Masters in Sports Psychology, and years of hands-on research, she is well grounded in theory and expert knowledge.
We need to make an effort to learn new cognitive skills so that we are able to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. This is in our control. We all have this opportunity.
The brain is a muscle just like any other muscle in our body. This means it can grow. If we take the opportunity to expand our brain muscle, we can learn new mental skills; new ways of coping with situations. One of those mental skills is learning to replace negative thoughts with positive ones so that the outcome of our actions is more in line with what we want it to be.
The two questions you must answer before quitting – Simon Hartley
Simon has had multiple books published on various aspects of psychology, including developing character and obtaining peak performance.
For almost 20 years, he has been working in elite and professional sport as a sport psychology consultant and performance coach. He has coached Olympians, world class athletes and International teams to success.
When you hit the “quit point” there are two questions you need to answer.
Why are you doing this?
How much do you want it?
Prepare a behavioural plan – Justin Anderson
Dr. Justin Anderson is one of the founders of Premier Sport Psychology, PLLC which helps athletes on and off the field. They provide mind-set training and counselling services to professional, Olympic, elite, collegiate, high school, amateur, recreational, and youth athletes.
Justin Anderson, Psy.D., LP is also the director and founder of Premier Sports Psychology, based in Minneapolis, MN. He is a licensed psychologist who specialises in High-Performance Psychology and Leadership. Over the last twenty years, he’s had the opportunity to work with the best of the best in sport and business. He’s helped countless professional, Olympic, and collegiate athletes gain an advantage in their mind-set and mental preparation
The best way we’ve found to improve mental toughness is for athletes to prepare for discomfort – whether that is physical pain, or emotional discomfort (fear/anxiety, pressure, doubt) – and have a behavioural plan to follow when that discomfort emerges.
We work with professional athletes all the time, who all have in common the difficulty of keeping their energy up while playing and travelling during a long season. We create a behavioural plan with them to hold their attention. This can include behaviours, routines or mantras they say to themselves, focus cues they can move their attention towards, and other small changes in approach to stressful situations.
When people train themselves to do these things during moments of discomfort, they find themselves performing better under pressure, when fatigued, and on demand, no matter the circumstance.
Gain the mental (and physical) edge on your competitors during training – Wayne Goldsmith
Wayne Goldsmith is the founder of WG Coaching, a company with 25 years’ experience working with some of the best coaches, athletes, teams and sporting organisations in the world
Wayne is a coaching professional with a remarkable, unique and very special background in sport. Since the early 1990’s, Wayne has worked directly with Olympic champions, professional athletes, professional teams, and winning coaches across the globe. Wayne has been Chairman of several high-profile and innovative performance committees including Swimming Australia, Triathlon Australia and Australian Rugby Union, to name just a few.
Mental toughness is the ability of an athlete to do the job they are meant to do regardless of the situation they find themselves in. For example, a mentally tough footballer can pass a ball accurately, at speed, when they’re tired or when they’re under pressure in a problem-solving situation.
How do you prepare for this? By ensuring your training is tougher, more challenging, and demanding than the competition you are preparing for.
A second principle is to ensure the athlete knows, in confidence, that they have out-prepared their entire competition. They need to know they have slept better, trained in the gym harder, eaten better, and that their timing and skills work has been worked on at a higher level.
Prepare for the worst by imagining your responses to adversity – Dr Victor Thompson (Clinical Sports Psychologist)
Dr. Victor Thompson is a Sports Psychologist and competitive sportsperson who owns his own psychology clinic based in London. His psychology clinic specialises in delivering scientifically supported cognitive-behavioural therapies (CBT) to adults experiencing psychological difficulties. He has a Bachelors in sports psychology as well as a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. He has applied his knowledge to his own training where he has finished silver in the National GB sprint triathlon championships.
Imagine how things are likely to be: the challenges and obstacles in your way and how you will be tested. Imagine how you want to respond to these challenges: will you face them, accept them, or choose to sidestep, moving past such obstacles towards your goal, undeterred by the things that are in your path.
See yourself progress towards your goal: a point where you know that it has been worth it, and that you feel proud for enduring the challenging journey.
