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How to Build Mental Toughness, And Why it Matters

Reading Time: 5 minutes 10 seconds

By: ISSA

Date: 2022-05-17


Anyone who has competed in sports or athletic events at any level, or even made it through a difficult workout, knows that mental fitness matters as much as physical readiness. 

Consider world-record marathoner Eliud Kipchoge. He runs a grueling pace for 26.2 miles and credits the ability to do so more to his mental game than his training and physical fitness. For Kipchoge, success is determination and the ability to endure pain and discomfort. 

We can’t all be quite as mentally tough as Kipchoge, but we can build and grow mental strength to be better at sports and life. 

What is Mental Strength, or Toughness? 

It goes by many names: mental strength, mental resilience, mental toughness, grit, determination. Whatever you call it, mental toughness is an important element of success in all areas of your life. 

For athletes, both professional and casual, mental strength is what gets you through physical, emotional, and mental challenges. It’s what keeps you going when you want to quit and the necessary element that complements all your physical training. 

What Does Mental Toughness Look Like? 

There are several recognized characteristics of mental toughness

  • Endurance in the face of pain or discomfort

  • Performing under pressure and stress

  • Resilience, the ability to get back up and try again after a failure or disappointment

  • Discipline and maintaining consistent habits, even when you don’t feel like it

  • Staying the course even when other areas of life become a distraction

  • Psychological flexibility, making conscious decisions or changing course based on goals

  • Self-confidence and self-efficacy, believing you can achieve your goal 

Learn more: Train your brain for greater endurance, not just your muscles for better results. 

How to Build Mental Toughness Without Going Overboard

Everyone can and should work on mental strength, but it’s important to recognize what it is not: 

  • Pushing so hard you get injured or sick

  • Continuing to train through an injury

  • Losing perspective on other important aspects of your life

  • Letting success be all that matters

Even the best athletes in the world will tell you that there is a limit to pushing yourself in training. Going so hard that you get sick or hurt isn’t being tough. In fact, a part of mental toughness is knowing when to stop or back off and then being able to start again later. 

Learn more: Fitness is both psychological and physical.

Why Is Mental Toughness Important? 

Being mentally tough comes with a lot of benefits. Keep in mind that mental strength looks different for everyone. We can’t all be world-class marathoners. However, within your own life and training, building greater mental toughness at your level is good for you in several ways: 

  • Goals and performance. Once you build your mental game, success will follow. You should see improvements in performance and get closer to achieving your goals. 

  • Recovery. Everyone experiences injuries, losses, and other setbacks in fitness and sports. Coming back from them becomes easier as you develop more mental toughness. 

  • Mental health. Mental strength correlates directly with mental health. Build mental toughness and you’ll be happier and more satisfied with your life. 

  • Achieve more. You may want to get tougher for sports, but you’ll find that it spills over into other areas of your life, leading to greater achievements. 

How to Build Mental Toughness Through Training 

Like physical fitness, mental toughness requires work. While some people may be more disposed through genetics or personality to be mentally tough, everyone needs to work at it. 

Define Your Values

People who are mentally tough make choices that align with their core values, even when it means making a choice to do something difficult or not in their best interests. Having strong core values promote psychological flexibility. This is the ability to persist or change course in the midst of a challenging situation. 

To grow your own psychological flexibility, list your core values, the handful of things most important to you. This could be building or maintaining good physical health, being a hard worker, achieving goals, or being kind to people. The more defined your values, the easier it will be to make tough choices that align with them. 

Build Routines and Habits

Being able to persevere when the going gets tough starts with small steps. Your perseverance doesn’t have to be something so big as running a marathon or lifting 350 pounds. Start with small, reasonable habits and routines that align with your goals and values. The more routine you make healthy activities, the easier it becomes to follow through when you don’t feel like it. 

Stop Comparing Yourself to Others

Mental toughness is an individual trait. It looks different for everyone. For a study of mental strength, researchers interviewed ten elite performers. One of the attributes common to them all was the inability to let the performance of others impact them. Don’t look at someone who can run faster than you and be tempted to give up. Your only competition is you. 

Challenge Yourself

One of the most tangible things you can do to improve mental toughness is to put yourself in challenging situations. As with lifting weights, you don’t get stronger by doing the easy workouts. To build mental strength, try activities and competitions that you know will be difficult, whether that means challenging your endurance, flexibility, strength, or internal factors like fear and self-doubt. 

This shouldn’t all be pain and discomfort, though. Make sure you pair challenges with rewards. Tie a difficult race or trying a new skill with something you’ll enjoy later. 

Learn and Practice Coping Strategies

Studies show that mental toughness correlates with coping mechanisms and an optimistic outlook. If you can learn some coping mechanisms now, they will come in handy when you’re faced with a stressful situation, like the last few minutes of a tough workout when you want to quit.  

Use Positive Self-Talk

One useful coping strategy to try is talking to yourself. It’s easy to get down on yourself in a tough situation, to focus on the pain and difficulty, which can lead to quitting early. Practice recognizing those negative thoughts and changing them. 

For instance, at the end of a difficult race, you may be telling yourself to stop, that you can’t endure the discomfort. Turn that into positive self-talk: “It’s uncomfortable but you can do it,” “You’re strong enough to finish this.”

Positive self-talk can even become a mantra. Choose a short positive phrase that speaks to you and repeat it over and over again in tough situations. Studies show that this distracts the mind from obsessive, negative thoughts. 

Train with a Like-Minded Group

Surround yourself with people who have similar values and goals to support your own mental toughness. A community of like-minded people is a positive way to persist and work toward your fitness and athletic goals. 

When things get tough, this community of supporters provide motivation to continue your journey. Mental toughness may be an individual attribute, but we are social animals. You can’t achieve anything challenging without support from others. Lean on these people, and be there for them in turn, to support your mental strength and theirs. 

Grit and determination aren’t objectively measurable, but you know it when you see it. Use these tips to work on your own resilience and help clients build better mental strength so they can meet their goals. 

Want to learn more about the psychology of exercise and fitness? A great place to start is ISSA’s Certified Personal Trainer – Self-Guided Study Program. It provides you with everything you need to train and coach clients to greater mental toughness and physical fitness. 


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References

Stulberg, B. (2019). How to Develop Mental Toughness. Outsideonline.com. Retrieved 22 April 2022, from https://www.outsideonline.com/health/training-performance/mental-toughness-tips/.

Jones, G. (2002). What Is This Thing Called Mental Toughness? An Investigation of Elite Sport Performers. Journal Of Applied Sport Psychology, 14(3), 205-218. https://doi.org/10.1080/10413200290103509

Nicholls, A., Polman, R., Levy, A., & Backhouse, S. (2008). Mental toughness, optimism, pessimism, and coping among athletes. Personality And Individual Differences, 44(5), 1182-1192. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2007.11.011

Berkovich-Ohana, A., Wilf, M., Kahana, R., Arieli, A., & Malach, R. (2015). Repetitive speech elicits widespread deactivation in the human cortex: the "Mantra" effect?. Brain and behavior, 5(7), e00346. https://doi.org/10.1002/brb3.346

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