Positivity is the key to mental toughness – Lisa Wildmark
Lisa is the founder of The Mental Game, a coaching service that harnesses proven sports psychology techniques and quality instructional design to help athletes and other professionals achieve a superior mental game.
Lisa works with athletes to provide solutions to their specific performance issues. She has worked with athletes from middle school through to national competitors to provide solutions to performance issues and improve mental and behavioural outcomes.
Mental Toughness is about resilience: being able to maintain confidence and focus in the face of distractions. Confidence can be a tricky thing. It needs support to be maintained. It gets support by filling our subconscious mind with positive thoughts.
Making positivity a habit of mind will improve your mental toughness, your level of enjoyment, and the rest of your life. Negative thoughts in our subconscious will speak up at critical times and undermine confidence.
When you think about future events, a negative mind-set creates anxiety and a positive mind-set creates anticipation. When thinking about past errors, a negative mind-set creates depression or self-doubt and a positive mind-set reveals learning opportunities and feedback to inform our future performance.
Positivity is required for confidence and mental toughness. To fill your subconscious with positive thoughts you need to consciously put them there. A couple of ways to build a strong positive mind-set is to use positive wording, like “I get to work out” instead of “I have to work out.” Challenging negative input from others is also a great way to reinforce your own sense of positivity.
The key to building confidence is affirmation – Alan Goldberg
Founder of the company Competitive Edge, where he offers a range of services including one to one coaching sessions on mental toughness.
As a Sports Performance Consultant and internationally-known expert in peak sports performance, Dr. Goldberg works with athletes and teams across all sports at every level, from professional and Olympic calibre right down to junior competitors. Dr. Goldberg specialises in helping athletes overcome sports fears and blocks, snap out of slumps, and perform to their potential. Dr. Goldberg received his doctorate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He has been working in the field of sports performance enhancement doing individual consultation for over 32 years.
One of the most powerful tools for turning around a negative attitude and building confidence (in between games) is using affirmations. An affirmation is a positive statement that you make about yourself as if it is true in the present.
For example, if you consistently get upset with yourself whenever you mess up, your affirmation might be, “I quickly and easily let go of my mistakes.” If you tend to get too nervous before big games or try-outs, your affirmation might be, “I’m cool and calm in the clutch. The bigger the stakes, the better I play.” If you tend to be negative under pressure then your affirmation could be, “I stay positive no matter what!”
Identify not only how you behave, but why you are behaving in such a way – Dr Richard Trammel
Dr. Trammel is the founder of Level 3 Sports, a unique sports psychology consultancy business, which taps into Dr. Trammel’s three decades of experience in athletics, business, and academia. He has spent many years studying theoretical and applied sports psychology, and earned his Doctorate in Sport and Performance Psychology.
There are plenty of platitudes out there on the interweb for people to read about becoming mentally tough, and they all sound about the same. I try to guide my clients down the rabbit hole a bit deeper than merely quoting something out of a sport psyche book. I attempt to guide people towards a larger picture. And that is for them to try and answer “WHY” they are doing what they are doing.
Defining why they do something leads to greater awareness and that leads to clarity. Honest clarity drives motivation and therefore increases grit and mental toughness. For example, a man says, “I really need to lose weight and get into shape.” I say to him “Why?” He says something about feeling better and the same thing others have said in the past.
But losing weight is hard and involves pain, and the subconscious mind isn’t going to accommodate that so readily. But if the same man stated, “I want to lose weight so that I can enjoy spending more time with my teenage son on the football field” then the man has found the purpose of the statement. He has answered the “Why” and it is deep. The “Why” is grounded in an honest emotional place in this man’s mind and his subconscious mind will come on board and support his pain.
Why? Love. Love is the secret behind being mentally tough. My advice is to find the love behind the statements of mental toughness in order to stay motivated. Ask yourself: Do you love your work? If not, why are you doing it? Find your passion, consult with others smarter than you, help others succeed, and stay in perspective. Doing some of those things can generate what others call being mentally tough.
Focus on what you control – Edward Watson
Edward Watson is a graduate of Oxford University who went on to become a Major in the Army, serving for seven years. Upon completing an MBA with distinction at The London Business School, he moved into strategic consulting. He founded InnerDrive as he is passionate about helping people develop their mindset and performance under pressure in order to get the best out of life.
Athletes can best help improve their mental toughness by doing one simple thing: focusing on what they control. A lot of our work at InnerDrive involves helping athletes recognise when they are focusing on things that they can’t change, or that they can only influence.
By focusing on what they can control, such as their efforts, reactions, and preparation, they give themselves the best chance of success. This strategy improves both motivation and confidence, whilst also reducing stress and anxiety. Essentially, it helps them deliver their best when it matters the most.
Change your relationship with “negative emotions – Marek Komar
Marek Komar is Founder of Flow Performance, which provides mental training designed to improve performance and well-being. Marek has a Kinesiology degree specialising in Sports Performance from the University of Alberta, earning a Master of Medical Science specialising in Sport Psychology from Lund University (Sweden), as well as a Master of Sport Science in Diagnostics and Intervention from Leipzig University (Germany).
Change your relationship with so-called “negative” emotions, such as stress, fear, and anxiety. The more you identify with them, the more control they have over you. View them as just an event that is temporarily occurring. So, for example, instead of saying” I am an anxious athlete,” say, “I am just experiencing anxiety in this particular moment.”
In this way, you put some space between you and the feeling, and it begins loosen its reigns over you. Remember: we are not our thoughts!
Belief is key – Brian Mackenzie
Brian Mackenzie is a Level 4 Performance Coach and Coach Tutor/Assessor with British Athletics, the UK’s National Governing body for Track and Field Athletics. He has over 30 years’ experience as an athletics coach, helping sprinters and combined event athletes achieve their aims and objectives. He also works with a number of publishers on training books.
Over the past 35 years of coaching, I have one quote that I have used with all my athletes when I hear them make negative comments about their potential performance at a future event: “You Only Achieve What You Believe”
Develop self-awareness and rationality – Betsy Tuffrey
Betsy is the founder of Seed Psychology Ltd, a sports consultancy agency which provides a wide range of advice and assistance to individuals from all walks of life – whatever their goals or barriers may be.
Betsy acts as a Sports Consultant, also working within the realms of exercise domains. Betsy completed her BSc (Hons) Psychology with the Open University, and then her masters with Staffordshire University, before taking Seed Psychology to where it is today.
When I think about topics like mental toughness or resilience, I often think about how I would ideally want an athlete to think and behave if I were in control. Of course, this is totally unrealistic, but thinking about what mental toughness looks like, and how it manifests itself as a behaviour, can lead us to think about what kind of thoughts a ‘mentally tough’ athlete has.
Developing a self-aware, reflective, and rational athlete is the key in my view, and my tip would be to start with how the athlete views errors. Such thoughts can often be a key indicator of a mentally tough performer. Athletes should be rational, realistic, and put errors in perspective in order to learn and develop from them.
It’s what you do when you’re on your own that counts – Dr. Kate Kirby (Head of Performance Psychology, Sport Ireland Institute)
Dr Kate Kirby is a registered performance psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport, holding an MSc in Sport Psychology from Brunel University and a PhD from UCD. She has worked at the highest level of sport for over a decade, and has provided her expertise to numerous governing bodies, including the Irish Sailing Association, IRFU, Hockey Ireland, Tennis Ireland, Badminton Ireland, Horse Sport Ireland, and Inter-county GAA teams.
I think the majority of athletes can push themselves to their limits when they train. Even though it’s physically tough, the ability to empty yourself in a group training session, or with a coach overseeing you, is not what differentiates the good from the great.
It’s what you do when nobody is checking up on you. The ability to be self-motivated and professional enough to tick all the boxes in nutrition, rest, recovery, mobility, psychological preparation etc. when you’re on your own, is what distinguishes World Class achievers from the norm. That attention to detail brings peace of mind and facilitates the freedom to perform under pressure, knowing that you couldn’t have done any more to prepare yourself.
Plan a “reset routine” for stressful situations – Ben Oliva
Ben Oliva specialises in training athletes and performers seeking to maximise their potential through mental training. He helps individuals and teams optimise their mental game in practice and competition by teaching evidence-based mental skills with practical techniques for application both on and off the field.
Ben received his M.Ed. in Sport and Performance Counselling from Boston University and his undergraduate degree in psychology and astrophysics from Williams College
My tip: take some time to mentally rehearse how you want to respond in the predictable and frustrating moments that sometimes happen during a game. In baseball, these moments would be things like striking out, giving up a big hit, or making an error. In football, it would be throwing an interception, dropping a pass, fumbling, or missing a tackle.
Design a “reset routine” for yourself that involves a couple deep breaths, a subtle power pose (expansive body language), and a self-talk cue that you find helpful for refocusing on the next play. By rehearsing how you will handle these moments beforehand, you are more likely to remain mentally tough in the face of adversity. Ideally, you can imagine yourself using your reset routine and then coming back and making the next play.
Focus on the process rather than the obstacle itself – Prof Andy Lane (BPS Chartered Psychologist, HPC Registered Psychologist, Fellow of BASES, Director of Research Excellence, Associate Dean)
Andrew Lane is a Professor of Sport Psychology at the University of Wolverhampton. He is accredited from the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) for scientific support and research, and is a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. He has authored more than 100 peer refereed journal articles and edited two books.
Pick a task that both scares and excites you: it might be a parachute jump or running a marathon, for example.
Imagine yourself doing this task, feel the nerves and adrenaline flow through your mind and body. Focus on what you need to do to achieve this task: if you’re at mile twenty-three in a marathon and it hurts, focus on relaxing your arms, running tall, and saying ‘one step at a time’.
Great feats of mental toughness can be achieved by tackling tasks one at a time. When this is done effectively, people can do more than they think. By getting confident in the process, you become confident of achieving more, and develop an appetite to take on greater and more difficult challenges. This is how to improve your mental toughness.
Take a step out of your comfort zone – Penny Mallory
Specialising in high performance, Penny Mallory has worked with racing drivers, golfers, footballers and elite athletes, but also Chief Executives, graduates, students, and convicted young offenders. Penny has released multiple books, appeared as a TV presenter on too many high quality shows to list, and is also a keynote speaker at multiple events.
Society conditions us to believe there should be no discomfort in life; therefore, when we are uncomfortable, things must be terribly wrong. We resist anything that feels uncomfortable. But the reverse is actually true: things that make us feel uncomfortable can be the very things that challenge us, make us stronger, and build confidence and self-esteem.
Most people bob around in a comfortable, predictable, safe bubble of life where the outcome of most things can be predicted. When the outcome of most things we do is acceptable, danger is avoided along with risk of criticism. This bubble is your comfort zone.
Your comfort zone is a natural state that most people tend towards. Leaving it means increased risk and anxiety, but it can help you to achieve positive results. You need to get comfortable feeling uncomfortable!
I have never met a world-class performer that trains, works, thinks or behaves in an easy, comfortable zone. They spend their life pushing, discovering, failing, developing, innovating, trying, messing up and pushing some more outside their comfort zone because that is where they will discover the edge they need, the difference they seek, the things that will set them apart from their competition.
To get what you want, you will have to step into an uncomfortable place to discover ways of achieving your goal. Everything you desire is out of your comfort zone. If it wasn’t, you would already have it. Never forget that.
Mindfulness, and paying attention to the present moment – Carrie Wicks
Dr. Carrie Wicks has practised in Northern California for more than 20 years, and has participated as a competitive athlete herself in equestrian sports and skiing.
Her professional training as a psychologist, coupled with personal experience, has focused her work on helping athletes achieve consistency and overcome challenges.
Carrie’s company, Brain Training for life and Sport, offers workshops, counselling, and onsite coaching.
Mindfulness, or paying attention to the present moment, is the key to this process. Ultimately, the brain needs to be conditioned to non-judgmentally stay on task while increasing awareness of the body as it responds to environmental cues.
The first step is to have a daily quietude practice that focuses on the breath coming in and out of the nostrils, releasing thoughts as they emerge, and refocusing on the breath. Start with two minutes each morning at the same time, and begin to notice how your attention span expands as reactivity to stimulus softens.
And that’s the professionals’ take on improving mental toughness!
Now it’s over to you: what did you think about this guide? Was there anyone you think we missed, or any advice that particularly resonated in terms of how you approach your chosen sport?
We’d love to know! Be sure to leave a comment, and check out the OriGym blog for more great content from leading fitness professionals and personal trainers.